Monday, 31 December 2012

Astana: The Illuminati Capital of Kazakhstan

As the first new capital of the 21st century, the city of Astana in Kazakhstan has been received by many as a revolution in social architecture. Rising out of the barren steppe in the north of the country, this surreal capital represents the investment of billions upon billions of petrodollars; and features some of the most radical, revolutionary design the world has ever seen.

Not everybody is queueing up to welcome this city of the future, however. Critics and conspiracy theorists the world over have pointed out the rich occult symbology which seems so deeply ingrained into the aesthetics of Astana... and many are heralding this as the 'Illuminati Capital of the World'.


Astana, Kazakhstan

Earlier this year I spent the best part of a month in and around Astana. I had heard nothing about the Illuminati theory then, and the city didn't exactly strike me as a capital for the New World Order.

However, there is certainly something strange about Astana. While the central and business districts have been laboriously designed by some of the most prestigious architects in the world, this 15-year-old capital is still seriously lacking in residential zones. Even now, many government officials commute by plane from the old capital of Almaty. The result is the most elaborately futuristic ghost town you could imagine - and feels like walking onto the abandoned set for a 1970s sci-fi film.

The rich symbolism and peculiar structural design of Astana do raise certain questions... questions which are best answered by superimposing lightning effects over footage of the city's more notable landmarks, as the following clip by xlivescom so amply demonstrates.


Don't worry if you didn't make it to the end of the video, I'm sure you get the point. While the feature certainly manage to highlight some bizarre features of the city, there is little here that can't be understood better when you consider the history and context of Astana.

I'm going to continue referring back to points made in this video clip as the report goes on; not because xlivescom is anything approaching an authoritative source of information, but rather because this video offers a concise summary of the dozens of Astana-Illuminati theories scattered across the Internet [1].


The White Tomb

Kazakh culture has its roots in nomadic traditions, and the majority of permanent settlements didn't begin appearing here until relatively recently. In 1824 a band of Siberian Cossacks travelling across the Central Asian steppe stopped on the banks of the Ishim River, where they built what would later become an important fortress defending central south Russia. They named it 'Akmolinsk': the word for a Holy Shrine, translating literally as 'White Tomb'.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

The town grew into the 20th century, and Akmolinsk served as a pivotal rail depot around the time of the Russian Civil War. Under the Soviet Union Kazakhstan became a powerhouse of industry; factories, chemical plants, mining rigs and missile silos were built far and wide across the country, in addition to a number of notorious gulags.

Perhaps the cruelest of these camps was situated at Akmolinsk itself, and known as ALZHIR: the 'Akmolinskii Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland'.

Kazakhstan staked its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990; a year later, they struck oil in the southern Caspian region.

The decision to move the nation's capital from the heavily Soviet-influenced Almaty to the small northern town now known as 'Ak Mola', was taken by many as a gesture of defiance on the part of the Kazakh government... although official motives included Almaty's risk of seismic activity, its proximity to volatile foreign borders and limited space for expansion.

The move became official on 10th December 1997; and the town of Ak Mola adopted the Kazakh title of 'Astana', meaning 'Capital'.


The Great Architect

To return to the suspicions levelled by xlivescom in the video above, perhaps the strongest recurring theme is that of 'sun worship'. While a naive observer may be justified in comparing the appearance of the Bayterek Tower to some kind of sun altar, it would nevertheless be a gross misunderstanding of the monument's true meaning.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

The Bayterek is Astana's most enduring icon, with a design based on an ancient Turkic folk tale.

Like many of Astana's landmarks, the tower was conceived by the renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster. The golden sphere represents an egg, the pillar the 'tree of life'. This symbolism comes from the tale of Samruk, the 'magical bird of happiness': a mythical being common to Persian, Iranian, Armenian, Byzantine, and a range of Turkic traditions.

Personally, I don't have an issue with sun worship anyway - of all the things you might care to deify, the sun strikes me as a fairly natural choice. Sun worship predates any other belief or teaching in the history of human culture, and the sun and eagle emblems serve as important, historical symbols of the Kazakh race. The conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the sun is a symbol of Lucifer, and the ultimate occult icon; but the sun was nourishing all life on this planet long before Christians had invented the notion of 'Lucifer'.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

However, the comparisons which can be drawn between Astana's city centre and the traditional layout of a masonic temple are interesting to say the least.

The Ak Orda Presidential Palace sits in the East of the city centre, at the same position as the Grand Master's chair. President Nazarbayev's palace is flanked on either side by vast golden pillars, which correspond neatly with the twin pillars called 'Joachim' and 'Boaz' that stand on either side of a masonic temple.

Many masonic rituals require initiates to pass between these pillars, and those with a little imaginitation might suggest that placing golden pillars on either side of Astana's central Nurzhol Bulevard allows for occult workings on a grand scale [2].

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

While the eastern station of a masonic temple is occupied by the Grand Master (whose wisdom is often associated with Divine Light), the western position is the realm of the Senior Warden. His duties are to preside over the Lodge at times of labour, and this position could be said to represent the soul; reflecting Divine Light in the same way that the moon reflects that of the sun [3].

It's hard to draw a parallel between the apparent sun symbology of the Bayterek Tower and the moon associations which characterise the corresponding position of the masonic lodge. Unless of course we look even further west... considering the Bayterek as the mid-point of the temple then, at the far western end of Astana's central plaza we find the Khan Shatyr leisure complex. I'm not sure that this is any easier to compare to the masonic position of Senior Warden though. Perhaps it's fair to conclude that this masonic parallel is merely superficial and aethestic, rather than intended to serve as a functional reconstruction.

An annoted, overhead photo of the centre of Astana shows the layout more clearly, with the linear orientation of the Bayterek Tower, Nazarbayev's Palace and the Pyramid of Peace in the far East. The graphic below comes from David Icke's website.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

Another key point to consider might suggest that any similarities between Astana's city centre and a masonic temple are no more than eccentric, provocative design: just a small amount of research into the history of freemasonry will reveal that the Craft was heavily persecuted by the Soviets; as well as remaining to this day strictly illegal in most of the Islamic world. I just don't see it catching on in Kazakhstan, a predominantly muslim country which is still struggling to shake off the ghosts of its recent communist past.


