Once again Hollywood sells us a load of bovine manure . . .
Ever fancied a trip to Chernobyl, scene of the largest nuclear plant accident ever?* Were however put off by the idea of being killed by homicidal mutants like the ones in the 2012 horror movie Chernobyl Diaries (now out on DVD & Blu-ray) or a slow agonizing death by radiation poisoning?
Don’t be, says our estimable webmaster James O’Ehley who has lived in Kiev in the Ukraine for the past two years and recently visited the site of the infamous 1986 nuclear plant accident.
Going to Chernobyl is “extreme tourism”
FICTION: Wikipedia lists “Chernobyl Tours – Ukraine” as a “famous” extreme tourism attraction. We have our doubts. It probably depends on what your definition of what precisely “extreme” tourism is. We sort of associate extreme tourism with extreme sports which involves life threatening and dangerous activities such as bungee jumping, mountain climbing and the like.
The Ukrainian government has declared the 31km area around the reactor where the accident happened (the so-called exclusion zone) to be safe for tourists and there are now regular guided tours to the area. According to officials the amount of radiation you’ll get from visiting Chernobyl for a day is about the same you’d get from taking an intercontinental flight.
Don’t believe them? Then watch this video segment in which a skeptical BBC journalist takes her own Geiger counter to the site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/fast_track/9475764.stm
You can just “go” to Chernobyl . . .
FICTION: In Chernobyl Diaries a group of young American tourists are taken to Pripyat, the model Soviet town that was hastily evacuated shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, on the spur of the moment by a tour operator named Uri (played by Dimitri Diatchenko).
After being denied access at a guard post by some surly machinegun-wielding types (wearing the wrong type of uniform, by the way) Uri sneaks the tourists in.
We can’t tell you how easy it is to sneak into the exclusion zone, but we do know that during the recent Eurocup in Ukraine two tourists were actually caught trying to do so.
However, there is really no need to sneak into Chernobyl: you just need to plan better. The government has almost daily English language tours to Chernobyl which you can book through a variety of tourism websites (just Google “Chernobyl tour”). The only caveat is that you must book at least 10 days in advance. Such a tour will typically set you back around $150.
Your tour guide will be a Ukrainian government official and despite the low radiation levels you will still undergo several radiation checks at various checkpoints.
The area around Chernobyl is completely deserted . . . except for murderous mutants!
FICTION: We can’t recall any murderous mutants from our visit there, but let’s just take this as some poetic license on the side of the film-makers because otherwise there wouldn’t be any movie.
Amazing though is the fact that several thousand (!) people still work and live in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Pripyat may be an abandoned ghost town, but there are still lots of people working near the reactor as well as living in the town of Chernobyl itself. In fact many old people have returned to their villages near Chernobyl town itself. (The town is still largely deserted and the returnees didn’t necessarily return to their old homes – after all why not pick a bigger place this time round?)
Also, many construction plant workers are busy building a new billion dollar “cap” for the damaged nuclear reactor and a cement factory has been built nearby for just this purpose.
During our visit there we saw two other tour groups in buses also being shown around. (Up to 10 000 tourists visit Chernobyl in a year.)
Sure, the queues to get in are much shorter than those of people wanting to get into the Louvre for some reason, but Chernobyl is hardly as devoid of human life as the movie makes it out to be. (Our tour included lunch at an employee canteen. The menu naturally included borscht.)
Incidentally workers in the area are rotated on a regular basis. Our tour guide will work in the zone for fifteen continuous days before she has to go to Kiev for 15 days before being allowed to come back again.
Chernobyl is about two hours’ drive from Kiev
FACT: This is true.
There are wild animals in the exclusion zone
FACT: In the movie our group of tourists is spooked by a wild bear living in an abandoned apartment building.
We have been told that animals have been allowed to populate a specific area in the exclusion zone. We however didn’t see any animals except for some catfish (see below) and the odd domesticated dog. In fact none of the buildings seemed to house any wild animals and the chirping of birds was noticeably absent in Pripyat, which is probably the most peaceful and quiet place this author has even visited.
