Warning – this post contains some language and a little bit of ranting that I needed to get out of my system.
You’re probably going to think I’m a little strange when I say that the Number One thing on my list of things I wanted to do in Ukraine was visit Chernobyl. Go ahead, judge me. What normal person would want to visit the scene of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster…at least until 2011? You’d be surprised to know that plenty do. Human beings seem eternally fascinated by the morbid and the unusual and the bizarre. I’d seen pictures of the ghost town of Pripyat, with the abandoned and derelict apartments that once housed thousands, and the old Ferris Wheel, and truth be told I was fascinated. I wanted to see the devastation for myself and witness the silent remains of a thriving Soviet era nuclear facility. The fact that I’d heard [incorrectly] that you had to don radiation suits only increased my interest. And the amount of radiation absorbed in a visit to Chernobyl is apparently less than an x-ray and about the same as an international flight – I never worry about those, so I wasn’t concerned about Chernobyl. Plus, I was kind of secretly hoping to come back with a superpower.
It’s not a cheap place to visit – you have to do an organised tour, signing up a few days in advance and providing your passport details so that the company can get clearance for you to visit. With the compulsory insurance, I handed over a whopping US $170 for the day’s trip. I’d questioned whether the price was worthwhile, but given that it was the one thing I really wanted to do, and I didn’t know when I’d get another chance to do it, I figured what the hell and parted with the cash.
Three days after booking the trip and counting down in my excitement, I arrived at the designated meeting point on Independence Square about fifteen minutes early; I was too lazy to walk the twenty minutes and took the metro instead. I handed over my passport and bought a giant cup of tea from McDonalds, as the coffee shop next to it didn’t sell tea. Spot on time, me and about twenty-five others piled onto the bus, all very excited about our excursion. I got chatting to the guy sitting next to me – an American who proudly explained to me that he was a weapons dealer and worked for the US government – and found out that he had flown into Kyiv purely to do this tour, as he was on his way back from a business trip.
It takes quite a while to get to Chernobyl, and they played a documentary on the bus with the volume turned down so low as to barely be able to hear it. Everyone had followed the instructions to dress in dense clothing and closed shoes – not exactly a problem when it’s all of six degrees Celsius outside. I certainly wasn’t planning on shorts and a singlet.
It took around two hours or so to reach the 30KM exclusion zone. Everyone got off the bus to take photographs of the signs while the driver went to speak to the guards and do the official stuff. We all noticed that it was taking a while, but we didn’t suspect any problems. It’s Ukraine, after all, and nothing happens quickly. Plus, everyone was taking turns to have their photos taken in front of the signs and that takes some time.
The driver instructed everyone to get back on the bus and we all thought GREAT, time to head on through. Once we were all piled onto the bus, the driver placed his mobile phone in front of the microphone and we listened to the tour operator explain through a terribly scratchy sound system that we would not be allowed to enter Chernobyl today. He did not give us any reason for this. Unsurprisingly enough, this news was not taken too well. The guy calling then hung up. We made the driver call him back as, quite reasonably I believe, we wanted to know why this was the case. After mumbling incoherently for a while, he claimed that the officials would not let us in because – get this – someone had used THE INTERNET and SOCIAL MEDIA to say that they visited Chernobyl.
Does this sound like a legitimate reason to you? I didn’t think so. This was the beginning of my exercise in frustration and disappointment.
The operator did advise that we would be refunded our money [there may have been a riot were this not the case] and would still have our included lunch. This wasn’t much and I know that everyone would have preferred to have actually been able to do the tour. I wasn’t too happy with the free lunch, as it was pork with no other options so I went hungry anyway. I bought a few glasses of wine instead and had a liquid lunch – everyone else was hitting the cheap alcohol as well to help calm the bitterness and anger within. When we talked over lunch, we were all agreed – we’d be far less annoyed and upset if we’d been given a real reason for being refused entry. This was the real problem, being treated like a bunch of stupid children.
