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In the zone

Our accomodation in Kiev was the Salut hotel, described as a “an icon of mid-century Soviet Modernism”. I am not sufficiently informed to disagree:


Our room was clean and spacious, and like all Ukrainian interiors, hot. It was explained that everywhere in Ukraine features efficient heating, for without you die. Fair enough. But our toasty room radiator offered no controls to moderate the heat and we fancied something a little cooler for sleeping; so we opened the balcony door to allow some of the -13 degree cold to enter the room and achieved a more acceptable temperature. Which reminds me, my Greenpeace subscription is up for renewal.

After an adequate breakfast, our ten person party, plus two organisers and a guide, jumped into a Mercedes van and headed off to Chernobyl. We were to stay just outside the exclusion zone in a forest camp that had been used by scientists. We would get a warm cabin for two, and there was a central area with a BBQ and sauna; sounded good. Then the news came through that the owner of the property had been illegally tapping into the electricity supply, so now there was no power and no heat and no sauna and we would all die of hypothermia.

An alternative “hotel” was hastily arranged and this was what greeted us upon arrival:


Nothing had been spent on the exterior since the property was built a thousand years ago and the impulse was to turn and head back to Kiev; but things improved once we went inside. Money had been spent on wooden wall panels and fittings and every room was clean bright and warm, with a couple of spacious and well equipped bathrooms. It was a short walk to another house where satisfying breakfasts and dinners were served, the latter washed down by unlimited supplies of “locally produced” vodka. Never judge a book, or a house, or moonshine, by the cover.

To enter the exclusion zone you need a permit. sometimes more than one, and you need a guide. At least I think you do; because if you went tramping around without one you would get into all manner of trouble and would soon be glowing in the dark; and dead. We had one of the most experienced guides and he kept us safe, pointing his dosimeter at innocent objects, setting off the alarm and unnecessarily advising “don’t touch that”.

To enter the 30 kilometre wide exclusion zone you show your passport at one of the checkpoints. Here we are at checkpoint Dytyatky:


There is a further zone of control, ten kilometres from the reactor, where the permit is again checked. Apart from these controls, you are free to wander wherever you wish, subject to safety advice from your guide. We all had to sign a form agreeing we would not enter any buildings; but this is just arse covering by the authorities in the moderately unlikely event that a thirty year old crumbling ceiling falls on your head, and we wandered freely inside many places.

On the way out of the zone there are radiation checks at both the ten and thirty kilometre checkpoints. You stand inside a machine which checks you for radiation.

If a green light appears, you pass through. If a red light appears, a siren sounds and you are in the shit. We were warned that if our boots were contaminated with radioactive dust, then they would be taken from us and placed in secure storage for a thousand years. Ditto any cameras or bags which we might have foolishly placed on the ground. It’s a rather stressful time.

So that’s how you enter and exit the zone. But what to see when you are there? Well, we started with the Duga, but that’s another post.

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