Chernobyl: An Urbex Exploration
By: Chris Gambla
Wikipedia defines "Urban Exploration" as "the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment."
As long as I can remember, Urban Exploration or "urbex" has always been a passion of mine. I get a rush of excitement every time I explore an abandoned house or structure. As any seasoned urbexer would tell you - Chernobyl, but more specifically, the abandoned town of Pripyat is the urbex capital of the world. Totally abandoned on April 27th, 1986 which was one day after the catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. I've long planned to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but in 2019 I made it my goal to finally visit the zone. I set out and achieved my goal to rousing success.
Before visiting the zone, I had to do ample research into what tour group would best fit my needs. Along with being an urbexer, I am also a photographer. So, finding a group with minimal other visitors would be a priority, because who wants to take pictures of an abandoned city with people in the background?! There are dozens of different tour groups offering visits to the zone, as well as several "unofficial groups" which offer "stalker", aka illegal visits to the zone. I wanted to find a group that offered a tour that took you to the most places in the zone and offered ample time at every spot.
I came across a tour group called "Chernobyl Adventure" and selected the 2 day tour of the zone, which included an overnight stay in the Chernobyl hotel, as well as a tour of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself - which is something that most tour groups won't go to (it's totally safe, I didn't come home with radiation sickness lol). The tour price cost me $700, which seems a bit steep, but when you account for the 2 days which included a hotel stay, plus multiple meals (including 2 at the official Chernobyl Power Plant cafeteria) and the fact that my tour ended up being just my guide and me (nobody else signed up for the dates I visited the zone), I feel it was totally worth it.
My guide went above and beyond to show me everything in the zone, and as a result, I had an amazing experience and was able to take thousands of incredible photos. My flight from Chicago to Kiev was also peculiarly the same price, at $720. I had booked several weeks in advance when the prices were good. My flight set out from Chicago with a short stopover in Istanbul Turkey. From Chicago to Istanbul it was around 10 hours, and from Istanbul to Kiev - another 2 hours. When traveling internationally, especially from the US, it is important to book all your travels well in advance and definitely make sure you have your passport up to date.
After landing in Kiev, I gave myself a day and a half to recover from traveling before my planned visit to the zone, which was really helpful, but for some reason jet-lag didn't affect me too much after exploring the city, doing some photography and enjoying the local cuisine. My visit to the zone was to begin early the next day. At 6:40AM, I was picked up by my tour guide Dennis, who was also the driver. After a bit of small talk, we set off to the zone, which was about a two hour drive northwest of Kiev. Along the way, we passed by countless tiny villages and farms. It was really beautiful to witness this, because in America, I am so accustomed to seeing suburbs and big cities.
So, seeing people living this was very charming to me. I am quite envious of these people living the same lifestyle that their ancestors have been living for hundreds of years. I think technology and modernity doesn't always bring happiness. After the 2 hour drive, we passed by 2 separate checkpoints before entering the zone. At each checkpoint, government officials needed to check my passport, as well as the tour groups licensing - the Ukrainian government takes entry into the Chernobyl zone very seriously. Once we reached the final checkpoint "Dytyatky" and the border guard gave us the OK, we finally entered the world famous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone!
The first notable landmark you see when entering the zone is the giant, unfinished cooling tower, that was intended to be used in coordination with an additional power station that itself was never finished as a result of the 1986 meltdown. I think this was the first time I've ever seen a cooling tower in real life, after seeing countless ones on TV - relating to nuclear energy. I got to visit the inside of the cooling tower the next day, which was an incredible experience. Because of the top-notch acoustics inside, you could literally snap your fingers and hear it echo all throughout the tower. From there, my guide took me directly to the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant.
I was going to be inside the belly of the beast - a moment I had looked forward to for many years. When we arrived at the power plant, we were given a safety talk by the plant administrator and guide of the facility, which basically boiled down to "don't wander off and don't take off your protective clothing". From there, the administrator showed us the points of interest in the facility: the famed kilometer long "golden corridor" and the memorial to the first victim of the plant meltdown. Then, it was on to the highlight of the tour: the control room of reactor 3. While the administrator never said "not to" I had to pose for a picture sitting in front of a panel and pressing a button.
After the tour concluded, my guide Dennis took me into the city of Pripyat and we visited the countless abandoned buildings that dot the Ukranian City's landscape that was once teeming with life. We went through the hospital, the jail, a bus station, but then, it was onto the location made famous by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - the Ferris Wheel. I was overcome by emotion seeing this decaying wreck in person. it's a shame it never saw any use as it was set to open just days after the 1986 meltdown. After that, the sun was rapidly setting and the zone checkpoints closed promptly at 7pm, so we had to leave and spend the night in the Chernobyl hotel and get some rest for the next day ahead of us.
The next day began with a visit to another spot made famous by the first Modern Warfare game: the famous swimming pool. An interesting thing about the pool is that it remained in use long after the events of the meltdown. the "azure swimming pool" was used up until 1998 by the Liquidators of the Chernobyl accident - the firefighters and cleaners of the facility and the surrounding area. They used it for recreation and exercise, and from the pictures I've seen, it was truly a beautiful facility in it's heydey.
After the pool, my guide took me to a 16 story apartment building and told me I had a half hour of time to explore it on my own - as parking the van out front would be a bad idea, as technically you are no longer allowed to enter the buildings at Pripyat, yet this regulation is disregarded by every tour group. After ascending the 16 floors, I was treated to a beautiful panorama of Pripyat and the surrounding wooded areas with the power plant in the center of my view. After that, we visited a multitude of other buildings and eventually made our way to the cooling tower and entered.
Standing at the center of the tower was incredible, it was a true monolith filled with rotting support beams and pipes. At the center stood a massive concrete block, adorned with art of one of the liquidators. Seeing this tribute really made me stop and think how important their selfless acts were. They literally ran head-on into irradiated buildings and areas to cleanse the land, they gave their lives to prevent the spread of radioactive material from spreading into the rest of Ukraine, Europe and the world itself. Their noble sacrifice shall not be forgotten.
Spending two days within the confines of the zone was a truly life changing experience. I had set out to Chernobyl with the goal of visiting an urbex mecca, and I'd say I achieved that goal, but I also came away with greater knowledge of what exactly caused the event, as well as a sense of appreciation for the men and women who gave their lives to stop the spread of the nuclear fallout. I believe that the term "hero" is thrown around way too often these days... It's a term that has lost its definition, but make no mistake, the liquidators of Chernobyl are true heroes in every sense of the word. It's a shame how not many Americans know about the events of the meltdown, but with the premiere of the highly acclaimed HBO series "Chernobyl", I'm hopeful people will seek to learn more about the events of 1986.
Also, without getting too preachy, I'd like to request that if you visit Chernobyl: please be respectful. The urbex code is "leave only footprints, take only photographs" and this should hold especially true while visiting the zone. People lived here, people's homes were and still are here, people died here. Be respectful. Don't take a souvenir from the zone. Let's work together to keep this place intact for future generations. But I'd highly recommend you come and visit for yourself. my words and pictures can't possibly do this place justice, you need to witness the haunting beauty for yourself.
Follow Chris Gambla