Friday, 29 June 2012

Editorial: Feature in UE Magazine

UE Magazine

This is just a quick update, to say that one of my recent urbex reports has now been featured in the US-based publication, UE Magazine.

Issue two of the magazine went on sale on 11th June, and features 74 colour pages packed with site reports, interviews, photos, safety tips and technical advice… including a fascinating feature on noctography, as well as very thorough exploration of Pripyat and Chernobyl. Then, sitting alongside these, you'll find my own report from the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria.

I'd like to commend Gerv and the rest of the team at UEMag for doing such a great job – the magazine is a joy to read, and I would love to contribute more reports in the future.

You can get your hands on the magazine – in either hard or digital format – from the official UE Magazine website… which also features a lively forum and members' area.

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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Urban Exploration: Socialist School, Bulgaria

Built in 1943, this grand structure was constructed on a large concrete base - allowing it to stand proud of its surrounding buildings, staking its dominance over the skyline of the small mountain town in which it abides. As such, this magnificent old building can be seen from almost anywhere in the town… and even beyond that, its austere architecture is clearly recognisable even from the peaks of the encircling mountains.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

The school was hailed as a revolution in its time, embracing the forward-thinking ideologies of Bulgarian socialist philosophers such as Dimitar Blagoev. In addition to being by far the largest and best-equipped educational facility in this region of the Balkans, adjacent to the school itself there also stands an historic wooden building – a teacher training school. This college was the first of its kind anywhere in Bulgaria, representing a move towards a national curriculum, and the application of uniform standards of socialised education.

A prominent state building like this perhaps makes for an unlikely target, when it comes to urban exploration in Bulgaria – most of my Bulgaria urbex reports so far have focussed on decrepit Soviet ruins in remote mountain locations, on abandoned factories or unfinished leisure complexes… all far removed from the country’s sporadic nodes of civilisation. However, this mountain school has in fact been out of traditional use for several decades now, and the only challenge remaining was to find an illicit entrance into the best-known building in town.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

It didn’t take me long to find one. The basement level features a series of shuttered windows, which open out onto shafts dug deep into the concrete foundations, thus allowing light into the lower floors. After the school’s closure, these were for the most part covered and sealed with pressed sheet metal… but the plate across one of the shafts had lost a few rivets through rust and age, making it possible to pull back one corner of the metal. From here a treacherous climb down a decaying wooden window frame allowed access into a storeroom at the back of the building.

I took with me a local guide – a resident of the town, and a former pupil at this school. ‘M’, as I shall refer to him here, attended this school for seven years, and was able to colour the decaying landscape for me with his recollections of classrooms, school assemblies and playground games. It was only after he left the school that one-by-one classes were transferred to a newer building. This ugly, nondescript replacement was known by the children as ‘the prison’, and marked the turning point of Bulgaria’s decline into post-war depression, and subsequent Soviet rule. All across the state the grand monuments to Bulgaria’s past were slowly abandoned, in favour of simple and efficient institutions housed within bland concrete shells.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

The backroom which provided our initial point of entry opened out onto the main entrance hall, where daily assemblies were held in the mornings. From here a double doorway, now festooned in chains and padlocks, faced out onto a patio overlooking the town’s market place… and beyond that, the Balkan Mountains fading away into the distance.

Perhaps the first thing to strike me was the stark state of disrepair apparent here, as compared to the well-maintained exterior of the building. M explained that the town council took great care to keep this historic building, its crowning centrepiece, looking clean and well maintained. Not long ago they even hired a team of contractors to conduct extensive repairs to the site, in an effort to return the school to its former glory. It seems that these contractors merely added a new coat of paint to the outside in order to give the appearance of functionality, while leaving the ruined interior in the same state they found it.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

On my visit, the lower floors featured severe damage from moisture, and plasterwork that was falling away from the walls in large chunks. On the higher levels, the wooden flooring was so rotted that a misplaced foot could go straight through the boards, appearing from the ceiling of the classroom beneath. In one room M found the mummified remains of a stray cat – its clean cured corpse a testament to the purity of the mountain air.

