Europe Product Manager Clare shares her favourite experiences from Chernobyl and Kiev, a trip she first put together as part of our Explore Beyond range. Now part of our core range of discovery trips and available to book for winter 2017 and 2018, what were her highlights?
"For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by Eastern Europe and for many years I have been keen to visit Chernobyl to learn more about this terrible event and to see the amazing abandoned Soviet architecture found within the Exclusion Zone.
Ukraine didn’t disappoint me; I’ve well and truly fallen in love with this beautiful country. We spent a few days in the capital city of Kiev. I was expecting lots of Soviet blocks and brutalist sculptures and that’s what I got, but we also saw a surprising number of pretty snow-covered parks, elegant and ornate old houses and palaces, and colourful churches with golden onion domed rooftops.
We spent two days exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with a local guide. I’ve seen many photos and have read a lot about the history of Chernobyl, but it took my breath away. The truth of the accident is more harrowing, the site is much bigger, and the buildings left behind more incredible than I’d imagined. Our first stop was in one of the villages in the zone and we strolled down what used to be the main street, stepping over fallen trees, gazing into cottages absorbed into the forest and standing beside a World War II memorial buried in the snow. We knew from this moment on that this was going to be a remarkable couple of days.
In the town of Chernobyl we went to the only remaining shop where we brought a few supplies and the shop assistant tallied up our total spend on her abacus. We headed for the dock to see the ships abandoned in the ice; half sunk these vessels were left here after being used in the clean-up operation. We carried on to the infamous Reactor Number 4 at the nearby power plant. Back on the 26th April 1986 it was this nuclear reactor that exploded with catastrophic consequences. The accident was the result of a flawed Soviet reactor, operated by inadequately trained staff that had been ordered to carry out a poorly planned test. It exploded twice, killing two workers instantly and releasing at least 5% of its radioactive core into the atmosphere. A further 28 fire fighters died of radiation poisoning trying to contain the resulting fire and we visited the touching memorial outside Chernobyl’s fire station.
At the time of the incident there were four working reactors at the plant and a further two being built; today you can see all the cranes still in place which were building the new reactors and the half finished cooling tower. The New Safe Confinement unit around Reactor Number 4 is impressive – this huge structure when fully completed will have a team of robotic cranes inside which will take the damaged reactor apart with the aim of one day making the area safe again.
Hidden in a wooded area, in what would have once been the garden of a science laboratory our guide shows us a big crane claw that once sat on top of Reactor Number 4 and was used to move radioactive material after the incident. To our surprise she then reached her arm inside the claw holding the Geiger counter towards the metal. A normal reading around Chernobyl is about 5.00, but here the counter went up to over 41.00. Needless to say that we didn’t hang around here for long!
During our time in the Exclusion Zone we also of course discovered the city of Pripyat. At the time of the accident this town was one of the newest in the Soviet Union and it was still growing, for example the well photographed fairground and football stadium were just being finished and due to open the following month. The city had wide streets, flower beds planted with roses, numerous public swimming pools and the first super market in the USSR.
We travelled in February so I was a bit concerned about the weather, but we wrapped up warm and put on our waterproof walking boots and it was then no problem to explore. The temperatures were about -10°C and the ground was thick with snow. These conditions as it turned out were perfect for photographing and discovering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. At this time of year when there are no leaves on the trees you can see more of the buildings that have been reclaimed by the forests. Chernobyl looks immensely different in every season, so my new ambition is to return in spring, summer and autumn to experience each one."