During lunch, the driver came in and told us that he was talking with the officials and there was a good chance we actually might be able to go to Chernobyl that day. Everyone’s spirits lifted dramatically, only to be dashed half an hour later when he told us they hadn’t changed their minds. Over lunch we’d discussed trying to bribe the officials and we put this to the driver – apparently the company had already tried and failed. So typical that we’d find the ONE official in the entire damn country immune to the offer of a little extra cash. I didn’t know that they even existed in Ukraine – not after what I’d heard from locals.
All hope destroyed, it was twenty-six incredibly frustrated and pissed off people who got back on the bus to head back to Kyiv. You can say ‘these things happen’ as much as you like, but the fact is that the company hadn’t mentioned the possibility that we would not be let in – they’d guaranteed it would happen when I booked the tour. Nor were we given an acceptable reason for it.
When we arrived back in Kyiv, there were two girls from the tour operator waiting for us to refund the money. When we asked them why we were refused entry they told us they didn’t know; upon pressing this, they told us that the government banned tours to Chernobyl the day before. They also told us that for most of the summer tours had been banned and they’d only opened again a few weeks earlier. Apparently this happens frequently. Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a company confirm whether they will be allowed in to Chernobyl before leaving – especially if this is a common occurrence. I mean seriously – how hard would it have been to make a phone call? And here’s an idea – how about giving someone a legitimate fucking reason instead of some bullshit blaming Facebook?
I was very frustrated and dejected when I returned to the hostel. I just wanted to break something or hit something to let my frustration out. Unfortunately the hostel lacked a punching bag and I didn’t think anyone there would have volunteered. It’s difficult to appropriately physically release pent-up frustration in a hostel. Being sick and run down and exhausted on top of everything didn’t help either.
The next evening, two other Australians staying at the hostel returned from their Chernobyl tour. Contrary to the claims made by the tour operator I unfortunately went with – the one recommended by the hostel – the government had NOT actually banned tours to Chernobyl. Apparently three buses were let into Chernobyl that day without any problems whatsoever.
Can you guess just how completely fucking furious I was then? I asked the girl working at the hostel to call the company and demand the REAL reason why the tour was not let into Chernobyl. Eventually, I was given a third reason – apparently a high level official was at the guardhouse when we arrived and decided not to let us in.
I honestly don’t know what to believe. I came to the conclusion that the problem is that it’s Ukraine. How hard should it be to get a legitimate, straight answer? I’ve never had problems with any tour operator, and while I respect that they gave us our money back how about they considered treating us with a bit of respect and actually explaining what the problem was? Most people appreciate honesty about these things. All I learned from this experience was the Ukraine is an incredibly frustrating place, and at times I’m really not sure that all the bullshit that comes with trying to travel there – from getting a visa to getting into the country to getting train tickets to getting to Chernobyl to trying to do just about anything – is really worth it. It felt like at every turn there was someone trying to fuck things up and make things harder and far more frustrating than is necessary. I normally try to stay positive, but this really hit me. My main goal in visiting the country was made unattainable. I tried to get on two other tours with different companies, but they were full or too far ahead. I can’t say I didn’t try. Sure, I could go back. But I won’t. In this instance I’m giving up – it’s not worth going through all the hassle of getting a visa again, not when it also costs a fortune. I’ll reconsider if Ukraine one day waives the visa requirement for Australians – we’re pretty much the only Western country that needs a visa.
Plus, it’s beyond frustrating to find out that different fucking rules apply each day, and depend on who’s at the 30KM exclusion zone checkpoint. There is no such thing as consistency. Don’t expect things like logic, consistency, transparency or honesty in any official dealings in Ukraine and you won’t be so disappointed. [Mind you, this doesn’t apply to ordinary people. They’re mostly very nice once you start talking to them.] But I do not like being treated like a complete idiot. A simple and truthful explanation to begin with would have had a very different result – not just for me, but for the entire bus. As much people always say not to let one disappointment spoil your trip, or your impression of a country, and while usually I don’t, in this case I have to admit it did partly sour my view of Ukraine. I’m not perfect. As much as I tried, I couldn’t stop this from getting to me. [Luckily I went to some lovely places after Kyiv, which did wonders in redeeming the country in my eyes].
At the end of the day, however, all I was thinking was: fuck you, Ukraine. FUCK. YOU.