Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Travel Update V

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Travel Update IV


I'm in Tumen now, a small town on the border with North Korea. After a gruelling 24 hour train journey from Beijing, we are now on the brink of our journey into the unknown. Our party is small. Chris, the guide, is from Northern Ireland and he has been to Pyongyang 15 times; Fabian, a Canadian has done two North Korean tours before but everyone else is a DPRK virgin. Well, all except Yong Lee who was born there. He's an American citizen who was orphaned in WWII, went to the south to live with an uncle and then migrated to the US in the sixties. He has sisters in North Korea and had a brother... who died in a labour camp. Our band is seven souls in all, it is enough.

Tumen is small by Chinese standards but still over 100,000 people. It has a riverfront which overlooks North Korea. We peered over at what we would soon be entering and saw people like ants walking about and two large paintings of the Kims adorning a building. At night it is darker there than the neon glare of modern China.

Tumen is a largely Korean city. Everything is in two languages here. We dined at a restaurant which sevred Korean barbeque. Yong Lee asked on the street and everyone said that it was the best in town. The food was some of the best I've ever tasted, even beating yakiniku. And afterwards I had a suggestion: Korean baths. Yong Lee asked and we were shown the only one in town. By Japanese standards it was basic but after 13 years to sink into a genuine onsen was unreal. Nothing beats it.

Except perhaps tomorrow when we enter the most secretive state on earth.

Keep traveling!

Uncle Traveling Matt

Monday, 20 April 2015

Travel Update III


Off to the Far East of China today ready to cross over to North Korea on Tuesday. I'm getting more accustomed to Beijing now which, whilst not the prettiest city on earth, is nonetheless, interesting in parts. I went to a Lama temple yesterday and walked by a lake, lost myself in the hutongs and bought some tacky souvenirs. Most of my day though was spent trying to get some money as no bank accepted my bankcard and you can only change hard cash in banks, (and on a Sunday few are open). All sorted now but a bit scary for a while. What do you do in China when you run out of cash?

I met a Breton guy last night named Nicolas who has just returned from a gruelling 4-week intensive training kung fu camp. Obviously he spotted in me someone with similar levels of fitness and mental discipline and to celebrate he took me to his favourite restaurant. Wang Pan Zi is a chain which specialises in donkey meat. Never eaten donkey before and had not realised what I was missing. Extremely tasty, the nearest thing I can compare it to is beef or maybe dog. Anyway, if you get the chance, go donkey, that's all I can say. Plus it's cheap so I went back for breakfast this morning.

It also helps to work off a hangover.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Travel Update II

I arrived in Beijing early this morning to a very smoggy city and the smell of the Far East which I have not breathed in for around a decade. My flight was uneventful save for having seen darts legend Tony"Silverback" O'Shea drinking coffee in Manchester Airport. I was last in the Chinese capital in 2002 and the place has changed. It seems smarter and richer and there's a lot more English signage. However, considering the nature of this trip, it was not the present which was interesting me but the recent past and so as soon as I'd checked into my hotel I headed down to Tiananmen Square to complete some unfinished business.

Back in 2002 I'd not had time to view Mao Tse Tung lain in his mauseleum, (or should that be Maoseleum?), and so I thought what better way to kick off a trip to a land with a current dictator cult to explore one of the recent past. China today doesn't really know what to make of Mao. He's the founding father who put the communist party into power but they have strayed so far from his vision that one almost suspects that he's a bit of an embarrasment to them, (much like the regime they put into power in North Korea. The official line is that he was 70% good and 30% bad which makes some sense but still doesn't sum it up quite right for one like me who doesn't believe much in absolutes. Dead and gone both he and his legacy may be, but the Mao cult does continue. The queue snaked around the Maoseleum for a good half a mile at least and the state was not forcing this lot to attend. They were mostly from the provinces, rural folk enjoying a break in the big
city, and their attitude was not what I had expected. Paying respects to the dead - particularly the actual body! - one would expect hushed tones and decorum but no, they were queue jumping, chattering and a lot of the female clothing on display could hardly be termed modest. Yet at the same time most bought a bunch of 3 yuan flowers which they laid at the foot of his statue with a bow and a prayer as if Mao was some Taoist deity and not the leader of an atheist, communist guerilla army. I wonder how the North Koreans behave?

Finally, as I was watching the crowds mingle in Tiananmen Square I realised that a good many of them were old enough to have lived through the Cultural Revolution with all its horrors. Indeed, there were doubtless a few ex-Red Guards on that vast plaza today. I wonder what they think of Mao now? As I watched them I reflected on how quickly hostory can change. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese sought refuge with their Korean nrighbour to the south, infinitely praferable was in to the hell they were living. Now the shoe is firmly on the other foot and I was reminded of what an old Moroccan hotelier in Tangiers told me once about how things come around far too quickly for our liking and now it is the Arabs likely to seek sanctuary but a few decdes ago it was the Spanish fleeing from the clutches of Franco.

