A Motorcycle Tour through the Exclusion Zone
Traveling to Chernobyl or Prypiat has become quite common over the last few years, with tours and private transportation services all over. However, traveling through the Exclusion Zone by motorcycle is one thing that few are willing to risk. There is the obvious fallacy that you will absorb more radiation that way (very untrue), however the state of the roads is such that a motorcyclist must be very careful when riding because none of the roads have been maintained over the last 25 years.
The exclusion zone itself is a very strange place. When it was initially put together a few days after Chernobyl Catastrophe, the borders were decided haphazardly. The initial zone was broken into 3 sections: The first section was immediately surrounding Reactor 4, the second was a 10 mile radius from the reactor and the third was a 30 mile radius from the reactor. Each zone had its own set of control points, and rules for entry. After the collapse of the soviet union, things changed quickly. For starters, just north of Chernobyl now lies a completely separate country, Belarus, which had to install its own controls. On the Ukraine side, though, the situation could be best summed up by Wikipedia:
In February 1991 the law On The Legal Status of the Territory Exposed to the Radioactive Contamination resulting from the ChNPP Accident was passed, updating the borders of the Exclusion Zone and defining obligatory and voluntary resettlement areas, and areas for enhanced monitoring. The borders were based upon soil deposits of Strontium-90, Cesium-137 and Plutonium as well as the calculated dose rate (Sieverts) as identified by the National Commission for Radiation Protection of Ukraine. Monitoring and coordination of activities in the Exclusion Zone was placed under the responsibility of the Ministry of Chernobyl Affairs.
What is most interesting about the zone is the number of inhabitants. After the initial call to evacuate in 1986, thousands of residents refused to leave. Many returned shortly after the evacuation. The majority of people were the elderly who spent their entire life in that region and weren’t going to let a little radiation spoil their fun. Over the past 25 years, the majority of them have passed away. Recent estimates claim less than 400 people still live there, but that number is telling, man is quite the hardy beast when he needs to be. Similarly, many squatters and vagabonds have made the exclusion zone their home. There is plenty of game to eat, rich soil, and ample supplies of free goods, so those that don’t have much needs for the luxuries of life find themselves at home there.
When it comes to traveling through the zone, most opt for car or bus. Very few, however, chose a more scenic means, the motorcycle. The pioneer in traveling by motorcycle has got to be Elena Filatova. In fact, many claim that that she is fully responsible for the surge in tourism to the area. Back in 2004 Elena created a short journal website about her trip through the Exclusion Zone by motorcycle. The website quickly went viral, being copied and referenced by thousands of other websites including most of the leading media sites. She became a celebrity overnight, but her fame quickly died down. There were many people that claimed the initial trip was a hoax, that she actually rode in a car throughout the zone, but in reality these details mean little. It was she that brought the idea of Chernobyl Tourism to the masses, and she should be given credit for such a feat. Since then she has traveled to the zone many times, and has likewise documented it. I highly recommend her new website, it will give you plenty of Chernobyl material. She is a fantastic writer and does a great job at keeping the reader informed.
While I can write for hours on Elena, I think that there is more than enough content about her. Instead, I would like to focus on a more recent traveler of The Zone, Sergei Steppencat (not sure if real name). He has a nice photo blog site that is loaded with trips he has taken all over. He has this trip detailed on his site, but he did a much better job of laying out his trip here. The guy not only traveled throughout the zone, he also camped there. Kudos to you, Sergei, that is something that not many people would have dared try.
Seeing as how Sergei did such a good job at laying out his trip, I don’t want to take away from it by reorganizing it. Instead, I will do my best at translating his original post here into English. I would like to apologize ahead of time if any of my interpretations aren’t 100% accurate, so if your Russian is good I highly recommend visiting his original post instead of reading my translation. As a note, all translated text will either be italicized or captioned so that there is little confusion. As a secondary note, I will not translate the entire article, but rather bits and pieces that I feel tell the story. If you want to translate the entire story, here’s the Google translate version of the original.
The other day I decided to take a trip into Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. Since the bus isn’t for me, my bike is the natural choice. Even though the exclusion zone is closed to the public, I decided to follow the wise words of Socrates: The wise do not need law, he has reason.
The further I went, the more wild the terrain. At the last gas station before the zone, I filled my tank knowing that ahead lie only the dilapidated remnants of gas stations long since abandoned.
By mid-day I reached the exclusion zone. Searching for a way to get my bike inside the fence, I made my way cautiously along its border. Always on the lookout for patrols, I was careful and quiet driving many miles. When I finally found a way in I began to bound up the fences wire, when suddenly I hear the boom of an approaching vehicle. I could see the dust plume approach, so I hid with my bike in the bushes and prayed. The vehicle stopped not too far from me, but luckily I wasn’t spotted. The driver looked around the area and drove on. When I could no longer hear his vehicle, I continued my fence work, got my bike on the other side, then took off.
As I reached the border of the zone, the road was blocked with debris. I dismounted and slowly began clearing a way for my bike to pass through. Suddenly, I hear a loud voice, “Christ has risen”. I remembered that it was Easter and this was the most common greeting on this day. The man was a soldier, with his gun at his hip. I tried convincing him that I must have accidentally crossed into the exclusion zone, but he called the local police anyway.
When the police arrived, it was already dark. They began to search my belongings and discovered my DSLR. They immediately assumed that I was a journalist, although that was far from the truth. After threatening me with up to 3 years imprisonment, we settled on a $50 fine.
As we drove to the next checkpoint, the policeman continued to try and frighten me. He talked about how they often would see wolves in packs as high as 40 strong. When we got to the checkpoint, I was given some paperwork which would allow me to comfortably leave the zone. I slowly made my way home, and arrived in Kiev at 4am.