Tips for Planning a Trip to Chornobyl

Please read my Visiting Chornobyl post first.

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

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Chornobyl facility today

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:

  1. Don’t take sexy selfies at the front of a nuclear site. You just look like an asshole.
  2. Don’t steal anything.
  3. Don’t ignore the rules of the tour guides: when they say stay out of the buildings, keep out.
  4. 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:

  1. Alexievich, Svetlana. 1997. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Picador: New York.
  2. Bogart, Anne and Holly Morris. 2016. The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken and Egg Pictures.
  3. HBO. 2019. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO. 
  4. Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
  5. Mazin, Craig, creator. 2019. Chernobyl. HBO & Sky UK.

Tip #2: Book Ahead

Prypiat, Ukraine

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

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Zalissya, Ukraine

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::

  1. 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.
  2. It is a very bumpy two hour bus ride from Kyiv to the Exclusion Zone.
  3. There is a lot of walking around. Not only wear closed-toed shoes, but also comfortable ones. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.
  7. 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

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No shame in mustard and cheese sandwiches.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Hand Sanitizer: Read above. The soap situation was not any better.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

im_ready_game_of_thrones

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)

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Deruny & Varenyky: Kyiv, Ukraine

Great Lavra Bell Tower

Last spring (I know, I know, I am soooo far behind on posts AND in what world is it already 2020?!) Chris and I had the opportunity to tag along with our friends, Heather and Chris, to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Always at the top of my Dream Travel Destinations List, I was so excited to help plan our short trip. We had roughly three days in the country, and including our trip to Chernobyl (post to come, I promise), this left about a day and half to wander the capital.

Near Podil

Get ready because this post is going to be looooooong and a little heavy on the political, historical, and yes, grammatical side (and wayyyy too many pictures). As a PoliSci nerd who studied Russian history, particularly the influence of the Soviets on Ukraine and the Baltic states, I can’t help but discuss many of the topics I’ve researched in the past that I finally was able to see the effects of in person (still can’t believe it).

To be honest, it has taken a long time to really reflect on our few days in Ukraine. The history, vibe, and culture of Kyiv is so difficult to put into words; it was definitely a lot to process and ingest considering my background (and as a person who leisurely reads books like Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union in her free time, my nerdiness knows no bounds).

Hermione gets me

We opted to stay in the historic neighborhood of Podil, a quick Uber ride into the center of the city. Kyiv also has an expansive metro (including the deepest station in the world at 10.5 meters below the ground #yikes) so you can easily move from different areas of the capital. When getting into our Uber at the airport, Heather and I quietly air-exclaimed-in-delight that our driver was listening to the Neverending Story soundtrack, clearly one of the highlights of the year.

Ballerina dancer statue (wood) created by Constantin Skritutsky.

Kyiv is extremely affordable (roughly 35 US cents for a train ticket or $2-6 per Uber ride) and the food is amazing; you can easily find a Ukrainian, Georgian, or Eastern European dinner for less than $10 USD. Happily for us, we were able to find #allthefood while we were there.

Another view of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Unfortunately, it was a little rainy and chilly while we visited, but thankfully we were able to see as much as we could in the small amount of time we were in Ukraine. Mostly everyone we met were friendly and spoke English; while I remember some Russian–and the language is similar to Ukrainian–the most important words to learn are деруни (“deruny” meaning potato pancake) and варе́ники  (“varenyky” = dumplings similar to pierogi). I’m only being half serious here, but for real, learn those terms because these dishes are on point in Kyiv.

Enjoying our walk through Podil (check out that ORANGE RAINCOAT)
📷: Heather

Where are we?

Kyiv is the capital and most populous city of Ukraine. The legend goes that the city was founded by three brothers and leaders of the Polyanian tribe of the East Slavs: Kyi, Schek, and Khoryv. Each brother established his own area on a hill and this together became the formation of the city; a nearby stream was named for their sister, Lybed.

