A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Friday 28 August 2015
Sparks flash in the cold night’s air, a storm of light amidst a sea of twisted trunks and branches. We‘re stood in a forest, perhaps a hundred kilometres from Moscow, and though it is spring, mounds of stubborn snow still lay about us, piled in dirty drifts beneath the trees.
The angle grinder stops for a moment, the air-bound sparks fall to earth and the operator takes a deep breath before continuing. I look about the clearing. There are thirteen of us, thirteen shadowy figures braced against the cold wind. The others are dressed in army surplus gear, in worn leather coats and fur hats; eight men, four women, wrapped in a chaotic uniform of gloves and scarves and leftover military boots.
The man with the angle grinder, he wears thick rubber gloves and a pair of dirty, oversized goggles to cover his eyes. His long hair is tied back in a bandana, his eyes bulge beneath the glass as sparks fly from his hands. He himself looks part machine.
He’s cutting the third side of a square now, grinding a hole through the rusted metal plate that covers the entrance to a concrete chamber. It’s not the chamber we’re interested in, though – not this ugly grey edifice, which rises abruptly from the forest floor in the middle of nowhere. Rather, we’re interested in the ladder inside, which, we hope, will connect the surface to what lies below.
Deep beneath us there lurks a hidden relic of the Cold War: a vast ring of subterranean tunnels, 50km in length and scattered with decaying scientific equipment, long forgotten and sealed against intruders; sealed against people like us.
It’s a particle collider. A colossal machine constructed by the Soviets, with the purpose of smashing atoms apart in search of that holy grail of particle physics: the Higgs boson. The ‘God Particle.’ The technology beneath our feet is more advanced than the atom bomb, a scientific device with the potential, theoretically, to tear black holes in the fabric of space. Now it lies abandoned, though – derelict and entombed beneath a forest in Russia.
Suddenly the machine cuts out, and again the trail of sparks drift lazily to earth. They take their light with them, a hot, orange glow that illuminates the mists as they fall and dissolve into the wet grass. There’s a moment of silence. Our breath comes out as hot mist, which shines like crystal vapour in the lamplight.
The angle grinder has run out of battery, the operator announces. There’s a collective groan from the motley crowd of eager intruders. Then someone drags a railway sleeper out of the grass. It take three Russian men to lift the heavy wooden beam, and position it into place. They grasp the wet wood in thick gloves, and on a count of three they swing it hard at the metal plate like a battering ram.
The noise it creates sounds like a bell… but instead of a rich, sing-song cry of ringing metal, this hollow concrete chamber produces a rasping bellow like a wounded iron behemoth. I glance nervously back to the road. We’ve seen just five cars in the last hour, but I know the noise will carry on such a still night. The torches, too, flash and flicker in a clear line of sight from this forest road.
The concrete gong rings out again, and someone laughs – the metal barrier has been cut on three sides, and now it’s beginning to fold inwards, opening like a door onto the long-forgotten chamber.
Another booming crash, and torchlight is spilling through the opening to show the top rungs of a steel ladder which disappears beneath the ground. We’re in.
My group is only small. There are five of us, four Brits and a Russian, and by now we’re well out of our depth. We had come to this place in hope of finding a quiet, discrete way inside the abandoned particle collider – we’d never expected to meet a dozen Russians with the same idea, and armed as they were with heavy-duty, industrial tools.
We let the locals go first, and we wait. we give them time to explore, to make their way deeper inside the subterranean tunnels, so that we might also experience the illusion of treading on virgin soil.
Tens minutes go by, twenty, and then we’re packed and ready, armed with boots and gloves and torches and food as we cross the clearing towards the ominous concrete turret.
That’s when the van cruises up. The large, white vehicle pulls out of the darkness, pausing for a moment beside the cars parked along the edge of the road. Their owners are deep beneath us now, but we had been more cautious – we left our driver a safe distance away, tucked back along a forest track that splits off from the main road. Our group pauses, we glance at each other… then suddenly doors are slamming open, and someone yells Run.
We sprint across the clearing, leaping over concrete rubble and wooden beams, tearing through brambles and trailing creepers. There are torchlights flashing around us now, and they’re not ours. We follow our local friend as he dives headlong through an abandoned building at the back of the clearing, making for the forest beyond. The lights are with us all the way, and then the sound of dogs. There’s a clang of a chain being dropped, and we hear the rush of small, muscular bodies throwing themselves after us.
Hitting the tree line, we duck and dodge beneath twisted branches, leaping over the swampy earth. I can hardly hear a thing now, save for my own breath, my own heartbeat. We run like this for a full ten minutes, it seems, until we hit the track and follow it deeper into the forest, all the way back to the car.
Tonight, we’re lucky. The police didn’t follow us into the forest, and the dogs only came so far before being called back. I think about the poor souls trapped below ground – those valiant explorers who opened the way, only to be cornered like rats. The police who saw us, they probably think they’ve found our cars. They’re probably just waiting for us to come back out of the forest. They don’t know that we’re already driving out the other side, along an old logging track that winds between the pines.
Of course, what I don’t know now is that in 24 hours’ time I’ll be sat in a police cell in central Moscow. I’ll be having my fingerprints taken, and mugshot photos, and sleeping on a hard wooden bench beneath a framed portrait of Vladimir Putin while I wait to be interrogated by the FSB… or, as Russia’s secret service used to be known in the days of the Soviet Union, the KGB.
But for now at least, I’m safe; and, in blissful ignorance, sat in the back of the speeding car, I crack open a beer and celebrate the ecstasy of escape with my fellow would-be explorers.
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