The road runs straight and black into the gloom of the snowy birch forest. It is -5C (23F), the sky is slate-grey and we’re in a steamy minibus full of strangers. Not very romantic you’re thinking, and I haven’t yet told you where we’re going.
My wife, Bee, had suggested a cheeky New Year break. Just the two of us, no kids. “Surprise me,” she’d said.
Then I met a bloke at a friend’s 50th. He told me how much he and his girlfriend had enjoyed a trip to Chernobyl – that’s right, the nuclear power station that blew up in the 1980s, causing the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history.
“Don’t worry,” my new friend declared, a large glass of wine in his hand. “It’s safe now.”
Well, she’d said she’d like something memorable…
I booked the flights and a tour of the huge exclusion zone created when the Soviet authorities evacuated the 300,000 residents. It was only when I told a couple of female friends my plan that I began to have second thoughts. “You’re not serious!” they sputtered, between gales of laughter.
Bee was certainly surprised when she discovered our destination at the departure gate. “Really? Chernobyl?” she asked, with a frown.
On the plane she conceded that it would be interesting, but she was anxious – and with good reason.
Like me, she remembered how the radioactive plume had spread across Europe to the UK, containing 400 times the radioactive material produced by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
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A day later we boarded the tour bus. Our guide, Anastasia, produced a Geiger counter to measure the radiation. It showed 0.23 microsieverts per hour in the centre of Kiev – less than London. “It will be even lower in the zone,” she assured us.
It didn’t feel safe, though. Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs inspect your documents at the two checkpoints on the main road and, once inside, it is eerily empty.
The first stop is a kindergarten just a couple of miles from the reactor that blew up, Reactor 4. Dolls have been placed artfully on the wrecked beds by previous visitors – you just click the shutter and select a spooky filter.
Bee is chilly as we explore the abandoned building, but she is clearly fascinated. And the town of Pripyat, built for the Chernobyl workers, is even more grimly spectacular.
On the bus Anastasia had put on an extraordinary video of its heyday: soaring tower blocks, sweeping boulevards and green lawns all in super-saturated 1970s colour.
Smiling residents wobble by on bicycles. “It was a model town,” she tells us. “Foreign visitors would be brought here to see what life could be like the other side of the iron curtain.”
Now it is a ghost town, starkly monochrome in winter, the Soviet Union’s Pompeii.
The vast central square is slowly being reclaimed by the forest. Trees have punched up through the concrete and asphalt. The huge apartment buildings stare out dead-eyed.
Anastasia points out the sign that still stands on one of them: “Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier,” it reads.
We take the obligatory picture in front of the big wheel in the derelict amusement park.
But Anastasia’s Geiger counter shows the creepy images make the risk seem greater than it is.
The wreckage of Reactor 4 is now encased in a $1.7bn (£1.3bn) new “sarcophagus”, designed to contain radiation for 100 years while the plant is dismantled.
Even here on the viewing platform, 300m away from the giant structure – yes, there is a viewing platform – the reading is just 0.95 microsieverts per hour. You are exposed to more than two microsieverts an hour on the average long-haul flight.
We stop by a monument to the so-called “liquidators”, the firemen who died during the clean up after the accident. It is a crude concrete thing but it is obvious that for Anastasia this is the heart of the visit.
These heroes died horrific deaths, she tells us, misled by the Soviet authorities about the real dangers of the disaster they were tackling.
It is evening by the time we get through the last checkpoint. Bee and I buy hot tea from a souvenir kiosk and laugh at the radioactivity phone stickers and fridge magnets with photos of the ruins of Reactor 4.
“So what did you think?” I ask nervously.
A flurry of snow swirls around us. Bee sips her steaming tea slowly.
“You know what?” she says, obviously enjoying the moment. “I think this visit has been a reminder of just how resilient nature can be.”
She stares meaningfully at me. There is a long pause and then we both laugh.
I lean over and kiss her.