A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Buzludzha any more – but I’ll always remember the first time. I had seen the monument back in 2009, as a distant silver disc above the horizon; but it was another three years before I would venture inside the saucer.
That day came in early spring. The weather was mild, but up at Buzludzha Peak the land was still hard with the stubborn frosts of winter. The top layer of snow would melt by day, turn to mush, then freeze all over again when night fell and temperatures crept back below zero.
We could drive no closer than the top of the ridge, where the road reached a tarmac clearing before weaving its way back down the far side of the mountain. From this parking space that had once received thousands of visiting coaches every year, a track wound up toward the monument itself; passing along the very crest of the mountain to the peak at 1,432m above sea level. On this occasion though, the path extended only a few metres further before it was submerged beneath the drifting snow.
On foot through the crisp snow, lungs filling with thin, chill air, we trekked up the slope in the direction of the monument. It took us perhaps 20 minutes to get there – a walk that would have been much quicker if it weren’t for these adverse conditions. At first there was no sign of a path, and so we stumbled through snow up to our ankles; occasionally taking a misstep, away from the invisible path, and disappearing up to our knees in the pale drifts.
At the top of the ridge we found the path again; clean flagstones that caught the light, basking in the feeble sun like the scales of some hibernating reptile. We were able to pick up speed on the stone, and as we came over a rise in the ridge we saw it: the saucer, dead ahead, larger than I’d imagined it and every bit as intimidating as it loomed at us out of an etheric mist.
At first sight, there was something resolutely alien about the building. The shape summoned images of those classic 1950s B-movies, with their flying saucers and death rays. The effect was more than that though, more than just an aesthetic echo, a nod to a cultural stereotype. The simple truth was that human beings did not build this way… and so the building on Buzludzha Peak, perched up there alone in a landscape of rocks and snow, did not feel like anything of ours.
Above and beyond the plaza, past cracked stone bordered in the grey-white slush of old snow, steps rose up toward the monolith itself. At the top of the staircase, set into the front wall of the monumental structure, the doors hung wide open; a gaping black maw that disappeared inside this rotten space hulk.
That first visit, for me, was a deeply personal experience. Three of us drove up in the car, but it would only be myself that ventured inside.
There was no one else at the monument. Perhaps no one else on the mountain, save for us; no other living soul on the planet for all I could tell. I approached the landing ramp, cautiously, quietly, as if to avoid startling the saucer into flight.
Snow and ice had collected inside over the winter, and now the saucer was expelling it: the melt-water seeped from hairline cracks in the concrete shell. It dribbled over the surface of the hull, so that the structure glistened; the streams spread like veins around the outer shell, sometimes sending torrents of water splashing noisily down to the flagstones.
On either side of the entrance, plastering the front wall of the monument, heavy concrete letters spelled the words of the famous socialist anthem, The Internationale, in Bulgarian Cyrillic:
“On your feet despised comrades! On your feet you slaves of labour! … Stand up against the enemy! Without mercy, without forgiveness, let us take down the old, rotten system … Working men, working women, from all countries come together … Forwards! Comrades without fear, build strong our great deeds!”
The size of the letters, formed from great chunks of weighty concrete; the harsh typography, the abundance of exclamation marks: such text spoke even to those who could not read it. But the anthem was answered by bold red letters above the entrance, offering the retort: “FORGET YOUR PAST.”
Those three words seemed to summarise everything, from the leaking water to the broken letters and cracked tarmac. It was as if to say; turn back now. Take no notice of this old thing.
Passing through the entranceway, into a dirty, waterlogged space of broken tiles, marble flakes and dripping moisture, much of the otherness of this structure would be undone; it was a wreck inside, but here at least it seemed a human wreck. Light fell in through the doorway behind me, to mingle with the light that tumbled down staircases positioned on the other three cardinal points.
I tried following the stairs – to find a smooth cascade of ice, a frozen waterfall. All spring the water had been melting, leaking, freezing again, and now the shape of the steps was all but lost. I made slow progress as I half-climbed, half-dragged myself up the staircase; my fingers searching for cracks in the walls, any grip with which to pull myself up the otherwise impossible terrain.
One landing space, then another flight of steps; a balcony looking out over the dungeon I’d just left; and then I climbed again, two more slippery slopes, the staircase spiralling slowly upwards until I emerged into the central hall above.
The first thing I saw was the hammer and sickle emblem, a faded mural in red, green and gold, positioned at the centre of the ceiling. “The Proletariats of Every Country Join Together,” read the text that curled around the familiar crest.
As I emerged from the darkness of the stairwell, the arena opened up around me: a space that rivalled the saucer’s exterior in terms of exquisite, otherworldly charm. I felt at last as though I had arrived, stumbling onto the bridge of this ruined spacecraft perched atop the mountain.
The building’s architect once named this the ‘Solemn Hall’; but the hall was anything but solemn. There was a fierce flapping all about, a noise like a startled aviary of metal crows. It came from the roofing panels, I realised, hanging loose from the beams above and rattling in the winds that blew in through the perforated lid. Here and there, beams of sunlight pierced the dome; slices of gold dissecting the gloomy space.
Beneath me, between the layered rings that curved into an amphitheatre, the central floor was hard with compact ice: a skating rink, beneath the hammer and sickle.
On the surrounding walls, intricate murals had fallen away – one coin-sized tile at a time – to leave chips of red and gold embedded in walls of rough cement. Some had survived better than others. Scenes of labour, or the arrival of the Red Army in Bulgaria; on one wall, a ring of workers slayed the dragon of capitalism with their pitchforks; elsewhere: a wreath of hands surrounding a bright red star.
Across the hall, above the seating galleries, two trios of faces locked eyes with one another. On the one side, the fathers of international communism: Engels, Marx and Lenin. Opposite those, Bulgaria offered her own pantheon of communist deities: Dimitur Blagoev, ‘Grandpa,’ the founder of Bulgarian socialism; Georgi Dimitrov, the ‘First Leader.’
By their side, another portrait had been removed – not roughly, not by the ravages of time, but rather stone-by-stone, with immaculate care, a face erased from history with almost surgical precision. Todor Zhivkov: the king dethroned; the man whose own crumbling legacy was now so aptly mirrored in this vast, utopian spacecraft gone to rust and ruin.