A funny old world.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

2015 Travel Update I–Preview




As I have done for the previous three years’ big trips, I intended to send regular updates of my journeyings around China and North Korea this Spring. However, just a little research on the internet has thrown up a few issues with this. North Korea I’d always known to be pretty much the only internet-less state on the globe and so I had anticipated not sending any updates from there, but what I had not foreseen  was that in the decade or so since my last visit, China has banned most of the internet sites that I use most, including the one that hosts this blog and my old friend Facebook. So, without them on hand, how can I update this blog?

What I have worked out is a partial solution. A friend of mine with an amazing technical knowhow with regards to the world of computers has agreed to update my blog for me with me sending him emails which he shall cut and paste. This will let you all know how I’m getting on in the Red East but the downsize is that, due to size limitations on emails, there’ll be few images. Therefore, I’m sending this first “update” whilst I’m still in the UK which will outline my itinerary and is loaded with images garnered from the web of the places that I hope to get to.

My trips starts on Friday when I fly from Manchester to Amerstdam and thence Beijing. I’ve been to the Chinese capital before on my 2002 trip across Asia with the Lowlander, but for those unsure, here’s a picture of Beijing’s most famous spot, Tiananmen Square.


I saw a lot of the most famous sights on my previous visit but I’ve still got the Summer Palace and Mao’s Mauseleum to check out amongst others.

Then from Beijing it’s a monster train journey east to the small city of Tumen in the far north east on the border with North Korea.


It doesn’t look far on the map above, but it is around 1,500km! By the way, Tumen is located at the spot where China, North Korea and Russia all converge.

The next day we’ll be crossing from Tumen over into North Korea itself. Here’s the bridge:


And then it’s the delights of the world’s most secretive state which will include:

photo-4A statue of Kim Jong-Il’s mum at her birthplace

nampo-kindergarten-dance-1A visit to a kindergarten

7030058047_7960fd86a8_zThe city of Chongjin, North Korea’s third-largest

inner_chilboHiking on the Chilbo Mountain

6326817756_b4ed403c06A Buddhist temple (in a country with no religion!)

9412332606_ec3b52fef6_bA homestay with a local family

MM00225813HUGE statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il

tumblr_mu7qnpw2O61skui9mo1_1280A visit to a local middle school

wangjaesan-grand-monumentand finally the famous Wangkaeson Grand Monument!

So, not your average itinerary, and for more details, see this link to Young Pioneer Tours who I’m travelling with.


After returning to China, my route and plans are not fixed but I do hope to visit Mt. Paektu, a holy mountain on the border between North Korea and China. Here’s why:


And so that’s it, please keep checking back and (hopefully) there’ll be lots here to whet your interest!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Bulgarian Jottings IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

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And welcome to what will probably be my last post before heading off on my trip of a lifetime, to the most political of all destinations: North Korea.

Why, you may ask, am I so eager to hang out with Comrade Kim and friends? Well, because I can mostly, but also because for much of my travelling life, I’ve explored destinations affected by the ideologies of communism and socialism. From Vietnam, to Albania, Uzbekistan to Chernobyl, Cambodia to this week’s destination, Bulgaria, I’ve been travelling red. But always, even when in a country like China which is still communist, I’ve had the feeling of having missed the boat. “You should have been here twenty years ago, man, that it was the real deal!” Well, for good or ill, there probably is only one real deal left, and that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and so that is why I’m headed there. Can’t wait!

KOREA-NORTH/A country where women fawn over the chubby guy: now that must be a place worth visiting…

But that is tomorrow and one should always live in the now and so before my Long March, I’ve been seeing a bit more of my own beloved country. Yes, the camping season has started again and so last week we were off to Wales and this week I have finally managed, after 37 years, to see England’s most famous and spectacular structure: Stonehenge. Was it worth it? You bet it was!

DSC00606It’s all about the stones, man…

But back in cyber-world, let me take you on another trip to Bulgaria, to one of my favourite kind of places wherever it is to be found in the world, the sleepy provincial town. This one is Razgrad, and afterwards I head up to Demir Baba which you can also read all about here when I revisited in 2011.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!


I’d expected a lot from Razgrad. I’d first heard of the town months before when we’d been having a discussion in one of my adult conversation classes about the Great Excursion.[1]

“Well you know,” Yavor, an advocate for the Solvey Sodi Company had said, “there’s a whole story about that, that hasn’t been told yet. Why did Zhivkov throw them all out, eh? Because there was a secret organization, a group, that wanted to create an autonomous Muslim state, similar to Kosova, in North Eastern Bulgaria, with Razgrad as its capital.” The other students nodded sagely. I however, was skeptical. This sounded like another Balkan tall story, an excuse for Zhivkov’s actions, not a real reason for them. Nowhere that had I been in Bulgaria, were there enough Turks, or indeed Muslims of any kind, to warrant even thinking about autonomy, even in these times and that region of nationalism gone crazy. But there again, I’d not travelled much in North Eastern Bulgaria at that time, only to the town of Tutrakan. Perhaps the region was full of Turks. After all, in Tutrakan, the family that I’d stayed with had been Turkish, and so had a good percentage of their neighbours.

