A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Varna’s Secret Tunnels
The entrance was easy to find – if you knew where to look. Beneath the Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, beneath the hill it stood upon, a complex of corridors and chambers spread out into a square network. From the entry passage, we slipped around a dogleg in the crusty concrete tube and into the underground facility itself.
My tour guide was a Varna local, a filmmaker named Svilen. For the most part he let me lead the way; more interested to see my response, I guessed, the paths I chose, than showing off the base according to his own itinerary. Near the entrance we found a boiler room… or at least, that was the indication given by the raised concrete dais, the metal pipes that lay scattered here and there, the hefty switchboard that still hung in place on the wall.
There had been graffiti near the entrance – colourful signatures and clumsy scribbles – though these faded out the deeper we went. Not everybody ventured so far into the tunnels, it seemed.
The bunker felt larger, more complicated than it actually was. I imagine that a floor plan of the base would produce a tidy square; a main corridor running along all four sides, storerooms built into the outer wall while further passages and chambers criss-crossed back and forth across the middle. But the route we took was needlessly disorientating – as we followed one corridor then the next, ducking back through smaller halls and storerooms to zigzag our way across the base. There were moments when I felt as though we were utterly lost in an endless subterranean maze.
For the most part, the tunnels beneath the monument had been stripped; machinery removed, pipes, cables, even light fittings pulled out by the stem. All of it could fetch a price, if one were desperate enough. The objects that we did discover were likely those too large, too bulky to be easily dragged away. Ventilation ducts, drums, the occasional lamp still clinging to the ceiling.
In some tunnels, we were afforded a glimpse of purposeful design. The kitchen and canteen: two large chambers separated by a serving hatch. The shower room was identifiable by its tiled walls, and small, round drains that opened in the floor. Higher up, a regular line of brackets might once have held a water pipe in place, fitted with showerheads at just a little above head-height. There were several toilet blocks around the complex – the ceramic long gone, just dirty, dusty holes by now – while other rooms, presumably, might have been fitted out with bunk beds.
A further clue came from the particles of grit that lay in sweeping drifts along the corridors. Little black chunks; a coarse charcoal sand. This activated carbon would have been used for filtering air, a ventilation system sustaining the bunker and protecting those inside from conditions on the surface.
Clearly, this sprawling bunker complex was intended for serious situations. Judging by the scale of it, from the provision of large communal spaces, I’d guess perhaps a hundred people might have sheltered safely in the tunnels; perhaps lived here, even, for extended periods of time. It didn’t look as though it had ever seen use – maybe it was never finished – but the fact that it was built, at least, revealed a lot about the attitudes of the time.
It was not long after my first trip to the Varna bunker, that I came into contact with Pavel. He knew these tunnels well, and when I asked to arrange an interview with him he suggested we met underground.
Stood in the echoing chambers hidden deep beneath the Park-Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, I lit some candles to save the battery in my torch. As I did that, I asked Pavel what it was about the place that kept him coming back.
“I come down here for fun,” he told me, simply. “I like the atmosphere and the eerie quietness of the tunnels. I don’t come here every day, obviously, but I visit the tunnels when I want to show the place to a friend, or when I have an idea for an interesting photography shoot. One time I crawled down here just because it was too hot outside… in these tunnels it’s always nice and cool.”
Other people I’d spoken to talked about ghosts and murders; about people going into this place and never coming back out. I asked Pavel if he ever felt scared down here, alone.
“Actually, I feel safer here than outside,” he said. “It’s the safest place in Varna. These tunnels are large enough to disorient you, but small enough that you can’t really get lost.” Besides, he told me, there just wasn’t that much chance of running into trouble.
“Who would bother to come down here to rob or murder me?” he asked. “It’s just too much hassle.”
I was still curious about the purpose of the place, but Pavel didn’t know any more about the history of the tunnels than what I’d already deduced. “I don’t know when they were built exactly,” he said, “but I know that my grandfather’s generation was involved.”
We talked for a while, our voices echoing off along pitch-black passageways as the candles burned down to sputtering stumps. I told Pavel about the stories Emil had shared with us – mutant spiders, ghosts without feet, and more than 6,000 subterranean chambers. Pavel laughed, and added; “I’ve even heard myths about secret psychotronic weapons labs, and a military hospital nine floors under the ground.”
Nevertheless, “Some of these stories might have a grain of truth in them,” he said.
“There are stories about more tunnels beneath where we are now. My friend’s friends say they got lost down there for three days. When they came out, it was through a totally different exit on the other side of town.”
Pavel gestured around us, at the darkened corridors trailing off in all directions. “There are plenty of sealed doors down here, so who knows?”
It was only a few months after that meeting with Pavel, that I received a message late one night from Svilen. He gave me co-ordinates for an address in the Sea Garden and suggested I went to have a look.
Mihail joined me, and we followed the directions I’d been given to an old stone archway partially hidden behind bushes in the park. I hadn’t noticed it before but now we found it open, the stonework framing a set of stairs that vanished under the Sea Garden. There were no barriers, no ‘keep out’ signs, nothing to suggest this wasn’t public space; and so we followed the steps down, around a corner and into a dripping tunnel somewhere beneath the gardens.
That evening, we spent hours exploring the seemingly endless corridors that fanned out beneath the Sea Garden.
I had that feeling again of descending into a maze; only this time it was larger, impossibly large, a sprawling labyrinth of concrete passages – some dry and dusty, others half-flooded and echoing with the sound of gathering water – that extended beyond my reckoning in all directions. It felt rather like stepping outside of reality. From the city streets above with their stray cats and pedestrians, their neon lights and traffic, to these endless, featureless spaces beneath the earth… I had a feeling as though time had stopped, that I had tumbled inside a videogame world of simulated tunnels where pixelated foes might lurk round any corner; less reality, more like an arena from Doom, Quake or Wolfenstein.
Sometimes we passed machinery and switch rooms; other spaces were used for storage, stacked high with tables and chairs. The area we saw was perhaps five times as large as the bomb shelter built beneath the monument, yet still we never found the ends of it. Passages led off in all directions, some of them sealed behind locked doors.
These were the tunnels that Petko, the Dobrich construction worker, had played in as a child. They had likely inspired the urban legends I’d heard from Varna citizens, as well. After all these stories, I felt a massive satisfaction in finding that the place existed after all; and yet at the same time, it left me with more questions than it answered.
I wanted to know how old the tunnels were. Digging these networks would have required the full closure and subsequent remodelling of the park – or perhaps they had always been here, since the Sea Garden was first opened in 1878. It wasn’t easy finding answers though, when half the city believed the tunnels simply didn’t exist at all.
I wondered too, if they had always been this easy to simply walk inside; but that question at least was answered soon enough. I passed by the arch again just one week later, to find it blocked and inaccessible. Svilen later told me that it had been a fluke – sheer chance – that for whatever reason, the entrance was left open for a whole week. During that time, he said, news had spread around Varna and soon local kids were virtually queuing up for a chance to see these legendary tunnels.
By the time we resurfaced in the park that night, I was just about ready to believe any rumour that came my way… so when I heard the story of a self-proclaimed king ruling over a community of tunnel-dwellers beneath the streets of Sofia, I immediately hopped on a train headed straight for the capital.