x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Half-lifes and highlights in the Ukraine

From where I stand Tour guide Sergei Ivanchuck says there are twice as many visitors to Chernobyl this year as there were in 2008.

Tour guide Sergei Ivanchuck says there are twice as many visitors to Chernobyl in 2009 as there were the previous year.
Tour guide Sergei Ivanchuck says there are twice as many visitors to Chernobyl in 2009 as there were the previous year.

I was born in Kiev and have lived here all my life. I set up SoloEast Travel in 1999. Our visitors come from all over the world from New Zealand to Canada, Europe and lots from Scandinavia. They come to the Ukraine for something new. I was 17 when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded 129km north-west of Kiev - I'm 40 now. Everyone here knows people that were affected by the disaster - about 6,000 people died, directly or indirectly. Some were working there, others passed away after a few years due to tumours caused by the radiation.

There have been visitors to Chernobyl since right after the explosion - scientists and experts - but in 2000, the United Nations office in Ukraine suggested opening it to the public. There were so many people trying to get inside the zone and it was so complicated to get there that they decided to open it for "representatives of humanity". Everyone has the right to see what's going on there. We don't really call it tourism - it's obviously sensitive - but "visitors" is fine.

Chernobyl is really opening up. This year there were twice as many visitors as last year, and last year there were twice as many as the previous year. There are government officials to take people around but not enough - so me and the other guys from our company guide them. We start by going through the military checkpoints to complete the administration needed to get into the Exclusion Zone. We go to the power plant and visit Reactor Number 4, the one that exploded, then we go to the so-called ghost town of Pripyat. Then we have lunch.

It takes a full day, from about 9am-6pm. People's reactions are almost always the same - they are upset at what they see. But generally they are excited as well. It's a completely unique experience. Every tour is different - we try not to visit the same places each time. We might go to see a school, hospital, an old factory, a playground. There was looting after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, windows were broken and things stolen. But otherwise it's exactly the same as it was in 1986.

It's like visiting the past. Every time I find something different - I pick up a newspaper in a library dated 1984 and recall something I'd forgotten from the USSR era and think, "Ah, ah". It's all preserved. It's not dangerous. The levels of radiation are not high and the exposure is really low. We take a Geiger counter all the way. The other month I was flying to Toronto and my Geiger counter showed that radiation levels were almost twice as high as near the nuclear reactor. I showed the air stewardess and said, "You know you're working in more serious conditions than Chernobyl." But, even that's not dangerous.

Some places are still contaminated with radiation and that's what you worry about, how to avoid those spots. You don't want to get pieces of contaminated material such as radioactive dust on your clothes or inside your shoes. After the tour we go to the machine that checks for radiation and it's very sensitive, more sensitive than an airport scanner. Some people get radioactive dust on their shoes. But nobody would be allowed to go out of the zone if they were contaminated.

The thing I like most about my job is meeting people from all over the world. We don't have many visitors from the Middle East but they are very welcome. Some of our visitors from Japan and Thailand don't visit Chernobyl because they are worried about their health. If people come to the Ukraine it is a good idea to visit Chernobyl, but there are lots of other places to see too. We are finding ways to attract visitors. If they come here, they won't be bored.

travel@thenational.ae