GRAND EASTERN EUROPEAN EXPEDITION 2: STRANGE SOUNDS IN THE CONCRETE HALL

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Stony soldiers and concrete women look out on the Black Sea.

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Sitting atop a hill in Varna, Bulgaria is the Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship.

Built in the 1970’s to commemorate unity between Bulgaria and Russia, it’s been left to decay since the collapse of the USSR. Pictures online show the ‘Staircase of Victors’ covered by hundreds of Communist Party officials back at its opening ceremony- these days it seems to be visited only by people jogging up and down the steps, walking their dog, or interested in the ruin.

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The first time I wandered over to the monument it was after a day of drinking on the beach. My fellow traveler went back to the hostel to take a nap and I walked along the shore until I saw the monument, and then climbed up the stairs to get a closer look. When I saw the opening at its center, I was very surprised- I didn’t guess it had an interior at all, much less an accessible one!

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I squeeze through the grate and stumble in. The sounds of the city vanish immediately once inside. Turning my flashlight on reveals a flight of concrete stairs going up into the structure.

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As I go up the steps, a tablet with Bulgarian text etched into it materializes. I can’t read Bulgarian, but later on I asked a friend who can to help with deciphering what was left of the text. He said it looked like a poem, reading something like “The Soviet Union and Bulgaria are as important to each other as the sun, air, and water are to a living thing.”

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As one moves away from the light coming in through the entrance, the steps keep splitting off and heading in different directions, and with only a phone it’s very dark. Eventually I come out into a large atrium with many openings heading into other rooms and hallways. While standing there I hear a rustling noise, what sounds like somebody standing up in one of the rooms. I freeze- it was at that point that I realized it was probably a bad idea to enter an easily-accessed urban ruin in the middle of the city with nothing but a phone, and to admittedly be a little inebriated while doing it. I promptly turned around and got out.

The next day, I went back (sober) with a more powerful flashlight and cautiously ventured a little further into the building. Taking a turn around a wall I hadn’t dared go past the day before, I find this room:

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The dimensions of the room, the light coming down from above, and the short steps going up to a little platform give the place the feeling of a small chapel. The huge star cut out of the wall dominates the space.

There’s a rustling noise again, but this time I notice it’s coming from above- the noise that’d spooked me the day before were just some pigeons nesting in the rafters! I leave the star/pigeon room and keep going up the building.

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The whole place has an off-kilter, unsteady atmosphere. I think it comes down to something with the layout and design feeling just a little bit * off * – the surfaces in the building never quite align perfectly, the walls and ceilings are all angled, the windows and stairs appear in unexpected places. The building teases at symmetry and then gives you asymmetry, creating a sort of uncanny valley effect of geometry.

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One of the staircases zigzags out of the dark and up to the roof.

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I go back inside to explore the interior some more. No matter how many times I walk through the different rooms, it still seems like a maze and it still feel like I’m stumbling into new chambers. Standing in the room I ended up thinking of as the ‘main atrium’ and looking at all the shadowy rooms and hallways leading off into darkness, I realize that the building feels much, much bigger on the inside than on the outside. Either it hides its size very well on the outside or it’s the concrete, communist version of House of Leaves.

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Sometimes I listen closely and think that I can hear a kind of hum, the muted echoes of far-off conversations. Are there people outside, or are there words from decades ago trapped inside and reverberating off the walls?

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GRAND EASTERN EUROPEAN EXPEDITION 1: A TRAIN EAST

Greetings from the Bureau of Exploration. This is the first in a series of reports on a long and fantastical journey through Southeastern Europe. Starting in Germany, we traveled to Romania and then meandered our way back through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia, exploring cities, nature, and ruins along the way. These reports will be my attempt at capturing the atmosphere of these incredible places and our adventures exploring them.

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Our adventure begins with a train. Or more accurately, with a bus which arrives late to get to a train. My fellow travelers and I got on the Vienna-Bucharest night train just in time, though we didn’t have time to get food and there was none on board. One source of calories on the train was inexpensive beer though, which suited me quite well!