The Eye in the Pyramid

That brings us to one of the more striking buildings on Astana's skyline, the 77m tall pyramid known as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

Theorists such as xlivescom tend to pick up on this one structure more than any other, when presenting Astana as the ultimate Illuminati capital. "Much more than being a tourist attraction," they claim, the pyramid "is a representation of the philosophy of the initiates." Further associations are drawn between the pyramidal design and the teachings of figures such as Pythagoras or even Manly P. Hall. While these include some interesting observations, it does not follow that Astana's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (or 'Palace of Peace and Accord' as it is sometimes translated) was necessarily built to embody these same esoteric ideals.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

As a design concept, it seemed no stranger to me than the Louvre in Paris or the Las Vegas Luxor Hotel... but then again, countless websites already argue the case for an Illuminati agenda behind those buildings too. It seems unacceptable to believe that an architect ever chose a pyramid design simply to create a dramatic effect.

A great deal of fuss is also made of the Palace's interior, where the Kazakh congress meets around a circular 'sun table'. Directly beneath this is the city's new opera hall, and xlivescom notes with suspicion that the former is considerably more 'luminous' than the latter. Perhaps this genuinely does symbolise the path to godliness along which the Kazakh elite are treading... or maybe theatres simply work better when the house lights are turned off. You decide.

The pyramid's apex is decorated with dove motifs. If you played the video to its end you'll already know that these doves appear, "representing peace, which will result in the unification of the world governments and religions in the NEW WORLD ORDER." You will also note that the image of a sun appearing on the glass ceiling represents Satan, and not the actual sun itself.

As for the All-Seeing Eye in this pyramid, President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself seems an unlikely Illuminati pawn. This old-school Soviet joined the Kazakh Communist Party in 1962, working his way up to the position of First Secretary by 1989. He stands today as Kazakhstan's first - and only - democratically elected president.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

There have been many criticisms of Nazarbayev's seemingly unshakable rule; a 2004 study by the Transparency International organisation declared Kazakhstan to be suffering from "rampant corruption", and civil activists both inside and outside of Kazakhstan cite instances of "human rights abuses".

The Nazarbayev family has been investigated in the past for allegations of money laundering, bribery and assassination, while former ministers of the Kazakh government claim Nazarbayev has accepted millions of US dollars in bribes, while discretely transferring at least $1 billion of oil profits into his personal account. None of these allegations have been proven however, and Nazarbayev continues to gain international regard for his work in dismantling former Soviet nuclear weapons, as well as pushing to see more women in government and politics.

It is worth noting that the former allegations couldn't be further from the modus operandi of the theoretical Western Illuminati. Rather than a sophisticated and secretive cartel controlling society through the worlds of finance and media, Kazakhstan's perceived problems have perhaps been more accurately surmised by references to a "Soviet bully-boy mentality"; for a more accurate parallel to this lavishly opulent capital built by a charismatic-yet-overbearing leader figure, one should look East rather than West; toward the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, for example.


A New World Order

One very good question which ought to be asked at this point, is why would a secret ruling elite put so much time and money into designing a capital city which reveals their purposes in such a spectacularly un-secretive way?

As is often the case however, the conspiracy theorists have an answer for this as well.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

"Externalisation of the Hierarchy" was the title of a 1957 book by British writer and theosophist Alice A. Bailey; put very simply, the 'externalisation' is the process by which the masses are gently prepared for the future, as those controlling the world from behind the scenes gradually make themselves known through increasingly explicit signs [4].

I never made it to the top of the Bayterek, and nor did I step inside the Palace of Peace and Accord. However, I did spend a lot of time getting to know the people of Astana, and seeing their city as they see it.

I visited a range of museums, restaurants and bars, and explored the extensive green park beside the Ishim River. The city has a lively nightlife, and much of the ex-pat culture in Astana is centered around the 'Guns N' Roses Pub-Grill'. The city's modern entertainment complex is housed inside the Khan Shatyr, or 'Khan's Marquee'. This vast, translucent tent-like structure covers an area greater than 10 football stadiums, with floor upon floor of shops, entertainment venues and sports facilities. On the top floor of the Khan Shatyr, you'll find a tropical beach - complete with real sand, convincing palm trees and a wave machine.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

I even had the chance to take in a performance of 'Coppélia' by the Kazakh National Ballet; the story of a young man who falls hopelessly in love with an automaton created by a cruel inventor, only to grow increasingly isolated from the real world around him. (Don't worry, the irony wasn't lost on me - this is Monarch Programming at its finest.)

There is a lot to like about Kazakhstan, and I really warmed to the Kazakh people. A quick and easy generalisation would be a comparison to George R. R. Martin's Dothraki; at times rough, boisterous and occasionally crude, these people are nevertheless - in my experience - fiercely proud, honest and loyal. Horses are celebrated as a symbol of national identity here. In addition to being ridden they provide the popular fermented mare's milk known as 'Kumis', while horse flesh forms a cornerstone of Kazakh cuisine.

Dark Tourism | The Illuminati Capital, Astana, Kazakhstan

In my considered opinion, the seemingly blatant and oft-reported Illuminati symbolism of Astana is no more than the superficial veneer of an adventurous modern capital: Astana is what happens when an eccentric and powerful ruler hires a team of world famous architects to build the ultimate capital city on an unlimited budget.

Sir Norman Foster, Kisho Kurokawa and other architects involved in this multibillion dollar project have trawled through the history books for their inspiration, incorporating elements of Greek, Egyptian and Arabic design.[5]

Astana brings ancient mythologies to life, whilst providing a canvas for some of the world's most striking contemporary architecture... but to attribute this unique design to a secret society hellbent on establishing a New World Order, is just plain silly.


More Weird World...


[1] You can find some more sources of Astana-Illuminati theories at Vigilant Citizen, SodaHead, Conspiracy Archive and Illuminati Italia. Do take the time to check some of these out, as they're often hilarious.

[2] See for example The Occult Ritual Of The Gloriana - a fascinating account of the esoteric subtext to Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

[3] I'd like to thank Burning Taper for the excellent source of information on masonic symbology.

[4] Alright, so I put it very, very simply. While the concept of the 'externalisation of the hierarchy' is often used to illustrate the same New World Order theory presented here, Bailey's original work (which she claimed to be a transcription of an ancient body of wisdom dating back as far as Atlantis), focussed more on a messianic hierarchy regaining shape and substance until it is able to "function openly upon the physical plane".

