Back in 1965, the Soviets detonated a 140-kiloton atomic bomb, 200m underground.
Just over 50 years later, I stepped up to the shore of the pond that explosion created, got into my togs, and went for a swim. The pond had a very non-threatening name: Atomic Lake.
Drying off and warming up, some Russians got me a bit tipsy on vodka while one of them went to get his fishing rod. It didn't take long for him to drag up a radiant, mushy carp. They fried it up on a gas cooker, and we ate fish for afternoon tea.
I've been thinking a bit about that day since watching Chernobyl, the beautiful, terrifying miniseries that's captivated viewers all over the world.
It's so good, many people are forgiving HBO for Game of Thrones, as they remember the network actually makes other shows as well. I think Chernobyl has caught on because everyone is realising how little they knew about that nuclear disaster: what caused it, what happened, and how great politicians are at ignoring the science in front of them, especially when the science warns of an entirely preventable catastrophe.
Some tweets went viral after the series concluded, indicating influencers were practically flooding to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in order to take inappropriate selfies. In actual fact, there's little evidence of this actually happening — the tweets referenced old photos — but still, it does look like tourism to Pripyat is on the rise .
I encountered this type of travel a lot while making Dark Tourist, the show we made for Netflix last year which had me swimming at an atomic bomb site. The series looked at the phenomenon of travellers seeking out places where hideous things had happened.
People have been doing "dark tourism" for ages. I'd argue those turning up to Roman gladiator matches, or to watch a town hanging, were dark tourists. The difference now is that social media has provided a more public platform for our strangest, darkest instincts.
Suddenly you've got Justin Bieber posing in Anne Frank's loft, happily typing the caption, "Hopefully she would have been a belieber." There's bachelorette parties that stop off in Auschwitz; and travellers flocking to the favourite bars of a serial killer who liked drilling into people's brains before filling then up with acid.
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I noticed the unusual interplay between pop culture and dark tourism most when looking at narco tourism in Medellín. There's an entire industry that exists to guide people around Pablo Escobar's old haunts, from his old prison retreat of La Catedral, to his perfectly maintained marble gravestone. Many of the people we spoke to were massive fans of the Narcos series, and when Escobar's former hitman Popeye turned up, he was treated more like a celebrity than a killer. There was a gulf between the levity of the tourist experience he was providing, and the reality that he'd literally killed loads of people.
I felt a similar disconnect when we investigated nuclear tourism for Dark Tourist. We travelled to Fukushima in Japan, and the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. The latter was the Soviet Union's favourite place to let off atomic weapons — approximately 456 of them over 40 years.
The whole thing was a sobering experience. Seeing the physical effects of those tests on members of the population, generations later, was terrifying. We saw children with heads blown up like balloons from hydrocephalus, and I met Berik Syzdykov, a man in his late-thirties with genetic defects that were incredibly, shockingly visible. Some footage it made it into our series, and some of it didn't.
And along the way, yes — we saw plenty of selfies in nuclear zones. Not quite as extreme as some of the examples doing the rounds from Chernobyl — but really it all seems to come down to intent. Why you visit these places. Why you're taking that photo. And not only whether you understand the history of the place, but whether you realise that often, the tragedy is far from over. The serial killer may be long dead, but his victims' families still live in that town. For radiation, its legacy goes on. There are still new victims, some still being born.
And I guess there's a Darwinian argument if people do post photos deemed inappropriate at nuclear disaster sites. Sure, small low doses over short timeframes are probably fine… but hey, there's a reason we all threw our clothes and shoes out after filming those nuclear episodes. And maybe me being there was part of the problem. Karma and that fish may well come for me yet.