A day trip to Chernobyl
Signs representing the towns which no longer exist after the Chernobyl disaster. (Carol Wile/LPI)
Want to visit a European city so quiet you can hear distant birdsong at noon in the main street? A place where the internet is unknown and mobile phone chimes never break the calm? Do you dream of car-free streets where wild animals can wander as the fancy takes them?
Welcome to Pripyat, the ghost city of Chernobyl.
When reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in April 1986, sending a thick cloud of radiation across large swathes of Europe, few could imagine that the site would one day be touted as a new, exciting tourist attraction (and a new addition to the world's roster of dark tourism).
But with Ukraine recently announcing that tourists will be allowed to pay short and highly regulated visits to the 30-mile exclusion zone around the exploded reactor, that is exactly what has happened.
"People should know what the world can expect in the event of a nuclear catastrophe," a Ukrainian state tourism spokesman said. "A trip to Chernobyl will change them."
Some of the people the Ukrainians are hoping to educate are football (soccer) fans heading to Euro 2012, which the former Soviet republic is joint-hosting with Poland. If any supporters does make a side trip to the site of the world's worst nuclear accident in between watching Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and company, they are in for a unique, if somewhat eerie, experience.
How safe is it?
Experts say that radiation "hot spots" are scattered throughout the zone, so any visitors are advised to follow guides extremely carefully. No breaking off from the group for a bit of independent exploration here. That said, the International Atomic Energy Agency maintains that although radioactive isotopes remain in the exclusion zone, they are at "tolerable exposure levels for limited periods of time."
What is there to see?
Pripyat was home to 50,000 people, including workers from the nearby Chernobyl plant, until its evacuation some 36 hours after the blast at the reactor. Told they would be gone for a few days, the city's residents never returned.
Today, more than two decades later, the city's streets lie overgrown, and schools, apartments and shops crumble under the twin onslaught of time and the elements. From forgotten toys in kindergartens to the ubiquitous, fading Soviet-era propaganda, a stroll through Pripyat feels very much like being on the set of a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie.
One of the most poignant sights awaiting visitors is the funfair, which was due to open just a few days before disaster struck. Its Ferris Wheel, which was never put into action, is now an unforgettable symbol of the catastrophe.
In and around the exclusion zone, there are also a number of deserted villages. Many of these former settlements are in much better condition than Pripyat and offer a unique peek into Soviet rural life. St Michael's Church in the village of Krasnoe is reportedly still used for worship by the handful of elderly people who have - illegally - returned to their previous homes since the disaster. A warning: radiation levels in dust and moss here is higher than usual in the area, so be careful where you step.
Obviously, even with the relaxed rules concerning travel to Chernobyl, there is no possibility of getting in to see the exploded reactor, where radiation levels remain high. The nearest observation point is 200 metres from the sarcophagus, and offers a good view of the epicenter of the accident without exposing visitors to "excessive" levels of radiation.
A number of scientists claimed that for animal, bird and plant life, the virtual 100% absence of humans from the exclusion zone outweighed the effect of the disaster, leading to the reappearance of lynxes, great eagle owls and nesting swans, as well as a boom in the numbers of boars, deer, foxes and wolves. However, recent studies suggest that the radiation has caused a decline in biodiversity and had long-term health effects on animals in the zone. Visitors to the plant's cooling pond can feed the massive catfish that have thrived there.
How to get there
Chernobyl is some 70 miles from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. There is no independent travel to the exclusion zone and a day trip with an approved firm costs between $100 to $300, depending on the amount of people in the group. Check out tour2chernobyl.com, tourkiev.com and hamalia.ua for more information.