What is it like to visit Chernobyl

This is what Chernobyl looks like today

By Robin Hartmann | March 14, 2020, 7:01 a.m.

There are probably not many people who would consider visiting the Chernobyl reactor when traveling to Ukraine. The journalist Jan Schneider dared it anyway - he told TRAVELBOOK about the envy of those who stayed at home, Geiger counters to borrow and souvenirs from the death zone.

There is hardly a place in the world that is so symbolic of a catastrophe as Chernobyl - and hardly any other that triggers such a morbid fascination. Since a nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 in Reactor Four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the entire area around the Ukrainian city of Prypiat has been a restricted area - and only very few would enter it, at least not voluntarily. And yet that is exactly what journalist Jan Schneider did on a research trip through Ukraine. He tells TRAVELBOOK what he experienced in this place and what Chernobyl looks like today.

“I was in Ukraine while shooting a documentary,” Schneider recalls. “So the decision was quickly made that we wanted to see the location of the nuclear disaster and also shoot there.” But can everyone just walk in there? Schneider's surprising answer: “As a tourist, it's very easy. You book the tour with an organizer, and you are taken by bus and picked up again. You only have to plan a lead time of around 3-5 days. "

Envy among friends

However, he wanted a filming permit to record what he had experienced with the camera: “That was a little more complicated, and a few faxes, e-mails and SMS were written at the checkpoint at the entrance until we were really allowed to drive in. In principle, however, it's easier than I imagined. ”But what motivates a person to travel to the scene of such a catastrophe? "Here it was simply the interest to visit a place that everyone has already heard of and that one knows a thing or two about, but where only a few people have actually been."

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How did those around you react to the trip? Surprisingly, mostly jealous, especially in the circle of friends: “But I have to say that some of them used to play a video game with passion that required a level in Chernobyl. Since then, they have been fascinated by the reactor and the abandoned city of Pripyat with the dilapidated amusement park. But some just like deserted places. ”The family especially worried,“ whether that would be safe and how long we would be in the more radiation-intensive zone around the reactor. ”Meanwhile, his relatives have got used to that these filming trips include a certain amount of adventure. "In recent years I have been to Tanzania and Bolivia, among other places, and yet I have always returned home safe and sound."

"As if time stood still"

But what is it like to actually step into a place like this that most people would not even approach within 100 kilometers? “Of course I had a few concerns. The reactor is still shining, and even though the huge sarcophagus above the scene of the accident was recently put into operation, I couldn't imagine that it would suddenly shield all radiation. In a brochure that you get at the entrance, my fears were taken away from me to a certain extent. A day in Chernobyl has about the same radiation exposure as an hour in an airplane. One x-ray has 160 times the radiation exposure. "

Schneider stayed in the exclusion zone for a total of five hours, filmed and actually came within 100 meters of the reactor that had exploded at the time. They were also able to visit the neighboring town of Prypiat: “There is the famous Ferris wheel, a bumper car and lots of abandoned skyscrapers. Only then does one really realize how suddenly people had to leave their homeland if they even made it. It's as if time just stood still. "

Surprising findings

Schneider did not have to sign a kind of waiver for his visit: "I had expected to visit a hostile ghost town, but instead it was more of a prime example of how nature takes back places that humans have left." He found the loan of Geiger counters with which one could see exactly "which objects are irradiated to what extent". He found people who took selfies at this location similarly bizarre: “On the other hand, the memory of the accident persists. So rather selfies than not dealing with them at all. ”Incidentally, he saw many tour groups during his visit.

Chernobyl cups as a souvenir

After the stay, he and his crew had to thoroughly wash all the clothes and objects that they had with them that day, but that was all - in the case of the group, shoes, feet and camera tripods. His colleague then took two Chernobyl cups with him for his children. For him it was "a little too much tourism for such a place."

Would Schneider repeat such a trip or even recommend it to others? The journalist says: “I find it very difficult to say whether it is recommendable, but in any case there is nothing against a visit for me: If you are interested in it and want to learn something about Chernobyl and the history after the GAU, you should simply go there. "With a laugh, he adds:" Kiev in summer is definitely worth a trip. "

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Even in retrospect, his crazy journey did not seem dangerous to him - but he also makes it clear: “You should stick to the rules. Sneaking in somewhere without permission is not a good idea. "

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