With Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places, journalist-filmmaker Andrew Blackwell visits the most polluted spots on earth—and makes a pretty convincing case that you should, too.
How did this project start?
A long time ago I was traveling in India, and I ended up almost by accident visiting for a couple days in Kanpur, which happened to have just been named the most polluted city in India by the national government. The place was really polluted, really bad smog, the river full of sewage, garbage on the shore, but the weird thing was I kind of felt like other than that—which is a little ridiculous to say—it was a really charming spot. And I thought: there must be all kinds of undiscovered travel gems no one’s visiting because its supposed to be too disgusting—I’m going to be the guy who opens that frontier up.
Where'd you go first?
Chernobyl was my first real test case, to see if I could convince myself that this was a good idea. And I had a blast! I can totally recommend it even to regular tourists, not just pollution tourists. I learned things and saw things and met people I never could have anywhere else—I should dream of having a vacation like that.
And what’s Chernobyl like? What’s waiting for tourists?
There’s a large quarantine zone around it, the “exclusion zone” they call it, and essentially nobody is supposed to live there. The main city in the exclusion zone is Pripyat, which was a city of 50,000, and that’s one of the main things you go to see. It’s just incredible to see an entire city evacuated at a moment’s notice—if you walk into a kindergarten like I did, you see toys still on the floor. It’s really thought-provoking. And also very scary, which is why they’re about to release a horror movie set there.
Speaking of: were radioactive zombies ever a concern?
I was not specifically worried about zombies. But it’s definitely freaky. Besides just being in an abandoned city, which is scary and strange itself, it’s the most radioactive outdoor ecosystem in the world. It’s not dangerous to visit for a day or two, especially the parts I was in, but radiation and its exposure is so hard to understand and the effects can be so uncertain that it definitely gives you a bit of anxiety. If you’re wandering around it and the next day you happen to be feeling sick, like I was, you can start to panic. In my case, it was just a really big hangover.
How did you develop the rest of your itinerary?
As soon as I started thinking about the idea of going to the world's most polluted places, I thought, what does that mean, the most polluted? The grossest? The ugliest? Or does it mean the most representative of a particular kind of problem? So I tried to get a good spread of different kinds of problems, different parts of the world. And also I tried to think like a tourist. I thought: the garbage patch! That’ll be the cruise part of the travelogue!
What was the grossest place?
The grossest moment I had was in New Delhi, which in general is a lovely town, but the river in New Delhi is pretty much one hundred percent sewage. I went to this little footbridge over one of the sewage outflows, and it’s one of the most transcendently gross smells I’ve ever smelled. At that moment I thought: Aha, I finally got my gross on here. You can’t write a book about pollution and not check that box.
But I should point out that people make religious offerings to that stream, at the very spot, so even something that gross doesn’t keep people from revering it.
Would you ever re-visiting any of those spots?
I definitely hope to go back to Chernobyl before too long, and definitely the Amazon. The project started out being a little bit ironic: Oh, I’m going to go to these polluted place and treat them as if they are great vacation spots. But the joke’s on me: they actually are great places to travel, if you can hold your nose a bit. I’d go back to any of them.
What do you want readers to take from the book?
The importance of loving polluted places, either places that are legendarily polluted or just gross. Because they’re polluted, it’s that much more important to engage with them, find what’s still beautiful in them, what’s worth fighting for. If we’re only interested in pristine national park-type wilderness, we’re really abandoning most of the world.
And you don’t even have to travel to them. In New York City, people have really reclaimed Gowanus Canal, one of the most polluted spots on the East Coast—and all because, about ten years ago, some daring weirdos decided to start taking their canoes out onto it. These are places that are still worth caring about and enjoying.