A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Sunday 4 September 2016
Greetings from sunny Kiev.
I hadn’t expected to be saying that… and certainly not the sunny part. I was only too glad to fly here from the sweltering heat of a Bulgarian summer, but as fate would have it I landed in the midst of a Ukrainian heatwave. The city is hot and dusty, with gold domes sparkling in the sun and concrete architectural monstrosities basking like grey lizards in the suburbs.
But the truth is, I never expected to be visiting Ukraine this year. If you cast your minds back to the Spring, I posted an editorial that gave a list of countries and regions I hoped to visit in 2016: the Balkans, Scandinavia, Iran and (I think I said) South Africa. Well that didn’t exactly work out to plan.
That Balkan trip did happen, obviously – I’ve posted about it too. First the Colourful Revolution in Skopje, Macedonia, then an ‘Island of Ghosts’ in Croatia and a massive Yugoslav ruin in Montenegro. Just yesterday I had a breakthrough though, and finally published the biggest, most difficult article that will come out of that month-long trip: What I Learned in 18 Hours of Sarajevo War Tourism. There will be plenty more Balkan posts to come, too… and they’ll start appearing quicker, now that I can finally close the lid on the Bosnian story that I’ve been working at for such a long time.
As for those other trips I had planned? Well the Summer of 2016 hit me pretty hard, with a lot of unexpected developments. Some of them good, some bad, but enough between them to scupper most of my travel plans for the year. Scandinavia didn’t happen this time, while Iran and South Africa will have to wait for another day. (I’m sure they’ll still be there.)
Then just one month ago, as I was gearing up for Tour season (I’m leading two groups around Bulgaria, in September and October) a friend of mine came up with a proposition. Yomadic was in Kiev… he runs tours too, and was itching to bring a group over to Ukraine. It’s a great city for architecture fans, with some real treasures of the Soviet brutalist style – but coupled with my experience and contacts in nearby Chernobyl, he thought we could put together a pretty serious package between us.
So that’s what’s going to happen: later today our group of 9 will meet in Kiev, for two days of architecture in the capital… followed by two days in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Right after that I fly to Sofia, Bulgaria, and straight into my next tour there.
Before I get stuck into all that though, here are a couple of highlights from my journey to Ukraine…
Urban Decay in Prague
The Czech Republic is another country I didn’t expect to be visiting this year. As it turned out though, my flight from Bulgaria to Ukraine involved a 12-hour stopover in Prague – so I made full use of it, meeting up with a local contact for a day of urban exploration around the city.
The first place we visited was a derelict factory site – they used to produce cars here, in huge halls now scattered with broken machine parts and plastered under colourful graffiti.
But this location had a particular claim to fame – because it was here in 1968, that a Czechoslovak worker’s union gathered to write a fateful letter to Moscow. They warned about the increasing liberalism in the country, and invited the Soviet Union to come and occupy them. It was quite moving, to stand in the very place where that controversial event was all planned.
After that we visited a power station.
This location was equally derelict, though it had much more to see in the way of machines and wheels and dials and staircases: dirty industrial fittings filling a massive building on the western edge of Prague. There were some local residents too, people living in makeshift homes around the power station building.
We did have a rather amusing experience there – we were caught exploring the roof, which led to a memorable meeting with some Czech firemen. I’ll tell you the whole story, one of these days!
It was an action packed stop-over, and by the time I arrived in Kiev I was already exhausted. For the last few days, I have been exploring drains and other underground spaces beneath the Ukrainian capital (more about that soon)… but before I had the energy for any of that, I spent a very pleasant week simply wandering about the city and photographing architecture.
The hot weather has at least been great for photographing buildings – clear skies and brilliant light – and I’m adding more buildings to the collection every day. Pretty soon, I’ll start picking my favourites in order to add them to The Exclusion Zone as a gallery post.
The Tyrant’s Palace
When Ukraine erupted into revolution back in 2014, the former president Viktor Yanukovych fled – he retreated to Russia, the country that had supported his somewhat tyrannical rule of Ukraine, while the revolutionaries seized his home and lands.
What they found inside was quite remarkable. While many of his citizens were living below the poverty line, Yanukovych had built himself a magical kingdom that would have made Michael Jackson blush. A four-storey palace leads into underground complexes containing a gymnasium, boxing ring, greenhouses and bomb shelters. There are ornamental ponds, fountains, gazebos and faux-baroque statues.
From the garden, a path leads down to the riverside, and that’s when the true size of the estate becomes apparent: over 350 acres of manicured parkland inside a huge electrified fence. There’s a zoo, an ornamental galleon, lakes and boats and scenic bridges; a helicopter pad and the president’s private retro car collection (now repurposed as a museum).
It’s a credit to the Ukrainian people that this place didn’t get burned to the ground. Instead they’ve turned it into a park – opening cafes and restaurants beside the lake, and installing cycle paths around the massive estate. This is a truly remarkable place, and I’ll be sharing a full set of photos from it soon.
And Now, Your Feedback
I am consistently overwhelmed by the support I get from my sponsors on Patreon, and honestly, it’s a real game changer. That last article I wrote about Sarajevo for example, took such a ridiculous amount of time to put together… and without support, I don’t think I’d be able to justify spending so long on a single post. Certainly, if I had taken the other route and started featuring adverts on my site, I would have been forced to post shorter, shallower, and more frequently in order to get to the same place.
You are all helping to shape this website, and you’re helping me to keep the quality high. I really want you to feel a part of it.
So what do you think? How am I doing? I encourage all feedback, positive or critical, and I really want to make sure that you feel you’re getting something in return. Do tell me if there’s anything more you think I could be doing for my sponsors.
I haven’t run a vote for a while, so I think it’s time we did that. And I realise I’m still one article behind: I had promised a private piece about my epic 56-hour train journey from Moscow, Russia to Astana, Kazakhstan, and it will be arriving on The Exclusion Zone this month.
So how about we run a vote for a post on the main page of the site? Highest on my list of priorities right now are my article on Yugoslav Spomeniks, something from Slovenia (probably this) and something new from Ukraine. But I’d love to know what you want to see. There are some options below… tell me which you most like the sound of, and I’ll get it out there in September!
There are two other questions here as well, just to help me get a feel for what’s working, what isn’t, and what you’d like to see in future posts.
I’m heading out now, to go meet some tour guests and start preparing them for Chernobyl. In the meantime you can use the form above to give me an idea of what you’d like to see this month.
I look forward to hearing your suggestions!
The Exclusion Zone.
The Bohemian Blog is bigger than it looks. In fact, there’s a whole restricted area hidden away behind the public pages… a space where patrons of the site can access exclusive content, book previews and private image galleries. It’s called The Exclusion Zone. Just sponsor me the equivalent of a cup of coffee for each new article I post, and I’ll send you the password. Check out my page on Patreon to find out more about the perks of getting involved.