Gunkanjima – the possibility of an island

Hashima Island (端島), commonly called Gunkanjima (軍艦島; meaning Battleship Island) was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan in October. Situated just a couple of kilometres away from the port of Nagasaki, it is one of the most unusual places I’ve ever seen.

I found out about Hashima thanks to Google Earth and a friend of mine who has visited Japan earlier last year. She didn’t make it to visit the island, but knowing my passion for the beautiful decay and abandoned places, she knew that I will do my best to reach it during this trip.

Reaching Hashima proved to be not as complicated as I initially thought. Obviously, it depends greatly on the weather and sea conditions, but since it was awarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining in 2015, regular boat cruises to the island started to operate from Nagasaki port.

According to the tour operator, and my fellow travellers, cancellation of the cruises happen very often. Especially that I was visiting in the typhoon period, the dock on Hashima is pretty steep and landing not always is possible. I was lucky to sail when the sea was relatively quiet and on the way, I managed to hear various stories about the industrial revolution, Mitsubishi’s investment in the area that left impressive massive port architecture landscape in the Nagasaki Bay. However, a big part of the narration was also about the consequences of the brutal 19th century capitalism, and further decay of the settlements.

During the cruise, a former mining company employee was sharing both thrilling stories, and anecdotes about life on Hashima. Unfortunately, the narration was not always comprehensible or translated, so I could only read through his emotional language and further investigate about the industrial battleship exile.

Although the trip took only a few hours, it left me very impacted by the possibilities of afterlife for the post-industrial settlements. As the world will be hopefully becoming a more sustainable place in the future, endless opportunities or creating architectural memories of the massive coal mining, or steel industry will become a destination about learning about the past.

Horrid playgrounds of Berlin

After almost 2 years I’ve been living here, I have to admit I am never bored of exploring Berlin. Its diversity and creative energy is endless, as I roam around the streets, lakes, clubs, and widely defined ‘places’. Today I’d like to focus on a controversial topic of playgrounds in Berlin.

Why? As me and my friend Marta (who is the author of several pictures in this post and my partner in crime when it comes to discovering abandoned, inspiring and often horrid places) made some previous research about playgrounds, we couldn’t find the answer the origin of their specific design, to put it nicely. It’s interesting, since I know that other different secrets of Berlin have been investigated thoroughly (including the secret life of homeless Christmas trees).

Well, sometimes ill-designed amusement parks (such as Spree Park) or city attractions (like the Parks of Walking Sticks I was very tempted to see in Latvia) can be particularly romantic or even become a symbol of the city (e.g. bear sculptures in Friedrichshein are far from being cheerful).

There is a fine thin line between ‘inspiring’ and ‘scary’ though as you can see from some of the pictures we took from Spandau to Marzahn, as well as from Pankow to Tempelhof. Most of the playgrounds were empty, and I am not wondering why: the creatures looked pretty horrid, or at least very sad.

However, I wanted to say that I am not an enemy of this type of playgrounds, much as I enjoy abandoned or post-industrial places. I think that simple, wooden objects and toys can actually boost creativity in children while they explore their world. Maybe there is some underlying psychological theory beyond the specific design of these playgrounds?

To prove my argument, above I’d like to attach fragments of the book I found on the board of MS Polargirl while travelling in arctic Svalbard. You can clearly see that the author plays with the common objects found within the natural habitat (including reindeer’s bones or skulls) to create new faces, funny gnomes or island’s demons. Are Berliner playgrounds the caricature of the city?

Maltese Mediterranean mood

Summer on my mind… Lately a friend of mine visited me and while singing karaoke (picking the most horrible choices like Geri Halliwell’s ‘Chico Latino’) our minds traveled to where it’s sunny, stunningly beautiful and the Mediterranean breeze is blowing.

Malta is definitely  one of these places, and I could share the whole series of Baleares, Sardegna and Adriatic tales to cheer up those still working and looking forward to the ‘real’ summer holidays. Since I am not a fan of high season travels, it’s not my case and I’ll share with you my impressions from this little Mediterranean island and country I visited in the springtime.

I spent some time in the Northern Part of Malta, where the widest and longest sandy beach is located, as well as the picturesque town of Mellieha. I strongly recommend visiting the town, since it’s still very authentic and has some stunning views to offer (when the visibility is good, one can spot the islands Comino and Gozo). For more spiritual or religious people, I’d recommend visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grotto, a very tranquil and soothing place for those searching for peace of mind and… oh well, shadow. Another interesting point worth visiting is the abandoned village of Popeye, since the movie was shot here years ago. Somewhat funny, somewhat scary!

