Monday, 1 April 2013

Park Monument of Bulgarian - Russian Friendship

This bizarre structure is a monument built to symbolise the strength of the relationship between the nations of Bulgaria and Soviet Russia It is positioned on a small hill top near the Bulgarian port of Varna with great views over the city and it's surrounding coastline. The hill top it is positioned upon was in fact the site on which the Russian army established a command post, and mass grave during the Russian- Turkish war of 1828 and stands 110 metres proud of the sea, only half a mile away.

The monument came into concept in May 1958 when a design contest was held to build a memorial to commemorate the Soviet army and their battles here, with many of the country's leading architects submitting entries. The design put forward by Evgeni Baramov, Alyosha Kafedjiiski and Kamen Goranov was approved in the autumn of 1973.

Construction finally began on the 4th of November 1974, and lasted for seven months. A thousand tons of steel and 10,000 tones of concrete was required which were to be laid into place by 27,000 Bulgarian 'volunteers'. Research suggests the foundations were laid around an existing underground bomb shelter burrowed deep inside the hill, avoiding any interference with the structure below. Of course, there is very little information about the history of the site online, with few reliable sources to go by.

The area around the monument was carpeted with 400 square metres of mosaic in a 'river gravel' pattern. A  bronze cube bearing an eternal flame preceded the main cenotaph. This was powered by gas, using four bottles a day. Three and a half ton bronze doors sealed the entrance to the main hollow structure, with a wall on which bronze lettering depicted the story.

The monument officially opened on November 13th 1978 in a grand opening ceremony. Shostakovich's seventh symphony a piece of music symbolic of Soviet Russia's resistance to it's aggressors was aired in the park on repeat, day and night for the rest of the site's working life.

These two monochrome images are taken from a blog and show a group visiting the monument during it's heyday in 1981. The monument can be seen in the background in one image, the other has the eternal flame in the foreground with the Black Sea coast visible in the distance. I expect the park was very much like it is today, albeit much more cared for and was probably visited by tourists and locals quite often. The true use of the 'festive halls' within the monument and the rooms below eludes me and I can only speculate as to what the cavernous chambers inside were really used for.

The concrete wings stand 23 metres tall, 48 metres across and represent the Bulgarian and Russian nations. Metallic lettering above the archway announced 'friendship for centuries, centuries'.  On the right are four blocky Soviet soldiers marching with rifles on their shoulders and stars in their helmets. On the left are three Bulgarian women bearing gifts. One has her arms outspread whilst one clearly holds out a flower, presumably a rose, as the nation is so famous for it's rose oil exports. The third woman apparently offers bread and salt to their liberators.

The monument is reached by the 301 steps of the 'stairway of winners'. Ten thousand trees and 11,440 shrubs were planted in the surrounding park to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who fell in the battle. The park and monument were lit with 180 floodlights, which could be seen for miles offshore until the site's closure. The last wage packets were paid in November 1989 with Bulgaria in a great state of political change. Security abandoned the park, leaving it open to vandals and thieves. The eternal flame no longer burned, the music was switched off for good, thr bronze doors and inscriptions vanished. The interior of the building was stripped and graffiti covered the concrete whilst the ornamental gardens ran wild , conquering hill once more. 

I visited the site on the October 2012, a couple of days before returning to explore the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha. Staying with friends in Bourgas I decided to make time for this mysterious location as I may not be on the Black Sea Coast again for a while and did not want to miss out on it. Armed with a little bit of knowledge from the internet I knew access may be possible, but reading Darmon Richter's blog post about the monument I was intrigued to read that there may also be a nuclear bunker hidden beneath the concrete mass which had been locked off since the monument's closure. There are reports of feral dogs and strange vagrants, the whole place seemed pretty sketchy but I'm not one to be put off.

Making the three hour northwards drive through the mountains takes you along some long windy roads through endless pine forests. There are some great views to be had on the drive down to into Varna across the vast span of the Asparuchovo bridge. Finding my way through the city was not hard and before I knew it I found myself at my destination, arriving just before midnight.

