Yuri Gagarin, human (50 years human space flight)

Our Road to Gagarin project was originally inspired by what we came to call ‘cosmonautic kitsch’ and the JFK-level of conspiracy theories around Gagarin, the myth. But recently we got to meet people who knew Yuri, the human. In tribute to the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s flight, I have put together some excerpts from these meetings with remarkable people. Cosmos Libre!

GagarinTown, House mum GagarinAs it turned out, the road to Gagarin was one of the better highways we ever drove down in Russia. In 2002, it was very new. Our driver Alexei, meanwhile, was very old school. He was a boy in Moscow when Yuri’s First Flight was announced. Like all his friends, Alexei skipped classes to be part of the masses that flowed to Red Square to celebrate. ‘But we were not punished because it was a great, great day. Our country had nothing, yet we were the first to enter the cosmos. From then on, every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut and every girl his wife.’ But times changed. Alexei doubts that his 15-year-old daughter has even heard of Gagarin. ‘She just wants dance and debt.’

Alexei’s views of the universe have only seemed to have darkened in the decades since the bright and glorious days of the First Flight. ‘By the time Gagarin died, everyone was tired of him. Within a year he was fat from vodka but still he became a general. The later cosmonauts were actually much cleverer since they were real scientists. Yuri was just an animal for an experiment.’ Alexei also claimed that Yuri wasn’t even first: that it was some Vladimir Ilyushin, son of a famous aircraft designer, who was the first to enter space. And in fact, most people now believe that Yuri himself was responsible for the still-mysterious training flight crash that killed him in 1968.

Suddenly our ambitions to make the ultimate coffee table book about Gagarin seemed a bit under-considered. Continue Reading…

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm.

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Yuri Gagarin in Cuba (50 Years of human space flight)

The first human in space, Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), was our rocket into Russia. But it was usually a wintery Russia. So it was a refreshing change when last month he had us blast us off to a warmer place: Cuba. It was also a bit of a different planet. So thank you, Yuri. Thank you.

Gagarin will always be Cosmonaut Number One. But he also came to hold another title: president of the Soviet-Cuban Friendship Society.  As such, the tiny cosmonaut who had conquered the vastness of outer space also became a symbol for a tiny nation who had seemingly conquered the vastness of American business interests. It was interesting times…

Barely a week after Gagarin’s first flight on 12 April 1961, the US-backed invasion of Playa Giron (AKA Bay of Pigs) tried to overthrow Fidel Castro’s two-year-old revolutionary government. But the attack only worked to strengthen Castro’s position and ally Cuba more closely with the Soviet Union. The resulting increased tensions with the US would build up towards the Cuban Missile Crisis (AKA October Crisis) 18 months later.

So what exactly was the role of the first off-world traveller in the events around what many consider the closest the world ever got to blowing itself up?

In Havana, we not only got to ask the first black dude in space (who incidentally credited his dentist wife for his Yuri-competing grin), but also an old chess-playing buddy of Che…  Thanks Yuri! We also went off-road in search of a school and a goose farm named after Gagarin. It was ‘ganso journalism’ at its best. Especially since due to unforeseen circumstances (stereotypically involving an unlicensed 1950s Chevy and a young lady of the Revolutionary Police), we went without an interpreter. But luckily the international language of Yuri got us far (as you can see in the above clip).

However the fact that the Spanish word for goose, ganso, is also Cuban slang for gay, did lead to a few moments of deep confusion. Thanks again Yuri!

Posted: April 12, 2011 at 10:05 am.




Please join our ROAD TO GAGARIN Facebook group.

On 12 April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) yelled ‘Let’s Go!’ as he was launched for a 108-minute circuit around the earth to become the first human in space. For the last decade, photographer René Nuijens and I have been re-visiting Russia to document the major settings of Gagarin’s bizarre and dramatic life, and talking to people who were close to him. In the process, we are capturing the essence of both the man who is dead and his myth that is still very much alive. He remains the most popular 20th-century figure in Russia, where he has the legend status of a JFK or a Bruce Lee – inspiring love, art and conspiracy theories. We believe, like many others, Yuri should become more of a global icon again.

To be published in 2011, the book Road to Gagarin – In Search of the First Man in Space combines photography, travel writing, archival material and a tasty selection of cosmonautic kitsch. Yuri was our rocket into Russia. We recommend the ride to anyone.