There are packs of wild dogs!
UNKOWN: We didn’t see any (see above), but Kiev itself is home to lots of stray dogs which move in packs. Shortly before Eurocup 2012 there was an outcry by animal rights groups when it was revealed that the city authorities were killing them off in anticipation of the football tournament.
There are mutant fish in the rivers near Chernobyl!
FACT: They may not be mutants, but one of the channels that supply water to cool the reactor is home to the biggest catfish this writer has ever seen – with no natural predators some of them have grown to the size of small sharks! They simply have to be seen to be believed!
Ukraine looks a lot like Serbia and Hungary!
FICTION: Naturally Chernobyl Diaries wasn’t filmed on location – one can’t see how the Ukrainian tourism board will ever approve such a thing! So the movie was filmed on the cheap in Serbia and Hungary, the filmmakers no doubt hoping that American movie audiences who have never travelled outside their own country will not know the difference.
Well, “Kiev” in the movie may seem suitably Eastern European but anyone who has even been here will know better. For starters, sharp-eyed viewers will spot a truck in one scene with “Telekom Srbija” written on it (it is the largest telecommunications company in Serbia). Also there are too many English signs in shops and one restaurant sports a no-smoking sign. There are few English signs on display in Kiev and the smoking laws are notoriously lax.
Ukrainians are jerks!
FICTION: Chernobyl Diaries is a typical “American tourist in peril” movie in which photogenic Americans abroad are threatened by hostile locals. This horror subgenre was practically invented by Eli Roth’s bloody 2005 movie Hostel in which young Americans are tortured in a Slovak town. Eastern European countries remain a popular setting for this kind of movie it seems: in the recent 2012 movie The Darkest Hour a group of yanks were stranded in Moscow in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
In Diaries our heroes are accosted by drunken Ukrainian youths in one scene and greeted by gruff armed guards when they try to enter the exclusion zone. In this author’s experience Ukrainians are the friendliest of people (in particular towards foreigners) and our tour group was greeted by the most jovial guard imaginable when we passed through our first Chernobyl checkpoint.
(We also weren’t shot at by any guards in hazmat suits like in the movie either.)
There is no cell phone reception in Pripyat
FICTION: The advent of the cell phone has presented a problem for Hollywood screenwriters. Why don’t the stranded characters in Chernobyl Diaries simply phone for someone to come help them? Because there is no signal, the movie claims. Except that there is. During our tour a fellow travelling companion could easily take a photograph of Pripyat’s famous Ferris wheel and post it on Google Plus. “They have really good reception here,” my friend marveled. “They must have some kind of booster signal!”
Pripyat looks like every other post-apocalyptic movie setting you have ever seen
FICTION: Pripyat is unique and while the movie employs some clever digital special effects tinkering to recreate the vacant ghost town it ultimately does it a disservice.
Visiting the town one realizes how wrong movies such as Mad Max, Book of Eli, etc. depict the post apocalypse. One is most reminded of the recent History Channel titled Life After People, which looks at what would happen to all the world’s cities and buildings if people were to magically vanish off the face of the earth.
Nature has indeed reclaimed Pripyat in the 26 years since residents were given less than two hours to get all their belongings together to be evacuated never to return, but to a far larger degree than one would imagine. Visiting the town is like stumbling across abandoned buildings in a dense forest, however, in Chernobyl Diaries the town isn’t anywhere as overgrown as much as the real town itself.
Driving down what used to be Pripyat’s main street today one can barely see any of the surrounding high apartment buildings. It has become a forest once again like before the city was built in 1970.
Unlike the movie, visiting Chernobyl and the surrounding environs is a one-of-a-kind experience that will stay with you forever. One is inevitably reminded of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias in which a traveler comes across the ruins of an ancient, once glorious city:
The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
(* Some background info: Chernobyl is the scene of the worst nuclear plant accident ever in 1986. According to Wikipedia, “the battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles. The official Soviet casualty count of 31 deaths has been disputed and long-term effects such as cancers and deformities are still being accounted for.”)