Darmon Richter is a British writer and the author of the upcoming book ‘Eternal Glory.’ His writing focuses on the obscure and macabre aspects of world history, often as seen through the monuments and ruins left behind by the Soviet Union and the countries in its orbit.
Using vivid photography as well as a knack for fence jumping and talking his way out of trouble – he has been arrested six times, in six countries – Darmon Richter introduces his audience to parts of the world that few would otherwise get to see.
Despite the occasional article which makes headlines – his story about buying marijuana in North Korea was read by over 1 million people and kicked off a storm of controversy around the world – Darmon typically writes for a smaller, dedicated audience of architecture fans, history buffs, intrepid travellers and urban explorers on ‘The Bohemian Blog.’
We spoke over Skype for an hour with myself in Shanghai and Darmon in Varna, Bulgaria. Here are the edited highlights of our interview.
You’re best known for so called ‘dark tourism’ and ‘urban exploration’ which are popular buzzwords at the moment. What drew you to these subjects?
I guess these are just subjects that I have always been interested in. I’ve been fascinated by cemeteries for as long as I can remember, for example, while as a child I had a habit of often sneaking into places I shouldn’t be. I crawled into my first storm drain when I was eight years old.
As you say, they’ve both become popular buzzwords recently – and it’s by searching the web for these terms that a lot of readers discover my work, so I use these labels to help people find me – but essentially they’re just fashionable new terms for things that people have been doing for centuries.
Pilgrims visiting Golgotha, or people watching medieval public executions, were all dark tourists by definition. Meanwhile there’s a long documented history of humans interacting with ruins. Just look at all those 18th century artists who created romanticised paintings of abandoned churches… Is it really so different to be doing the same thing now with a digital camera?
You seem to spend a lot of your time in Eastern Europe, and much of your writing focuses on these ‘Eastern Bloc’ and post Soviet countries. I guess this must be a goldmine for what you’re interested in?
Absolutely. I find the history of the Cold War period particularly interesting, all those secret projects and one-upmanship in terms of military technology and innovation… and in many of these countries I’ve had the chance to get right into the fabric of history by exploring abandoned fallout shelters, army bases, ‘secret cities’ and so on.
I was quite aware of it as I was growing up – I lived near a very active air force base in England, and I have strong memories of watching the American warplanes flying overhead. Now I’m in Eastern Europe looking at the same history from another angle… just the other day I visited an abandoned fallout shelter in Kiev, for example, and I find it fascinating to compare the artefacts and propaganda of either side.
In your experience, how have the locals in places like Ukraine reacted to your interest in exploring old communist relics, have they typically been supportive?
It really feels to me as though attitudes are changing. The older generation will always have strong feelings towards their Soviet history, and a deeper personal connection to the artifacts it left behind. There are some who miss the simplicity, I think, but there’s also a lot of resentment for the atrocities committed in Ukraine during that Soviet period.
But for the younger generation, people who grew up since the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent fallout, it’s different. Millennials don’t have that same emotional reaction to communism, it doesn’t seem to be as powerful a trigger, and I guess that makes it easier to go exploring through this stuff. I’ve seen a lot of young people in Ukraine taking the initiative, and even beginning to offer tours to the kinds of places their parents were taught to avoid.
A lot of things that were taboo are now increasingly open for discussion, and I see this in Bulgaria too – with the recent appearance of communism-themed restaurants, ‘communist kitsch,’ and so on. This is all new… when I first visited Bulgaria 10 years ago people didn’t go looking for these things, they just weren’t ready to engage with that part of their history.
In addition to Eastern Europe, you’ve also travelled in Cuba and China, which are both still technically ‘communist’ countries, how are they for urban exploration?
There’s some great stuff to see in China. I have been there a few times now, and one of the most interesting places I explored was Ordos… an unfinished, largely uninhabited city up in the Inner Mongolia region.
Things move so fast in China though… my experience of urban exploration there has more often led me to building sites and infrastructure, rather than to places that have been abandoned. Although I did manage to get inside some old military tunnels one time… and I’ve explored abandoned houses and derelict Taoist temples in the mountains of Shandong Province.
As for Cuba, that’s almost the complete opposite. Cuba’s the kind of place where it’s often hard to tell what’s abandoned, and what isn’t. One of the highlights of my trip there was climbing to the rooftop of an unfinished nuclear reactor – built with Soviet money, but left as a shell when the USSR collapsed.