We wake up twice during the night to calls of “PASSCONTROL” and “AUSWEISKONTROLLE” and are asked for our passports, by what must’ve been the Hungarian, and then a few hours later Romanian border police. Throughout the night the movements and low rumbling of the train filter into strange dreams. In the morning, I clamber down from my bunk and look through the window to find myself suddenly in a country I’ve never been in before.

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Outside the window sunlit expanses of fields and lush forests roll by in the Romanian countryside. Throughout the day, we catch occasional glimpses of intriguing places between the towns- abandoned industrial sites and powerplants, forgotten tunnels in the woods, ruins in the hills. By noon, the countryside gives way to the Carpathians, and later in the afternoon the train pulls in to Bucharest.

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Bucharest has the feeling of existing in a million places in time all at once. Back in the US most of the cities are pretty recent and uniform in style, and many of the other European cities I’ve visited may be more ancient but seem to me like they focus on one period of history and halt time there, or at least have distinct districts. In Bucharest, buildings of every imaginable style and era – medieval, Art Nouveau, Soviet, Eastern-Orthodox, Art Deco, modern, and a vast array of others – are all mixed together to the point where I can’t tell when or by whom the structures were built. Centuries lie between each neighboring building.

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One of the most striking parts of the city is the Centrul Civic, a planned city originally built to house the communist apparatus of state. At its center is the pet project of Romania’s last communist ruler, the largest parliament building in the world- an immense, imposing structure, with thousands of rooms which are today mostly empty. It’s almost as deep as it is tall- in anticipation of coming nuclear war, eight levels were built underground with 20 km of tunnels connecting it to other government buildings.

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Laid out before it is a main boulevard explicitly designed to be just a bit bigger than Paris’ Champs-Élysées. Towering over the streets are colossal neoclassical buildings, once meant to be housing for the party elite, now converted into everyday apartments. The monolithic and uniform look of the buildings is countered by the growth of vines and plants on the walls, the individual air conditioning units on the apartment windows, and the presence of decidedly un-communist advertising billboards on the rooftops.

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Bucharest is an awesome city- it’s got great history and architecture, and a fantastic atmosphere to it. We were sad to leave, yet there were further environs to explore- after three days in the city, we boarded a bus and continued our journey south into Bulgaria.

ZUGSPITZE

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My fellow travelers and I stood at the banks of the Eibsee, surrounded by thick forest, far below the soaring peaks of the Wetterstein mountains in southern Germany. A few hours ago we’d been on a train traveling through rolling countryside- now, all of a sudden, we found ourselves deep in the Alps.

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We spent a long time relaxing on the shore, taking in the spectacular atmosphere of water, forest, and alpine rock faces. At some point we dove into the water and embarked on an expedition to one of the nearby islands- absolutely freezing, but worth it! During the swim, we ran a timelapse of the clouds hitting the mountain.

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High above the lake with its peak shrouded in clouds we could see the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany. A train runs from the nearby town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen up the mountain, allowing us to venture to the summit.

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Life amongst the clouds!

The view from the top of the Zugspitze is nothing short of otherworldly. Vertical rock faces suddenly drop off to reveal an endless expanse of mountains stretching out in every direction, and the heights are such that it almost feels like you can see the curvature of the Earth between clouds. People walk around casually atop windy platforms and jagged outcroppings, behind them the most surreal background imaginable.

It’s always seemed to me that the clouds are like the surface of an ocean, and that coming up above them is like emerging from deep underwater to encounter some strange new world. It’s so bizarre and awesome to see something which is always up in the sky above your head, all of a sudden below your feet!

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Deep valleys and lush forests stretch out far below to the north, dotted with lakes and towns. To the south are the Alps, rock and snow and sky all the way to the horizon.

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HALLSTATT

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The Bureau of Exploration is an inextricable knot of interlocking and overlapping departments, sub-committees, and task forces that is so extraordinarily complex that it is unfathomable to even our most senior staff members. This confusion keeps increasing as the Bureau metastasizes constantly, with ever-more new departments being formed, expanded, or rediscovered in old paperwork.