Another view of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

One of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, Kyiv has a complicated history and plays a vital role in the region. Enjoying relative independence until becoming part of the Tsardom of Russia in 1667, the primarily Christian city fell increasingly under Russification in the 19th century; a greater number of ethnic Russians moved into Kyiv, resulting in a domination of Russian speakers in the city. Following a period of prosperity after the Russian Industrial Revolution, the city was the center of a number of conflicts including the German occupation in WWI, the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The leadership and status of Kyiv changed sixteen times in two years (1918-1920).

Abandoned building near Podil.

Ukraine became one of of the founding republics of the Soviet Union and was under Soviet occupation from 1921-1991. While an increase in Ukrainian population and culture migrated back into Kyiv and the city became a scientific and industrial center for the region, a number of events devastated the country including the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-1938.

The Great Famine is known in Ukrainian as Holodomor (Голодомо́р в Украї́ні: “to kill by starvation”) and millions of people died during this time, most of whom were ethnic Ukrainians. Scholars believe the man-made famine was created by Joseph Stalin as a way to either shut down the Ukrainian independence movement or an intentional policy by the Soviets to eliminate the Ukrainians; many consider the unreasonable quotas implemented on Ukrainian farmers and peasants should be considered genocide. While an exact number is impossible to determine, it is estimated that between five and ten million people died during Holodomor. The Ukrainian government recognized the event as genocide in 2003 and was finalized by the Kyiv court of appeal in 2010.

Kyiv is also known for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster (1986) that took place 100 km from the city; northern winds moved radioactive debris north and the capital remained mostly safe from the accident.

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Ukraine declared independence on August 24th, 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but issues with Russian influence remain. In 2013, protests against the Ukrainian government’s decision to decline signing an agreement with the European Union (instead furthering ties with Russia) took place in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Nicknamed Euromaidan, the movement resulted in more than 100 deaths and 2,500 people injured. These protests against corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power led to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and the removal of President Yanukovych from power.

Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

And for a little political grammar nerdiness (skip ahead to the potato pancake pictures if this bores you):

Why am I using the “Kyiv” spelling instead of “Kiev”? The latter version–the translated Russian word for the city–has been the more commonly used spelling by the West. Kyiv is the transliteration of the name from Ukrainian and established by their government as the official spelling in 1995. As the country is no longer under Soviet occupation, many are opting to use the preferred spelling of the Ukrainians–as we should–rather than the Russian pronunciation.

“There’s no reason other than old colonialist inertia to continue using a Russian spelling for a Ukrainian city name,” Dr. Shevchuk said.

Zraick, Karen. 2019. “Wait, How do you Pronounce Kiev?” The New York Times. Available here.

Full disclosure: correctly spelling the capital city is a challenge for me. I studied in the United States and most of my academic work focused primarily on Russian influences on Ukraine, so of course I’ve always spelled the city as Kiev.

While we’re on the topic, let’s try to stop referring to Ukraine as “The Ukraine”. English speakers have historically added the “the” as a way to refer to the country as “the borderland” part of Russia, rather than its own entity. Incorrect both grammatically and politically–Russian and Ukrainian languages do not even include definite articles–if we want to correctly refer to the Eastern European country bordering Russia, Ukraine (solo) is the right pronunciation. Using “the” is disrespectful to Ukrainians as it is seen as a denial of independence. #decolonizelanguage

Kyiv is unlike any other city we’ve had the opportunity to visit. I absolutely recommend taking a trip to see the amazing buildings, unique landscapes, and experience the history (and let’s real, the cuisine) of the city.

The Sites:

Kontraktova Square (Контрактова площа):

Kontraktova ploshcha (Square of Contracts) is the central square in the historic Podil neighborhood.
Pretty amazing to walk out of your apartment and see these beautiful buildings.
Monument to Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, a Cossach Hetmanm, built in 2001.
The Pyrohoshcha Dormition of the Mother of God Church was established in 1132, destroyed by the Soviets in 1935, and rebuilt in 1988.