“Where is this Razgrad then?” I asked as I’d never even heard of the place.

“In between Ruse and Shumen,” replied Yavor.

“And are there many Turks there?” asked I.

“It’s full of them. Gypsies too.”

My next encounter with the town came, strangely enough, in the Cotswolds.

“I travelled through Bulgaria in a Bedford van during my student days,” recalled my uncle, as we sipped some of the red wine that I’d brought back. “I’ll get out the slides.” When he did, to my dismay, we found that he’d travelled through few of the places that I was familiar with. “Where’s this?” I asked, as he got out one slide showing a magnificent Ottoman mosque.

“Let’s take a look,” he said, turning it over and then checking his directory. “Razgrad,” he announced.

“That explains the mosque,” said I, recalling Yavor’s words. “Razgrad’s full of Turks.”

Next up was Istanbul. Dzhilbert’s Uncle Ahmed, my host, announced that he was from the town originally. He’d moved, (or had been moved), during the Great Excursion, but seemed to bear no hard feelings and instead talked warmly of his former homeland and her people, talking of his fond memories of both Razgrad and Shumen, (where his wife originated from). And when it came time for me to get a bus back to Bulgaristan, I had a harder time of it that I’d expected. Virtually every coach between Turkey and its former colony headed not to Sofia or Varna as one might expect, but instead to (you’ve guessed it) Razgrad. Perhaps the town really was a mini Turkey after all?

It took a conversation with Fatme Muktar to finally convince me to go. She visited Varna and we got talk about Muslim sites in Bulgaria.

“Well, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then you really must go to Isperikh,” she said. “There’s the shrine of a Shiite saint there. It’s called Demir Baba and it’s very beautiful.”

A Shiite saint?! I was surprised. Bulgaria’s Muslims are by and large Sunnis, and the Shiites aren’t to be found in large numbers outside of Persia. A Shiite shrine in the Balkans, now that would be a sight to see!

“Where is Isperikh?” I asked.

“Near Razgrad,” came the reply.

So, as I said, I had high hopes for Razgrad as the train rolled into the station and a gazed at the town nestled in the bottom of the valley. It certainly looked interesting from a distance. It wasn’t very big – about the size of a market town – yet there in the centre there appeared to be a skyscraper of around fifteen stories in height. Communist urban planning gone overboard a la Shumen, I assumed.

razgrad skyscraperRazgrad… or Dubai?

I was right. As we entered the town in the grumbling Chavdar bus, it became clear that the Reds had gone to work on this place on an almost unprecedented scale. It was a wasteland of decaying apartment blocks and drab administrative buildings, with overgrown parks and intriguing statues. As I got off the bus and strolled through the streets, it soon became obvious that whatever wealth and talent this town had ever possessed, (and judging by the architecture at least, that was never a great deal), it had picked up and left town, most probably heading towards Istanbul. Few towns in Bulgaria look as sorry for themselves as Razgrad, and trust me, that is saying something. Decay sometimes has an atmospheric air to it, as in Shumen for example, but alas Razgrad is just plain miserable. Only Dobrich has less charm. Everyone said how Turkish the town is? Well, I’m sorry, but if that is provincial Turkey, then remind me never to go there.

The town did however, have one redeeming feature. A very big one in fact. Smack in the centre, opposite the steps that lead up to the huge skyscraper, (whose purpose alas, I never learnt), stood the mosque that I’d seen on my uncle’s slides. It was a beauty, graceful with a slender minaret and plaque declaring that it dated from 1616. It was also large, easily bigger in my estimation than Shumen’s Tomboul Mosque, which claims to be the biggest in the Balkans, let alone Bulgaria. Sadly however, it was also shut. One assumes for repairs.

razgrad mosqueMega mosque!

Razgrad’s bus station was on the edge of town, past a rather funky statue of a crouching panther. From a distance it looked like any other of Bulgaria’s communist-era bus stations. Closer up however, I got a shock.

It was nice! Not beautiful or elegant mind, (after all, it is a bus station that we’re talking about here), but clean, well kept and renovated. The toilet even had flowers and air-freshener and the waiting room was UPVC double-glazed. That any Bulgarian bus station should be remotely the sort of place in which you’d want to wait for a bus, was unbelievable. That such a bus station should exist in a dead-end hole like Razgrad was something else entirely. Perhaps here, was where I had truly found the Turkish influence, (or at least the money from the Turkish bus companies). Turkey is probably the only country on earth with pleasant bus stations. And most of the writing on the timetables and advertisements there, was definitely not Bulgarian.

