CHERNOBYL (UKRAINE) - The radiation meter - a Geiger Counter - bleeps frantically. It is now 24 times higher than an earlier reading taken outside the exclusion zone - 30km away.
Adding to the fear factor, the tour guide hides the meter behind her back to keep it out of our sight.
Less than 300m ahead is Reactor #4, crowned by a hangar that can comfortably fit two jumbo jets. The 110m-high hangar slid into place in late 2017, via a system of rail.
The engineering marvel, a respectable, state-of-the-art ziplock bag over an earlier bag, took decades of planning and construction. It comes with a 100-year shelf life and a €730 million price tag.
Yet, this is a small price to pay and well worth the effort because beneath the aerodrome lies Earth's most catastrophic nuclear accident in costs and casualties.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched safety test blew up Chernobyl's Reactor #4 and sent plumes of radioactive ash across Europe, affecting 350,000 people eventually.
The radiation released was six times that of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
DARK TOURISM AND ITS WAIVERS
Like most dark tourism ventures, to places associated with tragedy, our visit to Chernobyl is a mix of excitement and fear of the unknown. This is off-the-radar tourism.
The waivers to be signed off, and travel advisory and warnings resonate like the preamble to a surgery.
The fine print of my travel insurance states that radiation claims are not covered.
Throwing caution to the wind, I convince myself that a chest X-ray would give me a dose of radiation 60 times higher than the radiation I am exposed to on a full-day tour to Chernobyl.
I get off on the wrong note when a photocopy of my passport is rejected at the meeting point in Kiev and have to scramble back to the hotel, delaying a minibus of European tourists eager to seek bragging rights.
An offer of a round of vodka for everyone, except the driver, diffuses the situation and gets everyone smiling again.
At the first control checkpoint, passport details are diligently matched against the visitors list.
Then, it is a series of fascinating visits to abandoned towns, empty roads and decontaminated forests.
STARK, ABANDONED TOWN
The ghost town of Pripyat, nearest to the explosion, is a showcase of the classic Soviet cover-up and its cavalier safety culture.
Hours after the reactor blew off its roof, its 50,000 residents still went about their usual business in the morning, oblivious to the unfolding disaster.
In the first report, Soviet supremo Mikhail Gorbachev was even misinformed - or lied to - that while there was a fire, everything was under control.
Evacuation orders were finally issued 36 hours later and the population were told to pack for a temporary move of three days. By then, many had complained of breathing difficulties, vomiting and a "metallic taste" in the mouth. Many belongings were left behind, but much have been plundered since.
Today, dusty soft toys litter playschools. Gas masks, by the hundreds, are strewn eerily across rooms. A vaulting horse sits quietly in a gym. An indoor swimming pool - used for a decade by post-disaster workers - is now dry. Bumper cars rest rusting in the amusement park. An iconic yellow Ferris wheel stands in the fairgrounds, never operated before as the disaster cut short its May Day grand opening.
We are warned not to touch anything. Souvenir-hunting may have dire consequences as one may take home more than what he bargains for.
Nature is reclaiming the town. Ceilings have tumbled and buildings collapse every year, with more being marked unsafe.
The remaining backdrop provides haunting images - the perfect setting for zombie drama The Walking Dead or some similar postapocalyptic horror film.
The landscape is stark yet blissful. It shows how mankind can create ecological havoc and yet human resilience can overcome the most anguished of conditions.
Isolated from the world, the place is overtaken by wildlife, which flourishes. Wild horses, wolves, deer, foxes and raccoons are commonly spotted. Giant catfish populate the reactors' cooling ponds and orange beetles bask in the sun.
Birds, sadly, show signs of mutation, sporting deformed beaks. Spiders weave haphazard, irregular webs. Strange-looking red mushrooms the size of hamburgers grow here.
Within the heavily regulated zone is another bizarre tourism draw. A sinister massive structure, criss- crossed by conical cages, stands 35 storeys high, 500m long. This honeycomb-like Goliath is a photographer's delight. You will never see this in any military parade.
During the Cold War, this top secret installation - nicknamed "The Russian Woodpecker" for its annoying sounds - sent sharp, tapping signals that disrupted global broadcasts and communications.
Western amateur radio operators tried to jam its signals. Amid conspiracy theories of Soviet mind control and weather control experiments, military experts surmised that it was an over-the-horizon early-warning ballistic missile radar system.
Before exiting the exclusion zone, we line up in rows to be screened by large dosimeters. Like a prop from a science-fiction movie, these machines scan radiation exposure and ensure visitors are "clean" to rejoin the world.
While waiting, I break out in cold sweat as I recall I had earlier adjusted a soft-toy duck's position - with my bare hands - for a dramatic shot. The machine is disquietingly silent as I hold my breath. And I do not intend to challenge its manufacturer.
DARK UNDERGROUND ATTRACTION
In the Ukraine countryside, 12 floors underground, lies another dark tourism star attraction.
During the Cold War, in the nuclear-proof bunker, a Soviet commander and his two crew awaited orders to fire missiles. It was manned 24 hours, seven days a week. They had enough provisions to survive 45 days underground.
If the crew depressed the red button within three seconds and keyed in the correct launch code, the missiles would take off. And within 45 minutes, these intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would land on their targets, likely somewhere in the United States.
Each commander controlled nine SS-24 ballistic missiles. And each missile could carry 10 warheads with the total kilotons equivalent to 366 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Thankfully, this launch sequence never got real. And gratefully, as part of the nuclear disarmament treaties, the numerous launch control rooms and missiles dotted across the countryside were decommissioned in the 1990s.
Today, only one silo and a nearby control room are left intact - the Strategic Missile Force Base Museum. This museum scores high on the cool factor.
Above ground, on the open-air museum section, we clamber up decommissioned ICBMs, take the driver's seat of a 12-axle juggernaut mobile missile launcher, peer into a cavernous 30m-deep missile silo and poke at rusty rail-mounted rocket launchers while being mindful of electric fence warnings.
There is a separate dedicated museum that showcases the horrors of atomic bombs. It serves as a strong, sobering reality check.
Ukraine is peppered with history, beautiful people, golden-dome monasteries and mummified monks. It has its share of revolutions, annexed territories and an ongoing conflict in the East. Its young, nationalistic population embraces change and tries hard to improve on their livelihoods.
Elena, the English-speaking guide for the missile museum, contributes to her husband's schoolteacher salary. She walks some 7km each way from her farm house to the missile museum when her services are required.
Ukraine is beyond dark tourism. It is more about being resilient.
Two years have passed since my visit to Chernobyl. And no, I have not mutated. But my hairstylist keeps urging me to sign up for hair growth treatment.
• John Tan seeks off-the-radar travel destinations and likes asking hotel receptionists where they take their mothers for their birthday dinners.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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