Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Urban Exploration: The Burns Centre, Ukraine

Located on the west bank of the Dnieper River, far out beyond the tower blocks, offices and warehouses that form Kiev’s industrial and residential zones, lies an unfinished hospital complex. Construction here began in the late 1980s, on a large stretch of land intended for a specialist burns centre and sanatorium.

Kiev has long been associated with excellence in the field of medical research, and this advanced facility would have made a grand addition to the city's resources; funds ran out not long after construction began however, and for almost two decades now the complex has been left to decay.

The Burns Ward

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Centre, Kiev, Ukraine

We approached the site from an adjacent road, skirting around the metal construction fence for a discrete entrance.

There were several men inside the grounds already, and for a moment I guessed they were guards - one of the more common pitfalls of Eastern Europe urban exploration. As it turned out however, these were site contractors. Tourists, just like us. Still, we ducked out of site and made swiftly for the first block of ruined red brick shells.

The Old Burns Centre has been well documented by Kiev urbex enthusiasts, and it seemed to be a popular destination for fans of airsoft and paintballing too... judging by the scuffs, dents and dots of paint scattered around the first building. Barely more than a series of red brick tunnels, this first installation had presumably been intended for some kind of administrative role - the small, identical rooms here better suited for desks than operating tables.

The next building was larger.

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Centre, Kiev, Ukraine

Inside the three-storey complex we were greeted by a pair of symmetrical stone stairs, weaving around to meet at a spacious landing and balcony above. It was hard to imagine the building alive; walls plastered, windows glazed. Hard to ascribe any purpose to these dull brickwork spaces, which subsequently felt so barren and otherworldly.

We spent a while exploring this building, roaming through empty hallways and unbuilt wards. The entire site was devoid of metal, plastic, wood... everything but bricks, cement and coarse yellow grit. In one corridor even the floor was missing - to leave a dark gaping void, perforated by vestigial concrete supports. In a tunnel beneath the unfinished ward, I found a thick bundle of coloured electricity cables.

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Centre, Kiev, Ukraine

Moving from one building to another felt strangely like crossing a warzone. Deep tracks and heavy craters pitted the sandy terrain, separated by broken walls and jagged concrete outcrops. No sight nor sound of life - only the weak and withered vegetation which had grown up amongst the rubble.

We finally approached the main hospital building - a towering bulk of yellow bricks with just a hint of art deco about it. The ground floor doors were locked, but by scaling the roof of a neighbouring building we were able to scramble in, clambering through a window of the nearest stairwell.

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Centre, Kiev, Ukraine

Inside the cylindrical stairwell, walls were tiled in a rich dichotomy of crimson and cream. We made our way up to the second floor, and stepped out into darkness... here the large empty spaces were walled in, with only pale light filtering in from the windows behind us. Either this floor had been stripped, or nothing had ever lived here. Walls and floors alike were covered in a sea of dust.

Most of the building took this form - long dark corridors, empty wards, crumbling pillars and dented aluminium ducts. Only one room showed signs of visitors; two white tiled walls decorated with crude, colourful tags, the empty paint cans discarded on a nearby workbench.

The real highlight of the Burns Centre was the view from the roof. Six storeys up, and this whole barren gully become no more than a dust bowl, a blemish in the corner of Kiev's gold and grey skyline.

The Burns Centre and the site in which it stands are a wreck. It might be hard at first to understand how such a failure came about, how so much planning and investment could end in ruin... but then, in August 1991 Ukraine had only just declared its independence from the Soviet Union. In the tumultuous years to follow, President Kravchuk would find himself issuing a new currency, disassembling nuclear weapons, and loosening military ties with Russia. Mass privatisation gave way to rapid inflation, and investors became scarce.

Nevertheless, the Burns Centre remained somehow magnificent. The grand ambition of this large project, the untapped potential. The sense of the alien, in this bare landscape where human forms slowly reduce to dust.

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Centre, Kiev, Ukraine

In 2005, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko proposed the creation of a new burn centre; stating that, "the main purposes of it will be scientific researching in the field of skin grafting and the treatment of burn patients."

After an appeal for international aid, a certificate was presented by the UNESCO Ambassador of Goodwill in 2006. A charitable donation in excess of €630,000 was awarded to the supervisory board of the Ukraine 3000 International Charitable Fund - an organisation headed by the president's own wife, Kateryna Yushchenko.