I met a young man named Bili on the bus who at first tried to speak to me in German. He informed me that Isperikh was very nice, and quiet too. Not like Razgrad, which was a dump with horrible people. I agreed about the dump part but said that I couldn’t comment about the people as I’d only spent three hours in the place. He told me to trust him on that one, and then went on to tell me about his auto selling business. “If you ever need an Audi,” said he, “Come to me!” I told him that I would bear it in mind.

isperikhWelcome to Isperikh!

Isperikh had a different air to Razgrad. It was a backwater, yes, and somewhat decayed, but in a slumbering fashion as opposed to a going mouldy one. What the two towns did share however, was a Turkishness. My new friend Bili started chattering to a taxi driver in the tongue of Anatolia and I got a reasonable price. We chugged through the sun-drenched fields towards the Shiite shrine whilst my even newer friend, the taxi driver, told me of government and school parties that come to view the place, how nice it was, and how he normally charges fifteen leva for tourists, but as I was a friend he’d reduced that to eight, (we’d agreed five).

Demir Baba was not what I’d expected. The question I suppose is, what had I anticipated finding? A small tomb in the middle of a field I suppose, with a man sat in a ticket booth trying to charge more than he legally should.

Instead what we came upon was a wooded glade full of picnickers. Whole families with women wearing headscarves and locked Turkish trousers sat around blankets whilst chorba[2] simmered in large iron pots. At one end of the glade was a drinking fountain in which crates of Kamenitsa[3] sat cooling. The faithful however, sat in a circle chanting passages from the Koran, before washing their hands and feet in the fountain and then descending down the pathway that led to the shrine itself. It was all completely unlike anything that I had ever come across before in Bulgaria. And that’s because it was wholly Muslim.

I too started to descend the rocky pathway that led downhill to the shrine of Demir Baba. It was unlike the route to any holy site that I had previously trodden, but instead akin to a magical trail through an enchanted forest such as Jo or Bessie would follow Moon Face through in an Enid Blyton novel of my youth.[4] The sunlight flickered through the foliage and I expected fairies, pixies or imps to jump out and greet me. However, it were the Faithful who made the track even more mesmerising. For some reason, (I think to symbolise a prayer to the saint, though I’m not sure of this), each pilgrim had torn a small scrap of cloth and tied it to the branch of a tree, so that the way to the tomb was lined with thousands upon thousands of tiny bows, like spring flowers of faith that added to the atmosphere of that mystical green corridor that I walked through.

BK026Into the Enchanted Wood…

Demir Baba’s tomb was in the bottom of a gully with sheer cliff faces behind it. When one first enters the tiny walled compound through a stone gateway, one finds a trough of the clearest spring water in which to perform the ablutions stipulated before prayer in the Koran. Then the visitor passes a traditional-style Ottoman house of wood and wattle, through another stone gateway, into the inner sanctum of this fortress of faith. The air was hot and stifling, but as I entered the hexagonal structure that houses the tomb itself, a cool chill spread over me. It was a moving place, that lofty chamber with its decorated roof and chanting grandmothers, and despite being no Muslim I was touched by the aura. Above the cloth-covered tomb itself were hung pictures and tapestries of Koranic verses, the Kaba’ah at Mecca and, taking pride of place at the head of the tomb, Ali, the martyred hero of the Shiites.

I was surprised when Fatme told me that there were Shiites in Bulgaria, as I’d thought that adherents of that particular branch of the faith were to be found only in Iran, Iraq and parts of Afghanistan. However, during the early years of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, followers had moved there from Turkey proper and found much acceptance amongst the local population. Pavel Marinov explained why. “Those Turks that worship at Demir Baba, we call them the Kazalbashi. Well, they’re something different from the others, and are not particularly liked by them. However, they are much more open-minded, for example sharing each other. There’s none of ‘This is my wife and that is your wife’ stuff, and locking their women away like you get with most Turks. And well, in my mind, you’ve gotta respect that.”

It all sounded a bit like the Free Love of the Sixties to me. Groovy! Yet Shiites do not usually have such a hip and cool image. Quite the opposite in fact, as normally they are thought of as harsh, puritanical and mystical, (ok, so the latter is a bit funky), and what’s more, eternally devastated at the death of Ali, grandson of Mohammed and in Shiite eyes, the only true heir of the Prophet. If one were to compare Islam with Christianity, the majority Sunnis are the Catholics and the Shiites, the mysterious Orthodox. And the Protestants? Islam hasn’t had its Reformation… yet.

I examined the wall of the compound when I came out. Carved onto several of the stones were bas-reliefs of mosques and holy places that were exquisite. The whole place was extraordinary and a holy air seemed to hang over it. I embarked on the steep climb back to the picnic ground glad that I’d made the trip.

Demir_Baba_tekkesi_Razgrad_isperihDemir Baba

It’s not just Shiite saints however, who are interred near to Isperikh. Several kilometres away, across beautiful rolling countryside, one finds the Thracian Royal Tombs; large humps with spectacular interiors dating from the Third Century BC.

