A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Skeletons of Utopia
As it happened, we would eventually discover a vast, subterranean complex – level upon level of tunnels, rooms and open chambers, invisible under-street dwellings – just not in Sofia.
The Bulgarian Communist Party, in many ways, went out with a boom. In his acceleration towards mature socialism and the utopian future, Todor Zhivkov spent his last decade on an incredible building spree: from monuments, tunnels, stadia and hotels, through to complete urban redevelopment plans. A significant number of abandoned building sites in Bulgaria today, the scores of concrete ruins along the back roads, are very often linked to building projects killed by the change of regime; state construction, orphaned by an imploding state.
One such site we came across in Pleven. Four of us had travelled the length of the country, only to find ourselves without a place to stay. As night drew on it left us in a difficult situation.
On our way into the city I’d already spotted a lonely concrete structure rising up amongst the trees. A pair of crooked humps like inward-leaning pyramids – I guessed it had been designed as a shopping centre, a post-modernist hotel, perhaps. All that remained now though was functionless form, broad-shouldered spires emerging defiant above the treetops… a brutalist monument to unfinished labour.
We spent the night inside that wreck, all four of us. We bought beers, played music, admired the talented graffiti work that interrupted the vast expanse of grey walls; then later we settled down to sleep inside a nest of concrete and ivy.
But the Pleven Hilton – as we named it – was nothing compared to the maze we’d find beneath the streets of Shumen. It was just Mihail and myself that time, spending an afternoon in this city that had already rewarded us so well; the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State. Todor Zhivkov’s own unfinished mansion in the woods. With this third discovery, I was ready to crown Shumen the Concrete Capital of Bulgaria.
Walking through the city centre, it was impossible to miss the tall grey tower rising up unfinished behind a barrier of corrugated metal. I had asked locals about it on a previous visit.
“That? Oh, it’s just some old post office they never finished,” a nearby shopkeeper had told me. “It’s nothing interesting,” she said, “ignore it.” On this occasion, however, we decided to take a closer look.
The pedestrianized centre of Shumen was filled with intriguing clues. We passed a grand doorway, surrounded with murals but sealed up with welded metal bars. Opposite that, what appeared to be the entrance to a metro station: two lanes of downward steps going nowhere. An impressive, marble-clad dead-end.
The tower itself was inaccessible: its ground floor open to view, but wrapped in a tight wire mesh. One block further on though, we found a footpath winding off between the shops… and as it sloped downhill, beneath the level of the plaza, we came across something we hadn’t expected.
In front of us the rough end of a building butted out, grey walls marked with the same ribbed pattern as the city centre tower. It dawned on us then, that this was part of the same structure: the tower was just the visible tip of something much larger, a sub-street complex, emerging here, one city block away. There was nobody about – no warning signs, no barriers – just a gaping portal into Shumen’s underbelly.
The contents of that place could have filled a chapter on their own. We headed down at first, following a wide flights of steps into the basement. From there, the staircase to the level beneath was blocked and so we climbed, down the side of a balcony where an open foyer area bridged the two floors. From that next level, we found steps that led down further still.
From the basement I followed a spiral stairwell that led back up towards the surface. At the top, I found myself looking through bars onto the pedestrianized centre of Shumen… but I was looking at it from the wrong side. After a moment of disorientation I realised that I had crossed beneath the street; that the entire city centre had been hollowed out, the subterranean complex passing beneath plazas and buildings alike.
Built onto a slope, the complex backed out onto an overgrown court perhaps two levels beneath the street from which we’d entered. There were balcony areas here looking out across a rubble-strewn builders’ yard. On one level, a miniature forest exploded out from a walled pool. Young trees had taken root in a mound of moss and dirt and ivy, surrounded on all sides by empty concrete. Birds nested in the surreal canopies above.
At its lowest, pitch-black levels, the central area of the complex had the look of an abandoned multi-storey car park – a large access road fed into this space through a long, curving tunnel presumably connected at the other end to the nearby traffic network. Here are there, unfinished shafts opened up in the floor. They had been left uncovered in the darkened space, deep, smooth pits that would have been impossible to climb back out of. I shone my torch in one to reveal the mummified hide and bones of a stray dog. Another shaft held the remains of a semi-decayed cat.
Even beneath this floor though, there was more to see; steps led down into a drainage level, a network of gushing pipes that formed a liquid maze deep in the earth.
We tried to climb the tower: finding the staircase that spiralled from its roots back up to ground level, and then another two floors higher before we reached a dead-end. The stairwell had been blocked with metal grills and wooden pallets – nothing fixed in place, but rather a crude barricade built from heavy, leaning panels. I was about to try squeezing through it, when I heard voices.
Raised voices: an argument, and then laughter. I heard a child’s voice, too. They were located off to one end of the corridor beyond the barricade, just out of sight. I looked about the space, noting the piles of clothes, the rubbish bags, the stacks of clay tiles that looked as though they were in the process of being sorted for sale.
“Gypsies?” Mihail whispered, and I nodded. Quite likely it was a Roma family, living inside the abandonment; I’d stumbled across similar makeshift homes, in other Bulgarian ruins. As much as I wanted to meet them though, perhaps even interview these people, there was just no saying what we’d have been walking into… or how our sudden appearance would be received. There was no saying how many people we’d find in the tower, either; it could just as easily have been one small, welcoming family, or an entire colony of hungry, desperate people filling the 14 floors above us. We were unprepared for that – we hadn’t brought gifts, only expensive camera equipment – and so we decided to leave the tower for another day.
Instead, we’d find ourselves wandering through one of the larger overground structures. There was a workshop on one floor, what looked like an artist’s space long-since disused. We found work tools, old electrical equipment, paint tins and greasy dust-encrusted overalls. Nearby, tucked behind a stack of boxes loaded inside a disused stairwell, a collection of framed portraits depicting 1970s stars of Soviet cinema.
Inside that building, a staircase took us all the way up to the roof. We climbed to the very top of the building to look down on the complex that sprawled about our feet – more a citadel, than a building. We gazed up at the bare tower that reared higher still, and beyond that, rising on the Shumen Plateau, silhouetted against the skyline, the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State.