Visa Free Chornobyl: Illegal Tours to the Contaminated Zone
Thirty years ago the explosion in the number four reactor of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant sent no less than 9 tons of uranium dioxide and various isotopes into the atmosphere. Soon after the accident, people from the most contaminated 30 km zone around the NPP, who lived in Prypiat and forty neighboring villages, were resettled. Access to the zone was strictly limited.
The first to get to the zone past the checkpoints were marauders and self-settlers, who were returning home despite the risk to their lives. In 2002, according to a UN report, most of the territory of the zone was deemed clear for short-term visits, and this opened the way for nuclear tourists. There were 870 of them in 2004, 5,000 in 2006, and 8,000 in 2010.
At the same time, especially after the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, the number of illegal visitors increased. In 2011 (there is no access to more updated information), law enforcement officers caught 5-6 stalkers in the vicinity of Chornobyl NPP daily. Bird In Flight talked about unofficial outings to the exclusion zone with their organizer, Vlad from Another project.
On a scale of 10, how difficult is it to get inside Chornobyl zone illegally?
10 out of 10. It is difficult to think of a more serious trip in the territory of Ukraine. The Chornobyl zone is guarded by its own police regiment, the units of National Guard, and border guards. They patrol on cars, motorcycles, horses, and make ambushes with thermal imagers. Only experienced people who know how to move around the Zone can get in there illegally. Unfortunately, the security is only getting stronger. This is not about the stalkers though, but about the marauders who salvage radioactive metal and take it out of the Zone to sell.
When was your first time there? What changes have you observed?
I first went there in 2007, and have visited many times since. The changes can be best described with a view of a graveyard for contaminated machines in Rozsokha. There will be no zone soon.
Are there locations that are stalker-only, inaccessible during official tours?
Official tourists can apply for access to any part of the Zone and see whatever they want. The key tourist locations are the abandoned city of Prypiat, the Chornobyl NPP sarcophagus, the massive antenna of the OTH radar Duga-1, and the almost-wild nature of the Ukrainian Polissia region. The only difference is the time and the cost of stay. The cost of an official night with a tour starts from $300, a stalker tour is free.
Is it true that there is a tourist boom to the Zone? Why?
I traveled around the world a lot. When you meet a Chinese salesman in a kitchen somewhere in Kuala Lumpur, he thinks that Ukraine is located somewhere in Russia. And then you say: “Big boom, Chornobyl, nuclear, radioactive” — and he remembers. You see, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are much more popular than geography classes.
Right now, the Chornobyl Zone is a world-class tourist destination, the traffic there is growing in geometrical progression. Many foreigners who come to me for underground tours after visiting Prypiat are in Ukraine only because of the Zone. They are not particularly interested in other tourist locations. There, they see the world that stopped one night 30 years ago, a memory of human heroism, and incredible nature.
Is the number of illegal tourists growing, too?
The stalkers, the illegals are always the same people. They are professionals who have already taken dozens of illegal trips. The Zone has its own atmosphere, all this post-apocalyptic world makes you gravitate towards it and visit it more than once, systematically even. Stalkers are a community who live with the Zone in their hearts, they know every stump in the Chornobyl forests, and every bush growing through asphalt in Prypiat. I wouldn’t say that the Zone is a thoroughfare. The safety measures are increased and the perimeter is guarded better and better. But there are more and more people willing to get inside, and some of them do.
In your opinion, how many artefacts have already been stolen by marauders or taken as souvenirs by tourists? Which have the most value?
Tourists don’t take souvenirs, you can get 5 years in a penal colony for that. Once there was a trial for a man who gathered mushrooms for his soup behind the fence.
Local village marauders are mostly interested in black metal, the one that is still there. They often gather bilberry and mushrooms to later sell them in Kyiv markets. Poaching is another issue.
What are the risks for illegal travelers?
If you are caught inside the Zone, you can get in a lot of trouble with the police and border guards, or a fine of 500 UAH (currently about 20 USD) if you just pretend you are an idiot with a camera. If they find as much as a metal nut from Prypiat in your backpack, you can go to jail for 5 years. That’s why the main rule of stalkers is “look and don’t touch”.
If there is an accident, what help can your protege get in the Zone, at night, in a hideout?
I don’t have proteges. Those who go to the Zone with the stalkers are stalkers themselves. They know what they are doing. If there is an accident, the code of action is the same as in Kyiv: you call the ambulance, the Ministry or Emergency Situations, or the police. There are units on duty in Chornobyl.
What radiation levels do you observe during your trips?
Almost all forests are clean, although at some places the background radiation levels are 60-100 times higher than normal. However, these are insignificant doses of radiation compared to what a smoker receives when they smoke, for instance.
What does nature in the Zone look like now? Have you seen any predators?
Nature there is blossoming. It is something amazing and unbelievable, I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else. Every day, there is something new. Wild boars, elks, deer, roe deer, beavers, ducks, turtles, foxes, and Przewalski’s horses — you meet them many times every day. There is a lot of vegetation, too. Nature has completely regained these lands back from humans.
We once met a pack of wolves at night. I almost shat my pants, to be honest. But the animals there are afraid of people as the poachers shoot them, so the wolves just went back to the woods.
What is your justification for basically making money on breaking the law?
I don’t make money on breaking the law. I know some stalkers who take people along to the Zone for money. I send those willing to them, and I get nothing from it. The most important thing for me is the targeted traffic on my website, to be able to sell legal bus tours to the Zone, I get my commission for them. It is also a good ground for future business. There are rumors that the Zone will soon be decreased from 30 to 10 kilometers. And then, I could take people on backpack trips to the open territories, I already know some who would be interested.
Do you think it is time for people to go back to the exclusion zone?
Old and sick people could indeed go wait for their end — nature in the Zone is amazing. But the background radiation levels are still too high to live and have kids there.