A few months before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, I found myself walking through the streets of Kyiv. The city, a unique tapestry woven from the threads of past and present, resonated with a deceptive tranquility, subtly masking the looming storm on the horizon. The country had been embroiled in a conflict with Russia since 2014, a fact that had, over time, gradually receded from the front pages of the world’s newspapers, and Crimea was firmly in Russian hands.
I was staying in an Airbnb on the vibrant Andriivskyi Descent, an artery pulsating with life in the heart of the city. From my window, I had a view of the old neighborhood of Podil, a panorama overseen by the magnificent Saint Andrew’s Church perched atop Andriivskyi Hill. The baroque masterpiece, a creation of the celebrated Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Ivan Michurin, stood resplendent against the skyline. Built between 1747 and 1754, it was a testament to the architectural prowess that Kyiv embraced, an eternal reminder of the city’s timeless beauty.
Kyiv is a city that sparkles with a stunning skyline of ornate domes and towering steeples, a testament to its rich religious heritage. The sheer number of churches and cathedrals was remarkable, each one a beautiful beacon of faith, imbued with its own unique charm and history. They populated the cityscape in such numbers that I was left with the impression that one could attend a different church every Sunday for a lifetime and still not exhaust the list. Whether it was the grandeur of the monasteries, the intricate beauty of the orthodox churches, or the understated elegance of the local cathedrals, each structure offered a serene sanctuary amidst the bustling city, a symbol of resilience and faith that spanned centuries.
The Road to Chornobyl
On the ground floor of my building was a small office with an eccentric sign that caught my eye, “Chornobyl Tours.” Guided by a sense of morbid curiosity, I decided to face the eerie remnants of the disaster. On a crisp morning, under the veils of an enigmatic dawn, I found myself boarding a bus, filled with a dozen like-minded tourists, each drawn by the macabre allure of the forbidden zone.
The journey took about three hours, taking us north through the very pathways soon to be trampled by invading tanks. Each checkpoint was a hushed negotiation, punctuated by the sardonic humor of our talkative guide. “Corruption, it gets things done,” she’d quip, an irony not lost on any of us.
Our pause came at a rest stop that served a paradoxically sweet yet bitter coffee. The local ice cream stall flaunted a sign that had an oddly humorous undertone—”Life is short: eat more ice cream – Chornobyl.”
In our hands were Geiger counters, our own personal guard against the insidious radiation. A forbidden forest lay ahead, a grim testament to the reactor’s aftermath. As we drew closer, the counters screamed in protest, a chilling symphony of invisible danger. The guides explained that after the reactor exploded, the military dumped water to try and cool down the core. The water immediately turned to steam, which blew into the nearby forest. This area has been off limits ever since, as the radiation is way off the charts. We could only see it from afar.
A few months later when the Russians invaded this area, they took control of Chornobyl and set up camp near the same forest. Within a few weeks, as the soldiers started getting violently ill, they abandoned the area. It was obvious they did not take the Chornobyl Tour or they would have known better.
Ghostly Reminders of a Hasty Evacuation
While in the abandoned town of Pripyat, which housed all the workers from the power plant, we visited a ghostly carnival, its joyous purpose long forgotten. Rusting rides swayed in the breeze, bearing silent witness to the unforgiving passage of time. I was about to take my customary selfie by setting my phone up on a rock, when the guide sternly reminded me from afar: “Don’t set your phone down! It will absorb radiation from the dirt and you’ll have to leave it behind.”
Our visit then took us to the heart of a forsaken residential area. We explored a handful of abandoned apartment complexes and a shopping center that stood like silent, haunted monuments to a life once lived. Each one was a mausoleum of the mundane, every room a freeze-frame of life interrupted. Shoes, dolls, broken furniture—these forgotten remnants of existence lay strewn across the floors, each object coated in a veneer of dust.
A chilling narrative unfolded as our guides painted the picture of the fateful day some 36 hours after the disaster. Soviet officials, in a belated response, began the Herculean task of evacuating roughly 115,000 people from Pripyat, and neighboring towns and villages. The residents were given scant time to gather their lives into hastily packed bags, filled with vital documents, a smattering of personal belongings, and whatever food they could quickly assemble. They were led to believe their displacement was temporary, little knowing that an exclusion zone would soon be erected around Chornobyl, effectively severing their ties to their homes. In the subsequent days, local officials swooped in like vultures, scavenging the abandoned dwellings for anything of value.
