It’s not your typical tourist spot, but if you’re interested in a trip to a nuclear fallout zone, an Edmonton tour guide will take you there.
Vincent Rees, owner and founder of Cobblestone Freeway Tours, went to the Chernobyl area for the first time two years ago.
“So, we set it up and I kind of reluctantly went along… but it turned out to be the most fascinating day of my entire life. Horrible, but fascinating.”
The HBO miniseries Chernobyl, provided an in-depth look at the 1986 nuclear disaster that took place at the Russian facility. Its popularity has sparked a renewed fascination in the area.
Rees said his company is one of the few that do tours to Ukraine and the area near the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
“We get picked up in the morning from the hotel in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. It’s about an-hour-and-a-half drive to get out there. You go through a military checkpoint, because it is still an exclusion zone. You’re not technically allowed to go there and wander in on your own.”
The first thing you do is visit the neighboring town of Pripyat.
“That’s the major town that got evacuated. No one’s lived there since. It’s all grown-over and you get to go into the old city hall, the hospital, apartment buildings.
“You have to wear closed-toe footwear because they don’t want you to cut your foot or anything. There are registered guides that know where it’s safe to go and not safe to go.”
Viewers of the miniseries will notice striking similarities during the tour.
“They explained if something was highly exposed, it could still be radioactive. All the radioactive dust fell wherever the wind blew it, so those areas are less safe than others.”
Katelyn Denschikoff returned home to Edmonton last week after a trip to Ukraine with a separate tour. She toured Chernobyl and neighbouring Pripyat.
“We thought it would be really cool place to go and learn about the history of it,” she explained.
“There’s no one walking around in hazmat suits, no masks being worn. Once you start the tour, you don’t feel uncomfortable or scared. We did have little radiation monitors, so you could see it jump up or down.”
During her tour, there were certain areas that remained off limits.
“They call it the ‘Red Forest,’ once all the radiation happened, the trees died right away and they all turned red. There’s new growth now, but if you spend an hour in that forest, you get a year’s worth of radiation that we would normally get. It’s still a pretty intensely radiated area.”
Rees said his team has been criticized for promoting disaster or “dark” tourism.
“It’s a fine line. I take students to Auschwitz. I think it’s educational, so we don’t repeat these things.
“We wish more people knew more about history so that we wouldn’t repeat it,” he explained. “It’s an educational day for people to understand why the rule of the Soviet Union wasn’t working. It really informs what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia today in terms of the revolution and the struggle that continues.”
LISTEN BELOW: Edmonton tour guide will take you on a trip to Chernobyl
In 2017, Denschikoff went to the Cambodia Killing Fields, where more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime. She explained what’s on her mind during trips to intense sites of history.
“I just try to be respectful of these places. People lost their lives. There was a problem with people taking distasteful photos at Chernobyl. A lot of my photos, I’m not in them. I took photos of the location and the buildings.”
“I would recommend that people go. It’s cool to learn about these things, whether it’s the science or history behind these places. It’s very powerful.”
Rees said the popularity of the miniseries has opened a new opportunity for Ukraine.
“People have heard about the famine, the corruption, Chernobyl, but it is so much more than that.
“The art, the history, the food. Throughout history, it was controlled by Poland, Austria, Russia. This is the first time Ukraine has had the opportunity to tell its own story, beyond Chernobyl.”