And so the new Burns Centre came into being, situated on the grounds of Kyiv City Clinical Hospital No. 2. Still its predecessor remains however; gradually disintegrating, out of sight and mind.

Future Urban Exploration in Ukraine...

Urban Exploration | Abandoned Burns Ward, Kiev, Ukraine

This is the last of my reports from Kiev for the time being, but I'll be back soon - to sample more of the unique variety of urban exploration Ukraine has to offer. Some of my future targets include Soviet missile silos in the Crimea, an underground city at Lviv and the Odessa Catacombs.

Then of course there's Chernobyl.

More Urban Exploration...


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Urban Exploration: Cold War Bunker, Bulgaria

Back in April I wrote a report on an abandoned Soviet propaganda centre in Bulgaria. The complex was built in 1974, and topped with a towering cubist memorial entitled The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. On that first visit I discovered that the monument was more than it seemed... but this time I managed to dig deeper still, exploring the warren of tunnels that make up a vast nuclear bunker hidden away beneath the memorial itself.

The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

When I first visited the monument, I did so merely to admire a striking heirloom of Bulgaria's communist past. Measuring 23 metres tall by 48 wide, this is one of the largest such structures that remains standing in Eastern Europe. As it turned out however, I was able to find a way inside the monument - whose hollow interior contained a network of tunnels, passages and conference halls. In addition to that, a stairway located inside one of the 'legs' of this vast concrete trapezoid led me down into the hollow hill beneath; which once housed a Soviet propaganda centre and bookshop, intended for the local distribution of Marxist-Leninist literature.

From this subterranean level a grand stairwell descended further still. I followed it all the way down to an imposing double doorway, which stood chained, barred and welded shut against intruders. All of my research pointed to the existence of a nuclear bunker built beneath the centre, in keeping with the Cold War tradition. While I knew I was tantalisingly close, for now the trail ended at these hermetically sealed gates, deep beneath the earth.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

My original post on The Soviet Propaganda Centre had a strong response, and remains to date my most-read report on urbex in Bulgaria. From the feedback I received, it seemed I wasn't the only one eager to find out what was hidden behind that vast subterranean bulkhead... and so when I received an email from a local Bulgarian explorer who claimed to know another way in, how could I resist?

The Soviet War Bunker

My guide Svilen is a keen photographer and filmmaker. He had already paid numerous visits to the site, and had explored extensively in the bunker beneath. We met at a café early one afternoon and drank Irish coffees before heading out to the monument, located on the city outskirts.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

On previous visits I had followed the flight of austere stone steps that form the main approach up to the imposing monument above; instead Svilen led me around the side of the hill, following a footpath that skirted a circumference beneath the dappled shade of thick green canopies. Pausing at a clearing in the bushes roughly a quarter of the way around, he gestured towards the mound itself - and there, set deep into the vegetation that bordered our path, I spied the rocky opening.

We had to climb over a pile of strewn boulders to get to the entrance, but once across there was no mistaking the thick iron bulkhead door, hanging open on its hinges before the darkness of the tunnel beyond. Faded paint scrawled over the metal hatch read, "ВЛИЗАНЕ СТРОГО ЗАБРАНЕНО": "ENTRY STRICTLY PROHIBITED". We powered up our torches, and headed inside.

As it turned out, this vast underground labyrinth was more than just a bomb shelter... the extensive series of long corridors and vaulted chambers beneath the hill could easily have served as a fully functional war base. Fitted with water, gas and electricity, it appears this complex once included mess halls, dormitories, offices and training rooms; in addition to kitchens, bathrooms and latrines.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

The entrance corridor set the tone for the whole site - a long, cylindrical tunnel fading into darkness, and studded with bulkhead doors and metal pipes. Unlike the rest of the bunker though, this first passage was heavily graffitied, the words "FEAR THE REAPER" sprayed bold alongside an inverted pentagram. Clearly not all visitors had made it so far from the entrance however, the crude tags and slogans becoming rarer as we made our way deeper into the darkness.

