PRIPYAT, Ukraine — “This is . . . not usual.”
When my guide first made the comment, I barely noticed, kept snapping photos. I had requested a private tour to ensure that I could enter the buildings in Pripyat, the ghost town a few miles from Chernobyl. Access to Pripyat’s interiors had been curtailed since 2012 for safety reasons, but my tour coordinator explained that for twice the fee, he could pair me with Yuriy, the most experienced guide working in the Exclusion Zone. Yuriy had been making the trip almost daily for a decade — a schedule strongly discouraged by medical personnel, but who was I to judge? The warm handshakes he shared with every guard and official we encountered told me the description had probably been accurate.
It wasn’t until the third repetition — “This is not usual” — that I asked what he meant. He pointed out that in the 10 minutes we had lingered in Pripyat’s main square, we hadn’t encountered a single person. This seemed about right for a ghost town, but then it sank in that on the drive from Kiev, he had warned me the Exclusion Zone had experienced an explosive increase in tourism in the past year, part of a concerted effort by the Ukrainian government. The popularity of the recent HBO miniseries had sent interest soaring higher still.
He called a friend at the checkpoint. (Mobile service is, perhaps predictably, perfectly adequate in even the most remote areas of the Exclusion Zone.) We learned that a power outage minutes after we were admitted had rendered the guards unable to process further visitors. We had the entire zone to ourselves for as long as the blackout persisted.
The isolation lasted almost two hours. Yuriy marveled at how eerie it felt, a throwback to his early days leading tours before the current boom. If you go, steel yourself for an experience closer to Busch Gardens than an unspoiled wilderness, especially in summer.
My daylong visit was fairly comprehensive and certainly grueling. We visited the derelict cooling tower for the near-complete Chernobyl Reactor 5, where in 2016 Australian artist Guido van Helten painted a haunting mural based on the work of photographer Igor Kostin, depicting one of the first responders to the 1986 incident. We ventured as close as permitted to the hulking New Safe Confinement, inched into place in 2016 and intended to isolate the still smoldering remains of Reactor 4 for a century. We visited the kindergarten, the amusement park, the supermarket, the palace of culture.
We carefully toured all three floors of the town’s largest secondary school, where we encountered a poisonous viper seemingly unperturbed by our presence. We lingered at the charming cafe perched at the edge of the Pripyat River, which revealed an astonishingly well-preserved wall of Soviet stained glass. Yuriy noted the cleanliness of the cafe’s interior, speculating that someone may have bribed the guards to conduct an event there. Perhaps a wedding.
Yuriy apologized that one building we couldn’t enter was among the most iconic: the aquatic center containing the massive six-lane swimming pool that was once Pripyat’s pride and joy. A recent collapse had rendered it too unstable, and so his company had reluctantly stopped ushering tourists through the ruins. The lap pool he offered as a consolation was even more ghastly, full of fetid water after recent rains.
At one point Yuriy paused, and ensuring I was watching, theatrically sampled the radioactive berries that were growing wild. “Good flavor!” he offered. While the background levels of radiation in the Exclusion Zone are a mere 10 times to 100 times those typically encountered elsewhere on earth, there’s no level of internally grown produce that it’s safe to consume. He offered to photograph me eating one. I declined.
As our visit wound down, tourists began arriving in droves, mostly young German men. Many had ignored the requirement to wear clothing covering one’s arms and legs, and so were clad in paper-thin — yet outrageously expensive — “radiation suits” offered at the checkpoint over their shorts and T-shirts, adding an element of cosplay to the surreal atmosphere.
Driving toward the checkpoint on our way out of the zone, Yuriy suggested we stop for water. We parked at a nondescript building, where I thought he might fill his bottle with a hose. Instead, he opened a half-hidden door and escorted me into a tidy shop brimming with food, Chernobyl tchotchkes, and more alcohol than I had seen in a week’s travel. An entire wall was covered with hard liquor, but the top shelf was devoted primarily to champagne.
My jaw dropped. “Who buys champagne . . . at Chernobyl?” I asked. “Macabre tourists?”
“No, workers,” he explained. There’s apparently a long tradition of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, cheap sparkling wine popularized by Stalin as “an important sign of material well-being, of the good life.” The shopkeeper cheerily confirmed that it flies off the shelves.
I bought a bottle, along with a packet of vanilla crème wafers, the sort your grandmother might offer on a porcelain candy dish. Drinking alone in the minivan seemed absurd — and I figured a few hours of refrigeration couldn’t hurt — so I waited until that evening to pop the plastic cork. The first sip had a sharp bite: peach schnapps doused with mineral water, heavily carbonated. Was that a hint of mango?
No question about it. It was delicious.