in Chernobyl remains strong. Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s book, “Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster,” hit shelves earlier this year, and HBO’s drama miniseries “Chernobyl” debuts May 6.
I first visited Chernobyl in late October 2016, not long before a massive silver containment shield designed to prevent radiation leaks was rolled over the crumbling sarcophagus encasing reactor No. 4. A hundred yards away, our Geiger counters shot off readings several times higher than the suggested safe levels; our guide discouraged us from lingering.
Two years later, I stood in the same spot across from the infamous reactor — now covered by a shiny arch — and the levels on my Geiger counter were only slightly elevated.
I’d returned to the Exclusion Zone because this time I wanted to sleep in Chernobyl. I’d brought along 11 students from Syracuse University where I teach journalism — after convincing university officials and the students’ parents that our visit would be no more dangerous from a radiation standpoint than an intercontinental flight or dental X-rays.
Two-day guided tours cost $200 to $300 a person for a group of 12 and include an overnight stay in a spartan, dormlike hotel in the town of Chernobyl, about 12 miles from the reactor. Day excursions are available too. Dozens of companies run trips to the area. Tour buses, often painted with gas masks and radiation symbols, pick up customers from Kiev’s Independence Square.
As we passed through various checkpoints and entered the Exclusion Zone, some students were clearly nervous. Then they met a pack of Chernobyl puppies, mainly descendants of dogs left behind by evacuees, and their anxiety about radioactivity subsided. Many of the estimated 300 stray dogs are tagged and tracked by scientists. No matter where we went, a stray dog would show up. Even at night, outside our hotel, packs of dogs yelped and howled. About two-thirds of the Exclusion Zone is a wildlife reserve, populated by increasing numbers of wolves, foxes, lynxes, wild pigs, deer and moose.
Our guide, Tatiana Globa, 22, had recently taken a group into a Pripyat elementary school, only to be met by a giant moose.
“We backed out of there fast,” she said. “I was really scared. It was huge, and they can be mean.”
On our tour, Globa pointed out radiation “hot spots,” including the red forest where trees had turned red and orange. As our bus quickly moved through a section of the woods, our Geiger counters screamed warnings with rapid beeping.
We visited Pripyat’s iconic amusement park, with its faded yellow Ferris wheel and its sad, decaying bumper cars that never gave a ride to a single child; the park was set to open the week after the explosion.
There’s an enormous sense of loss touring Pripyat, as if the town’s population had been suddenly wiped out rather than resettled. A sense of grief followed us as we traipsed through some of the few villages that hadn’t been bulldozed and poked around deserted schools and hospitals where firefighters were first treated. The remains of their highly radiated clothing still send Geiger counters bleeping and Globa shouting, “Don’t touch!”
Chernobyl is a testament to the Soviet affinity for gargantuan architecture and design. A tall Lenin statue still stands in the town of Chernobyl. Tucked away in the forests near the reactor is the Duga-3 radar station, a sprawling metal structure that served as a listening device, meant to detect if the U.S. had launched missiles targeting the U.S.S.R.
A highlight of the trip was meeting Ivan Ivanovich, 82, at the primitive-yet-cozy home he built in Parishev village. Ivanovich is one of 119 “self-settlers” still living in the area, according to Exclusion Zone officials. The settlers were allowed to return after 600,000 socalled liquidators cleaned up the roads, bulldozed toxic buildings, scraped the radiated topsoil, and buried cars and furniture.
“The level of radiation in Kiev was the same as in Parishev, so why would I stay there?” he asked.
Ivanovich is thin and stooped but offers strangers a cheerful grin — and food.
“I can cook borscht for you,” he said. “I will boil some potatoes. My potatoes are as clean as potatoes in Kiev.”
Instead, we gave Ivanovich two sacks of groceries we’d bought and said our goodbyes. Our bus began its journey back to the Exclusion Zone exit checkpoints where we were tested for radioactive dust on metal devices that looked like subway turnstiles. We all passed.
Along the route, our driver stopped and pointed to a pale orange lynx crouched and staring at us in the snow a few yards from the road.
“We are the strangers here,” our guide said. “This is like a planet without people.”
Cheryl L. Reed is a freelancer and former U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.
Ivan Ivanovich, 82, stands outside the home he built in Parishev. Ivanovich was evacuated after the nuclear reactor exploded but returned the following year. He is one of 119 “selfsettlers” who are still alive.