Drinking radioactive poison at the Chernobyl hotel
Travel Writer: Nicky Larkin’s vodka-filled night in Chernobyl left a dilemma: die of thirst or die of radiation...
The centre of the deserted city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The city was evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The Chernobyl Hotel is not really a hotel. It’s a big yellow prefabricated fibreglass cabin-like structure, driven down from Sweden and plonked in place to house the scientists who come to the exclusion zone. On that particular week however, Yuri and I were the only guests.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is about 10km from the Chernobyl hotel. Pripyat, the empty city which was built in 1970 for the workers of the power plant, is about two km from the looming reactors.
Yuri drove at speed towards the empty city, we were the only car on the road. Within the 30km exclusion zone, there is another 10km zone around the power plant – the inner zone.
The inner zone border was manned by hard-core-looking Militia in blue camouflage with machine-guns. Yuri had to produce my passport and permit papers. Each evening on the way out the car would be searched by the Militia; it’s illegal to bring anything out of the inner zone – for fear of contamination.
Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming sense of emptiness when you arrive in the deserted city of Pripyat. To stand in this once great Soviet city’s central square, and shout and hear your voice bounce back at you against the huge empty apartment blocks, is an eerily stirring experience like no other.
At dinner that evening at the Chernobyl hotel, Yuri produced two cups. He filled each cup with vodka, and we downed them in one. As soon as the empty cups hit the table, Yuri filled them again. And again. And again...
The Soviets have a much more business-like approach to drinking than the Irish – they get drunk in about five minutes flat. But there was also a more serious reason for this hard-core approach. Yuri explained that alcohol protects the body from radiation. Vodka in particular was the best medicine, he said...
This mad notion has been adopted as scientific fact by every single person working in the zone.
Once the dinner was done, we went outside where there was a group of off-duty militia , smoking fags and drinking vodka. The air was still, giving the lazy feel of a summer’s evening barbeque – except for the huge nuclear reactors looming on the horizon.
Bottles of vodka were passed around the circle, until everybody was so drunk they had trouble lighting their smokes.
I stumbled back to my fibreglass cabin around midnight, and passed out drunk on the rickety bed.
I woke a few hours later; completely dehydrated. I panicked, as I realised I’d forgotten to get a bottle of water before bed.
My mouth was stuck together. My whole body was pounding with each pulse. Yet even in this state of severe dehydration, I recognised that to drink the tap-water in Chernobyl would be the most reckless thing a person could do.
I burst out into the corridor of the Chernobyl hotel, and knowing that I was the only guest, I charged through empty rooms in search of something to drink; anything. Room after room, there was nothing but empty cupboards and presses.
I returned to my room, bleakly aware of the decision I now had to make. Don’t drink the tap-water, and die a painful death within the next 10 minutes. Or drink the glow-in-the-dark water, and suffer the possible consequences in years to come.
I sucked on that tap like a cancerous calf.