The area was very quiet but as usual I thought it best to take a walk around the surrounding park to get my bearings before I paraded thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment around. Voices emanating from the monument made me think twice about walking straight up to it so I chose to walk around the base of the hill instead to see if there was anything of interest hiding in the undergrowth. Within a few minutes of leaving the car I stumbled across a small overgrown pathway, heading towards the hillside. Through some bushes, in the dappled street lighting was a small archway into a concrete wall. This had some large concrete cubes piled up against the door but someone had managed to prise the steel door out just far enough for a person to squeeze through. I didn't think access to the 'bomb shelter' underneath was possible so was not sure what to think. Having found it so soon I carried on, in search of more.

The darkness made it difficult to see anything in the undergrowth. I didn't want to attract attention with a torch. After surveying the park once, deciding it was safe, I headed back to the car to get the camera so I could begin . Conditions were ideal with a full moon hanging high in the sky to balance the street lighting. The  city's dogs would bark, in turn setting off all the other dogs in their neighbourhood like dominoes, shattering the tranquillity of the otherwise calm, night air.

I had managed to capture a few close up images of the monument before I headed back down the 'staircase of winners' to shoot some wide star trails. I had only been down on the main square for a couple of minutes when a sudden burst of gunfire erupted from the top of the hill. Five shots reverberated across the landscape, the cracks sounding like someone had fired a semi automatic handgun over my head. I had no idea what to do, so retreated into the shadows, leaving the camera to do it's thing for half an hour. My plan had been to enter the monument after a few star trails but felt reluctant to face what could be up there. I chose to kill some time by heading underground, into the tunnel I had found earlier in the night, in the hope that I wouldn't bump into any pistol wielding lunatics down there. I would return to the monument later, assuming all was safe.

At this time I had found nothing on the internet from inside bunker itself, any attempt at gaining access seemed to have been unsuccessful. I had begun to think it was all an elaborate urban myth until faced with the mysterious doorway into the hillside, but even then thought it was a little too easy. Returning to find it again I squeezed my way through the door into complete darkness. Do not be deceived, there is no light what so ever once you turn the first corner of the tunnel, all the  images below are lit by my torches and flash guns.

Squeezing through the door into the dark unknown, the first object you are greeted with is a large piece of ventilation ducting. This immediately confirmed to me that this was the rumoured bunker. I still couldn't quite believe my luck and fully expected there to be something up ahead, blocking the tunnel. I was pleased to find there wasn't. 

The first section runs for about 30 metres before you reach a pair of blast walls which would shield the tunnels in the event of a nearby explosion. After this is a T junction which joins onto a larger bore. Arrows daubed on the walls point towards the exit, indicating that the tunnel system is indeed large enough to get lost in. I chose to head left which leads further into the bunker through many differing sections of tunnel, some partitioned with offices, and toilets, mostly stripped bare. 

A small 'window' which leads up to the surface through an emergency exit shaft is surrounded by a pile of rubble, reminiscent of the emergency exits in German bunkers on the French coast. The rubble would fill part of the shaft, hindering entry from the outside but when needed, a hatch would be opened at the bottom of the shaft allowing the rubble to spill into the bunker so the occupants could climb out.

After a while I could hear the muffled droning of cars and passing through another set of blast walls I eventually caught a glimpse of daylight. I had stumbled across another former entrance, this one gated and backfilled from the outside. The current gates could not have been original. They look like they had been taken from a local garden and must have been  bolted on when sealing the doorway.

Turning back, into a new section, at 90 degrees to the original tunnel, the air quality rapidly deteriorates into a humid, smoke filled atmosphere The walls become darker and darker the deeper you go. Several side rooms adjoin the main tunnel, most of which are bare and empty, stripped for anything of value. Empty wall brackets line the tunnels, the cables and lighting from which were removed long ago.

It becomes evident at this point that the system is laid out with two main parallel tunnel bores running roughly north west - south east which are intersected by a series of side tunnels. Walking the main bores, walls are visible in the distance, making you think you may be at the end, when the wall is only a partition with more, and more darkness behind it. Separate spurs run to three exits at each but the southernmost tunnel, with only the one portal being accessible. 

Black carbon granules litter the floor in places, more remnants of the large ventilation system. These would have come from large canisters used to filter chemicals or radiation from the outside air, let loose by vandals or thieves. One of the large filter canisters remains in a corner in one of the side rooms, accompanied by more ducting and piles of white filter granules.

