Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
This is another belated travel tale.
“Should i go to Chernobyl?” I asked my friend Marina over Gchat. She was born in Ukraine before relocating to much sunnier California. I thought she might know something about it.
“What? No,” she replied. “Unlike the Taliban, radiation can’t be sweet talked.” She was referring to my foray into Afghanistan. It was true, and it was the logic I relied on in not going diving — you can’t negotiate with physics.
But of course I only asked because I wanted to go. And I was already in Kiev. “10,000 people go each year,” I said. “Gary Shteyngart went.” I knew this because the novelist wrote a piece in Travel & Leisure magazine about his experience.
The next morning I went down to Proreznaya street halfway between the Golden Gate and Kiev’s famous Maidan, where the demonstrations to ouster Viktor Yanukovych as president took place in 2014. I found SoloEast travel agency, the same one that Shteyngart had used, through a courtyard, after an old lady helped me with directions.
“It is safe, I promise,” said the SoloEast manager, a middle-aged man behind glasses who spoke excellent English. Clearly many would-be visitors to Chernobyl asked this question.
“How do you know?”
“Our guides go twice a week throughout the year. If it wasn’t safe, they’d all be sick by now.” This wasn’t bad as far as logic went, but it wasn’t an especially comforting thought. “Besides,” he added, “they all carry geiger counters on them, so they’ll know if there’s strong radiation.”
I liked this argument better. In science I trusted. The next morning I met Nadezhda, or Nadia, our guide, beside a white van with SoloEast’s logo on it on the Maidan. She was your stereotypical young Ukrainian woman, blonde and icy like a Bond girl. And sure enough, she had a geiger counter, around her neck. I met the rest of the group: a Canadian couple, a Serbian living in Germany who said he was for Trump, and a trio of young Belgians in Kiev just for the weekend and eager to do something completely different. Nadia demonstrated the geiger counter for us; it registered the natural level of background radiation.
We drove out to Chernobyl, a couple of hours north of Kiev and near the border to Belarus. On the way they played a documentary about Chernobyl, accompanied with incongruous Russian pop music.
Immediately as we passed through the main gates of the Chernobyl exclusion zone — i.e., the area from which residents were forcibly evacuated in 1986 when the reactor melted down and almost destroyed half of Europe — half a dozen friendly stray dogs greeted us. It was one of the bizarre things about Chernobyl: because the humans all evacuated, the area had become an inadvertent animal sanctuary. Besides these dogs, we saw deer and Przewalski horses. They clearly knew Nadia, tearing at her coat and lapping at her face. And we were her friends so equally welcome. They followed us as we walked down an open, snow-covered space where metal placards bore the names of abandoned townships in commemoration.
We went through one of these abandoned villages, now nothing but broken-down houses, shells of Soviet Lada cars, and bare boughs encrusted in the December ice. Farther was Chernobyl proper, and a big sign let you know it. Nearby was a metallic statue of an angel of the Apocalypse blowing her trumpet. “Chernobyl" in Ukrainian means “wormwood.”
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
Also nearby was a church. Legend has it that when the reactor melted down, a group of local residents took refuge inside the church. And miraculously the radiation level inside remained normal. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you believe such a tale.
We came upon a cluster of vehicles that had been used in the clean up effort and badly contaminated. And now we found out for sure that Nadia’s geiger counter wasn’t just a toy. “I’ll show you,” she said. She took the geiger counter off her neck and held it out toward one of the vehicles behind the radiation hazard sign. The gadget began screaming like a kitten being strangled — it was supposed to do that when radiation levels rose above what was considered safe. In fact it was now registering radiation levels a thousand times what was normal on the surface of the earth.
Nadia led us on a detour through a gate that had a sign on it telling tourist to keep out. “Are we ignoring that?” I asked.
“Well,” she shrugged. “It’s only there because tourists starting climbing it.”
I soon found out. A massive Soviet radar array spread out half a mile in the direction of the declining sun. “It was part of the early warning system in case America launched a nuclear missile," Nadia said. “But it didn’t work very well. They had false alarms whenever there were thunderstorms.”
We ducked inside a former kindergarten. Dolls covered in ashes lay hollow-eyed where they’d been left 30 years earlier. Half-collapsed bookshelves stood against half-collapsed walls. It was as close to a real-life horror film set as I’d ever seen.
We drove up to the brand new containment sarcophagus built over reactor no. 4, the epicenter of the meltdown. Inside was the infamous “Elephant’s Foot,” a clump of melted radioactive material that just might be the most dangerous piece of waste material in the world. Thirty seconds in front of it, and you’d get dizziness and fatigue. Two minutes and you’d get cellular hemorrhage. Five minutes and you’d be dead in two days.
So naturally we weren’t going inside. After all this was why they built the sarcophagus. Even from where we stood, though, the geiger counter was starting to beep anxiously. We could stay here, Nadia said, for ten minutes at most.
We wound our way to the town of Pripyat, as featured in Call of Duty, the wealthy part of the Chernobyl area where the families of many of the engineers and managers at the plant once lived. A restaurant, a hotel, a supermarket, a public gym — all ghostly structures now. Behind one building we discovered Chernobyl’s iconic ferris wheel, the bright yellow of its cars making them look like flowers for a funeral. It was part of Pripyat’s amusement park scheduled to be opened on May 1, 1986, for the May Day celebrations. The meltdown happened on April 26. Under its shadow, bumper cars lay in silence covered in shrouds of snow.
We climbed up an apartment building to the rooftop to see the sunset, an orange-golden glow cast brilliantly upon the sarcophagus in the distance. The Serbian lit up a cigarette. He wasn’t supposed to — one of the rules for the area was no smoking, supposedly because when you took a long drag of smoke you were more likely to inhale radioactive particles into your lungs. Nadia looked at him and shrugged. If he didn’t mind inhaling radioactive dust, why should we?
In what remained of daylight we wound our way back through the debris of the building, back into the van, and back to the front gate. A radiation detector awaited us to make sure that we didn’t carry any radioactive particles with us. I eyed the Serbian warily. Lucky for him the machine glowed green for each of us.
The other day, back in New York, I told my friend Natalya about the trip.
"I still can’t believe you went,” she said. “I guess you survived.”
“Wait until sundown,” I said. “And you’ll see how I glow in the dark.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."