One part of our day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv included a stop at the former Soviet base operating a Duga Radar Tower. What is a Soviet Radar Tower you ask? I had literally zero idea about this structure until we pulled up in the bus and walked the short way to the tower, also known as the Russian Woodpecker. As most know, I love AllTheOldAbandonedThings so I was of course fascinated by this Soviet adventure.
This stop was an incredible look into Soviet military operations during this time period. With over 1,500 personnel at the height of operation, the base and tower are now abandoned, along with the other Soviet dreams for technological and societal prowess; this base met the same fate as the “city of the future”, Prypiat.
In his article for Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan notes the connection between these two sites in Chornobyl:
“If anything, the military purpose of Chernobyl 2 [the Duga Tower] is a reminder that the purpose of the Chernobyl power station was never entirely civilian, either. While it did provide vast amounts of electricity to Ukraine, its four reactors were of the RBMK variety, meaning they could be easily switched between the fission of uranium for civilian purposes and the enrichment of plutonium for military ones. That left the top of reactor lightly covered, in order to make the switching of fuel assemblies easier. That’s why, when the thing unleashed its fiery belch one April day, a good part of Europe got a dusting of radionuclides.”
Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.
I can now cross “wandering around an abandoned Soviet base in Northern Ukraine” off my bucket-list.
Where are we?
This tower was part of the Soviet over-the-horizon radar (OTH), an aspect of the government’s missile defense early-warning radar network. There are two Duga towers: one here in Chornobyl and another was built in eastern Siberia.
Known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the distinct tapping sound made by the system that interfered with other broadcasts, communications, and transmissions without warning, the tower is ENORMOUS. You can listen to the tower’s distinct tap-tap-tap sound here.
Like Prypiat, all operations at this hidden military base ceased after the explosion of reactor four. Today, the tower and buildings are deteriorating into the same woods that hid the operations taking place here during the Cold War.
Chornobyl Duga Base:
One of the most unbelievable aspects of this base is the level of priority given to its mission and the amount of money (7 billion Rubles) contributed to make this idea into a reality, only to see all this work and materials completely abandoned today. Nazarayan notes: “It’s almost like everyone agreed to play an incredibly dangerous game that, after half a century, suddenly seemed pointless and even boring. When it was over, the players dropped their toys and went home.”
Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here. Spencer, Luke. 2016. “The Top Secret Military Base Hidden in Chernobyl’s Irradiated Forest.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.
Currently: Watching: Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.
Where are we?
Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.
Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.
For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.
Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
I highly recommend the day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv if you are visiting the Ukrainian capital (one of my favorite travel destinations!). Planning a trip to a former Soviet nuclear site might seem overwhelming, but I’m here to help you by giving an overview of booking your trip, how to be your best-and-most-informed-tourist-self, along with other helpful tips to make the most of your trip.
There is also advice for those that may start, stop, or be in the middle of their menstrual cycle as they tour Chornobyl. Please use the struggles–the blood, sweat, and tears of those that have walked before you–to plan accordingly. And anyone reading this paragraph that just thought ugh or shuddered at the thought of periods, kindly getoveryourself, Over half the population has one.
MiddleWorldAdventures Guide to Planning a Trip to Chornobyl:
Tip #1: Be Your Best-Tourist-Self
One of the best tips I have is simply don’t be that guy. So-called Dark Destinations are increasingly becoming more popular, which is great, as long as visitors show the respect that these locations deserve. Intentionality and remembering the events that occurred at these sites is not only respectful, but gives you a better experience as a visitor.
Here are a couple of MWA rules on being a respectful tourist:
Don’t take sexy selfies at the front of a nuclear site. You just look like an asshole.
Don’t steal anything.
Don’t ignore the rules of the tour guides: when they say stay out of the buildings, keep out.
Be patient. You’re not the only person visiting, we get that some things are an inconvenience but speaking (loudly) about it does not solve the problem.
Part of being your best-tourist-self is also being your-most-well-informed self. There are a ton of great books on the explosion of reactor four (including Higginbotham’s extensively researched book published last year). But if reading isn’t your thing, the HBO miniseries is not only a fairly accurate (and beautifully shot) representation of the actual events in 1986, but was also endorsed by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work. A couple of really great sources on Chornobyl:
Alexievich, Svetlana. 1997. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Picador: New York.