The Thracians were one of the earliest civilizations to dwell in the land that is now Bulgaria. Originally a group of wandering tribes, they first settled in the area around 2000BC, gradually progressing from dwelling in caves, to villages with fortresses. Their most famous remains are perhaps the ruins of Nebet Tepe, the fortress in the heart of Plovdiv’s Old City. The Thracians gradually developed quite a sophisticated civilization before eventually becoming assimilated by the Greeks, Macedonians and Slavs.

The tombs at Isperikh represent the zenith of Thracian civilization, intricately and exquisitely decorated in a Hellenic style, which suggests that those two ancient peoples had close ties with each other. Although the tombs are numerous, it is the Royal Tomb, recently restored by Britain’s Sainsbury Trust and the EU, that holds the spectator in awe; a magnificent chamber whose walls are supported by finely-carved statues of comely maidens. It is not known exactly who the ancient ruler once sealed in the chamber was, although records tell us that Dromichait, the leader of the Getaes, was engaged in a heavy battle during which he captured Lisimach, the heir to Alexander the Great. After the battle, he then took his hostage to his capital Helis, which has subsequently been identified as being the Thracian town near to the tombs. Therefore, is the Royal Tomb that of this famed Dromichait? Perhaps future investigations will shed more light on the matter?

thracian tombInside the Thracian Tomb

Sat on Isperikh’s railway station in the sweltering sun, I was reminded of Yordan Yovkov’s tale ‘Hot Noon’, written about an equally hot and equally quiet provincial railway station somewhere nearby in the North Eastern Bulgaria that he loved. I was tired, yet relaxed by my small expedition to this region of Turks and tombs. Too much history and holiness for one day me reckons, but this pocket of Bulgaria, for some reason completely ignored by all the guidebooks, is one of Bulgaria’s most intriguing. I recommend searching it out.

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

Written in Druzhba, Bulgaria, June 2003

[1] For more information on that, see ‘In a Minority’.

[2] Chorba: literally ‘soup’. The word is both Bulgarian and Turkish, the Bulgars having borrowed it, (as they did many words), off their former colonizers.

[3] Kamenitsa: For my assessment of this popular brand of beer, please consult ‘Nazdravei!’ Incidentally, what crates of beer were doing in a Muslim holy place, makes one wonder and demonstrates admirably the flexible approach to their faith that most Balkan Muslims demonstrate.

[4] Completely unrelated to Bulgaria, but the novels referred to are Ms. Blyton’s Faraway Tree novels, written between 1939 and 1951.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bulgarian Jottings II: Shumen

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Happy Easter to all you visitors to Uncle Travelling Matt and thanks for keeping on visiting. Easter should be the time when we start to think about heading out to enjoy ourselves in Britain, but since the weather has been miserable, then the wait goes on. Until the sun does decide to put his hat on, it’s time to indulge in a few more Bulgarian memories instead.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!

Bulgaria-culture-history-Map SHUMEN

shumen modified


Shumen is Bulgaria’s tenth largest town. Or at least, that is what my guidebook says. It lists it as having a population of one hundred and seven thousand, six hundred and fifty. So, there are the bare bones for all of you who have never encountered the word ‘Shumen’ in your lives before. Now is the time to flesh it out.

Well, I say those are the bare bones, but of course I might be wrong. Towns, as we know, live and die, ever evolving through time. And alas, fair Shumen has done far more of the dying than the living in the years that have followed Bulgaria’s not-so-triumphant entry into the capitalist fold. The guidebook may state over a hundred thousand souls residing there, but to be honest, I for one very much doubt if her population is much over ninety thousand these days.

Dying or not however, Shumen does also happen to be one of my favourite destinations in all of Bulgaria and at just over an hour away from Varna by rail, countless were the times that I visited her for a day trip. Despite the air of despair and signs of dereliction, (or perhaps even because of them?), I have developed an enduring affection for Shumen, a small city that is both curious and unique, and somehow a symbol of Bulgaria as a whole more than any other of her towns.

I first decided to visit the town after passing through on the train en route to Varna from Sofia and before that, Moscow. In the dying light of a summer’s day, a city loomed up ahead of us, and beside that city, a long low hill. But it was what was perched atop that hill that caught my attention; a huge structure, an unbelievably enormous triangularly-shaped slab of concrete around ten storeys high. What the hell was it? As the train drew nearer, it became clear that it was in fact some sort of monument, but to what and depicting what I could not fathom out. All that I did know was that even in a land littered with large concrete monuments, this was something else, in a league of its own. It could be seen from over ten miles away. It warranted investigation.