I had questioned whether the bunker could have even been built by the Germans during Bulgaria's Nazi occupation in world war two. It is not of the usual German design of the period, but none of their fortifications in the area are. Their localised designs all differ greatly from the standardised, modular patterns of the western front. The build quality does not strike me as being capable of withstanding a nuclear explosion but I do get the impression it is a cold war facility. It was certainly a military/government headquarters as opposed to a public shelter. There are signs of some seats on the walls, but not many, and no marks to show that there ever were in the rest of the system. The facilities do not seem substantial enough to cope with large volumes of people and public shelters were quite numerous anyway.

A tiled room fills one of the interconnecting side tunnels, leading to a small toilet block. This section had a notably different shape to the others and looked like it could have been a wet room or decontamination area.

In this part of the main tunnel bore, at the deepest point in the system, the air is truly foul. The linings are entirely coated in soot, except for the patches where the plaster has fallen from the surface. On your own you begin to wonder if this is even safe. Fire saps oxygen from the air and there was obviously very little in the way of natural ventilation to replenish the atmosphere. If I did succumb to the effects of bad air I would probably pass out before I made it to the exit and may not be found for weeks. I did make a point of telling my friends where I was going this time, which comforted me enough to continue to explore.

Reaching the southernmost point of the bunker marks the end, and features begin to look familiar. The last part of the warren is a small room littered with random junk, where the final intersecting tunnel joins back onto the first main section. The remaining artifacts are anything too large to carry or items with a poor scrap value. More ventilation ducting had been pulled to the ground and one of the main surviving features, a large water tank lies beside, another small hole in the wall leads to an emergency exit shaft in the corner.

Several hours were spent below ground wandering the darkness and lighting photographs. After I felt like I had seen it all I headed to the portal. Dawn had already passed, daylight was pouring into the end of the tunnel, blinding my adjusted vision. As I climbed over the scrap metal at the entrance and through the door I caught the attention of a passing jogger, frightening the life out of the poor woman. I dread to think what was going through her head as I popped out of nowhere, early on a Sunday morning with a camera, covered in filth and sweat.

I was now faced with a very different situation to the night before. I was exhausted, having been out exploring for hours with little rest and little food. The park was full of joggers, they were everywhere. I had avoided bumping into people during the night out of fears for my safety, now it was fear of human interaction which kept me away from the locals. I then realised that I hadn't even begun to explore the interior of the monument and had a good few hours shooting ahead of me before I could drive the 150 km back to Bourgas- the lure of my friends' sofa there was quite enticing.

As I walked around the park I started to notice some surface features, mainly quite a few emergency exit shafts. Most were blocked with concrete covers but one was open. I presume the bottom of the shaft is blocked and would not be keen on climbing down the rusted rungs to find out. 

Back up to the monument all was quiet. Climbing through the small hole you enter a dark, eerie space which I can only relate to boarding an abandoned space craft. Stairs lead gently upwards with steps up the walls to the left and right. The concrete walls are bare, besides spots of graffiti. The first feature you are met with is a concrete plaque on the first floor, with a small, empty room behind it. Even in broad daylight the interior of the monument is very dark. 

Upstairs, behind the figures of the Bulgarian women, you find evidence of a squat. Faeces litters the floor, leaving a pungent aroma throughout the room. All manners of waste are piled in the corners, it's not a nice place. If there were any windows installed these were removed long ago. Light gently pours through the remaining slits along with the sea air but this is not enough to dissipate the foul atmosphere. Red steel girders seem to hold the giant concrete figures in place.

Some of the rooms are very strangely shaped, fitting into the angular design of the building. A couple of rooms had a series of steps leading up the back of the room which look like they may have been seating in a small auditorium, although this would not have been comfortable if so. The awkward shapes of the rooms make me think this wasn't the case. 

The room behind the Soviet soldiers bears a surprise. This to be one of the most fascinating spaces I have ever seen. Slits in the roof allow the small amounts of natural light to drool down the walls into a large area below in a fashion that made me think of star wars. This notion was contrasted by the random detritus on the floor, again making the area feel like the interior of an abandoned, futuristic space craft. At first you do not see into the darkness in the far end of the room, but using a torch light to illuminate the deep shadows you are confronted with a huge soviet star, stamped into the concrete. 

The architects obviously saw this as one of the main features too, positioning several apertures in other rooms in the monument which look down onto the star.It's an amazing symbol of the now defunct regime and implies great strength, coupled with great irony. 