Bogart, Anne and Holly Morris. 2016. The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken and Egg Pictures.
HBO. 2019. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO.
Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
Since the site was opened for tourism in 2010, thousands of tourists signed up to see the power plant and surrounding villages each year. There are a couple of tour companies and multiple options for tours. We booked the one day tour from Kyiv, but there were two to even seven day options with the company we used.
You’ll need to decide what is important to you and how much time you’d like to spend in the area. Booking ahead is important and remember to have all of your travel documents in order prior to making the reservation.
For us, we had a limited time in Ukraine and it was important for us to see the plant, Prypiat, and a few of the abandoned villages. Luckily, our tour included a stop at the former Soviet Duga base, which was an awesome addition to our day and one I didn’t know was even an option to tour. Other options included an underground tour, visiting the control center of the plant, and staying overnight in city of Chornobyl.
I included a map here of the stops included on our tour:
Tip #3: What to Expect
Traveling to the site of a nuclear explosion is obviously not an every day adventure. I did a fair amount of research prior to leaving and was still surprised by a couple of unexpected aspects of the trip. A few friendly reminders::
A lack of cell phone service: I know this seems obvious, but many of the areas on the one day tour (and I’m assuming many sites on the longer tours as well) did not have cell phone service. I thought it added to the overall experience but just expect that you may not be able to play Pokemon Go in Prypiat.
It is a very bumpy two hour bus ride from Kyiv to the Exclusion Zone.
There is a lot of walking around. Not only wear closed-toed shoes, but also comfortable ones.
Bathrooms (or lack there-of): There are not a lot of bathroom options on this trip (see below) so make sure you are strategic with each stop.
Don’t touch anything. Seriously. The amount of radiation exposed to you on a one day trip is about the same as a flight, but as the tour guides say, limiting yourself to radiation is also your responsibility.
Window seat: Visitors can’t walk the Red Forest–it is too highly radioactive, even to this day–but you can see the forest from the bus on the way to Prypiat.
Potentially fall in love with your devishly-handsome-hot-dog-eating-in-a-full-suit bus driver. We LOVED Valeri. He had an amazing mustache and was just the coolest dude I’ve ever met.
Tip #4: Pack the Essentials
Overall, you’ll be spending about twelve hours either inside a bus or walking around deserted sites in the Exclusion Zone. Here are a couple of the essentials I’d recommend packing for a day trip:
Food: If you’re a person who starts to get grumpy when they are hungry or lacking caffeine, make sure to brown bag this day. There are a number of great grocery stores in Kyiv where you can stock up on sandwich supplies, water, and snacks. Be mindful to check for still or sparkling water (I’m looking at you, American friends) and also that mustard can be extremely horseradish-forward in Ukraine. You are only fed lunch on the one day tour with the option to buy small snacks at the checkpoint, so I’d recommend packing food with you.
Toilet Paper: Literally every single bathroom (either indoor or out) did not have toilet paper. The indoor toilets did not have seats. This is a use-the-restroom-at-your-own-risk situation so my recommendation is to BYOTP (see the last point for more information on the bathroom situation).
Hand Sanitizer: Read above. The soap situation was not any better.
Battery Pack: This is a long tour with a ton of beautiful photography opportunities. Or, if you’re like me, and running with an iPhone 6 with roughly a 45 minute battery life, bringing a battery pack is essential.
Sunscreen/bug spray: We visited in the spring and did not see too many insects, but sunscreen (at least for my pale skin) was needed. Pro-Tip: use a sunscreen without microplastics like the one carried here.
Clothing: It might be hot on the bus but cool outside. Bring a sweater or early 80s windbreaker, whatever is your jam for that day.
Medicine: The ride to the Exclusion Zone is bumpy. If you’re a person prone to motion sickness, I recommend bringing some kind of medicine to help with the bus ride.