And so later on I came to do just that. And upon coming I discovered a fascinating town. I arrived as always, by the iron road, and upon exiting the grand colonnaded precincts of the railway station, found myself heading towards the centre, a centre that is strung out for several kilometres along one café-lined street. Nick de Sausmarez, the Head of Varna’s tiny British Council, and a man with whom I have more than once shared an alcoholic beverage or two, told me that he had once known a British guy who’d spent two years teaching in Shumen. “He hated the place,” said Nick. “Despite it being the size of say, Colchester or Stafford, it was like one of those old Wild West towns. Everything happens on that street. To go anywhere or do anything you have to walk down it. And so everybody saw you, and as it was Shumen and no one was at work, ‘cos there is no work there; everybody got to know your business and, what’s more, to discuss it. Shumen, it’s a gossip’s paradise!” I could see what he meant, and I’ll admit now, perhaps my opinion of the city would be a little less enthusiastic if I was forced to spend two years in the place, but I have to say, as I walked down that shady, tree-lined and café-inundated boulevard, where ageing Ladas sit and young couples cavort, I found it all rather pleasant.

After the cafes however, that infamous street widens out into a large triangular square named Ploshtad Osvobozhdenie. Here is where the town’s decline can truly be experienced. Whilst the square, and the buildings that line two sides of it, are pleasant enough, the third must be seen to be believed. One feature of the old communist town planners seems to be that they had a certain affection for monolithic projects, complexes so huge that one wonders what use was ever envisioned for them. Perhaps the most famous of these wonders is to be seen, almost completed, not two hundred kilometres away from Shumen, across the Danube in Bucharest. There, the infamous dictator Nicholae Ceacescu decided to build a Palace of the People, a Stalinist pile so huge that reputedly only the Pentagon is bigger. It sits at the end of an equally enormous boulevard and dominates the entire city with its bulk. It also sits however, largely empty and mostly purposeless, for except as a home for the country’s parliament, no other uses have been found for its countless rooms.

Perhaps Shumen’s city fathers once paid a visit to their northern neighbour and came away inspired? I know not. All that I do know is that they too decided to modernise their town in one big fat mega-project. There were to be underground shopping arcades and car parks, a huge cultural centre and a thirteen-storey high, (should they not have spotted the unlucky omen there?), hotel and wide, fast roads with swish pedestrian underpasses.

Problem was, they’d only just got stuck into this Project of Projects when the regime fell and the money abruptly dried up. The roads are there, but largely without cars, and the underpasses, (unused as it is much easier to cross an empty highway), have become stinking rubbish dumps. The unfinished underground mall has steel gates across its entrance, the hotel is over-priced and empty and the cultural centre-cum-car park is an enormous, fenced-off hole with the eerie concrete skeleton of a skyscraper rising up out of the site to complete and dominate the sad scene. It is dereliction, despair, downfall and doomed mega-project at its most awe-inspiring. Walking around it, one feels more like on of the few survivors in those films depicting the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, who pick their way through the ruins of a modern metropolis.

BK007The sorry heart of Shumen

But Shumen is not all doom and gloom, and proceed past the Square of Unrealised Ambitions and one reaches my favourite part of the town; the old bit. There’s crumbling Ottoman houses, a sixteenth century Turkish bazaar and the fine Tomboul Mosque, reputedly the second-largest in the Balkans.[1] This area is magical for me, as nowhere else in Bulgaria does one get such a truly Balkan feel to the locality, with the evidence of centuries all around you and a mixture of ethnicities and cultures all against a backdrop of wooded and dwelling-smattered hillsides.

Whilst the Bezisten, (the Ottoman covered-market), is unfortunately closed for restoration, (or so they say, I couldn’t see a lot of restoring being done), at present, the Tomboul Mosque is thankfully open to the general public. Bulgaria these days, is not a country blessed with an inordinate number of mosques, but it was not always so. Look at any photograph of any of her major towns in or around 1900 and you will witness a sea of minarets thrusting towards the heavens. Sofia alone boasted around thirty. Nowadays, there is but one in the capital, and although in the predominately Muslim areas such as the Rodopi Mountains, they are fairly numerous, alas, in most other places such is not the case. Nonetheless, some fine examples of Islamic religious architecture do remain; the Banya Bashi in Sofia, the Eski Jamiya in Stara Zagora and most notably the Jumaya Camii in Plovdiv, but in my humble opinion, it is Shumen’s Tomboul that tops them all.

The Sherif Haili Pasha Camii, (to give it its proper name – ‘Tomboul’ just means ‘plump’- a reference to the shape of its dome), was built in 1744 under the auspices of, (surprise, surprise), Sherif Haili Pasha, Turkish general with some money to spare, as a gift to the people of Shumen. It was a generous gift indeed; the mosque boasts a forty metre high minaret, a twenty-five metre wide dome and an attached Medrassah[2] making it something of a monster mosque by Balkan standards. The gift was probably most appreciated too. From the early days of the Ottoman occupation, the town has always had a large Turkish minority, according to my guide who was a local Muslim himself. This minority did decrease somewhat however, during the infamous Golyamata Ekskursiya of 1989[3] and although many did return at a later date, this event has no doubt contributed enormously to the town’s present downbeat and half-empty aura. Indeed, even today, there are still close ties with the Mother Country to the south where many of Shumen’s Muslim inhabitants have relatives. I stayed with one family from the town whilst I was in Istanbul and when trying to book a bus back to Bulgaria, I discovered that most of the services headed not to the major population centres of Burgas, Varna, Sofia and Plovdiv, but instead to Shumen and Razgrad, the two Bulgarian cities with the largest Turkish minorities.