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (КиєвоПечерська лавра):

The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is an absolute MUST visit in Kyiv and is also known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves.
Founded in 1051, the monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and over 100 monks still live there today.
Visiters can book a tour either online or on-site (we purchased ours at the Lavra) and includes a tour of the underground caves. This was also the only real conversation in Russian I had while in Kyiv and the older woman who sold us the tickets referred to Heather and me as “sweet girls” ❤

It’s an incredible tour, but also very small quarters. Okay for me at 5 ft, but not as easy for the Chrises. Poor Shaw basically blocked the entire entrance to the caves as we started descending the stairs. It is a very tight squeeze with people moving in both directions.

The caves are corridors that included living quarters and underground chapels for the monks. A number of catacombs and mummies are also under the monastery and we were able to see a couple on the tour.
The Lavra has a number of buildings including the Belltower, Dormition Cathedrial, and eight churches.
View of the city from the entrance.
Cemetery with a view of the Motherland Monument.

The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War (Музей історії України у Другій світовій війні):

Just a short walk from the Lavra, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War is a huge area commemorating the German-Soviet War. It was opened by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981 and is one of the largest museums in Ukraine with over 300 THOUSAND exhibits.
This monument, near the end, is named “Crossing of the Dnieper”. The Battle for the Dnieper (1943) killed over 500,000 people (counting the number of deaths on both sides).
The museum includes a TON of armaments and machinery used by the Soviets after WWII.
Originally named the “Museum of the Great Patriotic War”, the parliament of Ukraine changed the name to its current “National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War” in 2015.

This change was a part of a greater law that banned all Nazi and communist symbols –including street names and monuments; the term “Great Patriotic war” was also outlawed.

The Motherland Monument (Батьківщина-Мати):

One of the most famous buildings of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, the Motherland Monument is 102 meters (335 feet) tall and can easily be seen from across the river. Construction began in 1979 and was opened in 1981 (again by Brezhnev). The building of the monument was controversial as many felt that that the materials and funds would be better used in other areas. The cost is estimated to be over nine million rubles (in the 1970s).
Today the Motherland Monument remains controversial; when Soviet and Communist symbols were outlawed in 2015, WWII monuments were excluded from the policy and the statue was allowed to remain as-is, complete with the state emblem of the Soviet Union on her shield.
📷: Heather Shaw

Taras Shevchenko University & Park (Київський національний університет імені Тараса Шевченка):

Taras Shevchenko Monument. Shevchenko is one of the most famous Ukrainians and known for his art, writing, and ethnography.
Shevchenko Park is the smallest park in the city.
The trees have eyes.
The original “Red Building” of Taras Shevchenko University.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral (Собор святого Володимира):

St. Volodymry’s Cathedral is the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and named for Prince Vladimir I of Kyiv.
Under Soviet occupation the cathedral remained open and tourists were able to see a working Orthodox Church.

Independence Square (Майдан Незалежності):

Independence Square (Майдан Незалежност) is the central square of Kyiv. The Independence Monument was built in 2001 to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Independence of Ukraine and stands at 61 meters (200 feet) tall.
The Square was the site of the start of Ukraine’s independence movement in 1990 as well as most political rallies in the city. Non-political events also took place here until the Euromaidan deaths in 2014. A memorial for those murdered–The National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum–is located here.
View of the Square today.
A photo of the 2014 Euromaidan Protests

Saint Sophia’s Cathedral (Собор святої Софії):

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was built in the 11th century and includes a bell tower and the House of Metropolitan.
The name of cathedral stems from Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia cathedral and is dedicated to Holy Wisdom, not a saint named Sophia.
The cathedral fell into disrepair following the pillaging of Kyiv in 1169 and Mongolian Tatars in 1240. It was further damaged in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine attempted to unite both Orthodox and Catholic churches. While repairs were made and the cathedral improved, Soviet anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s almost had the buildings destroyed in favor of a park.