Staying at the Northern tip of Malta allowed me to travel easily to the neighbouring islands of Comino (with its emblematic Blue Lagoon) and Gozo. Unfortunately, Blue Lagoon is already too popular and touristic – even off the high season, so I enjoyed mostly hiking around this small island and taking stunning photos of the blue waters.

However, Gozo will offer you much more: towns and villages with craft food, places to eat out authentic Maltese cuisine and again, excellent views of the Maltese sculptures of its own: rocks.

As opposed to the North, the South of Malta, including the Valetta-Gzira-Sliema three-in-one towns is full of history. Military buildings, museums and churches tell a story of years of battles and resistance of Malta.

I recommend a long walk throughout the Old Town of Valetta, including the port, and beyond: multicultural Gzira and posh Sliema. While Valetta reminds of a living monument, Gzira and Sliema are actually very lively places with the whole bunch of cafés and restaurants.

I didn’t have chance to visit St. Julian’s but its party image was not something I was looking for during this stay. All in all, I have to say that a couple of days on Malta made for a very relaxing, but also inspiring experience. It’s very well communicated, so it’s not too stressful to visit place, and yet not too expensive. I have a lot of thoughts around the sustainable tourism, which should be something to implement in places such as the Blue Lagoon, so please enjoy responsibly!

Auseklis of Latvia 

Auseklis in Latvian means ‘The morning star’ and symbolizes protection from dark and evil. As somewhat my long weekend getaway coincided with the season change in Latvia: from long winter to springtime awakening, I feel that this could be a could symbols for the changes that were going on not only in nature, but also in my life.

For some reason, even while I visited both Lithuania and Estonia years ago, Latvia was always a pending country in Europe to see. What accelerated my visit were a few spare days in April I could use up for holidays and having two of my friends living there and posting beautiful Instagram pictures of Riga, Baltic coast and Sigulda, even in the gloomy wintertime.

I stayed in the hipster part of Riga (where else I could end up, ha ha) nearby Miera Street, full of original cafes, craft beer bars, theatres and streetart. And Laima – the chocolate factory, which tested really good!

I obviously checked the must-see boxes in the beautiful Riga’s Old Town learning about Latvia’s rich yet turbulent history, including visiting the Jewish Ghetto. I was equally enchanted by the Art Nouveau district, and post-industrial parts of the city, as much as the parks.

I didn’t go out at night beyond the Miera Street – my friends warned me that most likely for clubbing in Riga, I’d need to dress up in high heels. Berlin all-black-everything-I-don’t-give-a-damn style still didn’t get in here.

Instead, I chose an early morning escape to Sigulda, Krimulda and Turaida. 1 hour train ride from Riga you can find yourself in the beautiful Gauja National Park which is a paradise for hiking. Local tourist information offers a lot of advice regarding the most interesting paths. I opted for the 25 km one which was ambitious but extremely pleasant, including visiting the castle in Turaida, Park of Walking Sticks in Sigulda (?!), Sculpture Park of Krisjan Baron (Latvian natural art representative), as well as some bird-watching reserve. And since it was a very early springtime one could witness the sheer awakening of all the species!

On the third day I visited Jurmala, a seaside resort town and hosting of one of the most beautiful beaches. All in all, I was extremely happy to have discovered Latvia, and I would like to thank my friends for the extensive list of tips prior to visiting it.

And today I’m even more happy since one of them is re-visiting me in Berlin!

 

Sound Sculpture in Szczecin

Last month for me was exceptionally full of events in Berlin during the work week, and shorter or longer getaways during the weekends. Similarly like last year around springtime, I felt tempted to explore not only Berlin and Brandenburg, but also the coastline.

Triggered by the concert of one of my favourite Polish electronic music producers in the newly built Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin, together with my friend, we decided to spend a weekend in Szczecin, the biggest Polish city situated next to the North-Eastern frontier.

Typically people would go there on the way to some other locations: like for instance Polish seaside towns or even more popular summer festivals, like Plötzlich am Meer. The train ride to Szczecin would take us less than 2 hours and cost… less than 6 EUR, if you manage to find your ‘Berlin-Brandenburg-Ticket’ group, which is almost a ritual part of this route. Otherwise, if you don’t feel like socializing, you can stick to a special fare, individual ticket for 10 EUR.