122_001_Tombul_Djamiya_ShumenThe Tomboul Mosque

However, the presence of a large Muslim minority or not, the Tomboul Mosque, is sadly not all that alive these days. There’s purportedly around twenty thousand Muslims in the city, but only twenty to thirty in the congregation our guide continued, despite the lifting of all government restrictions on religion. As with the followers of the Orthodox Church, most Bulgarians seem to have found little solace in faith since the end of socialism. Like with most of the continent that she sits on, the biggest problem for Bulgarian spirituality is not fear dictated from the top, but apathy dictated from below. And that’s a shame, since the Tomboul would be a fine place to worship. Its floor is covered with beautifully woven carpets from ages past, a stupendous chandelier hangs from the ceiling and some fine paintings adorn the walls. Inside this lofty building, there truly is an atmosphere, though for me, the real beauty lay outside, in the small courtyard of the medrassah. This shady and sheltered spot, with a fine fountain of holy water in its centre, is Ottoman elegance and meditative tranquillity itself, a perfect place to sit for hours on end and ponder the Almighty.

After the mosque, the valley in which the town is situated, and thus the town itself, narrows down into virtually nothing, until eventually there is room only for a lane and the premises of the Shumensko Brewery, (alas, not one of Bulgaria’s finest ales in my opinion, the aftertaste is quite shocking). And that lane soon starts to twist and turn its way up the hillside, through the magnificent Pripoden or Kyoshkovete Park up to the Shumen Fortress, a magnificent set of ruins that were once one of the finest castles in the Balkans. Started in the Iron Age, the Thracians later built some walls, and between the Second and Fourth centuries, the Romans then added some more. The Byzantines were the next to leave their mark and during the Second Bulgarian Empire it became one of the country’s greatest military strongholds. That importance however, ended in the Fourteenth Century when the Ottomans came, laid siege to it, burnt it down and then stole half the stones, though it seems that that was not the end of the saga, as any visitor to the ruins soon becomes aware that the communists too did some work on the site. Entering the only extant tower, a landmark that can be seen for miles around, we were surprised to find the interior to be made entirely of reinforced concrete! Hmm… Perhaps the ancient Bulgarian builders were more advanced than we thought?

116_005_Shumenska_krepostShumen’s concrete castle

Great as plump mosques, unfinished cultural centres and concrete castles are though, all pale in the shadow, (literally), of Shumen’s biggest, (again, literally), tourist drawcard. The Monument to the Creators of the Bulgarian State was built in time for the celebrations commemorating the 1,300the Anniversary of the State of Bulgaria held throughout 1981. Not that there had been a continuous Bulgarian State for 1,300 years in 1981 mind. In fact, for most of those thirteen centuries, Bulgaria has been under the domination of one foreign power or another. 1981 was however, the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of the first ever Bulgarian State which occurred when Khan Asparukh established his kingdom in 681AD. Erm, except that his kingdom was not established then, or at least, it might have been established then, though to be honest, no one really knows. Old Asparukh never thought to record for prosperity when exactly it was that he set up his little realm, so all that the Bulgarian historians have to go on are the chronicles of neighbouring Byzantium. And they first mention a Bulgarian entity in 681AD, which I suppose is as good a date as any.

Or at least that is what the communist leader Todor Zhivkov thought as the 1,300th anniversary to that date in the Byzantine chronicles approached. And to mark that notable occasion, (nothing to do with taking the populace’s minds off a rapidly stagnating economy I’m sure you’ll understand), he decided to indulge in an orgy of patriotic celebration, with parties being thrown and monuments being thrown up across the length and breadth of Bulgaria.

And the big daddy of all those monuments was the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State in Shumen, placed there as the modern city lies roughly midway between the country’s two ancient capitals, Pliska and Preslav. It stands there, on a ridge above the town, a gigantic, modernist concrete wedge that apparently represents a leaping lion, the symbol of the Bulgarian State.[4] Well, that’s what the artist reckoned anyway. Problem was, so modern and abstract was his design, that no one else could see it. He was ordered to change it twice, yet even today’s finished article is barely recognisable to be what it is supposed to be.

1300 01A leaping lion?

But if the overall shape impresses us not, then the size surely does. And the approach too. Starting from the city centre, one climbs up one thousand three hundred steps, one for each year,[5] up towards the gigantic edifice, an edifice easily twenty metres high.

