A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Saturday 2 May 2015
Bulgaria’s villages are rapidly depopulating. It began under the communist party, as they relocated citizens to the cities in order to provide the workforce for newly built factory sites. In the decades since the regime changed, the process has continued. Nowadays, there are many settlements dotted around the country that stand mostly empty – houses, petrol stations, schools and town halls shuttered up, now surplus to requirement.
In one particular village I visited last year, both the local school and nearby kindergarten had suffered such a fate. There were no longer enough families in the neighbourhood to justify the cost of running these institutions. These days the children travel by bus to a larger town nearby; the old schools, meanwhile, have been closed, forgotten, and abandoned to the slow fate of invisible decay.
The entrance to this village kindergarten was locked and barred – but a friend of mine, a local, drew my attention to an open first floor window. Getting up there was still a bit of a struggle. The window was rusted, wedged in place, so that I had to climb a drainpipe then rotate, squeezing myself sideways through the narrow opening. Eventually I made it, and fell onto my face in a small kitchen area.
I must have spent an hour or so, exploring the kindergarten. Thanks to the locked doors, the place had been untouched by vandals or the elements. Instead, children’s toys, dolls and teaching aids had been left exactly in place.
There were books of nursery rhymes, and laminated wall panels that taught children how to brush their teeth correctly. One dusty room was dominated by a bulky cathode ray television, its screen thick with dust.
The kindergarten was spread across two floors, and beyond that a set of steps led up into the attic. Up there, thin slivers of light spilled in through gaps between the roofing tiles. There was a child’s tricycle left rusting on the rafters; a series of posters and wall hangings featuring illustrated nursery rhymes; and nearby, a severed doll’s head that lay unblinking amongst the dust and rags.
The High School
In the same village, the secondary school for children 11-years-and-up stood similarly abandoned. This place though, had been left entirely open to the elements.
We walked through classrooms, saw blackboards still marked up in chalky algebra. Desks had been left, arranged in their tidy rows ready for a lesson. Although, the illusion was slightly spoiled for me: my local guides told me how they’d brought other photographers here in the past… and how one of them spent a good few hours searching the building for props, arranging them into life-like scenes in order to create that perfect ‘ghost town’ vibe for her photos.
Nevertheless, the building itself spoke volumes. The stone water fountain at the foot of the stairs. The pictures of Bulgarian revolutionary heroes pinned up high on walls. The archaic, pump-operated fire extinguisher that propped open one of the first floor doors.
I crawled into the attic here as well, to find a cluster of old teaching aids and surplus classroom furniture. In the basement, meanwhile, I found an abacus trailing cobwebs, disused for who knew how long.
The most moving sight was to be found in one of the school rooms though, a box of projector slides that had fallen apart to spread its contents across the floor. I held one up to the light; it was an incredibly detailed anatomical image of a plant. The next – a man’s portrait. The next – maps of the Bulgarian landscape. These slides represented a vast amount of knowledge and information, rendered in extraordinary detail but now abandoned to the mould. They lay scattered here and there as though they’d been picked up, played with, moved around… but ultimately, left behind for dead.
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