The higher floors were reached by a wide staircase, each stone step hand-chiselled into ornate lips and curves… giving the appearance of an elaborate piano keyboard, rising up in steps. The bottom of the stairs, where they met the entrance hall, were scattered with an assortment of festering rubbish.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

Throughout the building, classrooms and corridors have been decorated in stark, neon colours; shades of pink, green and yellow determined the different floors and departments, colours that seemed even more garish by contrast with the crumbling plasterwork, and exposed wooden slats beneath.

The first floor, level with the back road from which we had entered, featured a panelled oak door, leading down a flight of steps into the former playground. Set in with wrought iron windows, this thick garrison was heavily chained to keep out intruders. Beside the door, in the darkened entrance corridor, I found the fractured remains of a long basin set into one of the walls. This had been where the children washed, M informed me, and used to feature a drinking fountain built into one end of the stone trough.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

It was also on this floor that we discovered the first signs of habitation – in the corner of one room lay a recently made bed, accompanied by a wooden wardrobe and a bench composed of bricks and wooden planks.

The occupant was nowhere to be found, but from the orderly state of their home, they appeared to live a simple yet civilised life here, hidden away inside the rotting school… quite unlike the deranged vagrant whose bower I stumbled across on a previous visit to an abandoned Soviet monument.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

The second floor held another surprise: two of the classrooms had been filled from wall to wall with aromatic, dried vegetation, giving the surreal appearance of indoor forests. M was able to tell me that at one stage, the building had been leased to a food sourcing company, who had presumably been using this as a place to dry herbs over the winter months. It was yet another half-hearted project which was abandoned mid-progress, with the school left to bear the refuse of its failed industry.

Outside the harvest rooms, a hand-written sign was pinned up on a wall:

“When it rains don’t pick the herbs. Sleep!.. rest!...”

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

The windows on this floor also afforded an excellent view out over the town beneath. It was a strange sensation; gazing out over the market place of this small town, and watching the people come and go from within a secret vantage point, high up inside the town's most cherished landmark.

Heading back to the stone stairwell, I donned my headlamp in preparation for the final floor. The stone steps terminated at this level, and from the top step a rusted metal walkway led up to the darkened opening of the attic; its creaking steps pinned precariously into the crumbling plaster of the outer wall.

As expected, the inside of the attic was pitch black… and littered with abandoned school books, desks and various teaching aids. Numerous small mounds of crusty pellets gave away the daytime resting places of owls.

Amongst the various treasures stowed away in this attic space, were a large red star (which M told me was hung from the gable end during national holidays), and a plaque depicting flowers accompanied by the insignia “9 IX”; this motto was a reference to Bulgaria's Socialist Revolution, which took place on 9th September 1944.

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

Another two wooden wall hangings bore further Socialist propaganda; the first depicted two doves, their shapes merging to form a globe, along with the words:

“Harmony
Creation
Beauty”

Urban Exploration | Socialist School, Bulgaria

The other was a quote from Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria's first communist ruler. It compared a treasured Bulgarian poet to one of the fathers of the Russian futurist movement:

“By his own talent and the character of his own artistic struggle Smirnenski is our Mayakovsky.”

We left the building by the only open exit; retracing our footsteps to the ground floor, then climbing back up through the shaft and into the barren playground.

Unlike many of the sites I have written reports on, this one is not scheduled for demolition... nor is it a work in progress. The town council are loathe to give up this iconic heirloom, and yet, while the building presents a grand outward image, the insides are a long way from being useful. In the absence of investors, it will remain in this strange limbo. Once a year decorators are called in to tidy up the paintwork, keep it looking presentable, while the interior falls further and further into irreparable ruin.


More Urban Exploration...

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Editorial: Y U No Blog?

Regular subscribers to The Bohemian Blog (and I’m still slightly awed to think that there are such things) may have noticed that my output of late has been somewhat scarce; I managed to produce just two posts in May, and this is my first so far for June.