BK006The monument seen from the bottom of the 1,300 steps

And once ‘in’ the monument, (it’s not actually an enclosed space, but it feels like one), that gruelling climb of over a millennium seems worth it. Gigantic, modernistic stone statues of ancient kings glower down upon the modern mortal, whilst massive gold, white and black mosaics depict Christian kings, warriors and sages, whilst all around are immortal quotes from the men who built Bulgaria.

1300 03Inside the monument

But who are those men, the actual Founders of the Bulgarian State? Well, first and foremost there’s Khan Asparukh, the first official king of Bulgaria. He was the middle son of Kobrat, a man who had been brought up as a Christian in the palace at Constantinople along with a young boy who was to become the famed Emperor Justinian, the builder of Aga Sofia. Kobrat ruled a Bulgar Kingdom named Fangoria which was located in and around the Volga Region of modern-day Russia, (‘Bulgar’ = ‘Volga’, think about it…). It was he who united the Bulgar tribes with a famous yet simple display. After some dissent in the ranks, he took a stick, placed it over his knee and snapped it in two with ease. Then he took a bundle of sticks, placed them over his knee and tried to do the same, and of course, failed. “Divided we are weak,” he declared, “But united we are strong!”

His three sons were entrusted with furthering the Bulgar cause. The eldest, Bagbayan, stayed behind to rule Fangoria in his father’s place, whilst the other two journeyed south and west in search of new lands. Asparukh stopped at Pliska, thrust his sword into the ground and announced to all that that was to be the centre of his new country. The youngest, Kuber, continued onwards, onto what is today’s Macedonia and established a Bulgar kingdom there which was to last until the Eleventh Century.

So it was Asparukh who became the first King of Bulgaria. After establishing his capital in Pliska in 681, (as I said before, the date now recognised as the establishment of the kingdom), he concluded a treaty with Byzantine and later an alliance with the local Slavs.[6] His son Tervel, (ruled 701-718), who succeeded him, continued to deepen these ties, and thus Bulgaria was here to stay.

Three other ‘Founders’ are celebrated at Shumen however. The first of these three kings is Khan Krum, (ruled 803-814), who defeated an invading Byzantine army by retreating before them and then ambushing them in a mountain pass called Tsarigrad, and then going on to reverse the direction of the fighting until he was besieging Constantinople itself. Krum however, is equally known in Bulgaria as a lawmaker and a strict one at that. Many of the punishments that he decreed, such as chopping off of an arm for thievery have been likened to the Sha’aria Law of Islam.

1300 02Ancient leaders immortalise in concrete

Secondly, there is Tsar Boris (853-889), who in 865 attempted to further strengthen his empire and people by converting to Christianity. This was not the first time that a Bulgarian king had flirted with the faith - when the grave of Kobrat was unearthed in the Soviet Union, Christian artifacts including a cross-embellished sword were found with his remains – but this time it was official, and for better or worse, the inhabitants of Bulgaria have been largely Christian ever since.

And lastly we have Tsar Simeon (893-927), who moved the capital from Pliska to nearby Preslav. He gave Bulgaria it’s Golden Era, when her borders stretched from the Adriatic to the Aegean and her culture flourished. It was not to last however. In less than a hundred years after his death, the empire had been wholly subjugated by the Byzantines, but he was not to know that and the monument builders of 1981 didn’t bother mentioning it either.

Stood by that edifice, with grim kings of yore looking down upon you and the heartland of that ancient empire laid out like a tablecloth all around, one feels that despite its totalitarian overtones, the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State was worth building after all. Detractors lament that eight kindergartens could have been constructed with the money, but they fail to mention that they could never have been staffed and equipped with it once built. And at least now Shumen does have something rather special, something that even though it doesn’t look much like the leaping lion that it’s meant to be, might, along with the glorious Tomboul Mosque and the majestic fortress, bring the tourists flocking to that city one day in the future and give it a future to equal its past and eclipse the sad and weary present.

1300 05Abstract mosaics of Bulgarian history


Written on the Shumen – Varna train, May, 2003

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

[1] This is what I was told by the guide anyway, although I have doubts as to the accuracy of his statement, as I saw several larger-looking ones in Skopje, let alone Balkan Turkey. It is definitely however, the second-largest in Bulgaria.

[2] Medrassah – Islamic School.

[3] Golyamata Ekskursiya- lit. ‘The Great Excursion’. The then leader of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov put immense pressure on his country’s Muslims to adopt ‘Bulgarian’ (i.e. Christian), names and become more assimilated into the mainstream Slavic population. Those who refused were semi-forcibly ‘encouraged’ to go to Turkey, (‘on an excursion’) and not to return. Around 600,000 Turks left Bulgaria in this way during 1989, until the Turkish authorities closed their border posts.

[4] As an aside, the country’s currency, the lev, is derived from the Bulgarian word for ‘lion’.

[5] Though I counted 1,409.

[6] At that time the Slavs were an entirely separate race to the Bulgars. Today’s modern Bulgarians however, are largely a mixture of Bulgar and Slav blood.