Exploring Chornobyl’s Military Past
Our journey within the Chornobyl exclusion zone led us to another haunting relic of the past—the Duga radar. Once a covert testament to the USSR’s military might, its colossal structure now stands revealed in all its decaying grandeur, a skeletal silhouette cutting through the horizon’s haze. Our guides informed us of its visibility even from space, a chilling symbol of human endeavor that transcended earthly boundaries.
From afar, the Duga radar seemed like a gargantuan metallic wall, an intimidating monolith overlooking the surrounding forest. But as we drew closer, its intricate facade revealed itself—a sprawling, dilapidated assembly of massive antennas and turbines.
Known as “The Arc,” this radar was a linchpin in the Soviet Union’s defensive arsenal during its communist reign, constructed to detect any nuclear missiles launched by the Americans toward Soviet territories. Yet, for all its grandeur, its efficacy was reportedly questionable, its purpose unfulfilled.
Its gargantuan form, measuring an awe-inspiring 150 meters in height and almost 700 meters in length, still stands defiant against the ravages of time and radiation. But, subjected to years of neglect in the radioactive gusts of Chornobyl, it wears the cloak of industrial decay, a monumental epitaph to a fraught past. As we walked around the immense structure, we stumbled upon the debris of hasty retreat—abandoned vehicles, discarded steel barrels, broken electronic devices, and scattered metallic detritus.
Our Chornobyl Tour Comes to an End
Mikhail Gorbachev once wrote that the Chornobyl disaster, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Standing amidst the ruins of the once thriving city of Pripyat, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of those words, the profound impact of a disaster that forever altered the course of a nation. Chornobyl was a haunting testament to the devastating power of human error and the indomitable spirit of a people who lived, and continue to live, in its shadow.
As we prepared to exit the uncanny specter of the exclusion zone, each of us had to pass through a radiation detector, a grim reminder of the unseen danger with which we flirted. Our guide joked, or perhaps not, that anyone who exhibited an unacceptably high level of radiation, would have to stay behind. A shiver of unease rippled through us, despite the jest.
The Chornobyl adventure was a voyage through the ghosts of a forsaken past, a haunting reminder of the devastation humankind was capable of. Yet, it was a tale that needed to be told, a chapter that deserved its place in my odyssey through the world’s most intriguing locales.
When I returned to the bustling embrace of Kyiv, my senses yearned for an odd comfort—Mexican food. Those who know me would find this unremarkable. A hasty Google search led me to a delightful haven called Dos Amigos. I was greeted by a sign at the entrance, a quirky proclamation that read, “Make Burritos, not war.” An odd statement, perhaps, in a land scarred by invasions and upheavals, yet strikingly profound in its simplicity.
When one’s country is invaded by a powerful neighbor and innocent civilians targeted indiscriminately, one has no option but to respond to war with war. As I write this, 18 months into the full-scale invasion, I wonder and hope that Dos Amigos is still making burritos.
A Note on Visiting Ukraine and Chornobyl Today
As of October 2023 all travel to Ukraine is discouraged. The U.S. State Department has issued a Level 4 advisory – its highest rating – and says “Do not travel to Ukraine due to Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Department of State continues to advise that U.S. citizens not travel to Ukraine due to active armed conflict.”
The Government of Canada has issued a similar advisory, warning its citizens to “avoid all travel to Ukraine due to the Russian military invasion.”
A visit to the Chornobyl Tours website indicates it is no longer possible to visit the exclusion zone. The last entry on the website is February 19, 2022. The Russians invaded three days later.
That said, and keeping in mind the above advisories, travel to Ukraine is not impossible, but it’s imperative for travelers to exercise utmost caution. Currently, Ukraine’s airspace remains closed due to war conditions. Consequently, the most advised way to approach Ukraine is to fly to nearby Polish airports, particularly in Rzeszów or Lublin. These cities are closest to the Ukrainian border and offer flights through airlines like Wizz Air and Ryanair, connecting cities like London, Rome, Dublin, and Milan. It’s worth noting that the Ukrainian-Polish border is the most favored entry point for many travelers. This has resulted in persistent long queues at these checkpoints, making patience and preparation essential for those wishing to cross into Ukraine. A good website to visit for information on visiting Ukraine during the war is visitukraine.today.
Interested in learning about other unique adventures? Check out the start of Adam Rogers’ Central Asian Odyssey next.