ISOLATION SPECIAL – SPENDING THE NIGHT IN CHERNOBYL
For this edition of our Isolation Specials, we bring you a report from one of the remotest and most surprising hotels we’ve discovered. Buried deep in the Exclusion Zone surrounding the infamous damaged nuclear reactor, this is the story of the last working hotel in Chernobyl!
For intrepid visitors to Chernobyl, a day trip seems risky enough. But with multiple military checkpoints guarding the Exclusion Zone, and a nightly curfew, a day trip from Kyiv doesn’t allow for much more than an afternoon in the disaster area. These excursions tend to stick mostly to Pripyat with its iconic Ferris wheel. But the Exclusion Zone is a vast area, home to a hundred other villages and towns, railway stations and Soviet military bases, which the rapidly deteriorating roads have left mostly undisturbed.
To reach these other worldly areas, several tour groups offer multiple day visits into the Zone, and that means staying the night at the Hotel Desyatka!
Look online and the Hotel Desyatka appears like most other hotels. It has a Trip Advisor entry complete with customer reviews, and a website that advertises a hotel “on a leafy tranquil street near the town centre, 5 km from the P56 highway.” All of which seem quite pleasant until you read the rest of the hotel’s welcoming literature: “Remember your body is exposed to additional radiation exposure. Do not touch anything…they can be a source of trouble for you, your family and friends. Even strangers.”
Like other hotels, the Desyatka has guest amenities: a café restaurant, a bar and even Wifi! Which means you can enjoy the unusual experience of sending emails from deep inside Chernobyl .But as the welcome guide explains, “There is no concept of ‘hotel for tourists’ in the Zone, so do not expect the usual service and facilities from such accommodations. Nevertheless there are good conditions for relaxing after a day of active exploration.”
The Hotel Desyatka is a small, two floor building, wrapped in yellow corrugated metal, that slightly resembles an oversized shipping container. But walk inside and you could be in any modest hotel; there’s a staffed lobby, maids walking the corridors, there’s even a wire rack on the main desk selling souvenir postcards. You have to remind yourself that you’re in the middle of nuclear wasteland caused by one of the world’s most infamous disasters.
The hotel is simple, best described as being in the ‘Soviet’ style. From the tour website: “Visitors are provided with the iron starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex.”
As with any prospective hotels, its worth studying the Trip Advisor reviews:
“For a start you are in the middle of Chernobyl, so this isn’t going to be the Ritz! It did the job for the few hours we were there. The bed was a bit on the soft side, but the duvet was super warm. The shower was excellent.”
“The foods OK, traditional Ukraine fare, and probably the only place you’d be glad to hear, hasn’t been locally sourced! Rooms are basic but comfortable, and although no en-suites, there are plenty of bathrooms available. I left the next morning positively glowing…….or perhaps that was the radiation!!!!!”
“Considering the location of the hotel, I was hugely impressed. The staff are very friendly, the food (breakfast and dinner) was of a high standard. If you are staying within the exclusion zone I highly recommend staying here!”
After checking in, we set outside the hotel to explore downtown Chernobyl, heeding the hotel’s advice: “Put a barrier in the way of radiation, wear garments with a minimum of seams and zippers. Change shoes you do not mind to throw away in the event of contamination. Wet wipes to wipe radioactive dust accidentally fallen.”
Walk through Pripyat and you might stumble across another small tour group, wandering awestruck through the post-apocalyptic landscape of the completely empty city that once was home to restaurants, river side cafes, a football stadium and enough apartment blocks for 50,000 missing people. But Chernobyl itself is largely left alone.
Whilst Pripyat opened in 1970 as a model city for the youthful workers of the burgeoning nuclear reactor industry, Chernobyl has a far richer history, dating back to the 12th century, filled with he ruins of many older buildings. Back then it was a vibrant, mostly Jewish town, with a population in 1900 of just over 10,000.
The town itself is divided roughly in two, by a grass central square. In the middle of the grassy square is a pathway, lined with signposts each with the name of one of the towns or villages that had to be abandoned over thirty years ago. Walk past and you’ll read the names of places like Yaniv, Kopachi and Vilcha, each with a red line drawn through them, as though they’d been struck from history.
To the left lies the old part of town. Wide, leafy boulevards are lined with beautiful Belle Epoque era buildings, that must have once been a beautiful place for an evening walk.
But like everything else in the Zone, the cosy looking family cottages are decaying. Wander the quiet streets and you’ll find parks, a library, schools and children’s playgrounds. You’ll also find the heart breaking reminders of the lives left behind; dolls, colouring books half filled in, worn teddy bears, and plastic toys.
Chernobyl had suffered enough before the nuclear disaster though. First at the hands of the Red Army following the Revolution, and then by a brutal Nazi occupation which destroyed the entire Jewish population.
To the right of the town square are the newer, Soviet buildings, built in the Communist style. Walk through the silent concrete streets and you’ll find yourself in a town frozen in time from before the break up of the Soviet Union: hammer and sickles are still on the street lamps and public buildings, and standing sentinel outside the government building is a statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Quite surprisingly, amidst the decay and abandonment, you can still find small traces of daily life. Apart from the tour groups, around two hundred people still live in the Zone, mostly elderly people who didn’t want to leave their family homes. And there’s a daily workforce of several thousand – mostly employed in the new sarcophagus project that was constructed over the leaking reactor, as well as scientists conducted experiments in the unique conditions.
Which also means that there are chefs, maids and bar staff on hand. The town museum still opens occasionally, there’s a post box that still makes a daily collection at noon, and there’s a supermarket still open, although its shelves are sparsely stacked with goods; most of what’s on sale is vodka. Even more surprisingly, there are still people shopping here. They all live in the Zone on a strict rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in concrete dilapidated dormitories next to our hotel.
Its easy to get caught up exploring the abandoned secrets of the Exclusion Zone. Sometimes its as if Chernobyl has become Europe’s largest urban adventure. Sometimes you forget the vast human cost of the disaster. From those who died battling the explosion, to the generations suffering from thyroid cancers, to the huge swathes of natural landscape and wildlife still enveloped in radiation. “Remember how many people in this city have given their health and lives to you to live today,” explains Alexander E. Novilov, Deputy Technical Director of Chernobyl NPP for Security on the Hotel Desyatka website.
Exploring the Zone, reminders of the suffering are everywhere; in Pripyat’s main hospital the radiation levels are around 6uS/h. Lying in the triage reception is a fireman’s helmet, that belonged to one of the first responders to the explosion. Measuring with a Geiger Counter, the levels in the inner lining jump to around 300uSv/h. Not only did virtually all the firemen die from radiation, our guide explained, but so did the nurses and doctors treating them.
After an intense day exploring the Exclusion Zone, we return to our hotel for dinner and to talk about the bewildering sights seen that day. There is a strict curfew in the Zone of 8pm, but we decide to break it and wander around the town square. Spending the night in Chernobyl is as eerie as it is unsettling.
Everything is silent apart from the occasional howls of wild animals, and a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the scientist’s camp, buried deep in the forest a few miles north. When we return back to our hotel for a nightcap in the bar, ours are the only lights still on in the entire town.
We explored the Exclusion Zone with our friends from https://www.chernobyl-tour.com/english/