WorldVisiting Chernobyl? Here's what to do and what not to do at the infamous nuclear disaster site
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As HBO's Chernobyl miniseries wrapped up in Australia this week, there were reports the number of tour bookings to the site of the worst nuclear accident in human history was skyrocketing.
As someone who spent time in the zone in 2013, the appeal is completely understandable.
From the haunting abandoned city of Pripyat to standing metres away from the ruined reactor itself, time in the Chernobyl exclusion zone feels like nothing else on Earth.
Visiting the abandoned villages, walking through empty hospital hallways and coming across entire schoolrooms filled with abandoned gas masks provide surreal glimpses of the way humanity reacts in times of unprecedented crisis.
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But as the miniseries makes abundantly clear, it was and continues to be a site of immense tragedy, sadness and anger.
Like Cambodia's Killing Fields or the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, the site of 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in then-Soviet Ukraine has been etched into history because of the terrible events that happened there, which can make the idea of the area as a tourist destination unpalatable to some.
And even though tourists have been visiting since the late 1990s, parts of the zone are still dangerous, entry is relatively restrictive, and not all visitors play by the rules.
So if you've watched the series and want to see Reactor 4 for yourself, here are some things you might want to consider:
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In Chernobyl you're more of a journalist than a tourist
Thousands who either lived in Pripyat or took part in the immense and often dangerous clean-up operation are still alive today.
Some of them still deal with the physical and psychological effects of the disaster.
The abandoned city of Pripyat is one of the most interesting places in the zone, and if you have the time and the access, you can walk into the apartments, schools and hospitals where people had to abruptly leave their lives behind— often under the false pretence they could return later.
Victoria Brozhko, who has been a tour guide with SoloEast Chernobyl tours for just over two years, said almost everyone who visited the zone was respectful of the area's history.
Ms Brozhko's uncle was one of the hundreds of thousands of people — known as "liquidators" — recruited to help with the clean-up operation in the days and months after the explosion on April 26, 1986.
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People like her uncle, she says, are more than happy for foreigners to visit, but that's if they're really interested in learning about what happened rather than just taking selfies at "cool-looking" sites.
"People deserve to see the place, to know the place," she said.
"It's educational, you're not like a regular tourist in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
"You are something between a journalist and a scientist [who is there] because you want to learn about the place."
Follow the rules, safety protocols and do not loot
If you're going to Chernobyl for a day trip, you're likely to receive a higher dose of radiation on your flight to and from Ukraine than you are in the zone.
But there are still safety procedures that need to be followed.
"There are a couple of areas that are still radioactive, so that's why you really need to comply with all the instructions that your tour guide tells you to," Ms Brozhko said.
That includes not running off during your tour to explore by yourself, and not taking pictures of certain restricted areas.
If you're staying overnight at the zone's only operating hotel, going for a stroll after curfew will likely see you promptly escorted back home by one or more very stern policemen.
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You might also have to contend with crumbling buildings, debris on the ground, and other more mundane hazards that are not related to radiation.
And while many of the personal items left behind have since been looted, including all the TV sets in town, you can't take anything out of the zone — so avoid the temptation to nick a radioactive keepsake.
Pripyat is a 'ghost town' so plan your trip well in advance
Visiting Chernobyl is a lot harder than just buying a ticket and hopping out of a plane — you'll have to fly into the closest airport, two hours away in Kiev, Ukraine.
You normally need to organise weeks in advance through a recognised tour operator, and visits can run from $100 into the thousands depending on how long you want to spend there, who you're travelling with, and what kind of access you want.
It's also important to remember that as a "ghost town" Pripyat doesn't have any functioning amenities and the nearby town of Chernobyl has limited services for day trippers.
You'll need to bring plenty of water to avoid heat exhaustion, and the only place you're really allowed to eat is inside Chernobyl's canteen, to avoid the chance of ingesting any radioactive particles.
However, if you do plan the trip well in advance and manage to take care and follow protocols, it can be a trip truly like no other, and one that's bound to stay with you for years afterwards.
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Pictures: Chernobyl: The disaster and aftermath
1970: Pripyat is founded
March 1970: Construction on Chernobyl starts
1982: Flaws in the reactors exposed
April 25, 1986: A test is scheduled
April 25, 1986: Night shift starts preparing
April 26, 1986: Power problems before the test
April 26, 1986: The test starts
April 26, 1986: The first explosion
April 26, 1986: The second explosion
April 26, 1986: Disbelief and immediate deaths
April 26, 1986: First fire crew arrives
April 26, 1986: Facility is shut down
April 27, 1986: Emergency response begins
April 28, 1986: Nuclear fallout and contamination spreads
May 6, 1986: The core cools down
May 14, 1986: Details about the accident go public
1986-87: Clean-up efforts
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