It is in this spirit of exponential growth that I am pleased to announce the creation of the Bureau Overseas Exploration Division: European Branch, which shall lead all expeditions in Europe. Furthermore, in this report I am happy to introduce a sub-group within this new Division: the Alpine Exploration League! Its first journey: to Hallstatt, Austria!

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Being in the region for two days, my fellow operatives and I were lucky enough to behold the surreally beautiful Hallstätter See and the surrounding mountains in two very different kinds of weather. When we arrived, the sun was beaming- a gorgeous day perfect for hiking and exploration!

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We made our way through forests toward sharply-rising cliffsides. As we grew closer the cliff walls became vast and ominous, with caves hidden in the rock and waterfalls cascading down from above.

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We awoke the next day to find the mountains wreathed in clouds, creating an entirely different atmosphere. I loved the sunny beauty of the first day, but I think I liked the eerie feel of the second even more.

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Later in the day we finished off our survey of the region at the Gosausee, another lake surrounded by even steeper mountains. High above us the fog churned, spires of rock fading in and out of view.

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The final image was taken and edited by fellow operative Kimberly Luo- many thanks!

REGENSBURG

Greetings from the Bureau of Exploration. Over the last half-year, the Bureau has been exploring a new region: Europe! Our office was temporarily relocated to the city of Regensburg, Germany, from which we’ve been launching expeditions across Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. Our reports in the near future will cover these recent exploits, presenting castles and caves, adventures in the Alps, and brutalist concrete ruins.Regensburg_1.png

Today’s report is about our base of operations: Regensburg. Located in southern Germany and close to many different countries, it’s perfect for accessing interesting surrounding places, yet is a fantastic place for exploring itself. It’s filled with countless nooks and crannies, dozens of churches (both the vast and magnificent kind, as well as the eerie and forgotten), remnants of Roman times, old monuments, and everywhere incredibly beautiful architecture.

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The Danube goes through the middle of the city, connecting Regensburg to Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, and countless other cities, running from the Black Forest to the west to the Black Sea far to the east. Cargo boats run up and down the river, frequently bearing flags I can’t identify, headed to unknown ports.
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Beyond the city are cliffsides and hiking trails.
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Like any place someone lives, one remembers some of the particularly cool atmospheres from there: exploring the city’s manifold side-streets and alleyways with a map and bicycle, talking and drinking on islands on the Danube for long hours, biking to the railway station early in the morning to catch a train. It’s hard to convey- I wish I could do it better justice than what I’ve written here. A fantastic place!

That is the place from which we’ve been operating. Next, onward to where we ventured out to!

 

VICTOR EXPEDITION 1: THE INDEPENDENCE MINE

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“For weeks and months I’ve read about
The Independence Mine.
The wonders of its treasure vaults
The walls with gold that shine…” 

– Anonymous ¹

This is the first section of a field report on places of interest near the town of Victor, Colorado. Today we cover one of the largest abandoned structures the Bureau has ever encountered: the Independence Mine.

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This building is so big that from a distance I thought it looked more like a church steeple than a mining tower. It still feels immense today, but imagine what it must’ve looked like through the eyes of someone seeing it when it was built in 1891 (when the tallest building in the United States had 20 floors!).

The Independence Mine has a history of producing extraordinary wealth but has also experienced many disturbing events. In 1904 an elevator failure caused fifteen miners to die falling down the 1500 ft. mine shaft, and a while later thirteen miners were killed in a bombing during the Colorado Labor Wars.

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Beside the main structure is an ore-sorting machine.

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I love the meticulous network of supports that makes up this structure. There are so many hundred-foot beams, tiny struts, wooden chutes and metal plates, intricate works of geometry that keep the colossus standing. It’s definitely one of the grandest pieces of mining history that the Bureau has encountered.

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¹: Full poem (at bottom of page) and further information about Victor, CO here.