[5] Some people have taken the analysis deeper still, looking at the structural layout of the city in detail; and drawing parallels with the 'sacred geometry' of freemasonry. You can see this demonstrated in video below, and decide for yourself.



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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Urban Exploration: End of the Line, Bulgaria

For many people, Boxing Day traditionally involves long, pleasant hours spent in front of the television; leftover turkey assimilating itself into the form of salads, soup or curry, and new socks quickly collecting stray pine needles.

These things are all terrific, obviously - but another really exciting thing about the festive season, is that security guards also take holidays from time to time. With this in mind, I trekked out through the knee-deep snow towards an old, abandoned railway station on the edge of town.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

Earlier this year I shared a report from my visit to a Soviet glass factory in the Balkan Mountains. This facility had produced vast shipments of glass products for the Soviet Union, with a train track that led right up to the furnace doors; allowing the efficient delivery of sand from Bulgaria's Black Sea beaches.

In 1989 the tracks closed, a precursor to the full-scale collapse of Bulgarian Communism in 1990. The glass factory struggled on for a few years, importing its sand by road, before finally grinding to a halt.

Meanwhile, the train depot built to serve both town and factory was given up for dead. The rails fell into disrepair, and entire sections were removed for scrap metal.

It took me around an hour to get to the train station (a much faster walk without the snow), passing on the way a series of industrial units: including a milk factory, a car scrapyard and the entrance to the derelict factory I had visited previously.

Getting inside the station couldn't have been easier. Several of the single-pane windows at the front of the building had been smashed at some point; I only needed to duck under the jagged shards still hanging from the frame, and I was in.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

While I don't know what security is usually like at the station, I do know that the neighbouring factory is regularly patrolled. One of the great things about this weather however, was that the crisp, unbroken snow surrounding the station gave clear indication that I was alone here.

By this time the sun was hanging low in the sky, its brightness magnified as it reflected obliquely off the endless white snow to cast long, sharp shadows into the train station foyer. I kept to the corners once inside; the large, glass-panelled foyer felt a little like a fish tank, and whenever the occasional car went by I felt as though I had been put on display.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

Hopping over the strewn rubble I headed first to the left of the main entrance, into a series of corridors and kitchens.

Here the decay was thick, and peeling paint hung from the walls like shedding skin. In the kitchen itself I found a series of metal wash basins, the remains of an old, catering-size refrigerator and a tall, ceramic-tiled oven - the kind used for cooking pizzas.

A number of doors led off from the main corridor, opening onto washrooms, cupboards, a fire escape... and finally one door which swung slowly open on creaking hinges, to reveal a flight of steps descending to a basement floor.

This lower level was arranged around a long, darkened corridor. For a while I was exploring in the pitch-dark, until I began to open a few of the doors that led off from the main passage; these mostly opened onto storerooms whose small, barred windows looked up at the sky from gutters outside the station building. Some of these narrow slots had been completely buried in the fresh snow - and so what little light managed to bleed through, fell cold and blue across the dusty floors.

As I crept through the basement corridors by torchlight, I was careful to check every darkened corner, scan each shadow around me.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

The train station provided warmth and shelter from the harsh winter outside, and it wouldn't have been a surprise to find gypsies or vagrants camping down here.

On this occasion, as it turned out though, I was alone in the building.

In the far corner of the basement I found one room dominated by a large water pipe, arching in from an exterior main and heavily lagged against the subzero temperatures. Another room housed chairs stripped from the waiting room above; their broken and twisted frames throwing elaborate shadows in the harsh winter sunlight.

The darkened rooms and corridors which formed this basement level spread the entire length of the station building, yet featured just one staircase. I left by the same way I came in.

I returned to the main waiting hall above, and this time picked my way towards the other end of the building. Beyond the barren foyer, past the rough marks where chairs once stood affixed to the floor of the waiting area, a single door opened into a ticket office; the square enclosure beyond was walled in with glass, its wooden floors scattered with paper and plaster.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

I skimmed through a book of ticket stumps as I passed, but in truth I was more interested in getting behind the glass-panelled kiosk.

It appeared as though this transparent barrier between the waiting hall and back-of-house areas had once been painted black; save for a cluster of glass windows left clear, immediately surrounding the kiosks themselves. In one corner of the hall there were a few broken panes... here I was able to roll under the blacked-out windows, and into the restricted staff quarters beyond.

One central corridor here featured the doors to offices, staff lounges, and what appeared to be residential quarters on the first floor - the latter presumably serving as a home for the station master.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this area of the station was the rich and diverse selection of clutter and personal effects left behind by staff. A deep walnut-coloured cabinet in the hallway opened to reveal a bottom half tightly packed with books, folders, scrolls and blueprints; in another room books had been piled high behind the door, and were now spilling out chaotically towards the centre.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

The last room I entered (cracked green paintwork complemented nicely by the rich, red hues of wooden panelling) was partially open to the elements. With a large portion of its windows missing, I only needed to step over the lintel to find myself back out on the platform. Gauging the edge of the platform itself was tricky however, given the heavy, drifting snow that obscured every detail beneath.

This rail station once featured a total of four platforms serving its tracks; while a little further down the rails one of these terminated in a service depot and loading bay. Here, two vast, rail-mounted gantry cranes looming orange and rusty out of the snow made for a truly surreal sight... and a feeling somehow reminiscent of the Battle of Hoth.

As soon as I had seen everything there was to see inside the station itself, I started making my way across tracks and platforms towards these distant wrecks.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

Getting closer to the cranes, it soon became apparent just how much damage the machinery had suffered over the years... largely due to weather and neglect.

I had my heart set on climbing, but on inspection of the closest crane it seemed that some of the rungs leading up to the gantry had eroded away altogether. The site around this loading depot was strewn with obsolete mechanisms and the occasional barren carriage, while the rails on which the gantries rested was locked solid with rust.

Being careful to get a good grip on the poles of the ladder rather than its rungs, and spreading my weight as evenly as I could, I made the climb up one of the gantry cranes to the control cabin above. Frost had reduced the leather-padded chair to flakes; leaving only the steering columns, their wheels and a panel of irresistible red and green buttons.

From this first platform, the ladder ascended higher still.

