Ill-fated nuclear power plant Chernobyl, in the deserted city of Pripyat, Ukraine, might not seem an obvious place for holiday snaps, but a quarter of a century after the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe, a steady flow of visitors make their way to the deserted city. Simon Cole visited for TNT.

Memories of the Chernobyl disaster have been resurrected following the recent explosions at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The crisis in Japan took hold just as Ukrainian authorities were set to mark the 25th anniversary of the explosion at Chernobyl Power Plant.

After a test went wrong in the early hours of April 26, 1986 and Reactor 4 went into meltdown, Soviet authorities made no announcement. Ahead of the May Day holiday, nobody wanted bad news. When they eventually gave the order the following day, townsfolk were given just a few hours’ notice as 1250 buses were commandeered from capital Kiev to empty the population.

At Kiev’s Chernobyl museum, guide Liuba Pikulia explains: “The authorities cared more about image. People were told they were only leaving for a few days, so they left everything behind.”

It’s this ‘frozen in time’ aspect that draws people to the ghost town of Pripyat, built to house Chernobyl’s workers. Almost 50,000 people once lived there. Now, schoolbooks still sit on desks, pots rust on cookers and dodgems decay in the fairground near an eerily still ferris wheel. A whole town, weeds and shrubs poking through the grey concrete, lies lifeless.

There’s a briefing from the staff who work in the 30km-radius restricted zone, and an option to meet the locals who chose to return to surrounding villages. Many did not understand the threat from particles that still cling to vegetation. “Some elderly people came back within a year; they had not studied physics,” Pikulia says without irony.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Radiation still lingers and the military vehicle cemetery has been ruled off-limits again, but the discoloured trees in the irradiated Red Forest show what the disaster meant for Mother Nature, and a highlight is the chance to get as close as 100 metres to the sarcophagus.

This steel and concrete shell buries a core that reached some 2000 degrees in temperature and spread a poisonous cloud over Europe.

“We’ll never know how many died,” says Pikulia.

It’s sobering to contemplate the heroism of those who went inside to fight the fire to prevent even more deaths.

Tour leaders carry Geiger counters but you can hire your own if it makes you feel more comfortable. Radiation is concentrated in trees and plants so visitors are given protective suits and steered away from woodlands and uncleared areas.

The animals have returned faster than scientists predicted, and now daytrippers join them; this time the buses are bringing people in the other direction. The government has hinted it may get involved in running tours itself. Now, 25 years on from Chernobyl and 20 years after independence, Ukraine has moved on and they want you to see.

Ukraine’s sleeper trains

At 603,550 sq km, Ukraine is big. If you’re travelling between cities then one of the country’s many sleeper trains is the way to go: you might as well sleep for the 10 hours or so it takes to get to Kiev from L’viv, for example.

For a memorable experience, go Platskartny. These Third-Class 54-berth dormitory carriages are the cheapest way to travel (L’viv-Kiev is less than £10) and are surprisingly civilised: an attendant will bring you linen and make you a coffee in the morning. Stops are frequent and people come and go, so bring earplugs and watch your belongings (as you would anywhere).

If this is too much then, for a little supplement, Kupé offers four-bed cabins with luggage space under your bunk. To buy tickets, write down your requirements in Cyrillic first as the ticket office workers are unlikely to speak English.

Essential information

GETTING THERE: Wizz Air flies Luton-Kiev (
GETTING AROUND: has train timetables in English.
GET MORE INFO: The major tour operators are Solo Travel East ( and SAM Travel ( Prices start from US$120 (£74). Advance passport data is required.