What it’s like to take a trip to the only nuclear test site on Earth open to civilians

Arranging a visit to East Kazakhstan’s sprawling, desolate wasteland and secret Soviet nuclear town is far from easy. But the reward is a surreal experience like no other, writes Stephen Rea

Saturday 07 October 2023 08:00 BST
Atomic Lake at Polygon, the only nuclear test site it’s possible to visit
Atomic Lake at Polygon, the only nuclear test site it’s possible to visit (Stephen Rea)

We crunched along the shoreline of Atomic Lake, created from a Soviet nuclear explosion 11 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the wind howled and squalling rain licked at our contamination suits, I gripped my hood and yelled to my wife: “Not the usual summer holiday trip, dear.”

The Polygon, a sprawling, desolate wasteland in East Kazakhstan, is the only nuclear test site on Earth that you can visit. But it isn’t easy.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country on the planet (and the largest land-locked one), but there is only one guide licenced to tour the zone. Yerlan lives 800 kilometres away in the capital Astana, and travelled in by overnight train to accompany us. It took seven months of planning, dozens of emails, forms, permits, passport copies… and it isn’t cheap (a day trip from Semey cost us $730 each). Only a handful of tourists have ever made the trek to this barren patch splayed across 18,000 square kilometres, an area almost as big as Slovenia.

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