Urban Exploration | End of the Line | Abandoned Train Station, Bulgaria

The state of decay was more severe on the upper deck, and twice my foot went through thin, corroded plates of metal. I soon found myself crawling through the snow on all fours, weight spread over as many crossbeams and supporting joists as I was able to reach.

It proved entirely worthwhile... by climbing to the very top gantry I was offered spectacular views over the tracks, the railway station and the mountains beyond. I savoured this vantage point for as long as I could, before eventually climbing back down.

By the time I returned home I was cold, wet, bruised and tired, but satisfied at the same time; and glad to have had this opportunity to peer inside the workings of a long-since dead organ of the communist state.


More Urban Exploration...

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Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Ancient Capital of Koryo: Kaesong, North Korea

Situated in the southern mountains of the DPRK, Kaesong is a treasure trove of culture and history. This ancient royal capital is known for its export of medicinal Korean ginseng, for its countless temples and tombs, and for the rich natural beauty of the surrounding area. Kaesong makes a fascinating destination for tourism - and this attractive mountain citadel offers a real change of atmosphere after a visit to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.


Kaesong City

With a population just over 300,000 inhabitants, Kaesong City is a far cry from the nation's capital; in 1952 Pyongyang was targeted by the largest bombing raid of the Korean War, a total of 1,400 UN aircraft releasing their warheads over the city. After the war Pyongyang was rebuilt largely with Soviet aid... the result was a modern, minimalist city displaying rich architectural themes of Socialist Classicism, and Constructivism bordering on the Brutalist.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

Kaesong on the other hand is a small, and exceedingly green city.

This ancient settlement served as the capital of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392 AD), a kingdom which gave its name to modern day 'Korea'. During this time the city was known as Songdo.*

Nowadays Kaesong is the regional capital of the North Hwanghae Province, and one of a handful of destinations that have been approved for foreign visitors. Tourism here feels much more relaxed than it does in the capital; and while in Pyongyang you're surrounded by perpetual reminders of the nation's politics (in the form of propaganda posters, ideological monuments or vast statues of its leaders), in Kaesong it's easy to loose yourself in a much larger history.

Nearby you'll find the ruins of the ancient Manwoldae Palace, and the Kaesong Namdaemun Gate; the picturesque Pakyon Falls can be visited a little way to the north, while the surrounding mountains hold such sites as the tomb of King Wanggon and the 14th century tomb of King Kongmin. Not far from Kaesong lies the Taehungsan Fortress with its elaborate temples, while a more recent discovery is the Koryo-dynasty Buddha found carved into the rock of Mt. Chonma.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

One of the most striking buildings in Kaesong is the Songgyungwan Confucian Academy, now serving as the 'Koryo Museum'.

This quaint museum features archaeological finds from across the region, as well as items charting the history and evolution of Kaesong itself; the focus here is refreshingly broad, and the museum makes for a fascinating visit. One room inside the old academy serves as a replica of the stone chamber beneath the burial mound of King Kongmin - ruler of the Koryo Kingdom from 1351 until 1374.

Elsewhere, a chart dating back to the Japanese occupation of Korea shows the relative rates for buying and selling Korean men, women, children and oxen.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

The wide, open streets of Kaesong, populated by cyclists and just the occasional motorised vehicle, give the impression of a much smaller town... and you would never guess that this peaceful city is located only 10km north of the most heavily militarised border in the world!

Nevertheless, Kaesong city does serve as a convenient stopover for tourists on their way to visit the notorious Korean Demilitarized Zone. There are a couple of hotels in the city which cater specifically for these visitors, but perhaps the most popular amongst these is the traditionally-styled Folk Custom Hotel.


The Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel

The Folk Custom Hotel features richly traditional architecture, with a series of Hanok-style accommodations arranged around a central stream. In true Korean fashion, these buildings are positioned carefully in relation to their surroundings; the ancient principle of 'Baesanimsu' states that a home should feature mountains behind, with running water at the front.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

The main courtyard of the hotel opens onto one of the sleepy streets of Kaesong, where men and women cycle to work beneath the gaudy designs of colourful propaganda posters.

It was a strange contrast to notice the occasional rifle barrel, poking out of the wicker basket of a bicycle. Apparently gun ownership becomes more prevalent in North Korea, the closer you get to the DMZ: the most immediate source of perceived threat to national security.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere here is entirely at odds with that of Pyongyang. While in the capital you'll find yourself under observation at almost every given moment, here in Kaesong it feels as though you could easily drift off and lose yourself in the green streets and tree-shaded avenues. It's an illusion, but it's a pleasant one.

Another tradition observed at the Folk Custom Hotel is the absence of beds - guests sleep instead on padded floor mats, beneath insect nets suspended from walls and ceiling on taut strings. I personally found the accommodation here to be the most comfortable I had enjoyed in a while; though my deep sleep was perhaps aided in part by a hearty dinner and lashings of rich Korean ale.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

Kaesong is known for its highly developed cuisine, which evolved over the course of almost 500 years serving as a royal capital. Traditional meals here are often served in the form of many smaller dishes, presented in a series of metal-lidded bowls.

Our meal at the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel consisted of no less than a dozen different dishes; these included fried eggs and a beansprout salad, pyeonsu dumplings, kimchi, pickles and bean curd jelly, spiced yoghurt, cold mushrooms and stewed beef, accompanied by the Korean rice wine known as Soju.

We also had the opportunity to try a seasonal specialty, traditionally served only on the three hottest days of the year - and believed to protect the recipient from sunstroke or dizziness caused by the heat. This rich soup known as 'Gaejangguk' is stewed from a list of carefully selected ingredients including dog flesh and dandelions.


Pakyon Falls

Located roughly 25km north of Kaesong are the Pakyon Falls, one of three famous waterfalls dotted across the country. The narrow waterfall drops 37m down, into the scenic rockpool of the same name.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

We visited the falls on our way out of Kaesong, as we were heading back north towards Pyongyang. Leaving our small tour bus at the car park provided, we had to walk the rest of the way to the falls; a steep climb through a wooded crease between two neighbouring mountains.

As it turned out though, we weren't the only people who had decided to enjoy the falls today. The large wooded clearing that overlooks the Pakyon Pool was filled with children when we arrived, a noisy throng who ran and laughed around the water's edge.

