Discover Chernobyl with Explore

Date published: 15 Mar 18

9 people found this feature helpful

A journey to the nuclear Exclusion Zone and a place frozen in time

81 year-old Ivan Semenyuk needs a stick to help him walk these days. He stoops a little and struggles to pick up the logs from the wood store outside his humble home, especially in the depths of a Ukrainian winter.

Ivan SemenyukInside, we help him light the stove and settle back to hear his story. Because Ivan is still living in the village of Paryshyv, deep within the official Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl, where - at 01:23 on 26th April, 1986 - reactor number 4 at the nearby nuclear plant exploded.

It is rumoured that designers knew of a fault with rods inserted into the reactor heating it up, rather than cooling it down, when trying to avert problems during a safety test.

It has been reported that 28 people died in the immediate aftermath, one employee from the blast and one from a fatal dose of radiation, the others mainly firefighters and employees.

And it is believed that, out of 600,000 'liquidators' subsequently involved in the clean-up operation, many have since died prematurely from radiation, or from related diseases.

But nobody really knows what happened that catastrophic night, or how many people have died in the years since, as a direct result of the thermal explosion. For Chernobyl, in Ukraine and close to the Belarus border, was part of Gorbachev's Soviet Union and the regime did all it could to suppress the true extent of the disaster from both the local community and from the outside world.

For inquisitive Silver Travellers more interested in history, experiences and different cultures than 'fly 'n' flop' holidays, this short Discover Chernobyl break from Explore will expose you - safely - to this fascinating piece of history and surreal environment.

Entering the Exclusion ZoneYou will hear how, because of the wind direction in the days after the explosion, airborne radiation was detected by 30 countries across Europe. Only then did the Soviet authorities take appropriate action around Chernobyl, scientists deciding on an outer 30 kilometre Exclusion Zone, requiring the evacuation of 91,000 people from 76 villages between 27th April and 7th May.

Ivan and his family were forcibly evicted from their home during this initial phase. But he returned a year later in 1987, since when he has been living off-grid as a ‘self-settler’ in Paryshyv. His wife died a year ago. His two children live elsewhere. Faded family photographs sit inside a blue frame, on the wall above a cluttered table. Only two other women now live in the village, but Ivan rarely sees them, especially in the freezing Ukrainian winter. He admits he is lonely and welcomes us, his first visitors for a few days.

Abandoned LadaWood absorbs radiation, so in the immediate aftermath of the explosion most houses inside the Exclusion Zone were burned down, together with all the trees in this densely forested area, and buried in the ground. Ivan's home is more solid, and was spared. Today, he is almost free of radiation and spends his days tending to the chickens, sorting out the fire and cooking, mainly outside. Surprisingly perhaps, the Exclusion Zone is a fertile area, and shrubs, flowers and herbs in his garden will thrust their way upwards when spring comes. And wildlife thrives too, thanks to the shortage of human presence.

You need an authorised guide to visit the strictly controlled Exclusion Zone, and over two days you will be shown sites that provide a snapshot of a place frozen in time, and giving a real sense of life under Soviet control.

Duga the secret Soviet early warning radar system for ballistic missile launchesErected in 1970, 'Duga' was a secret early warning radar system for Cold War detection of ballistic missile launches from China and the USA. Masquerading on the map as a children’s summer camp, 1,200 people lived on site, 600 of them working around the clock on the vast Meccano-like construction, disappearing into the murky winter sky above us. It was also known as 'Chernobyl 2' and the 'Russian Woodpecker', after the distinctive, repetitive tapping noises emitted without warning to the outside world.

We see abandoned Lada cars, deserted kindergarten schools, cartoon-covered shacks in a woodland camp, and tear-inducing memorials.

But perhaps the most haunting image is walking through the ‘ghost town’ of Pripyat, reached via the 'Bridge of Death.' The closest community to the nuclear plant, people heard the explosion and were told it was safe to watch the conflagration from the bridge. It wasn't. Most were badly contaminated and subsequently died.