Moving onwards, up a set of stairs onto the roof of the monument there are some great views of Varna and the Black sea. Parts of the monument don't look finished, if they are the workmanship isn't commendable. Looking down the back of the huge concrete figures reveals the whole structure appears much more flimsy than it looks from the ground. 

The four Soviet soldiers all look the same but each one has a slightly different face. From here the scale is evident, they are just massive. 

It was here I found one of my favourite pieces of graffiti; a simple stencil with the words- 'Your life is your message to the world, make sure it's inspiring.' I liked that, but what I really like it is that next to it, in the same paint is sprayed 'BM 4 LIFE'. Great inspiration, yeah.

The other rooms within the monument are largely similar. Obliquely shaped rooms with slit windows and few other features to note. One near ground level has a set of stairs leading downwards, which is always intriguing. This leads down into a more conventional structure which the monument is based upon. Some say this was a book shop and a propaganda centre. I am not so sure and can't find much information on the site's use back in the socialist days so do not want to speculate. What is sure is that this area has also been used as a squat. The spicy stench of human waste in the air is horrendous. There are several side rooms, one with a blocked entrance to a set of stairs above. All are absolutely covered in faeces and other junk making it difficult to know where to tread. I didn't see the point in capturing these scenes.

What did catch my eye was a hole in the wall. A breeze blocked doorway had been beaten through, blackness filling the void behind. Through here was another unexpected wonder, a huge set of stairs descending for quite a distance. These do not lead underground as such, but are submerged beneath the 'stairway of winners'. Small rectangular openings in the walls let a small amount of daylight through but not enough to light the way. Large pipes follow the walls on the left, that side of the stairwell is just bare earth, divided from the stairs by a hand rail. 

A sealed double door at the bottom of the steps was the rumoured entrance to the bunker below.  This level has the large open square above it  and there are small windows and doors on the outside of the structure, indicating rooms within. Whether there was an entrance into the shelter from here I am unsure but there is a possibility that there was another shelter within the hillside so there is a chance that it may lead into a totally different tunnel system. There are also suggestions of tunnels running from the hill all the way to the beach below, adding more mystery to the site. 

I could hear strange noises down here, a repetitive thudding fading in and out. This was the joggers carrying out their normal Sunday morning activities while I was in the darkness below. This made me realise it was probably time for me to head home. Alongside being a foreign alien, on my own here, it was 10am and I was in the process of turning into a zombie. I felt unsatisfied, knowing there is still more to this place than meets the eye but with close links to Bulgaria, I will be back sometime in the next few years to look deeper into this strange and mysterious location.

On my way out of the site I passed the level where the sealed doors were, this looks fairly nondescript and is rumoured to house used tyres. There is a noticeable concrete rim running around the base of the hill. Whether this is a giant slab designed to protect the bunker below I do not know, it may simply be a wall. At the bottom of the steps are two flag poles, the tallest in Europe. The flags could be heard fluttering in the wind all night long. Back to the car I began the dream like journey back to Bourgas, back to the sofa where I would begin my preparations for Buzludzha, in a few days time.

Sunday, 17 March 2013



PanSTARRS over Parkes 
Image Credit & CopyrightJohn Sarkissian (CSIRO Parkes Observatory)

This comet has been on my to do list for months. It has  been visible in the southern hemisphere for a while now, as seen in this stunning image from John Sarkissian, which was shown on NASA's astronomy picture of the day on March 9th. 

The comet gets it's name from the telescope that discovered it. Pan-STARRS - the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, an innovative design for a wide field imaging facility developed at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

 After a short period of ideal comet spotting weather, heavy cloud moved in over south east England in the same week as PanSTARRS was due to rise into view from the northern hemisphere. The weather is a common obstacle to any astrophotographer based in the UK, with almost every other celestial event over the past year blotted out by heavy rain and thick cloud cover, well, from my perspective anyway. 

Up until today this image had been my best effort at shooting the comet, a 100% crop on a 105mm lens...

...Yeah I know.

Anyway, tonight the clouds finally parted at just the right time to allow a chance to view PanSTARRS clearly for the first time. It is just visible to the naked eye in the lovely blue and purple hues of dusk. The clouds held off for a few moments and I also had a chance to shoot some more images before the cloud rolled back in. Thankfully it briefly cleared again before the comet set so I managed to capture a short time lapse video.