The children seemed to be fascinated by the appearance of foreigners, though hesitant to do more than wave or shout 'hello'. Eventually one of their teachers approached us, and asked if the nine of us would be happy posing for a class photos - and then, another photograph with each of the three different school classes present.

It was a heart-warming experience to stumble across this hoard of gleeful children at play in the national park. Children tend to make poor actors, and I find it hard to believe that the apparent happiness of this group could have been engineered in any way, for the benefit of us visitors.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

However, it should perhaps be noted that school holidays in North Korea run from June 29th until September 4th. This was the last week of July, and so it was a little odd for such a large number of school children to be arranged according to class, and accompanied by their teachers, in exactly the destination our tour was expected to visit.

Of course it is by no way impossible that the school organises trips or expeditions during the holiday period, and these sort of communal pastimes are far more common in a communist society - see for example my report from a Soviet children's camp in Russia.

The children left not long after we arrived; each holding hands with a partner as they poured in chaotic double-file, back down the path towards the car park. We weren't the only group left to enjoy the falls, however. Nearby a family had set up camp on a rocky outcrop overlooking the water, bringing with them a karaoke machine and a barbeque. They seemed to be having a wonderful time singing and dancing by the falls, and I managed to capture a little of it on camera.


Ever the skeptic however, there were a couple of details that struck me as odd. Questions which would never have entered my mind, had I been in any other country in the world; yet as I have observed before, North Korea instills a certain kind of paranoia in the attentive visitor.

The DPRK operates a six-day working week, from Monday through to Saturday. This being a Monday, it seemed strange to find a large family group drinking and dancing in the park. Furthermore, when we eventually left Pakyon Falls the only other vehicle in the car park was a full-size coach... a somewhat unusual way for one family to travel.


Tourism in North Korea

One of the most fascinating things about a trip to Kaesong, is just how quickly you can forget that you're in North Korea. This is a fascinating destination by anybody's standards... and the presence of your state-approved tour guides becomes so relaxed and convivial, as to feel almost insignificant.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

Nevertheless, the astute and analytic tourist will find that certain issues still pose difficult questions... and the imposing statue of Kim Il-sung which stands on Mount Janam in the centre of Kaesong is just one of many reminders that all may not be as it appears.

Guests at the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel are informed that this is an authentic taste of traditional Korean culture; however, even the guest suites were subject to regular power cuts, and I found no hot water available to wash with. It seems fair to assume that whatever standards are presented to tourists here, are likely to be significantly superior to those readily available in other places.

Obviously though, given how little we actually know about the DPRK, the key word here is 'assume'.

Again at Pakyon Falls, it wouldn't be too hard to imagine that a coachload of giggling children had been imported purely for our benefit; or that a local family had been taken out of work, given a barbeque, a karaoke machine and a bottle of Soju, and told to go and enjoy themselves.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

However, it must be remembered that Korean culture is very different to our own; North Korean communist culture even more so. It should therefore be equally possible to believe that a school outing could take place during the summer holidays, or that an extended family group might have access to a coach.

North Korea seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the news, for such a relatively small nation. However, while international media tends to focus on their controversial satellite launches, their aggressive foreign policy, the private life of their leader or on ridiculous and unsubstantiated rumours about the nation in general**, one aspect of this country seems to get grossly overlooked;

The sheer, breathtaking natural beauty of North Korea.

This becomes more notable in the south around Kaesong, than anywhere else; here the Han River is formed from a network of springs and tributaries, and creates a series of lakes that cluster around the foothills of the Ahobiryong Mountains. Meanwhile the architecture of Kaesong is far more typified by classical Hanok and pagoda designs, than by the stark concrete Constructivism which so defines Pyongyang.

Dark Tourism | Kaesong, North Korea

It took us the best part of the afternoon to drive the 135km back to the capital.

The majority of roads in the DPRK were built under Kim Il-sung, in the industrious years that immediately followed the Korean War; as a result these modern highways run in perfectly straight lines from one point to another, with frequent tunnels cut through the dividing mountain ranges. During our journey we saw three, perhaps four other vehicles on the road.

There is no denying that North Korea is a very strange place; and a great number of the tourists who come here do so for the politics, the propaganda, and the chance to witness a culture which is absolutely unique in the world. However, while these same elements may at least in part shape all tourism to North Korea, the city of Kaesong and its surrounding area really do deserve note, as an incredibly rich and well-preserved source of Korean culture and heritage.

If and as and when a day comes that sees North Korea relax its stringent border controls, it is not hard to imagine Kaesong fast becoming one of Asia's most popular cultural destinations.


More on North Korea:
Tourism in Pyongyang
The Ryugyong Hotel
The Demilitarized Zone
Pyongyang Metro

More Weird World...


*The name 'Songdo' translates as 'City of Pines'... as opposed to Pyongyang's ancient name of 'Ryugyong', or 'Capital of Willows'.

**The "North Korea Claims Existence of Unicorns" story had been a popular one of late, leading to extensive online ridicule of the DPRK. Few news agencies have shown any interest in discovering the truth of the 'claim'... but the mistake comes from a Western mistranslation of a Korean news report celebrating the discovery of an ancient cave believed to be associated with a famous legend. An equivalent might be to declare that all Scottish people believe there to be a monster living in Loch Ness, and to ridicule them accordingly; although for the comparison to be complete, the Scottish would need to have no access to the Internet and no way of defending themselves.



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Saturday, 22 December 2012

Urban Exploration: Hollow Mountain, China

Qingdao is a modern port city, situated roughly 550km south of Beijing on China's east coast. The city is best known for its Yellow Sea port and Olympic sailing village; for its thriving business and commercial sector; and no less for the beauty of Qingdao's largest landmarks: the mountains Fushan and Laoshan. Qingdao also has something of a reputation for fine breweries, a local tradition started by the German colonists who settled here in 1898. They renamed the city 'Tsingtao' and built a picturesque Bavarian Quarter, lined with catholic churches and colonial mansions.

The Germans left more than just churches and breweries in their wake, however. In an effort to defend this important strategic outpost against the British fleet stationed in the Pacific, the colonists turned their attention to Mount Fushan: transforming the mountain into a vast, hidden weapon.


