Journey to the UFO of Buzludzha, the frozen Communist monument in the mountains of Bulgaria11 min read
The UFO should be around here. In summer, we could probably see it in the distance, with its strange and recognizable circular structure, its tall tower crowning the huge complex. But not now, not in winter. Not as we ascend the Bulgarian mountains in a small, old Opel that struggles against the wind. The road twists as we climb, and the vehicle shakes and jolts in the midst of the windstorm that soon turns into snow as we gain altitude. We see nothing, nothing but the heavy fog and the thick snow that already covers every inch of the road. We move slowly, in a line of cars, navigating the curves that make us ascend haltingly but steadily. Up, up, up.
On a clear day, we would probably see not only the UFO on Buzludzha peak but also the Shipka monument, a stone construction in the homonymous pass that commemorates a battle between Russians and Turks in 1877. But not at this moment. At this moment, we can barely see the car in front of us. My local companions and I remain silent, attentive, as the snow falls incessantly, and the wind slashes through the forests hidden by the white vastness. At the top, we glimpse a small restaurant and a market that must receive many visitors in summer. No one stops. I understood there that darkness is not always black: darkness can be white, so white that it blinds, dazzles, overwhelms.
The road to the pass is winding and slow, increasingly white, increasingly heavy. But what follows is even worse. At the top of the mountain and the Shipka pass, the road forks: a main road begins the steep descent into the valley, while the other is a secondary route, very narrow and in poor condition. It is 12 kilometres from the pass to our destination, traversing a road that remains closed almost all winter. Getting to the Buzludzha UFO is a pilgrimage.
The rise and fall of a megalomaniac project
It seems to have been stolen from a science fiction movie, but in reality, the story of the grey, saucer-shaped building is stranger than that of any movie with spaceships and extraterrestrials. It was inaugurated in 1981 by the Bulgarian communist regime in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Buzludzha Congress, a secret meeting at the top of Buzludzha Mountain. Dimitar Blagoev was the leader of a group of members of the then-nascent Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, the predecessor of the Communist Party, who sought to organise politically and create a centralised movement.
Many years later, by the early 80s, the regime led by Todor Zhivkov was beginning to falter due to economic difficulties and lack of support. Then the monument-building became a fundamental propaganda element. It needed not only to be a commemoration but also to serve as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party, associating the questioned regime with recognized and admired historical figures.
Every figure related to the building seems exaggerated: over six thousand people participated in the construction over almost seven years, 70 thousand tons of concrete, three thousand tons of steel, and 40 tons of glass were used. As if Zhivkov wanted to be a pharaoh, and this was his pyramid, a monument to himself designed to last for all eternity.
But the end of communism in 1989 meant the end of the story. In the 1990s, democracy brought to power parties that wanted to appear as distant as possible from the communist past, and the strange Buzludzha was abandoned. Lootings, vandalism, graffiti, and forgetfulness followed. Slowly, the huge flying saucer fell silent.
While even today, old signs announce some direction, there are small cabins here and there that must be popular in summer, and birds fighting against the weather, above all, there is silence, a silence broken only by the wind from the Shipka pass. White floods everything, as if the colour has penetrated the senses and turned into smells and sounds. Snow falls from the branches heavily onto the car’s roof as we avoid potholes on the old and forgotten road.
I knew that at some point on the route there would be a huge monument with two hands holding torches: it is the entrance to the Buzludzha complex. It should be near the central building, but I didn’t know where. We move forward slowly, very slowly, and I search through the fog for the silhouette of two giant hands. But I don’t even see them when we stop next to them. The first glimpse of the complex rises among the fog like something hidden, secret, like a memory of distant, ancestral times. We return to the car and navigate through nothingness searching for something impossible. Who knows how many kilometres later, we come across two or three parked cars that seem like islands in the sea of white emptiness. It must be here.
The Bulgarians are not sure; from the other cars, no one knows. The exception is the two Italians who have travelled for a few days just to visit the ridiculous UFO. The day before, they had tried to enter the building, but the fierce wind made the adventure impossible.
Now the path is on foot. Almost blindly, two Italians, two Bulgarians, and an Argentine undertake the ascent, dodging ice and crushing snow with each step. If someone takes a picture of us, any bystander might assume that we are mountaineers. The ascent becomes long, probably due to the lack of landmarks and the blindness that dominates us. The huge building is there, delirious and captivating, stupid, crazy, magnanimous, symbolic, paradigmatic, iconic, magnificent. A postcard from distant times that will not return. Buzludzha is there, hidden. That’s why I couldn’t anticipate, and there was no preparation: I stumbled upon it before seeing it.
Futurist architecture and socialist mosaics
The grey walls rise vertically until they collide with the curvature of the top part, the area that gives it the nickname “UFO.” The official entrance is, of course, closed, and there are always alternative entrances, even though access is technically illegal. Every so often, the government blocks the entrances, but a few days later, a new one appears, and no camera or sign can prevent it. These days, you enter through the basement. In the back of the building, near the base of the tower, a hole in the cement leads to a shallow pit from which you reach the basement, about 3 metres below. Someone left a rope there to help fellow travellers in the descent. Climbing would be a problem that we would face later.
