Ch­er­nobyl

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

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.

CH­ERYL L. REED/PHO­TOS FOR THE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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.

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