Szczecin itself has its specific charm. On one hand, it’s probably one of the most spacious cities in terms of territory: situated by the bay, river and countless lakes, it is indeed huge. Given its difficult, war, post-war and heavily industrialised history, it also seems derelict or unproportionally uncrowded comparing to its size. This has a lot to do with the migrations to other bigger cities or neighbouring Germany. So obviously there are places one shouldn’t visit after the sun goes down.

However, there are some sparkles of creativity in reconstructing the city, and bringing more cultural events. The area surrounding the castle and the promenade is full of interesting street art and the city tries to attract different people by hosting cultural events such as Kontrapunkt, or at least inviting unusual artists like Skalpel for the electronic music showcases in the extraordinary set up in the Philharmonic, which is worth visiting itself.

I enjoyed this visit greatly, given that I was pointed many recommendations by my friends originating from Szczecin and the concert exceeded my expectations.

If you like history, scratching beyond the surface, and discovering the beauty in the atypically interesting architecture, yet you’re bold enough – visiting Szczecin sounds good in combining it with one of its cultural events.

 

 

Sunday is gloomy in Eisenhüttenstadt

This atypical Sunday getaway was a topic of recurring talks with a friend of mine. We both stumbled upon the topic of going to Eisenhüttenstadt partly by accident, partly knowing it from the GDR era, and we both developed unhealthy fascination about this decaying place.

It is probably one of the saddest places in the world. Even in the springtime sun, it looked hazy, depressing and we were one of the very few wandering souls around the town. Other were some people eating ice-cream coloured blue (true story, not a literary fiction at all).

The history of Eisenhüttenstadt is closely linked with the rise of central planning during the GDR, and this is when the crazily concrete urban planning took place, as a socialist model city. Here is a documentary about this Steel Town:

Between 1989-2015 the population dropped by almost 40% and it felt like a place with not a single body (let alone soul). The centre of Eisenhüttenstadt is like the living museum of GDR era itself, and the industrial park offers some breathtaking views of the factory decay.

 

It took us 90 minutes to get there by train via Frankfurt (Oder), which is much more picturesque in the classical meaning of it, however, if you look closely, you will spot children playing around the Soviet-times monument as well as a few abandoned buildings from the same epoque.

I would recommend this Ausflüge to… no one? Unless you like abandoned places, contemplating over the history and urban architecture. I actually do. There are more ghost towns like this in the former GDR area, and it only makes me wonder, will these places reinvent themselves? As I am a sucker for the living museums of industrial revolution, I think humanity can learn from places like Eisenhüttenstadt for the cathartic purposes, and hopefully: the better future.

Dislaimer: after having published this entry I got a lot of criticism from people who live in and love Eisenhüttenstadt. I didn’t mean to offend you, or your town, not discredit it. I only wrote an opinion on central planning and absurds of history that made a big impact on the development on this city. Big part of my writing is ironical and not-to-be-taken too seriously, as I write about my impressions only. I went to Eisenhüttenstadt as I am fascinated by history, brutalist architecture and industrial landscapes, however, I would argue you can call this town ‘beautiful’ by classical standards. I respect and embrace the people who can see the beauty through the abandoned, concrete and industrial landscapes. Once again: I do, and I will come back to Eisenhüttenstadt with more visitors, for sure.

Detroit B2B Berlin

Cold days = getting sick. Getting sick = managing to read all the pending stuff I wanted to. A Pulitzer-winning author, Charlie LeDuff was one of those on the waiting list on my shelf. Detroit-born writer and journalist stole my sick days with his reportage ‘Detroit: An American Autopsy’. Although I have never been to Detroit, it’s on my travel list since ages. I have also watched tones of the documentaries about this fascinating city, such as:

Also, my fascination with the remote and abandoned places, urban apocalipse and related started a while ago. Only in Berlin though I realised how many stories of the ‘wounded cities’ that once used to be flourishing with industrial jobs are hidden in the abandoned factories and warehouses. Berlin is a perfect place of offering such places a second life, often linked to great cultural venues, such as Stattbad (no longer existing though), Kraftwerk and Tresor anyway, Berghain, Urban Spree and many more which I still did not manage to describe here. There is still a full list of horrifying, dreadful and yet absolutely fascinating decay buildings for me to discover.

So not only postindustrial images, but also the emerging creativity links Detroit with Berlin. Obviously, both cities offer strikingly different vision on the social welfare, and supporting the cultural scene, but the fact is that techno music was born in parallel both in Detroit, and in Berlin. It emerged from the painful history, and events. And from extraordinary creative energy. Some interesting facts are gathered in the following documentary:

Nowadays there are many DJs from Detroit based in Berlin as permanent residents, and enriching the techno culture. Berlin wouldn’t offer the sounds we hear nowadays, if it wasn’t for Detroit. So, being relatively in a better shape, thanks to the economy based on the tech and creative industry, Berlin owes a lot to Detroit.