Over the Misty Mountains

I had no idea what sort of opportunities for urban exploration China might provide, and so I went with an open mind. As it turns out, and particularly along the populous east coast, I was surprised to find somewhat limited possibilities on offer; largely due to China's rapid rate of development.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

Buildings don't stay empty for long in Chinese cities, as there are always more families looking to move in... and wealthy developers with the means to make it happen.

There are construction sites aplenty but most of these are inhabited by teams of labourers, often shipped in from rural areas. During the few hours when work ceases, it's common for workers to live in crude on-site camps - rendering most construction sites near impossible to infiltrate.

It's not until you head away from the population centres that you begin to find the hidden treasures of China.

While visiting Qingdao, I started hearing rumours about forgotten German bunkers. Most of these reports were vague and inconclusive - a mysterious spy hole in a cliff face, a friend of a friend who had stumbled across a hidden tunnel entrance - but given the city's history and significance, the stories made sense.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

And so it was that two of us set out from the city, hiking up the rocky slopes of Mount Fushan. The tunnel entrance we had heard about would take a few hours to reach, situated on the other side of the main peak.

Just as we began our ascent towards the aptly-named 'Dragonback Ridge' however, we were hit by a torrential storm; hard, driving rain and dangerous crosswinds, accompanied by a heavy fog.

Making our way slowly in the treacherous conditions, we were just edging around a rocky outcrop when an old WWII-style pillbox appeared out of the mist above us. We were still a long way from our target, but the apparition clearly deserved further investigation.

I scrambled up the clammy rockface, to find the turret completely sealed. It seemed to melt out of the cliff, offering only a narrow loophole - and no way inside. However, by angling a torch beam through the hole it was possible to make out a concrete shaft behind; disappearing into darkness, and the heart of the mountain.


Dragonback Ridge

It took a fair bit of searching to find an entrance. We clambered up and down narrow, slippery mountain paths, in fog so thick that it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead. Some of the rocks showed signs of blasting - shallow, unnatural indentations hollowed into the flesh of the mountain. Finally looping back around the other side of the small peak, we stumbled across a stone archway set into the inland side of the mountain.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

Torches switched to full-beam we stepped out of the storm, and into a still darkness.

The tunnel beyond was mostly formed from natural rock - the bulging contours of the passage illustrating where one crater at a time had been blasted into the solid rock, joining to form a corridor. Inside, nothing stirred... other than the slow, methodical dripping of condensation from the walls. Even the raging storm outside became inaudible, as we carefully made our way deeper inside the mountain.

Branching out from this main tunnel were a number of smaller caverns and chambers; some appeared to be no more than an accidental blast in the wrong direction, while others were reinforced with solid metal walls and bulkheads.

These chambers were often marked with Chinese characters scrawled clumsily across doorframes, and would have served as storerooms, ammo dumps, dormitories. At a humidity level not far off 100%, every surface was damp to touch - and the insides of these vaulted metal chambers sparkled like electric silver where the moisture ran down over mineral deposits.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

We followed the main path as it wound upwards, curving around to the right, until after a while we were able to make out faint natural light ahead.

Here the rough, rocky walls were channelled into a vaulted stone passage. We stepped tentatively through one bulkhead door and then another, to find ourselves peering up a narrow concrete shaft. A series of decaying, red-rusted rungs led up to the turret we had previously seen peering out of the mountain.

At first I had wanted to get up there for a look - but as I took hold of the nearest rung it came away from the wall in my hand, leaving a rich red stain on my palm. Climbing was clearly out of the question, so instead we headed back to where another turning had forked off from the main path - a cavernous burrow which descended, step by stone step, into the impenetrable darkness.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

Ninety even steps took us down to a lower passage, where even in the darkness we could feel the clammy mist pressing in on us. Much like the natural rock passage above this basement level was lined with empty storerooms, iron doors sitting heavily on rusted hinges.

The sheer number of bolts, shutters and bars that adorned each doorway made it clear just how secure the site must have been in its heyday. The corridor terminated with a solid stone door, followed by a second and third; an impenetrable barrier, had they been sealed closed.

After the third bulkhead door we scrambled under a low stone lintel, to find ourselves back out on the mountainside. Dazed and blinking, we took our bearings... one secret underground base down, and we hadn’t even reached our destination yet.


Fushan Watchtowers

From here it was a long trek along the top of the ridge to our next stop. We passed by a television mast guarded by a handful of wild dogs, and then down into a grassy saddle overlooking the city. By this time the storm had abated, and so we stopped for a rest beside an old look-out point - no more than a concrete hut, its interior fittings burnt, broken and scattered with litter.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

The path levelled out as we followed it down the inland side of the mountain, to another tunnel entrance set high above the city skyline. The concrete archway stood partially concealed behind a crude stone shelter; a semi-circular wall set in with a viewport for sentry guns.

Passing inside, the passage rose immediately into a steep stairwell. As we climbed higher and higher inside the rocky headland we passed by a similar series of caverns and grottos hollowed out on either side. Here though, the construction was simpler - rough rock walls, and the occasional well supplying fresh spring water from deep under the mountain.

Higher up the stairs divided into three corridors, each one culminating in a lookout point. Two of these turrets faced out across the Yellow Sea, while the third offered inland views across Qingdao itself; each one was secured with a double airlock, a pair of heavy doors formed from reinforced concrete.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

With these colossal blast doors closed the main network would have been securely protected against enemy missiles, mortars or grenades, which happened to find their way in through the narrow loophole of the turret.

One of these doors was partially closed as I approached, and it took all of my strength to shift the massive bulk even a few inches on its rusted hinges.

It was clear that this second tunnel network was designed purely for the purpose of defence. The three turrets between them covered a near 360-degree view of the mountain, and the caverns that sprouted from the main stair would have made convenient ammo dumps for the artillerymen above.

This installation only had one entrance, opening straight onto the mountain path. Carefully retracing our footsteps in the dark, we left the same way we came in... before stumbling across the entrance to a third tunnel network, which would prove to be the most impressive of them all.


The Hall of the Mountain King

When I spied another of the now-familiar concrete arches nearby, this time disappearing down into the ground at a 45 degree angle, it seemed at first to be a false alarm. The passage led down into an arched stone chamber beneath the earth, a square hole cut through the roof aiming a bright spotlight onto the strewn rubble beneath.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

At the far side of this cave an identical corridor led back to the surface, emerging from dense green undergrowth a little further down the mountainside.

