A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Wednesday 3 May 2017
In March 2017 I published a story about one of the most unsettling places I have ever been. If you haven’t already seen my article about the abandoned monument on Grmeč Mountain, you can read it here.
I have some more thoughts though, and more stories to share about this place, which you’ll find in this follow-up article.
The Abandoned Monument
As I mentioned in my previous article about Yugoslav memorial sites, I have never really liked the phrase ‘abandoned monument.’ Monuments are things that are put in a place and left to be looked at; so at what point do they technically become abandoned? Is there a minimum number of visitors they can receive, and still be considered to be doing their job?
Technicalities aside however, the Grmeč Spomenik was precisely that: an abandoned monument, by any definition of the term. The place lies derelict, deserted, grown over with weeds and populated only by toads, newts and other forest creatures. It was immediately clear that no one comes here anymore.
When it came to writing about the place, I felt I had to walk a delicate line between sensationalism and rationality; documenting both the history – the facts – and the phenomenology of visiting today. For the record, I don’t believe there was anything remotely supernatural going on at the Grmeč memorial park… but I haven’t been to many places where my senses have been quite so tempted to think it, and in the article I wanted to convey a sense of the very strange and unwelcoming atmosphere there.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. All four of the people I visited with were self-confessed cynics: pragmatic, logical people. By the end of that afternoon however, we were unanimous in deciding that something was very not right about the abandoned monument and the park in which it sat. I spoke to Don Niebyl too, an American researcher and creator of the wonderfully informative Spomenik Database; and he said much the same thing. Strangely, inexplicably, Don had found the memorial zone on Grmeč Mountain to be a deeply unsettling place.
One regular reader of this blog (you know who you are!) suggested that the water might have been the problem. I found the idea fascinating… the notion that the stagnating pool at the heart of the park was somehow a source of its malaise. When I considered other Yugoslav monuments, I realised that many of the most positive and optimistic places I’ve visited have featured fresh water, streams or ponds.
Here though, the body of water had suffered decades of stagnation – which in turn affected the wildlife, it affected the atmosphere of the place, in subtle ways it affected the air and aromas and it certainly had an effect on us, the visitors.
Of course, that still doesn’t explain how our electrical equipment tended to fail in proximity to the monument. Coincidence, I suppose. But it all built together to form a very strange expedition, and the article I published previously doesn’t even tell the whole story.
What follows are the parts I left out.
It was already a difficult article to write: I was trying to condense a brief history of modern Belarus, my own first impressions on visiting the country, and a lesson on architectural appreciation all into one readable blog post. When I got stuck for words I switched on the news for the sake of distraction… and that’s when I heard about the protests in Minsk and other Belarusian cities, and I realised, with a groan, that I’d have to restructure my article yet again to incorporate these new developments into my historical narrative.
Now procrastinating harder than ever, I decided to reorganise the drawers in my desk.
Sifting through a debris of paperclips, receipts, pen lids and foreign SIM cards, I pricked my finger on something. It was a small metal badge… a commemorative lapel pin featuring the shape of the Grmeč Spomenik.
I had visited the monument in April 2016. In June that year, while hunting down a rare book on Yugoslav architecture, I’d spotted the pin listed in an online auction. I don’t really know why I bought it – only that I saw it and suddenly desired it. The pin took three weeks to arrive, and then it was almost immediately consigned to the bottom drawer of my desk.
Now, looking at that brassy pin in my hand, memories began rushing back. The long-abandoned monument. The toads. The slime. The stranger living alone in the ruined hotel. I was lost in thought for a long time, and I’m not even sure when I started to write – but before I knew it I was typing, remembering with my fingers, the story bypassing my internal narrator altogether, as it flowed from my subconscious straight to the screen.
My article about Belarus was moved to the back burner while The Bad Place, my story about the Grmeč Spomenik, practically wrote itself in a matter of hours.
That first draft, however, was considerably longer than what I eventually posted. Memories combined with notes from my hand-scribbled travel journal, to form a rambling epic of doom and paranoia.
I decided to keep the introduction – the landmine scattered road to Sanski Most, getting lost in that desolate valley beneath Grmeč Mountain – because I felt it helped to set the tone. It is significant that we went into this experience nervous, shaken, and I wanted readers to feel a little of that too.