Longyearbyen: where Santa Claus lives in the mine

My last but not least entry about the Arctic trip I made in August this year will be about a very special, and the most Northernmost inhabited town in the world: Longyearbyen. Getting this crazily far North is currently easier than expected, with regular flight connections to Oslo, so it took me about 6 hours to travel there from Berlin. To compare: I would need to spend similar amount of time to get to Warsaw

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Longyearbyen, contrary to other settlements on Svalbard, such as Pyramiden, is pretty ‘busy’ or ‘crowded’ as for the Arctic standards. Apart from the travellers, Longyearbyen is a very multicultural town where over 40 nationalities work in the research centres, at the University and in tourism. It is fairly easy to meet ‘locals’ and listen to their interesting and odd-ball life stories, as one thing is for sure: Longyearbyen attracts strong personalities.

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There is one more very special person living in Longyearbyen: Santa Claus! Forget Finland, the real, hardcore Santa lives far more North than Rovaniemi, and according to the locals, has chosen an abandoned mine as his directory. As the photos above are taken during Arctic summer (when sun never sets), it is hard to imagine the Mine 2b (official name) to be Santa Claus’ house. In the wintertime, however, it is decorated with colourful lightbulbs by local enthusiasts. I have to say, Santa needs to be really hardcore, as the mountain ranges on Svalbard are very steep! And slippery, as you can see below, on the Lars’ Glacier, surrounding town.

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Lazy people built a facility though which enables reaching Santa Claus’ order list with no necessity to climb over 600 mts in the wintertime. Locals are not too happy about it though, thinking the huge red postbox is a bit of an overkill. Why not reaching Santa the same old way in the lovely and romantic Mine 2b?

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So not only Longyearbyen is a city of Santa, but also of science and art. And it is the only place where you can walk safely without a riffle. Polar bears don’t like this town and are only an inspiration for the artists. It is very likely that e.g. the bear above, or some stuffed ones in the shopping centre or in church (!) will be the only ones one will meet.

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Don’t worry about leaving the safe zone without noticing. The governor of Svalbard took care of making people aware where the necessary protection should be considered. Also, finding remnants of other animals, like reindeers might be a good sign of the polar bear’s presence.

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Other practical information for those planning the trip: although Longyearbyen was one of the first spots on Earth with the best bandwidth Internet connection, very few places offer free WiFi where you can send an e-mail to your dearest concerned about if you are still alive, or already being digested by a polar bear. As this is an impression you can get before travelling to Svalbard, in reality: being precautious is a good thing, but let’s not forget that polar bears are still quite an endangered species!. So the places which offer 24/7 free WiFi and cosy shelter are e.g. the local church and pub Karlsberger, listed as the 6th best pub in the world. Up to you where it feels better (make sure though to try at least once the very local brewed beer of Svalbard!). Alcohol is much cheaper than in mainland Norway, given the duty free zone of Svalbard, but tourists have consumption limits for beer, vodka and liquors. Wine and champagne may be consumed with no limits though (?!).

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Last but not least: Longyearbyen is home for many bird species. As mid-August is already late for them, I was not lucky to spot all sorts of geese or elder ducks whose presence and nesting ground is also clearly marked, but it is good to know that they still like it there. To put my almost week-long experience on Svalbard, I was so enchanted, that re-visiting this part of the world is a question of time. As the local newspaper is issued once in two years, the goal is to get there before the next one will be out.

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Beyond 79° latitude: Pyramiden

Pyramiden or Piramida (Пирамида in Russian) was one of the most beautiful abandoned places I’ve visited while exploring the Arctic Island of Svalbard. To get there you need to sail for a few hours from Longyearbyen, the administrative capital and the most populous town on Spitzbergen, the biggest island of the Svalbard archipelago.

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Sailing up to 79th latitude offers spectacular views, such as Arctic skyline, fiords and mountain ranges.

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Neighbouring with Pyramiden is the Nordenskiöld glacier, and its majesty can be seen from all over the town.

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Back in a day, Pyramiden was a soviet mining settlement which was inhabited by roughly 2000 people. After 1997, when the bancrupcy of the coal company led to evacuating the entire population, it became a ghost town. For many years no foot was set there, and currently there are only a few people living in Pyramiden, taking care of the remnant buildings in the town.