Tip #5: Menstrual Cycle Survival Guide
I am here to help you survive your period inside a Soviet nuclear disaster zone. My best advice is to pack supplies regardless if the tour falls before, during, or right after your menstrual cycle. Basically, there are absolutely zero options so being prepared for the worst case scenario is ideal, and in my opinion, worth the effort. Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way when my always-unpredictable cycle started almost a week early and the eve of our Chornobyl trip.
My advice is to pack your preferred supplies: tampons, pads, cup, etc. if there is any possibility that you may experience your period while on the tour. Tampons and pads can be purchased at pharmacies in Kyiv (NOT grocery stores). If you are sporting a cup, I’d also bring a backup form of product. BYO any cramp or headache medicine with you.
As noted earlier, toilet facilities are scarce on an all-day tour. After leaving Kyiv, you have a roughly two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint. There are facilities at the checkpoint, both portable toilets and access to indoor plumbing, but they are not (obviously) in tip-top shape. The portable toilets are made for taller individuals, so be prepared if you’re short like me as this space was difficult to hygienically navigate successfully. There was no toilet paper, soap, or hand sanitizer in either location. The indoor bathrooms did not have toilet seats.
If you booked the one day tour, the next actual bathroom isn’t until lunch at the nuclear facility. Here, the bathrooms are indoor, but again without toilet paper, seats, or sanitizer. I (along with my friends) ended up hoarding extra napkins out of sheer desperation to help with my situation. You’ll have a lot of walking after lunch, so this is your last bathroom facility until you return back to the Exclusion checkpoint.
Once at the checkpoint, the same access to the indoor and outdoor facilities will be available before traveling back to Kyiv.
Overall, my best advice is to have fun, be present in the moment, and pack extra toilet paper and sandwiches. Which I feel is solid advice for any situation you may find yourself in.
Currently: Reading: “Last Journey into Slavery” (National Geographic)
Two quick notes before I discuss dark tourism and AllTheThings Chornobyl:
Spelling: As noted in my Kyiv post, I am using the Ukrainian government’s preferred transliterations of names into English. While both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, the pronunciation of words can be different between the two languages. The commonly used English spelling for the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine–Чорнобиль–is “Chernobyl”, the Russian translation of the word, rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl”. This transliteration was continuously used following the end of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and even after Ukrainian became the country’s official language in 1991, overthrowing the Soviet-imposed Russian. The same can be said for the town of Прип’ять, as most English speakers use the Russian transliteration “Pripyat” over the Ukrainian “Prypiat”. Here I am going to use the preferred Ukrainian transliterations of the words–Chornobyl and Prypiat–in my following posts as a way to decolonize language. I know this seems insignificant, but I do not want to use the language of the oppressors in these posts (even if it means unlearning literally twenty years of spelling). Changes such as these are small, take time and I’m obviously still learning and will make mistakes, but let’s put forth the effort to #decolonizelanguage. Any published works that use the Russian transliterations will remain unchanged in how I cite them here. History: I am not going to outline the entire history and impact of the explosion of reactor four. I discuss a number of great sources that can go into detail far better than I could in a following post.
I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine since I was a kid, learning a bit of Russian through documentaries and watching the Olympics on TV. When we had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv last spring, I was ecstatic to start planning the few days we had in Ukraine.
Of course the question that popped up was should we visit Chornobyl?
I first read about the nuclear disaster as a freshman in a class at Kent State. One project included presenting to the class as the fictional head of a tourism office for your assigned country, encouraging would-be travelers to visit. Assigned with Belarus, I began researching the country and learned how their population was significantly impacted by the Chornobyl disaster, where 70% of the Ukrainian nuclear meltdown landed, contaminating 23% of the surface area of Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belorussians died from Chornobyl-related deaths and the country is still struggling to recover from the disaster. Over a million people remain in the exclusion zone, food is still grown and consumed on contaminated land, and the government has yet to disclose any information on the impact of the disaster:
“Belarus’s official policy on Chornobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on ‘making life safe’ in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.
Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn…
The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chornobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.”
Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.
I was pissed off. In ClassicAshlyn fashion, rather than write a Why You Should Visit Belarus paper, I instead presented on governmental corruption, the impact of policies on the lives of citizens suffering from exposure to radiation, and the lack of medical treatment, safe housing, and employment.