Mother Motherland StatueBuilt in 1970 as a model Soviet community, by 1986 close to 50,000 people lived in Pripyat, including 6,500 children. Most worked at Chernobyl, as engineers or scientists, and the town's average age was just 26. The imposing Communist Party HQ dominates the main square. At one of the schools, some of the main walls collapsed a few years ago. Trees now grow on what was the football stadium pitch, but the grey concrete stand remains intact. A couple of retro shopping trolleys lay in rubble and dust from one of the Soviet Union's first supermarkets. And at the hospital, our guide shows us a scrap of a fireman's skull-cap. The basement was the most contaminated area, as this was where the firemen attending the explosion were first treated. In the immediate aftermath, the cap registered 7,000 Sieverts. A scrap of its material has since been brought up to the ground floor of the rubble-strewn hospital. On the day we visited, the reading was 55 Sieverts.

Andrew being checked for radiation levelsSilver Travellers interested in this intriguing travel experience need not worry about nuclear contamination. You will be tested for radiation levels throughout your stay in the Exclusion Zone, where - strangely - ambient readings are less than in Kyiv, 2 hours further south. And it's 'fun' to carry a portable dosimeter around abandoned villages, searching for radiation hot-spots that might trigger the alarm as the Sieverts jump from 0.14 to a beeping 6.0 or 7.0.

Our guide explains that the length of time you’re exposed to radiation is more important than the absolute level of Sieverts. 4,000 people still work at Chernobyl, maintaining the site. Everyone is limited to two weeks in the Exclusion Zone, before having to leave for another two weeks. And it will take 24,000 years for the plutonium to completely disappear from the Chernobyl site.

A ‘Special Zone’ exists around the nuclear reactors, but we got surprisingly close to number 4. Encased in a concrete sarcophagus since the end of 1986, it was protected anew a couple of years ago by a French-designed stainless steel outer shell, 10 years in the making, the largest movable structure ever made and hopefully capable of containing Chernobyl’s nuclear contamination for another 100 years.  

Memorial by encased Nuclear Reactor Number 4The trip also includes a full day exploring Kyiv, the beautiful ancient capital of Ukraine situated on the Dnipro River. You’ll see historic Golden Gate, once the main entrance to the city; the onion-domed Santa Sophia cathedral; the baroque church of Saint Andrew; and the Lavra Historical & Cultural Reserve, a walled monastic city rivalling Jerusalem and Greece’s Mount Athos in Orthodox Christian religious significance, and home to the remarkable 11th century ‘Monastery of the Caves’.

Horseradish vodka and lard on toastYou will also get a good sense of more modern influences on the city and on the country: grey Soviet-built low-ceilinged apartment blocks, freezing cold in winter and furnace-hot in the summer; the awe-inspiring Mother Motherland statue, reaching 100 metres into the grey sky to honour the heroes of the Soviet Union; and Revolution Square, commemorating historical freedom and the 2014 ‘Revolution of Dignity’ when Ukrainians reignited their independence to oust the Moscow-sponsored President.

And in the Chernobyl Museum you will begin to learn what happened that fateful morning of 26th April, 1986, before visiting the Exclusion Zone yourself. The graphic of the wind blowing the resulting radiation across Europe in the days after the explosion is mesmerising.

Inquisitive Silver Travellers interested in understanding more about Chernobyl, and also seeing at first hand how a former Republic of the Soviet Union is surviving independently, will really enjoy this trip. Accommodation, even the hostel inside the Exclusion Zone, is good and Ukrainian food and drink - including lard, dumplings, horseradish vodka and chicken Kiev - will provide fuel for your nuclear adventure.

But it is the human side of Chernobyl that will linger most in my memory. I hope Ivan is keeping warm.

More information

Explore (01252 884 723; explore.co.uk) offers a four-night Discover Chernobyl short break that combines three nights in Kiev with a night within the Exclusion zone. From £829 per person including flights, some meals, an Explore tour leader and an official Exclusion Zone guide.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Explore.

Chernobyl - courtesy Explore

An amusement park in Pripyat, due to open on May Day in 1986, lays abandoned but is still eerily intact.


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Other Members' Thoughts - 12 Comment(s)

  • AndrewMorris
    about 1 year ago
    Thanks @Lottie for your kind words about the Chernobyl article. I often think about Ivan and, like you, hope he remains healthy and as happy as he can be, in all his past and current circumstances. This really is a fascinating trip, giving an insight into a frightening piece of recent history.
  • Lottie
    about 1 year ago
    What an excellent review and amazing insight into the Chernobyl area more than 30 years on.

    Luckily I was clearing down old emails and came across the newsletter which I obviously hadn't had time to fully read. Whilst this trip is definitely not for me I hope Ivan has seen many more visitors and is happy and healthy for many more years to come.