I have no intention of apologising, as I’ve simply been far too busy having fun – and haven't found the time to write regular blog posts. However, as a mark of respect, I thought I might explain what I’ve been up to, and what I’ve got planned.


The Blog

When I started this blog, my plan was to make it both entertaining and informative, with a focus on well-researched, well-illustrated articles and reports. As a result, it takes me half a day on average to produce a post – that’s including the time it takes to research, write, check, double check, triple check, edit pictures and format the post itself.

There are many blogs out there which consist of whimsical musings, witty anecdotes and assorted worldly observations… though these sites can often make for a great read, it has never been my intention to follow this route with The Bohemian Blog. I would prefer to produce less material, but ensure that everything I write carries a serious weight of facts, figures and photos.

Deal with it.


Travel

Right now I’m sat in a pleasant, though excessively humid cafĂ©, looking out over a busy street in Bangkok. I’ve been in Thailand for 10 days now, and it came as something of a surprise detour… my initial plan had been to take a train from Bulgaria to China, passing through a number of countries on the way.

Well, from Bulgaria I made it safely to Ukraine, before crossing over the border into Russia. Here I spent some time exploring Moscow, as well as a week sleeping on the floor of an artists’ commune in St. Petersburg. After a month in Russia I took a 55-hour train ride to Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. From here I travelled to the old capital of Almaty, not far from the Chinese border.

However, despite numerous attempts, I managed to get this far without being approved for a Chinese visa. Turns out it’s not the straightforward process I had anticipated; in Kazakhstan, it is virtually impossible for a foreigner to acquire a Chinese visa. Based on advice I picked up along the way, I decided to make a trip to Thailand (via Abu Dhabi) – here the Chinese officials are indeed far more relaxed, and the visa process is both quick and painless.

Needless to say, the last few months have contained more than a few adventures, and provided me with bountiful inspiration for future posts. I’d like to start writing up some of these experiences, but I hope to incorporate them into articles which will contain useful information, rather than simply being entertaining stories – so perhaps I’ll write a few guides on applying for different visas, or how to go about bribing officials in the former Soviet states without getting locked up! Sound good so far?


Urbex

My urbex reports are tailing somewhere around seven countries behind my current whereabouts. Alright, so I’ve not managed to explore sites in every country I’ve visited… but I do have a large backlog of reports to produce, including drains, skyscrapers, hospitals, military bases and more.

Another idea I had was to write country overview pages, with a view to urban exploration; I have no intention of handing out a map to the sites I have visited (where would the fun be in that?), but rather producing short guides to some of these countries, outlining the kind of sites on offer, and the potential risks or warnings attached.

I’m about to upload my final Bulgarian report for the time being, after which I’ll carry on chipping away through the thousands of photographs stored on my laptop. Watch this space…!


Parties

Along the way I’ve managed to stumble across a number of parties, festivals and semi-legal raves… I seem to have a knack for sniffing out a good knees-up. These have included the psychedelic Systo Festival, held somewhere in a forest in the north of Russia, and Kazakhstan’s largest annual gathering of electronic music fans – Freedom Festival.

As for future plans, one week from now I will be catching a boat out to the islands off the East coast of Thailand, in order to check out the notorious Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. After that I’ll be hitting up China’s largest booze-fest, the Qingdao Beer Festival, followed soon after by the North Korean Victory Day celebrations (yes, you read that correctly)!

I have been toying with the idea of producing a series of reports on these various festivities, and collecting them here on their own sub-page. As well as producing a fully documented report of the cultural and historical backdrop to these festivals (as many travel guides already do), I have every intention of getting fully into the party spirit, and writing a hands-on, first person account of the madness. Gonzo party journalism, if you will.

So what I want to know is, does this sound like something you would enjoy reading?


I guess that brings us pretty much up to date. Feedback on my posts is always appreciated, but this time it would be particularly helpful – and your comments are likely to help shape the future direction of the blog. I know a lot of visitors to The Bohemian Blog come here purely for the urbex reports, so it would be good to know what you guys think of these other themes.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a new urbex report for y’all… this time from an abandoned school in the mountains of Bulgaria. Enjoy.



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