As we turned to leave however, my torchlight fell across the passage wall to reveal a small concrete hatch, hidden in the deep shadows. The heavy stone door that sealed the porthole was half covered by stones and debris, but we managed to shift enough of these aside to heave the door open, and squeeze into the small passage beyond.

The tunnel that faced us inside opened up into a corridor much like the first one we had explored; a floor of tightly packed sand and shingle, rough stone grottos blasted out on either side of the path, and the occasional iron doors leading to metal-lined vaults.

The mist here was thicker than in the other bunkers, playing havoc with my camera lens... but as we continued to explore, it soon became apparent that this section had served a more important role than either of the others.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

The first sign of this was the sheer size of the network. While the other tunnels had been either a straight passage, or perhaps a couple of linked corridors, this one took a more intricate, labyrinthine form; a series of interlinking passages veering off in all directions.

Another feature that clearly distinguished this complex as a command centre, was the installation of electric lights: ceramic contants poked out of the rock walls at regularly spaced intervals, supported on rusted iron terminals.

Here the storerooms and vaults were much larger, some of them offering enough space to have served as mess halls, dormitories or kitchens. Along the walls, a series of metal pipes and vents had been installed - presumably as conduits for water, gas, or even warm air during the winter months.

Another chamber, set right in the heart of the mountain, could have served as the ideal command centre. This large U-shaped room was connected to the main thoroughfare by several reinforced steel doors, and here there appeared a much higher frequency of electrical fittings.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

This main network had none of the turrets or lookout points that the other two had featured - instead it was set right in the centre of the mountain ridge, positioned between the others, and spreading much deeper into the bowels of Mount Fushan.

We tested every turning we passed: some of which culminated in dead ends, others in storerooms or metal-lined vaults. A few passages veered out and away from the central complex, emerging on distant mountain slopes.

This third network featured a total of five exit points, and each one of them was protected with the same series of three sturdy, concrete doors - rendering this mountain base impenetrable from the outside.

Other features we discovered in the caverns hinted at just how well-developed this military installation had once been. In addition to the electrical light fittings we found throughout (which were presumably installed in the later part of the 20th century, and powered by a now-absent generator), we stumbled across a series of deep wells filled with fresh mountain water, extensive metal ductwork, and a small blackened chamber set behind a hatch.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

The latter, presumably, would have served as some kind of oven or boiler; at the top of the chamber a cluster of pipes and flues would have directed hot air out, before channelling it around the rest of the tunnels to provide a rudimentary central heating system.

Numerous alcoves and recesses showed traces of brick ovens, while deep in the darkness of the lowest cave, we even stumbled across a subterranean lake. Fed by natural springs, the water would once have made the perfect bathing pool - but in the many years since the tunnels were in use, had become a breeding ground for frogs and toads.


The Fushan Tunnels

It is reasonable to assume that the Fushan Tunnels have continued to evolve over an extended period of time; from the first caverns blasted into the mountain around the turn of the 20th century, through to the later installation of electric lights.

The site was designed by the Germans, and would have given them the perfect vantage point for defending Tsingtao against naval assault.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

However, in 1914 the German occupation of Qingdao ended with the dramatic Siege of Tsingtao. Rather than attempting to reclaim their Chinese outpost, these colonists were instead summoned home to aid the war effort in Europe.

The Japanese Imperial fleet took control of Qingdao after this point, and it is rumoured that they extended the Fushan tunnels significantly. The faded remains of Japanese characters can still be made out, scrawled across bulkheads and lookout posts throughout the complex... alongside Chinese and even Korean script.

The city of Qingdao didn't revert back to Chinese rule until December 1922. For many years after the tunnels were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, right up until WWII. At this point, as conflict with the Japanese was renewed afresh, the passages beneath Fushan Mountain served as artillery depots and (according to rumour) a special forces training facility. They were later used for similar purposes, during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

Urban Exploration | Fushan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

While many of the details have become lost in the mists of history, it is clear that these deep, reinforced bunkers - with their numerous gun turrets, lookout posts and secret entrances - would have served to transform the picturesque Mount Fushan into the ultimate war machine... and provided an immense tactical advantage to whoever controlled the city and port below.

The vague report which had sent us scrambling up the mountainside in a typhoon, had mentioned one possible entrance to the bunkers; my online research suggested the existence of two.

In the end we managed to find three separate tunnel networks, with a total of eight entrances between them.

It is difficult to ascertain the true extent of the Fushan tunnels; how many more such networks there might be, or how deep they spread beneath the mountains. The only certainty is that this spectacular mountain range conceals far more than meets the eye.


More Urban Exploration...

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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Dark Tourism: Dracula's Castle, Romania

Known far and wide as 'Dracula's Castle', Bran Castle overlooks a densely wooded mountain pass in Transylvania. I had long wanted to visit this 14th century gothic fortress for myself. The more I learnt though, the further the truth grew from the fiction; and yet the true story of Vlad Dracula is at times equally macabre.


The Dracula Myth

In 1897 Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist and short story author, penned what was to later become one of the enduring classics of the horror genre - Dracula. In his search for inspiration, he turned to Romania; a land rich in folklore and superstition, combining an often bloodthirsty history with endless mountains, pine forests, and a penchant for gothic castles.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

Stoker became fascinated by Romanian folklore, and after consulting maps he eventually decided to choose a mountain in the northern Transylvania region as the setting for his novel. The 'Castle Dracula' in the book is situated on Mount Izvorul Călimanului, not far from the former border with Moldavia... in reality, no more than a barren, craggy peak.

For many years the Romanians themselves were oblivious to the mythology created by Stoker's cult novel. It wasn't until the Romanian Communist Party was dissolved in 1989 that the story of Dracula finally returned home, and was met largely with bafflement.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

Nevertheless, the newly-democratic Romanian people were quick to grasp the concepts of capitalism - and it was primarily for the purposes of tourism that Bran Castle became known as 'Dracula's Castle'.

The choice of location may appear unwarranted. After all, there is no evidence that Bram Stoker had even heard of Bran Castle, and his fictional lair was imagined many miles north of this site. The connection can be traced however, from the historical figure who provided much of the inspiration for Stoker's vampiric antagonist.