I enrolled in more Political Science and History courses the following semester, declared my major in Poli Sci in 2009, focusing on Russian Studies and Geography. Nerdalert but I continued reading and researching the impacts of Chornobyl on the region.
Back to 2019: we decided to book the tour.
Dark Tourism, or visiting sites of historical tragedy, should include respect and intent by the traveler. Places like Hiroshima, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Pompeii, Chornobyl, and Auschwitz carry a great deal of weight and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t go, but the approach should certainly have a greater level of respect for what took place there. One of the ways travelers can be respectful to the sites–and people impacted by events that occurred there–is to inform yourself and act respectfully to the surroundings. This means read a book (my plea for 2020) and not take selfies in front of buildings where people were killed (the new “I was here” desecration) or steal things from the site.
Unfortunately, many visitors choose to tour these sites and act like absolute assholes, showing blatant disrespect for what occurred there. Last year, the Auschwitz Memorial took to Twitter to ask visitors to be more respectful and not take selfies in front of the camp or on the train tracks (I was horrified to find initials etched into the barracks of Auschwitz when I toured the death camp in 2017). Following the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the increase in visitors to Prypiat included a number of people disrespecting the tragedy that took place there. The writer-creator of the show, Craig Mazin, also posted to Twitter after “sexy selfies” of visitors started surfacing.
I wanted to be as respectful and responsible to both the people and the place. Yes, I did take pictures, but tried to keep in mind the magnitude of what occurred there.
We visited before the HBO miniseries Chernobyl aired and even then I was shocked at the commercialization of the tour. Having visited both Auschwitz and Chornobyl, the level of kitsch in Ukraine was jarring to me. Stands selling candy and Chornobyl-branded condoms–“they glow in the dark!”–at the checkpoint before entering the exclusion zone felt extremely disrespectful. While the number of deaths attributed to the disaster are debatable, the fact that people died there, people were forced to evacuate their homes, and continued health and environmental concerns loom over not just Ukraine, but the surrounding areas, seemed to be forgotten in exchange for touristy trinkets.
“Human curiosity is inevitable, and denying the existence of this vast, charged space that is a crucial part of Soviet and global history would be impossible and pointless. But Chernobyl has yet to find an appropriate tone for its tourism. Potential danger is almost commodified as a feature of the visit. We wore the suits and waved the Geiger counters not because we needed to, but because those who brought us there sensed that we wanted to feel close to danger.
Unlike some other sites of tragedy that, despite mass attendance, are places of solemnity and reflection, this is a messy and morally queasy experience. That scoop of kitsch radioactive ice-cream may stick in your craw and, for the moment at least, it probably should.”
Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.
I thought about the impacts of the disaster on the people who lived here over twenty years ago and what it meant to buy radiation branded sexual protection on the same road where they were forced to leave everything behind.
I hope to be as respectful as possible in the following posts about our tour. I highly recommend visiting Chornobyl, but with well thought out intentions, not as a shithead tourist stealing toys from an abandoned kindergarten.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.
I’ve broken down my Chornobyl posts into the following topics/stops:
I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.
Chornobyl & Belarus: Hjelmgaard, Kim. 2016. “In Secretive Belarus, Chernobyl’s Impact is Breathtakingly Grim.” USA Today. Available here. Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here. Kenigsber, Jacov E., Viktar F. Minenko, and Elena E. Buglova. 1996. “Radiation Effects on the Population of Belarus after the Chernobyl Accident and the Prediction of Stochastic Effects.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 49:1. 58-61. Available here.
Dark Tourism: Gold, Hannah. 2019. “Please Stop Taking Selfies at Chernobyl, Requests Series Creator.” The Cut. Available here. Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here. Street, Francesca. 2019. “Chernobyl and the Dangerous Ground of ‘Dark Tourism’.” CNN Travel. Available here. Sunkara, Lavanya. 2019. “From Auschwitz to Chernobyl: Tips on Respectfully Visiting Dark Tourism Sites.” Forbes. Available here.
Currently: Listening: The United States of Anxiety (WNYC Studios)