    Well done Andrew and I'm happy to live these trips through your words on the page.
  • SilverMarie
    over 1 year ago
    When I saw this item on Chernobyl, I had to click through. What a marvelous review of a truly unique trip. So important to include all kinds of destinations on your site, and not just the predictable ones everyone expects you to like when you pass the age of 50!
  • DavA
    over 1 year ago
    The author has brought to life an area which, to the outside world, has been 'dead' since the explosion. My sister-in-law was nearby at the time on a student exchange and then urgently 'shipped home' with all personal clothes destroyed in return for an emergency tracksuit. I have therefore often wondered how this area has since fared. The narrative in this article brings out the stark contrasts which are visible but have arisen through history - the architecture, the ideologies, the people. A fascinating insight, beautifully written.
  • Damocles
    over 1 year ago
    I have vivid memories of the accident when it happened, and read several books about it in the years following it. These all dealt with the immediate aftermath and the technical causes that led to the tragedy. Whilst the topic has never really gone away for Ukrainians, it has to a large extent faded from our memories, resurfacing only when other nuclear accidents have taken place or more recently when the sarcophagus was finally sealed under a steel shell. The author's excellent account of his trip there not only reminds us of those terrible moments when the world looked on in horror as the tragedy unfolded, but is unique in furthering our understanding of what life is like in a post nuclear disaster zone, and demonstrates man's ability to endure in an extreme and hostile environment. It also offers us an opportunity to go back in time and witness a world that has remained unchanged since the dying days of the Soviet Union. As a frequent traveler to Kyiv, I can say the author's description of the city is accurate, and hopefully will encourage more people to experience this neglected and fascinating part of Europe.
  • Simonh
    over 1 year ago
    For me, the real message of 'Discover Chernobyl' is that, no matter how dramatic the scenery, the architecture or even the history, it's so often the people we meet on our travels from whom we learn the most. By placing Ivan at the centre of this vivid description of his time in Chernobyl, Andrew demonstrates how a simple story of human resilience can be every bit as impressive and memorable as a close-up view of the largest movable structure ever made.
  • LLLees
    over 1 year ago
    A week ago, if someone had told me that my next holiday may be Chernobyl, I would have thought them to be crazy!
    After reading the interesting article by Andrew Morris, I am truly considering it. I had no idea it was safe to visit Chernobyl until reading this article. Mr Morris doesn't simple play tourist. By interacting with the people that live there, creates a narrative of depth and insight.
    I would consider spending time in Chernobyl the same way as exploring the Nazi death camps in Germany.
    So many stories that need to be told and so many lessons to be learned from the recent past.
    Thank you for publishing Mr Morris' unique work.
  • HeadInTheClouds
    over 1 year ago
    A very well written account of a very unique addition to the bucket list. What a fascinating place, shrouded in controversy and tragedy, and now an intriguing tourist destination!. A pleasantly factual read, while Andrew seems to have depicted the mood perfectly. I'd imagine Ivan is looking forward to the spring.
  • RH
    over 1 year ago
    I found this article fascinating and heart-rendering. Places disappear out of the news and we forget about them and all the people affected. Reading this article made me think again about the event and what happened more recently in Japan. It sounds a fascinating place to visit as it is a snapshot of Soviet Russia in the '80's. A visit to Kyiv at the same time would be a good contrast to the desolation of the place.
  • MrandMrsG
    over 1 year ago
    I agree with MrH: I never would have imagined that any of us would choose to travel to Chernobyl, even after all this time, but this fascinating article makes it sound way more interesting than sitting on a beach somewhere! And who wouldn't want to visit poor Ivan now?
  • MrH
    over 1 year ago
    Who would have thought Chernobyl would regenerate itself and become a tourist destination in our lifetimes ?
    An absorbing article and a very enjoyable read. It certainly left this reader wanting to learn more and whether it would be worth visiting the Exclusion Zone if only to keep Ivan entertained for a few hours. The start contrast of the tragic human story of Chernobyl with a few cultural days in Kiev makes the Discover Chernobyl tour sound very attractive.
  • Accountancyholding
    over 1 year ago
    This was a very informative, but easy to read article. Mr Morris obviously wrote the article with conviction in his words. It enlightened me as to how the area has altered, and made me aware that it is now possible to safely visit what sounds to be a fascinating place.