Let’s talk about your famous “Buying Weed in Rason, North Korea” incident.
Alright, so I’ve been to North Korea a couple of times… and I’ve written a handful of articles about the country now. The headline story, as I saw it, was my big piece about touring Pyongyang and the experience of just being there as a foreigner.
Later on I wrote a shorter, informal blog post really just for the sake of my friends back home – talking about an unusual experience I had in a market in Rason, up in the north of the country.
That article went crazy with traffic. It was on the front page of Digg, Reddit, everywhere. I wasn’t used to getting many hits in those days, but that one article exploded… it’s had over a million views to date. I had newspapers chasing after me for interviews. The Huffington Post, The Telegraph, the story was everywhere for a while… and then when the hype died down, the backlash began.
I don’t partake in cannabis myself, not these days – but back in college I even grew my own for a while. Suffice to say I know the plant when I see it, and at that market in Rason our group came across a load of dried cannabis for sale. The quality was awful, very leafy stuff, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy a bag of weed in North Korea. It would be rude not to, right?
“In the name of scientific enquiry, it seemed appropriate to buy some… and the little old ladies running the stall were happy to load us up with plastic bags full of the stuff, charging us roughly £0.50 each.”
So I wrote the story on the blog, and to my surprise it blew up… then after the initial attention, a lot of those same news outlets suddenly turned against me. The Guardian did a post that claimed to be debunking North Korea myths… and they brought in an expert to give his verdict on my story.
Remember, you’ve got to take that title ‘North Korea expert’ with a pinch of salt. Even the experts aren’t allowed to travel freely, they still get chaperoned around the place and shown a very controlled perspective on the country. It’s not like being an expert on Sweden… or Brazil, or wherever.
This particular expert had visited more than 30 times, apparently – but he wasn’t in the market with us that day. It’s frustrating, he even supported me on some points… admitting that the plant grew wild there, and that people knew how to smoke it. But he concluded it was simply unbelievable that I’d had the experience I described, suggesting instead that our whole group had mistaken some unripe tobacco leaf for cannabis.
“It looks a little bit similar if you haven’t smoked a lot of weed,” Reichel says. “If you smoke that stuff it’ll smell weird but it won’t get you high.”
I had other critics too, and some of them were less kind. It’s a strange and horrible experience… to write something quite personal aimed at your friends, a small handful of people, then wake up one day to find international news headlines branding you a liar!
Another time, I got in touch with one of these experts who was criticising my account. We actually had a really good email correspondence, it went on for a while… and I think once he realized that I wasn’t some sensationalist website making money from all the traffic… when he realized that this was just one person recounting their experience, with no motive to go making stuff up, he sort of came round to the idea.
Anyway, that whole incident taught me a lot of valuable lessons. For one, the mainstream online media is fickle. It might praise you one day, but the next it could just as soon attack you without warning. Whatever brings in the traffic, clicks and advertising revenue…
But I also learned that there’s no such thing as a ‘personal’ online post. There is online, and there is offline – no in-between. Anything can suddenly go viral, and it won’t always be the posts that you want or expect to do well.
Tell us about the ‘Bohemian Blog Tours’ we can take with you in Bulgaria
I started running tours in 2015, and I have two routes now. One in Bulgaria, visiting communist-era monuments around the country. The other goes to Ukraine, checking out brutalist architecture in Kiev followed by an overnight trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
It’s a lot of fun… I’ve never really got on well with package tours, but these groups never feel like that at all. We visit a lot of places that are pretty hard to get to on your own – so it generally feels more like a bunch of solo travellers teaming up to visit weird and wonderful places they would otherwise have missed.
They’ve all been brilliant so far… all sorts of people sign up, from retirees to architects, to student backpackers, but always an interesting bunch of characters. I’m just drawing up some new routes now, to launch in 2017…
And what is the mysterious ‘Exclusion Zone?’
The Exclusion Zone is a password-protected area of my website where my more sensitive stories end up. A kind of ‘members’ area.’
When I started the blog I thought I was posting to just a small group of people… but as the North Korea incident showed, these posts can end up travelling further than I’ve ever planned for. I use The Exclusion Zone as a place to share things that I’d rather not go fully public with… including my arrest stories from China and Russia!
People can get access to the ‘The Exclusion Zone’ by supporting The Bohemian Blog on Patreon.
All Photos in This Article Courtesy of Darmon Richter / TheBohemianBlog.com