However, in the story I published we simply left the monument and drove away after. As these missing epilogues reveal, that’s not exactly how it happened.
On the way back to the car, someone joked that the vehicle might no longer be where we’d left it… that we’d find ourselves trapped on Grmeč for the night. Nobody laughed.
But the car was there, and beyond it I noticed a set of stone steps leading down through the bushes. In one last moment of curiosity I followed them to a lower level, to a meadow that opened up beyond and below the gutted buildings that stood at the road’s edge.
At the bottom a fountain, set into the stone wall, gurgled water through a rusted pipe and into an overflowing bathtub. The fountain was original, but the bathtub, clearly, was not. I wondered who had put it there. And why.
The grass around was marshy underfoot. The sodden turf squelched and undulated in strange ways, reminding me of the time when, as a child, I had once explored across the grassy crust of a farmyard slurry pit; without realising that beneath my feet lay six feet of viscous, liquid filth, with only a tiny film of roots and grass stitching the surface together.
Over at the far end of the clearing, the land rose up in a small incline to a mound topped with curious white stelae. They looked inviting there, on the forest’s edge, and I was still gazing at the stones when one of my friends started talking about animal tracks. “Right there,” he said, pointing at fist-sized paw prints in the mud.
It didn’t take long to trace the paw prints back to a cavernous burrow at the meadow’s edge. Badgers or bears, I thought, and I didn’t fancy meeting either. Bears were the real concern, though – it was April, they would be waking up from hibernation now, and hungry. Confused.
And so we left it there. The pale stone figures were still calling from the forest, but I turned my back on Grmeč and we departed.
The sky was huge. We drove along a natural ridge and the landscape fell away in both directions: row upon row of mountains far in the distance, barely visible beyond the boundless plains. Above us, the clouds seemed to float a thousand miles away. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so small as I did in that wild, open Bosnian landscape.
We hadn’t stopped for petrol on the way to Grmeč Mountain. There was a station, some way back, but we’d pressed on for the monument. It hadn’t seemed urgent at the time.
Now we still had two bars on the meter, easily enough to get us to the next station… or even the one after that. The problem was, we were beginning to discover that there was no next petrol station. It was just us, one tiny car in a vast green wilderness.
We hit one bar, and still no sign of relief. I began checking maps, counting down the kilometres to each new village along the road… but then we’d roll through and find nothing but farm houses and wooden sheds. Meanwhile, the two Australians were arguing over the optimum speed, the best gear, to cover the most ground at the minimum fuel expenditure.
We were all beginning to panic. We talked about how long it might take to walk to the next town with a gas can – or whether it was worth asking for help at the occasional farmhouses along the way. The day was coming to an end though, and so another option was to sleep there, in the car, and let it wait till morning.
There was a larger town coming up, where we’d be sure to find a garage; but the meter was touching red when we were still 20km away. On we drove, in silence. I looked at the map, and looked at the meter: 12km and we were into the red. By 6km, the meter was dead flat… we were driving on fumes alone.
I was still thinking about Grmeč, the abandoned monument back behind us. The mountain was just a shadow on the horizon now, but its presence still loomed over us. After all the strangeness of our visit, the death, the decay, the bad atmosphere and failing instruments, there was an irrational part of my brain that wanted to blame Grmeč for this too. As if the monument didn’t want us to leave. I kept the idea to myself… but I wondered if the same wordless thoughts were going through my friends’ heads as well.
It was by sheer luck alone that the town ahead of us lay at the bottom of a valley. We crested the hill, then let the engine idle – rolling, rather than driving, through the outskirts, the suburbs, and down into the centre, where we soon enough found a place to fill the tank.
A lesson was learned that day, disaster was averted – but the stress, the fear of getting stranded in the plains beneath the dark mountain, would inevitably become a part of my own mythology about the place.
While most of the memorial sites we visited on that trip were a straightforward case of drive up / park / shoot photos / leave, our visit to the abandoned Grmeč monument was one of the most emotionally-charged days in the whole month-long journey; and adding to that with such a dark, tragic history of its own, perhaps it’s no wonder that the monument stands out in my memory now as one of the most disturbing places I have ever visited.
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