Comet Panstarrs over Berkshire- Copyright Mark O'Neill

Comet Panstarrs over Berkshire- Copyright Mark O'Neill

The comet made it's closest pass to Earth on March the 5th and is currently climbing higher, away from the sun into the night sky. Over the next few weeks it will gradually fade from view. I'm hoping it stays just as bright for a few more nights which will place it against a darker sky than it is now, making it much more visible to the naked eye and even more so to the camera. Fingers crossed the sky is clear tomorrow evening.

Comet Panstarrs over Berkshire- Copyright Mark O'Neill

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Back to Buzludzha

Back to Buzludzha

Buzludzha, By Xiao Yang

I find Bulgaria such a fascinating country. It has a unique charm that may not to be to everyone's taste but to an avid photographer it is a feast for the eyes. The rich, diverse landscape is full of beauty and it turns my head into an absolute mess trying to think which subjects to prioritise upon in the limited time I spend there. Driving the length of the country is sure to scupper any initial plans as you just get tempted to stop every couple of miles.

I was only in Bulgaria this June, meeting with friends in Bourgas for a few nights out in Sunny Beach and my second trip up to Mount Buzludzha, but when a Flickr contact, Xiao Yang asked me for advice on how to reach the monument, I felt myself tempted to return yet again. I was then conveniently reminded that I had a week's holiday I needed to take from work and before I knew it my flight was booked, with only three weeks until departure.

Those three weeks flew by

First impressions

I landed in Sofia at noon on the 29th of October with no sleep and a long working day behind me. I hired myself a little Kia Rio as my trusty steed before embarking on the sweaty, five hour drive down to Bourgas again. After a few nights soaking up the local scenery, awesome people and cheap alcohol I charged the three DSLRs I had brought along and began to plan a few excursions.

The first location we tried to visit was the Ravnets Air Base, located to the east of Bourgas. This was, until recent years, the home of a MiG 29 fighter squadron, positioned for rapid response in the event of an attack on the nearby oil refinery- the largest in south east Europe. The airbase had laid dormant for a few years until the second Iraq war, when the site was cleared because US wanted to position an outpost in the area, although this never happened.

In all probability, we could have have just walked on to the site and straight to our target, the hardened aircraft shelters that used to house the MiGs on the western side of the base, but my clued up Bulgarian buddy Kancho was worried about our chances of getting shot so we headed to the main entrance and had a chat with the guy on the gate. He was happy to let us in to explore but when some of his colleagues arrived his tone swiftly changed. He was a nice bloke and it seemed he was willing to take a risk as long as nobody else would see us but he did not want to be responsible for any problems anybody else may have with our presence.

Looking down onto the farm

Denied, we took a walk around some buildings to the south of the base which looked like a rail platform and storage on Google maps, but this turned out to be some kind of farm. The buildings all in various states of decay and all stripped bare. A small brick structure on a hill top took our interest which, after a bit of a hike was nothing more than a small disused reservoir, home of a local vagrant, but a nice bit of shade to get us out of the baking sunlight.

Inside the ruined buildings

So much for shooting a Soviet air base, back to drinking with the locals for another night then! The next evening I drove the 300 km round trip to Varna, but that's another story entirely, which I will tell as soon as I get the time.

Day One

It was the Third of October at 06:30 when I stumbled to the car on a dark, crisp, foggy morning. I had to head back up to Sofia to meet Xiao at noon. Her journey had taken her across Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary over the last few weeks so I didn't want to be late and have her hanging around the airport. Chucking my bags in the boot, avoiding the flattened black kitty that had been killed next to my car a few nights before, I got in and began the 430 odd kilometre drive back to the capital. This was another of those times where I just wanted to stop every five mins for a shot as the rising sun broke through the various layers of fog on the plains below the Balkan foothills but I did not have time for any of that and pressed on, not stopping until Terminal one, in the end running fifteen minutes behind schedule.

When I met Xiao, she was all dressed in black, as she said she would be, stood in the thirty degree midday sun at the terminal entrance. She was easy to spot. we made our greetings, dumped her bags in the car and got back on the road with a good 300 kilometres ahead to get to know each other. We had not even driven one, when Xiao asked me if I knew the TV series 'An idiot abroad' and then bravely likened me to Karl Pilkington. This left me tempted to ditch her at the next service station while she bought some cigarettes but I thought better of it and waited for her to get back in the car. Xiao is a passionate and talented photographer and a very intelligent, fun person so the journey flew by and before we knew it we were sat gorging on salad and calzone, al fresco in a nice little restaurant in Kazanluk at the base of the Balkans.

