There are those who call the ghost town of Pripyat, just outside the Chernobyl Power Complex, the "Disneyland of Urban Exploration."
And it's true that the set itinerary that the local guides take you on include all the usual suspects—the amusement park, the hospital, and the school.
Some even call into question the validity of the relics that appear to have left behind, suggesting that tour operators have trucked in the dolls and the piles of books—if not to amplify the impact of the scene that's supposedly "frozen in time," then at least to replace any of the items that might have been collected as souvenirs by urban explorers.
But you can't fake the partial collapse of the primary school in Pripyat.
The Soviet-era murals haven't been placed there as a period-appropriate set dressing.
And you can't deny that thousands of children were pulled from their classrooms to be evacuated...
...many having been placed—at least temporarily—in orphanages in other towns, separated from their parents.
It was absolutely critical, after all, to first protect the very young and the very old—as both would be most susceptible to radiation illness from the Chernobyl fallout.
Some kids thought their parents were never coming back for them.
Some parents never did.
And while the government instructed everyone to leave everything behind in an orderly manner...
...for the "short-term" evacuation...
...the teachers, schoolchildren, and parents of Pripyat were never allowed to return.
Not even to collect their belongings.
So, what you find in the primary school—or any of the other schools in Pripyat, of which there are middle and secondary schools as well as a kindergarten—may or may not be what was actually left behind in 1986.
But back then, the paint that's on the walls now wasn't peeling.
The yellow-colored, kaolin clay bricks of Soviet-era Kievan Russia weren't yet exposed.
And you can bet that the hallways and stairwells were markedly absent of the crunching sound that deafens visitors as they tiptoe through the post-apocalyptic school, now 31 years later.
Walking through the school nowadays can be disorienting, as all the sets of stairs start to look the same...
...and you can lose track of what floor you're on.
You might be able to distinguish a library from a science lab, but there are books and papers of various sorts strewn everywhere.
The only real way to orient yourself among all the skeletal chair frames and wall-mounted lesson plans is by looking out the windows...
...and triangulating your location based on the collapsed section...
...and the trees with 30 years' worth of growth just outside, sprouting up through the porch and serving as better landmarks than pretty much anything else.
It's true that by visiting these sites, we "dark tourists" are changing them. But seeing them firsthand—visiting them in person, and following in those tiny footsteps—is the only way for us to really understand what happened.
After all, we weren't there. We weren't even really paying attention.
On April 27, 1986—when the youngest residents of Pripyat were forced to leave behind the amusement park that had just opened—the #1 song in the U.S. was "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer.
We were more worried about the threat of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya than of the Soviet Union, after decades of tension in the Cold War had begun to lift, at least a little.
In the U.S., we've had the luxury of distance from Chernobyl. We're separated from it—and probably protected—by the Arctic Circle, something the Duga radar couldn't even quite penetrate.
The nuclear fallout didn't blow over our skies, as it did over Sweden and France (despite their denials of such events).
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't care... or that we shouldn't educate ourselves about it, even three decades later.
Photo Essay: The Train Graveyard of The Exclusion Zone
Photo Essay: The Secret Soviet Radar Base Powered By Chernobyl
Photo Essay: Amusement Park, Shuttered By Nuclear Fallout
Photo Essay: Lincoln Heights Jail, Closed to Public (Updated for 2017)
Satisfyingly Spooked for the Year