Vlad the Impaler

The figure in question was Vlad III Dracula. Born to the House of Drăculești in 1431, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was renowned across Europe for his cruelty. Posthumously dubbed 'Vlad the Impaler' (or 'Vlad Ţepeș' in Romanian), this three-time Voivode of Wallachia is reported to have impaled tens of thousands of his enemies, during his reign from 1456 to 1462.*

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

The House of Drăculești was so named by Vlad the Impaler's father, and comes from the Romanian word 'dracul'; translating to 'dragon'. Vlad II Dracul took the dragon as the symbol of his house, and a sign of his allegiance to the Order of the Dragon. This chivalric order was founded in 1408 with the purpose of defending Christianity against its enemies... most notable amongst whom, at the time of Vlad II, were the Ottoman Empire.

However, the word 'dracul' is also sometimes interpreted as meaning 'devil'; and following the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church during the 11-12th centuries, Vlad II Dracul's Catholic enemies soon began referring to him as 'Vlad the Devil'.

It is possible to argue that Vlad the Impaler, at least to some extent, was similarly a victim of bad press.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

Right up until his assassination in 1476, it is well documented that Vlad III Dracula took great pleasure from impaling his enemies on long wooden spikes.

It is even reported that he hired master surgeons to help guide the thick shafts - from insertion at the anus, up through the intestines and forming an exit point on the upper back - in order to prevent damage to the vital organs. Provided victims didn't die of shock or blood loss, it was possible to keep them alive for up to several days.

However, it is worth noting that a good many of these victims were Ottoman soliders; the same Ottomans who had just raped and pillaged their way up through Bulgaria, leaving a trail of slaughter and wanton cruelty in their wake. As ruler of Wallachia, it was Vlad's duty to defend his people. He chose to do so by torturing invaders, on Romanian soil, in order to mount their impaled corpses along the southern border by way of a deterrent.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

It's difficult to name many notable figures from the 15th century who weren't guilty of shedding copious amounts of blood - even amongst the good guys. Vlad the Impaler is remembered by many Romanians and Bulgarians as a folk hero; a brave leader who stood defiant in the face of an evil empire. While this much at least may be based in fact, it does seem as though perhaps he took a little too much pleasure from his work.

One thing that is known for sure, is that Vlad III Dracula spent most of his adult life in Târgoviște: the 15th century capital of Wallachia. His reign was interrupted twice - the first time by exile, the second with imprisonment in Hungary. It was during this earlier period of exile from Wallachia that Vlad III spent some time as a guest at Bran Castle, in the northern region of Transylvania.


Bran Castle

While the connection between Vlad the Impaler and Bran Castle is tenuous at best, Bran does nevertheless serve as the perfect example of a Transylvanian castle; and so it won the title ahead of other potential candidates such as Hunyad Castle where Vlad was imprisoned by the Hungarians, or the ruined Poenari Castle.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

Teutonic Knights had built a wooden fortress on this site near Braşov (then known as 'Kronstadt') in 1212, but it was later destroyed by the Mongols.

Bran Castle appeared here in the 15th century, built by the Saxons. For its early years the castle acted as a defensive position against Ottoman invasions, but later it became an important customs checkpoint. This mountain pass offered the perfect passage from Wallachia into Transylvania - though the often harsh taxes set by the Magyar Kings led to folk stories about them actually drinking human blood.

A century later Bran Castle was repossessed by the city of Braşov, when King Vladislas II was bankrupted. It remained in military use until 1920, when it was adopted as a residence of the Romanian royal family. Queen Marie (grand daughter of Britain's Queen Victoria, wife to King Ferdinand of Romania), fell in love with Bran Castle, and filled it with fine furniture and artwork from her own collection. The royal family was eventually expelled in 1948, at the behest of the Romanian Communist Party.

It is easy to see just how well Bran Castle lends itself to the mythology. Dark, wood panelled rooms open into arched white corridors, while numerous balconies and walkways offer spectacular views over the forested mountains of Transylvania.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

There's even a secret passage, now open to tourists, which leads between rooms on the first and third floors. This steep, narrow stone stair was discovered relatively recently, when the castle was undergoing restoration work.

Some rooms around the castle are arranged with furniture and fittings, as selected by Queen Marie. Others are given over to museum-style exhibitions... covering everything from royal family trees, to detailed accounts of folkloric traditions in Transylvania. There is even one room in the tower, which charts the increasing popularity of vampires on screen - from Dracula to Twilight.

It wasn't a busy day compared to the holiday season, but still there were a good number of tourists in attendance. By the time I reached the central courtyard, I could see faces peeking out of every window, or hear tour groups crossing balconies high above.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

A stone well stands in the centre of the cobbled yard - merely a convincing fake. The old well, apparently, has now been transformed into a lift serving the former wine cellars. The room above is filled by an archaic winch mechanism, although it seems the lift itself is kept under lock and key.

While Vlad the Impaler merely visited Bran Castle in passing, this beautiful gothic fortress really does look the part; so much so, that some people come expecting more. My guide told me of one Brazilian woman, who had abandoned the tour in disgust once she realised they wouldn't be seeing real vampires.

It's not uncommon for people to have trouble separating the facts from the fiction, he told me. "The only blood suckers we have now," he said, "are the politicians."


Exit Through The Gift Shop

Bran Castle features less a gift shop, more a gift town.

Dark Tourism | Dracula's Castle Bran, Transylvania, Romania

A series of market stalls have grown into a festival of tents and tourist attractions, gathered in the shadow of Bran Castle. Here you can buy everything from t-shirts and other Dracula-themed memorabilia, through to fresh local produce.** The influx of tourism to the small village of Bran seems to attract farmers and entrepreneurs alike. There's even a garish haunted house ride, that you can visit on your way out of the site.

Some visitors expect more from Bran Castle, or come here looking to find something mystical and untouched. While the connection to Dracula is almost entirely down to clever marketing however, the castle itself is undeniably impressive; boasting enough history and intrigue of its own, to justify its choice as an example of how a Romanian vampire's castle might look.


More Dark Tourism...


*A Romanian 'voivode' is the equivalent of an English duke... or depending on your translation, a count.

**I wasn't tempted by the rubber masks or Dracula-head mugs, but I did however buy some delicious smoked cheese - a Transylvanian specialty apparently, which comes wrapped in tree bark.



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