Restaurant kitty
Good food, good company

By the time we had stuffed our faces, stocked up on supplies and found the bloody car park we'd left the car in (!) the sun was getting low and, true to form, the peaks had developed soft, grey, fluffy headpieces which completely obscured the building we had come all this way to see. The 17Km of winding mountain road leading up the mountain had several interesting monuments and other sights along the way to keep our eyes entertained in the mean time as we pressed on up towards the peak, 1441 metres above sea level. 

The monument to the Soviet Army

Bloody iPhone users :P

Raindrops fell sporadically around us as we stopped at the Monument to the Soviet Army, set a few hundred feet below the peak of mount Buzludzha. I've lost count of how many times I'd seen the view clearly on previous visits but forgot Xiao had still not even caught a glimpse of our main subject yet and didn't really know what lay ahead of her.

Home sweet home
After learning from a few hiccups on my previous trip which led to us driving round for hours like zombies at dawn looking for somewhere to sleep, we cut the crap and booked ourselves in for two nights at Hotel Buzludzha. This was costly, compared to most as it serves the local ski industry during the winter and cost us a whole 80 Euros for a twin room for two nights, which is still a bargain. Despite speaking no English, the staff are very nice and have a relaxed attitude. The luxury the hotel provided to us as we rolled off the mountain in our 'dawn of the dead' moments was worth every cent and we soon realised we had the whole hotel to ourselves.

Hotel Buzludzha chilling in the sun at the end of our stay

Within minutes it looked like a bomb had gone off, with an array of photographic equipment scattered across our room as we hurriedly tried to prepare ourselves for the night. Heads in our bags, we failed to notice the weather outside had deteriorated until flashes of light burst through the window, followed by ground shaking claps of thunder. I could barely contain my excitement and began to act like a little kid, as I always do in a thunderstorm. The rain had set in too which of course, is not good for photography, so the mix of emotions was quite confusing. We still had no idea how bad the storm was and what the peak of the mountain was like. There was only one way to find out.

Once in the car, the weather was far worse than we had anticipated and the distance was further too. Visibility was very low. With the three quarter moon still to rise, the only light visible beyond the car head lamps were the bright flashes of lightning bolts reflecting off beads of rain, the light appeared to come from below us, the far side of the mountain, only lighting up the thick cloud which enveloped everything around us. I've done that drive a good few times, but still had to keep a keen eye on where we were going.

We missed the turning for our intended parking space and I recognised that we were almost at the foot of the mound leading up to the monument. Still there was too much cloud and rain between for us to see anything of it, even with the frequent bursts of pink lightning, as bright as day. The wind howled through the car as we opened the doors to start kitting up and the rain began to bite it's way through our clothing.

Even my favourite, most powerful spotlight did nothing more than light up the cloud for a few feet ahead of us, making visibility even worse so we chose to climb the steps in darkness. We must have been about halfway up when all of a sudden a succession of bright lightning bolts finally illuminated the enormous shape looming above us which had been obscured all day long. The reason we had travelled so many miles, the devastated House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Nothing could prepare you for that sight. No Hollywood film could evoke such power, such atmosphere, such emotion. I am pleased that was Xiao's very first view of the location, it gives it the drama it deserves and despite my feelings at the time, I'm quite glad that the rain and cloud were too much for us to take photographs. That is one memory that I'm happy to  have only in my head and I'm sure it will be ingrained in our brains forever. No picture could depict the moment well enough, nor could words.

Approaching the monument on a previous visit, minus the storms

We entered the monument, to find the interior was no less a part of the clouds and photography was out the window. Lighting this place up would've done nothing more than create a big foggy blob on the sensor. Confident that the storms were far enough down wind we headed straight up to the tower. A part of the building I had previously overlooked and as long as the storms were distant enough to be safe, it would provide a great view of the plains below.