This first tunnel bifurcated after a short distance; the left-hand passage leading into the main complex, while the right took us first to what appeared to be an old boiler room. Twisted metal ducts lay strewn across the floor like fallen branches, while a panel screwed to one wall featured the remains of an electrical switchboard.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

An alcove tucked away at the rear of this chamber offered access to a narrow shaft beyond. Putting my torch to one side as I clambered over the chest-high lintel, I dropped down into a long passage with what appeared to be a drainage trench hollowed out in the floor. A rusted iron bulkhead divided the space in two - and here I was able to squeeze under the bottom of the metal plate and into a chimney-like structure. Above me a series of flaking, red-brown rungs disappeared into the darkness... I started climbing.

I didn't get far though, perhaps fifteen feet or so, before a rung came away from the wall in my hand - crumbling as it did so into a coarse red powder. Common sense prevailed this time, and I decided to head back down.

Leaving the boiler room behind us, we made our way back to the entrance; this time following the left-hand passage into the main body of the bunker. The tunnels here formed a vast criss-crossed network. As we turned left and then right in the pitch dark, passing countless unmarked tunnels on either side, it was easy to get the feeling that we were becoming gradually more lost. In reality though, I suspect we were simply wandering around a large interconnected grid, a closed circuit.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

Much like the first chamber we had explored, metal pipes and ducts lay scattered throughout the tunnels. While it seemed as though looters had managed to remove a number of the smaller fittings, it was refreshing to discover so much left behind - we found pipes and switches, metal hatches and glass windows fitted around the complex, while occasional lightbulbs hung lifeless from vaulted ceilings - some encased in ornate glass fittings.

Some of the larger items had been abandoned when trespassers apparently found themselves either unable to carry them, or to squeeze them through the narrow doorways... as was the case with a heavy water tank we found, bleeding rust and flakes of green paint into a powdery shadow. In another passageway a series of brick doorways featured identical scars, a chunk of masonry smashed out of the framework roughly a foot above the floor; as if a large and irregularly shaped object had been dragged through here at high speed, smashing into each doorframe in succession. The effect was strangely comical.

Most of the corridors were formed from concrete tubes, a level floor set into the bottom creating a hollow area beneath. Aside from the sheer darkness and labyrinthine layout of the bunker, one of the most unnerving aspects of exploring these subterranean passages was the way footsteps echoed and reverberated off the inside of the tunnels. Sometimes the echoes even seemed to get lost, catching up with us later, or laying in ambush at the next turning.

Then there were the hand prints.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

Save for the graffiti scrawled on several walls close to the entrance, the tunnels showed little or no signs of disturbance. However, other visitors had left their own unsettling marks on the site: while exploring the boiler room, my torch beam fell suddenly across a cluster of pale hand prints pressed into the black soot on the wall; elsewhere in the complex we discovered four long, trailing finger marks dragged across the edge of a broken doorway.

Despite the predominantly industrial atmosphere of the setting, nature too had managed to leave its signature - often with surreal and beautiful effect. Such was the case with the droplets of moisture which clung to ceilings and door lintels near the entrance; the translucent beads catching torchlight and reflecting it back like a hundred tiny prisms.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

In another room the roots of some vine or creeper had managed to find their way down into the darkness of the bunker. Several clusters erupted from the flaking walls like acne, fanning out into an intricate pattern of blind, groping tendrils.

Meanwhile, fine black pellets lay in drifting mounds along some of the main corridors. On closer inspection it appeared to be rat poison. I'm not sure which notion seems the more unlikely; that rats would find any reason to live in these bare and lifeless tunnels on the outskirts of the city, or rather, that anyone should care enough to try and prevent them.

Reflections on the Labyrinth

Dusk was falling by the time we left the bunker. I had waited a long time to find a way inside this concrete burrow, and it took me a while to make sense of my feelings on finally exploring it.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

I suppose a small part of me had been disappointed - perhaps I was secretly dreaming of stumbling across a clandestine command centre, dust settling heavy on control panels and gaudy communist posters hanging from the walls. Instead we found a network of bland concrete tunnels and stripped down boiler rooms, half-looted and graffitied by dare-devil children.

The more I thought about it though, the harder it was to get my head around the sheer enormity of this subterranean maze. While we were down there I found it difficult to keep track of each individual turning we passed, and there were numerous openings, alcoves and passages that we no doubt missed out while navigating our way around.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this whole expedition served only as an extension to my previous report; in total, I have now spent three days exploring the intricate structure of the monument above ground, the series of abandoned shops and offices built inside the artificial mound it stands upon, and now, a large complex of tunnels hidden deep in the earth beneath.