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There is no mobile, nor Internet connection, but yes, indeed, there are polar bears in the settlement. I have not met any, but heard from the guide that there was one approaching, so he had to walk vigilant with his riffle loaded.

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Pyramiden is very green in the Arctic summer. Even the grass greener on the Pyramiden side! Wait: grass in Arctic? Well, not naturally. In the past, Soviets tried to bring as much normality to this Artctic town, as possible. Importing food and grocery was very expensive, so they brought fertile soil from Crimea region and tried to grow veggies at the 79° latitude. As we can see years after, the experiment was not entirely absurd.

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And Lenin is still there, watching the magnificent glacier and brutalist architecture. Once hosting workers’ families and offering all sort of facilities: gym, school and kindergarten, now Pyramiden’s blocks are home to countless Arctic birds.

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Sasha, the legendary guide and one of the few long-term inhabitants of Pyramiden. And tulips, which may still remember some wild parties on the International Women’s Day…

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If you are visiting Pyramiden with Sasha or Pavel (the other guide who joined the town this year), you will be able to enter to cantine or culture house where the facilities and art was left untouched since the last inhabitants left.

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You can even play football, contemplate in the library…

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…or play balalajka and read through some important posters from the 70s & 80s.

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There is also a small museum presenting emblematic animal life of Svalbard. Unfortunately, many animals were torn apart by a polar bear who sneaked into the museum once in search of food, or companions.

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I wish I could stay longer in this magic place. After a few hours, I had to return to Longyearbyen with the MS Polargirl ship. On the way back I passed along the glacier, observing seagulls, fulmars and Pyramiden in the sunshine. Cause in early August sun never sets on Svalbard.

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Ausflüge pt. 3: My Arctic escape

It all started a year ago when I was still living in Barcelona, so there’s not much connection to my everyday Berlin reality within this odd-ball post, except from that I did wanted to escape badly the heat wave in Europe. Around the time I visited Iceland in June 2014, my Danish colleague told me about spending last Christmas time even more drastically North: on Svalbard. Since then, my wandering soul stayed uneasy and there was no turning back for me: I knew I had to go to the Northernmost settlement in the world, sooner or later. I started studying about Svalbard, and looking for the best opportunity to go there as a tourist. Pardon me, a traveller. Being a tourist on Svalbard means something very disrespected and stupid.
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I read about moving to and around the island, paying attention to the safety regulations, and protection against the polar bears. Though polar bears are considered endangered species, they are actually quite often seen on Svalbard, so it’s better to walk protected with a riffle (asking the governor for a renting licence prior to your visit). Or with a guide. Or with a newly acquired friend in town who owns a riffle, there are plenty of options to organize your activities there actually. Bearing in mind that the mighty nature is always the most important governor of the island!
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Although Svalbard is still a very remote and wild place to go, I have to say it’s pretty well-connected now with the rest of Europe. In the summer time there are about 2 daily flights directly connecting the airport in Longyearbyen with Oslo, in the winter time there’s a daily flight from Tromso in the northern Norway. Longyearbyen, currently the largest town in the archipelago of Svalbard, on its largest island – Spitzbergen offers a wide range of hostels and hotels – from sharing a dorm with some other adventurers in a former coal miners’ lodge to 5-star hotels, like Radisson Blue or Mary Ann’s Polarrigg Hotel (with a very quirky look). So all in all, to go to the Northern tip of the world from my flat in Berlin took me maybe 7 hours in total. Quite surreal, isn’t it?
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While the heat was treating the continent quite cruelly last week, I spent some lovely Arctic summer days: hiking on the Spitzbergen’s mountain ranges, sailing and kayaking around the fjords and Russian settlements, birdwatching or exploring the abandoned buildings on my own.
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It’s not a trip for everyone. The place is pretty different to anything you’ve seen so far, and the conditions on the sea/in the mountains can get quite hostile. You have to respect the local customs and the nature, trying best to behave like an invisible tourist, which is often repeated in the informational brochures. The alcohol is very cheap as for the island being a tax-free zone, but in order to prevent tourists behaving like jerks, you have to carry your boarding pass whenever you’re buying a booze, as the quantity of what you drink is noted, and eventually – counted. Well, not really – and for the intoxicated tourists there’s a unique cell prepared too by the local governor – and I’ll definitely write about it in my next post featuring the usual day in Longyearbyen. I’ve learn best that there is no such thing as crime out there, just plenty of tourists that can spoil last pieces of wilderness on Earth. So once again: thumbs up for travelling, not being a tourist.
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