Behind the red star

Lugging a good amount of kit up the seventeen ladders to the top of the 70m tower was no easy task, particularly when smoking along the way. The top of each ladder was numbered, apparently to remind us how slow our progress really was, but after what felt like an hour, we found ourselves faced with our holy grail - the interior of Buzludzha's famous red stars, the wind and rain penetrating the broken glass into the space of the tower with eerie effect. These were apparently made from ruby glass in the Soviet Union and standing at 12 metres tall, are three times larger than the red stars of the Kremlin. The views through the broken glass revealed the storms had passed now and could be seen bubbling away about 30 km south of us, near the city of Stara Zagora.

The clouds roll in across the valley of the roses.

Getting used to our surroundings, we decided to venture to the roof and found a great rusty hatch, which opened relatively easily considering the abuse the weather must have thrown at it over the three decades since it was installed. We enjoyed a couple of minutes to absorb the spectacular views across the Balkans, down into the valley of the roses when the cloud began to seep back in. We fired off a few exposures and five minutes later visibility was down to zero again. We were just shooting our last frames when I began to hear a very strange buzzing sound which sounded like it was emanating from the metal frame around us. I reminded Xiao what we had said as we made our way onto the roof; 'Any hint of lightning and we're getting the **** out of here' but she could not hear it and I questioned whether I was just being overly cautious or not, and whether the fact my hairs were standing on end was from fear, or from the charged cloud itself. I trusted this building to have been intended as a lightning conductor upon construction, but also trusted the equipment that would make it possible would have been vandalised and looted for scrap so I had a good idea of what could happen. The noise grew louder and louder until we both could definitely hear it so we closed the shutters immediately and opened the hatch. As we prepared ourselves for descending the ladders I turned round to see the strangest thing I've ever seen. The tip of a metal pole, right next to us was glowing pink from the electrical charge in the sky. We made a very hasty retreat and stopped for a very stiff drink and a cigarette to digest what the hell had just happened.

The electrifying roof top with our own pink glow, moments before the drama

Returning down the ladders we were much faster than our ascent, I think we just wanted to get our feet on the ground proper. I was also keen to try and catch the distant storms from outside, in the few clear patches between clouds but this was doubtful given the conditions we had just experienced.

Level 12, stopgap

Stopping in the main hall, the cloud was still far too much and ruined the lighting strategy I had spent the last few weeks working out in my head. Still, it added a bit of atmosphere to the images so we worked off the cuff and improvised. This gave my shins plenty of bruises to remember the night by, as I worked my way round the frame in the dark, bumping into things.

Conquering the main conference hall

Distant storms illuminate the horizon

The clouds did allow us the chance to shoot some externals at points in the night

We kept ourselves busy and before we knew it the moon had traversed the whole sky. Xiao's camera batteries began to die (mine never do!) and we felt fatigue sinking though our bodies. A whole bottle of Jaegermeister (and I dread to think how many cigarettes) was consumed whilst sat high on the window galleries, chatting and joking as we looked out into the ever brightening murk outside. The dreaded blue glow of dawn filtering through the cloud to inform us that it was time to return to the hotel, still, we had another whole two days and one last night set aside to concentrate on the photography rather than the experience.

Within the entrance

A bit of warmth on a cold night

Day Two

Xiao leads the way

The next afternoon, once we had awoken, was a blurry one. It was at this point I realised we'd drunk a bit too much and we'd chosen to head into Gabrovo for lunch via the awesome Shipka Pass. This is one of the only routes through the Balkans at this point, and you begin to understand why the area was of such strategic importance during the wars that enveloped the region during the late 19th century. The road itself is very interesting, packed full of winding turns and sheer drops. Definitely not one for a hangover, I can tell you that.


Xiao waiting for her munch

I ordered some 'freshly squeezed lemon juice' at the riverside restaurant, despite Xiao's recommendations it sounded very appealing at the time but it really was pure lemon juice. Even a few mouthfuls of that mean acid  made me feel a bit ill and could not finish the feast I had on the table. Back to the mountains it was. We were rewarded with a beautifully clear evening with golden peaks and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset back up on Mt Buzludzha, before heading back to the bombsite/hotel to get the Arctic gear on and prepare for some star trails.

Fading sunlight over the monument

Lighting up the monument with the moon light and a torch
Lighting the immense structure up is no easy task and requires a lot of thought, and battery power. With it lying on an east-west axis it's difficult to find a nice angle that gets polaris in the frame but we tried our best. The cold, clear night and the biting wind kept us feeling quite tempted to return to the car while the cameras did their work but we persevered and entered the narrow entrance several times to illuminate the interior.

