It's been over 4 years since my first visit into the Chernobyl zone. I've now visited 8 times, and although time stands still for most of the zone, some things have changed and not for the better.
When we arrived at the gates to the 30km check point on my most recent trip, there were probably 15 tour buses waiting to enter. I know it gets busier than this, but it was the busiest I'd seen it. This was the first, of many, times that having a private tour booked was a huge advantage. Despite being one of the last groups to arrive, we were one of the first to go through. Why? Because our guide knows how the minds of the guards work, and how to bend the rules just a little.
So what has changed for the worst?
I remember how I felt when I first saw the entrance into the zone. It looked mysterious, very Soviet, and a bit "what the fork are we doing here". It was exactly how you wanted the entrance to a forbidden area to look, complete with slightly scary signs.
Sadly those signs have long since vanished and they've been replaced by a bright yellow hut selling tacky tourist souvenirs. Now don't get wrong here, over the trips I've bought a bunch of tacky souvenirs, mostly from the stalls along Andriivs'kyi descent in Kyiv, but there's a time and a place for tourist tact, and for me, it's not at the entrance to the zone.
Thankfully as soon as you turn your back and start walking through the check point the Soviet era returns and then the robotic and emotionless guard checks your passport against his list, normal services are resumed and you're in the zone.
You might think that all of those buses, perhaps 200-300 people would be a problem, you'd be bumping into them throughout the day. Again, this is where having a private tour is a huge advantage as you can avoid the "beepers" for most of the time.
Beepers was the name we gave to the normal tourist groups because they have the threshold alarm on their dosimeters set so low that it beeps (annoyingly) for the majority of the day. Ours still beeped, but only when held close to a hot spot, or when driving through the Red Forest.
Most of the beepers were on day tours, meaning they'd be out of the zone by 5pm and back in Kyiv by 7pm, which I guess works for a certain kind of people who just want to get a few selfies to throw up on Instagram.
Other than mealtimes at the Chernobyl canteen, and back at the Chernobyl Hotel we really didn't see any of the big groups, which of course made the whole experience so much better.