My Time in Chernobyl | Lord Miles A L Routledge

Who knew that casually popping down to a radioactive wasteland, such as Chernobyl, as my first ever holiday abroad would cause a chain reaction of events leading to myself goofing off at the fall of Afghanistan. This was the trip that gave me the sweet taste of doing stupid stuff for fun, and it’s a story in itself.

In 2018 I was minding my own business at university, causally gaslighting sensitive people on the internet to pass the time and working hard to get into investment banking. I distinctly remember telling myself “Miles, you will keep your head down and work constantly like you always have, have nobody distract you and don’t bring any attention to yourself” –  which makes me laugh, looking back. A friend messaged me, asking if I wanted to have a lads holiday in Ukraine and visit Chernobyl; I inquired about the price only to find out it was amazingly cheap due to the war going on with Russia – an excellent opportunity! In the space of a day I booked the trip, coming to less than £200 for 4 nights inc. flights. I was sure nothing could go wrong.

Instantly as we arrived, things went wrong. I expected a whole different exotic world with this being my first ever holiday abroad but I was greeted outside the airport with a KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. After walking to our hotel, we were denied entry; with the lady refusing to acknowledge we had a booking, she just shook her head and closed the door on us, leaving us stranded in war-torn Ukraine. Making the best of it, we both booked a cheap but cheerful hostel and headed to the meetup point for the Chernobyl tour. It must be noted that the TV show Chernobyl wasn’t released yet and almost nobody outside of nerdy circles had heard of the area, so the tickets were less than 30 Euro each which covered the coach, the 8-hour tour and possible radiation poisoning. Marvelous!

After riding for an hour with 20 or so other people to the exclusion zone, we got off, with war-toughened bulky Ukrainian soldiers checking our passports. I could tell this man had seen babies being burnt alive or something from his never blinking eyes and serious dead-on-the-inside facial expressions, almost like he was permanently straining on the toilet. I shakily handed over my passport with him taking one step closer, breathing heavier and heavier for a few seconds until he puts the passport photo next to me, staring into my soul, then saying in the most monotone voice “cute British man here is passport”, handing back my ID and walking off. 

As we moved up the line, we saw a lovely older lady selling Ukrainian hotdogs – which are superior to Western ones in every single aspect. Instead of cutting the bun in half, the Ukrainian scientists have engineered a superior way: compressing the bread from the top forming an empty section, inserting the hotdog and pouring ketchup and mustard inside. This way it means that the sauces could not leak onto your clothes as they are always contained in the bun. Now I understood why Russia was invading Ukraine: these hotdogs were worth fighting for.

After investing in too many hotdogs, I got back on the coach and we drove past the checkpoint into the exclusion zone. We first came across the Duga radar, a fancy word to describe a giant experimental structure meant to transmit radio waves across the earth for communication and missile warning defense. I speculated that even though this project never worked, I would certainly get a better signal using this thing than with my student accommodation Wi-Fi. My tour guide states that some Chinese tourists climbed the almost 490 ft tower a few weeks back for a selfie and fell to their death; funnily enough I was tempted myself, so I imagined she read my autistic mind and wanted to talk me down. I had a feeling, however, that this was just a story told by tour guides in the same way teachers in school told the tale of the student rocking in their chair and cracking their head open.

Just over the horizon a flock of dogs ran towards us, all seemed very happy and friendly. Turns out in Chernobyl a bunch of dogs weren’t evacuated and have been living and growing in population in the wild ever since, but they have learnt to get free food off tour guides. These wild dogs were more successful beggars than I was when I was homeless so I tossed them one of my many hotdogs. They would definitely turn their dog noses up at the inferior Western hotdog design.

Next we were brought to a road of houses that stretched on for many miles. These wooden houses were abandoned years ago, with the forest since taking over. We were free to explore for an hour and would meet back at this point, therefore I decided to find the most distant house I could, reasoning it would mean fewer people had been inside. After walking for a while I limboed inside a half-collapsed house with nobody around; as soon as I walked in the floor board snapped and I almost fell through, with only my arms catching me from dropping to the basement. As I pulled myself up, panting in shock and excitement, I glanced into the hole to find metal rebar sticking upwards before a 5 meter drop. If I had fallen through, I would have become a human kebab, unable to call for help. After playing “the floor is lava” in a few more houses, I left and met up with the tour again.

Next we explored a few more buildings, one of which was the hospital. I found a funny looking gasmask, like out of some Soviet-era BDSM; I put it on thinking I was hilarious only for my tour guide to tell me they contained Asbestos. As I write this story, I have a bad cough and a lung infection so I like to think the particles from this trip have only just kicked in. As I walked with the gasmask in hand, my tour guide informed me that I could casually bribe the guard to let me take it out and that bribery is normal in the country; not to pass up the opportunity of owning such an item, I was definitely up for it.

We had lunch which came to a pricy £2. We were informed that the meal options were being scaled back due to the war and for £2 we got some soup, bread, grape juice, pasta, some mystery meat and vegetables. Despite how it looked, it was actually amazing. I really considered that if this was a war time ration meal…  is the “food” I ate back home in Britain the same food as people ate during the Blitz? The Ukrainian food was infinitely better than anything back home for the price. I also saved some bread for the dogs outside – I like to think I’ve made a lifelong friend. I hope the mystery meat wasn’t the dog – however, I would eat another portion even if it was.

One final area we came across was a block of apartments, nothing special but quite large and tall so I went inside. Turns out, the elevator shaft had been left open with no protection so I almost stepped into a 30m drop, with one leg dangling off the edge; at least if I fell I would break the world record for the quickest elevator ride in Ukraine.

By now it was time to leave. We approached the guard where he checked our bags for any items taken from the zone, and when he saw me with the gasmask, he simply said “no take”. I shakily handed over the equivalent of £10 with him snatching the money, not batting an eye and simply saying “go”. I was in the clear – I love Ukraine.

After a few nights of exploring the country and seeing near the front lines of the Russo-Ukrainian war, it was time to go. As I walked through airport security my bag was flagged up, the blonde Ukrainian border lady checked my bags and was mortified when she picked out the gasmask. Of course it wasn’t checked for radiation and somehow, I was allowed to continue. I returned home to show off my new prized possession.

The next week I sold the Gasmask on Ebay for roughly £260 to some historical collector. This £260 was more than the cost of the trip, so this trip was a profitable venture, as well as a fun lads holiday.  Overall, definitely worth it.

Photo Credit.

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