Brief respite from the bitter elements.
You can't move planets but you can wait for them to move themselves.

 The moon was perfectly positioned for our work throughout the night and did a great job of turning the darkness into day. We watched scores of satellites hurtling through the night sky and knew the Draconids meteor shower was also due to peak a few nights later so we were hopeful to see some, which we did. One of the cameras caught one quite nicely just above Polaris in the image below but I was too busy running the disco inside to see it.

A Draconid meteor streaks amongst the star trails
That was the end of our night photography for us. Jupiter and the moon had risen hours ago, followed by Venus which is only ever followed by the blue haze of dawn. We decided enough was enough and made our way back to the comfort of our hotel, a nice warm shower, a bottle of 'Crappy' (Cappy apple juice) and a bag of haribo. Alarms were set for breakfast but what happened to those is a mystery.

The panoramic galleries surrounding the conference hall provide spectacular views over the Balkans

It is impossible to spend so much time at a location without feeling a close bond with it and a site as spectacularly unique as this definitely works it's way deep within you. For me, this s a relic of a very recent, yet very distant past. There are no coach trips up here, the roads can feel like nobody's driven them for years. I've only seen a handful of people at the summit, and the majority of Bulgarian people have no idea what I am talking about when I ask them about the building. It was built by the masses but now lies forgotten by the very same people. A symbol to the strength of communism which now truly depicts it's 'strength' and the population's negative attitude towards the regime. It was only constructed in 1981, and was once a grand building by any standards, the floors paved in polished marble and luxurious red felt adorning the walls. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling while the country's politicians held talks in the conference halls below surrounded by beautifully detailed guilded mosaics. Political rallies were held outside with huge turnouts and the giant 12 metre red stars could be seen for miles at night, lit from within.

The monument, photographed during it's opening ceremony in 1981

The conference hall in it's heyday 

Mosaics in the main hall

Today it is almost impossible to get your head around this place in a historical context as well as an aesthetic one. It has to be seen to be believed but is in a desperate state. It does not need a heavy footfall to help it deteriorate further, it's doing a fine job on it's own. Although others have not treated it with respect in the past we are lucky to have the opportunity to witness history at play here in a very interesting fashion and every visitor needs to treat the gutted remains of the building with the respect it deserves. 

Don't forget your past, by Xiao Yang

Stairs leading to the basement level

Basement Level

Rooms running the length of the galleries. The red felt that once covered the
walls now litters the floor
The conference hall in June 2011
Creating the powerful mosaics must have been very time consuming

Chief builder General Delch Delchev had a large job ahead of him and employed the use of many 'volunteers' from the surrounding area to help in the monument's construction. The architect, Gueorguy Stoilov also employed the use of several artists, specialising in communist propaganda. The extensive mosaics are now brutalised. Todor Zhivkov's portrait was removed when he stepped down from power in 1989 and with the shift of control the monument was abandoned and rapidly vandalised. Once the valuable copper roof was removed the elements did not need long to tear down the grandeur within.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party was officially handed the site in September 2011 with no cost and there have been a few changes since. The entrances are regularly sealed and the graffiti was painted over in July 2012, finally destroying one of the site's most powerful slogans; the huge, red letters; 'FORGET YOUR PAST' daubed on in giant roller text. The monument has been on Bulgarian news lately and the plan is to reinstate it to it's former 1981 glory. I presonally think it is disgusting that such an amazing, unique structure has been left to rot in the way it has, but also think it's current state is one of it's most powerful assets. It would be very different if renovated but let's be honest, it urgently needs preservation. The damage is already very costly (repairs estimated at 30 million Euros) but to waste such an epic relic of the world's heritage would be unforgivable.

Xpome's famous 'Forget your past' slogan was removed in July 2012

Ciao ciao Mt Buzludzha

Back to the car, we made our way on to our next location with our hearts set on stopping at the first Mcdonald's we could find. Three hours later we got fat and began the next chapter. I will be putting the next batch of images together over the next few weeks so if you like what you see, make sure you come back for more.

Please make sure you check out Xiao's awesome shots too. She's a great photographer and close friend. I'm certain the trip would've been very different without her great company.

All images unless stated are under strict copyright of Mark O'Neill. Do not reproduce under any circumstances. Please SEEK permission BEFORE using any of my images for any purpose. Thank you for reading.