At the end of the dark and damp basement hallway, light is visible. There is an open space and a staircase covered with snow, barely illuminated by the scarce white light filtering through the cracks of what were once windows. We advance without uttering words, randomly moving flashlights in all directions, as if trying to digest this expressionless emptiness, trying to photograph the cold silence.
The staircase leads to the entrance hall, a circular space with a convex roof: the base of the UFO. The main door at one end and three staircases leading to the central hall exactly above this vestibule. We opt for the one that is less covered in snow. Each step is heavy, each step is laborious; the path could collapse at any moment under the weight of the years and our own steps. But there, four or five steps from the central hall, I look up.
The white darkness had given birth to black light, the perfect symbiosis between the delirious past and the absent future. The curious present faces the wide and radiant circular hall crowned with a still-golden symbol on a red background: a forgotten sickle and hammer. From the ceiling, an inscription calls on the workers of the world to unite, and along with the communist emblem, they hover over the stands that once hosted meetings of archaic dictators. A shadow you will soon be. But not today. Today, the snow cracks the concrete, and the wind covers the walls that once had mosaics of workers, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, but also of Bulgarian communist leaders Georgi Dimitrov, Dimitar Blagoev, and Todor Zhivkov. Many things have been lost, many were stolen, but a good portion of the murals is surprisingly well-preserved, even with ice as a tapestry. The original colours can be seen, red stars, peasants, workers, warriors, mothers with children. The countless figures on the walls seem attempts to portray the entire country equally.
White tinges and creates a ghostly, phantasmagoric atmosphere over the grey cement, and the ice feathers harden like scales. Ice is Buzludzha’s armour. The corridor surrounding the circular enclosure has windows that look in all directions, but in all directions, there is nothing but white. The only reference is the tower; otherwise, I could continue circling that corridor without ever discovering where I entered. Although it is also true that on one side the wind hits harder, and the curious ice sculptures are harder.
The hall creaks, the roof hangs, and this forgotten corpse seems constantly on the verge of collapsing, bitten by time. If it still stands, it can only be by the will of the spirits that once populated hallways and rooms with religious faith in their political projects, in their predecessors whom they admired and celebrated as earthly gods. The proper names of supposed communist legends immortalised in monuments and murals. Those legends and their staunch spirits hold up the roof of Buzludzha. There is no other explanation.
Even so, part of the roof has already collapsed, and the fallen iron structure rests against a wall. The two Italians use it as a ladder to take photos from above the wall, but it wobbles under the weight, and the cold does not help. From there, it is also difficult to take photos: the fog is extremely thick, almost solid, and covers everything. You can’t see beyond a few metres.
Back to the vestibule, we find a staircase leading to a basement. A long, dark, semicircular underground chamber with small frozen puddles and a bar that I imagined was once filled with vodka, wine, and the strong local rakija. Perhaps some drunken ghost in the midst of silence. There are broken pipes dripping, and the cold becomes visible, tangible.
But now, destiny directs us to the other obligatory point of Buzludzha: the 70 metres of a tower that was once covered with a red glass star. The rust of endless and slender iron stairs covers my hands in the absolute darkness along the ascent. There was an elevator, but it no longer exists, so the options are limited to the metal stairs or nothing. When the legs begin to falter more from cold and uncertainty than fatigue, we make our way through successive platforms illuminated by the light that passes through the glass star near the top of the tower. Many glasses are missing, and the icy wind blows forcefully, creating bizarre ice shapes. Beyond is the top: an observatory to the white void, immeasurable and impossible, a perfect metaphor for the ideas of that socialist past. Beyond the tower, there is nothing. Nothing inside the building, nothing outside.
The future of Buzludzha
Until recently, there was no plan for Buzludzha’s future; repairing and maintaining it was too expensive, so it remained abandoned and waiting for the eventual collapse of the roof. It was a curiously touristy destination, one of the most famous in Bulgaria, and every day there were adventurers willing to enter or at least admire the delirious structure from the outside. The government could charge admission, organise transfers, offer guided tours. But no, there were only signs announcing prohibitions and an appeal to the goodwill of tourists. This changed in 2019, when the Buzludzha Project private initiative finally started preservation works. Slowly and steadily, the building is starting to look safe and might admit visitors soon.
The journey back finds us laboriously climbing the rope and circling the building. At the entrance, the Bulgarians translate the Cyrillic inscriptions to foreigners, which are missing many letters. They are announcements of better times for the proletarians of the world and their unyielding union, ridiculous prophecies that ran out and collapsed resoundingly, now as obsolete as the dark walls of the underground chamber. A modern graffiti on the main entrance warns and advises: “Never forget your past.”
Ice sculptures escort us on the descent to the car, where we toast with Bulgarian wine in honour of the memory, the adventure, and the successful end of such a curious pilgrimage. Buzludzha culminates as dreams do: with a bewildering awakening and the slow return home. An impregnable and uncomfortable feeling dominates the wakefulness of the incurable dreamer. And the past, as always, is left behind.
A version of this article was originally published in Spanish on 16 April 2017 by Infobae. Photos courtesy of Ignacio Hutin.