Today, the complex is a secular museum of Ukraine’s Christianity, with no religious services held in the space.

St. Andrew’s Church (Андріївська церква):

I am so bummed to not have my own picture of St. Andrew’s Church during the daytime. The beautiful Baroque church was built from 1747-1754 and sits at the top of the Andriyskyy Descent.
Source

Golden Gate (Золоті ворота):

The Golden Gate of Kyiv was the main gate for the city in the 11th century. The building was dismantled during the Middle Ages and rebuilt by the Soviets in 1982.
The rebuilding of the gate for the 1500th anniversary of Kyiv (!!!!) came under controversy as no images of the original building existed. Many felt that the reconstructed building should be torn down with only the original ruins allowed.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Podil East India Company:

The Podil East India Company is a small craft bar with an amazing Indian-inspired menu in the Podil neighborhood. So basically, all my favorite things in one location.

Craft vs. PUB:

“No water, only beer.”
Right next to Podil East India Company is the small and well-stocked Craft vs. PUB. Always a fan of underground beer spots, we enjoyed a couple of beers before heading out to the see the sites. I had the Mango IPA by KF Brewery (Ukraine).
Source.

Drunken Monkey:

Yet another underground pub, Drunken Monkey has a great selection of beer, cocktails, and an awesome menu of snacks. Highly recommend the appetizer plates after a long day trip to Chernobyl. I tried KF Brewing’s Naked Pug (because of course I did).
Bonus: The Drunken Monkey is a quick walk from OMG Ice Cream (see below).
Source.

Coffee in the MISTO:

I really enjoyed Coffee in the MISTO. Located in Podil, the shop is adorable, with a cat theme and small snacks available to purchase with your coffee.
Always appreciate a vegan sandwich on dark bread.

Holy Beans Coffee Company:

The motto for Holy Beans Coffee Company is “a pretty food coffee company” which of course I appreciate. We stopped for coffee and dessert-for-breakfast before touring the Lavra.

OMG Ice Cream & Coffee:

Honestly one of the best ice creams I’ve had in Europe (truly a top honor considering the amount of ice cream I consume in each city), OMG Ice Cream is located in Podil and makes homemade and seasonal flavors. I tried the pistachio and it was lizziemcguirewhatdreamsaremadeof.gif
Source.

Kanapa:

I can not say enough about Kanapa. Located near St. Andrew’s Church, this restaurant specializes in Ukrainian cuisine. Their menu includes a map of where their ingredients are procured, so obviously I was immediately sold.
This was my starter: pumpkin with goat cheese, hibiscus powder, and basil butter.
Followed by double varenyky with mushroom powder.
SO GOOD.

O’Panas:

We also stopped for (a HUGE) Ukrainian dinner at O’Panas, located near Taras Shevchenko Park. The restaurant is decorated in traditional fare and boasts an amazing menu with a ton of great local wines. Our server was wonderful, respectfully tried to listen to my broken Ukrainian, and didn’t judge us (at least to our faces) when we ordered 30 dishes.
Mushroom dumpling soup  🙌   🙌 
Not pictured: cabbage rolls that smelled like heaven.
Hi, this is just my casual deruny with cheese and porcini mushrooms + my varenyky with potato and mushrooms. Clearly I was feeling mushrooms this day.

Seriously, can’t recommend O’Panas enough.

❤ На здоровье

Raincoat game STRONG
“Життя без науки – смерть”
(“Life without science equals death”)

Created during the French Spring Festival (2013) by French muralist Julien Mullen (Seth) and Ukrainian artist Vladimir Manzhos (Waone), this mural is located on building 2 of the Mohyla Academy.
One of my favorite spots of our trip ❤

You can also download a Google Map of all my favorite places here.

Currently:

Reading: On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Naomi Klein)
Watching: Watchmen (HBO)
Listening: In the Dark Season 2 (APM Reports)