Urban Exploration | Propaganda Centre Revisited, Bulgaria

One can't help but wonder what other mysteries lie hidden beneath the soil, particularly in countries such as Bulgaria which have experienced such radical and relatively recent changes in regime. Who knows how many concrete structures are now left to rot - namelessly - under the fields and forests of Eastern Europe?

The Soviet Propaganda Centre
More Urban Exploration...


Saturday, 6 October 2012

Editorial: October

This month sees the arrival of several additional subpages on The Bohemian Blog, as the site begins to expand into some new directions. In this October Editorial you'll find previews of things to come, in addition to links for some recent guest features, and even a small awards ceremony.

New Pages

Regular readers may have noticed by now that a few new tabs have been appearing along the navigation bar in recent weeks. Here's a quick overview of how things are likely to look, as the new pages begin to fill up.

Systo Palty Festival, Russia Global Party

Last week I kicked this one off with a report on Systo Palty Festival in Russia. The premise is simple - I go to parties and festivals all around the world, have as much fun as I possibly can, then try to put the weirdness into words.

Dark Tourism

'Dark tourism' is a term applied to the exploration of unconventional destinations, and often those associated with death or suffering. This may come across as a little macabre, but my reports will always be based in a desire to gain greater understanding of the significance of such sites. The first report for this page came from my recent trip to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Urbex FAIL

Another idea I had was to start publishing reports on urban exploration trips that went badly wrong. I have no shortage of inspiration for this topic - ranging from being chased by rabid dogs in Eastern Europe, to getting in trouble with the Thai police. You'll find these small reports appearing on the main Urbex page, and I think they're going to be a lot of fun.

Aside from that I have recently been working my way through the blog, tidying up some of my older posts. Improved navigation, better text layouts, and higher resolution pictures. That sort of thing.

Guest Features

Kaesong City, North Korea

This month I've had a second piece featured on the Business Insider website, this time focussing on Kaesong, North Korea. This ancient city once served as the nation's capital under the Koryo Dynasty, and its green streets and dramatic mountain ranges give it a very different atmosphere to the capital of Pyongyang.

I have also written an article on Balkan ghost towns for the October issue of Young Pioneer Magazine - you'll be able to read it on their site as soon as the new issue is released, which will be any day now.

Additionally, there has been talk of a potential feature on the North Korean news site, NKNews... which would of course be awesome. More news on that as and when it happens.

The Liebster Blog Award

In other news, The Bohemian Blog was recently recognised with The Liebster Blog Award. This elusive entity is a self-perpetuating award currently doing its rounds on the Internet, given from one blogger to another. I received mine courtesy of Dale Cooper, over at Diary of an Internet Nobody.

The rules of the award are as follows...

  • Pick five up-and-coming blogs with less than 200 followers to receive the LBA
  • Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them
  • Post the award on your blog, and link to the blogs you have nominated
  • Notify your nominees in a comment on their blog
  • Some people then say you need to reveal five interesting facts about yourself. I'm going to skip that stage, and get straight to my nominations: five blogs picked simply because I have enjoyed reading them.

    Soviet Radar Sites, Russia

    Poise on Arrows
    Through a Forest of Ideas
    Tapirs Can Draw
    Fragglehunter Urbex
    A Walk in the Dark


    I have had a few people comment that it's hard to subscribe to The Bohemian Blog if you don't have an account on either Google or Blogger. Well, I have added a few new options to help with this. You can now subscribe to this page using the email form in the top right corner, as well as being able to sign up to notifications through either Twitter or Facebook.

    Coming up Next...

    Soviet Radar Sites, Russia

    Over the next few months I'm going to work on filling up those new pages... there'll be a gang shooting in China, a rave in the mountains of Kazakhstan and urban exploration around abandoned military bases in Russia. I might even tell you what happened in Bangkok.

    First though, remember my urbex report from the Soviet Propaganda Centre in Bulgaria? At the time I documented finding the entrance to a sealed nuclear bunker, buried deep beneath the site. Well, last week I finally got inside.

    You can read the full report now, at Propaganda Centre Revisited.