Posted: February 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm.

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A Messe of Books

g-Katzenkalender_2011I just returned from a few days at the biggest book fair on the planet. I got lost in the mass that is Frankfurt’s Buchmesse with its 300,000 visitors and 7500 stands belonging to publishers, printers and distributors from 111 countries. As examples: there was one publisher from Haiti, two from Albania, 16 from Iran, 188 from China, etc, etc. With 3,315 stands, Germany easily won out in the property wars. Strangely, many of these stands seemed to reflect the country’s unaccountable passion for books about cats. However I ended up being most charmed by the more forgotten back corners of the fair where, for example, Manga comic publishers nestled up with Christian fundamentalist pamphleteers.

I was one of around 10,000 journalists wandering endless kilometres to follow a story or interview an author. And like me, probably half of these journalists had a personal project to pitch. My favourite came from a guy who was pitching his book by going cubicle to cubicle in the press room. His dream project was called ‘Sulphur is your Friend’ which argued that this smelly element was in fact heroic because of all the worthy work it does within the wine industry. Another highlight of Buchmesse arrived around five or six each evening as the drinks and food began to flow. Rumours would quickly spread as to where the best freebies could be scored. Naturally, the French and Italian bookstands were the most highly regarded. Sadly I missed the big Dutch publishers’ event when they feed the 5000 with bottomless barrels of raw herring. Apparently the whole hall stinks up and there are always leftovers. Actually I guess in the book trade these fish would be called ’remainders’.

Because I did not book a room a year ahead, I had to stay in the spa and gambling town of Wiesbaden at the end of the S-Bahn. On the way to the hotel from the station, I asked the cab driver about what I should know about this town. After inquiring where I came from, he answered laughing: ‘I think we can compete with Amsterdam here. We have public clubs but we also have very many private clubs — if you know what I mean.’ I did. However I decided to seek my happy ending at my hotel with a shower. Unfortunately my hotel turned out to be the German version of Fawlty Towers. Luckily my Manuel spoke excellent English and we had a good laugh as the mishaps piled up. There was a leak over the bed (not exactly the shower I had imagined) so I was put into another room. As it turned out, that room did not come equipped with a functioning toilet, shower or lock. So in the end I mentioned the war and got away with it. They gave me a free night and a fancy room the next day. And since freebies and slapstick always put me in a good mood, I didn’t even mind later when a lit cigarette butt bounced off my head when I was unwinding with a beer on their patio. In fact it was like the cherry on top.

Actually I’d like to stress how much I love Germany. And my respect goes beyond just their rich culinary tradition in reconstituted meat products (for some thoughts on currywurst, click HERE and HERE). I might even consider moving there if Canadians end up getting stigmatised under the Dutch right wing government that is now being formed with the backing of the populist politician and amateur filmmaker Geert Wilders. I keep getting the feeling that Germany has done a much better job at dealing with its past. There are certainly a lot of books on the subject – it’s a topic right up there with cats.

Posted: October 15, 2010 at 8:35 am.

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In Old Amsterdam (1949)

Thanks Danny. This is quality!

Posted: October 5, 2010 at 9:02 am.

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Atlas Obscura


A website charts out all that is weird and wonderful in the world.

By Steve Korver

Attention, jaded travellers who are convinced that everything exotic has long become familiar to them. The website Atlas Obscura — “a compendium of this age’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica” — should get you all worked up enough to hit the road again. Their Canadian listings alone should give you a taste of what’s in store: the Diefenbunker nuclear shelter in Ontario, the Gopher Hole Museum in Alberta, and the Downtown Hotel that serves Sourtoe Cocktails (a combination of champagne and an amputated toe) in the Yukon.  

When it was launched last summer, the website seemed to tap into something that was still missing from the internet and went immediately viral and contributors lined up to donate their own desperately odd destination — ones that have not yet been co-opted by package tours or beer ads.

Atlas Obscura’s mission statement is a noble one: it’s the place to look for: “miniature cities, glass flowers, books bound in human skin, gigantic flaming holes in the ground, phallological museums, bone churches, balancing pagodas, or homes built entirely out of paper.” And who isn’t looking?

Two 26 year-olds, the film-maker Dylan Thuras and the science journalist Joshua Foer, came together after discovering a shared passion for the desperately obscure. They met three years ago organising a society meeting for Athanasius Kircher, the 17th century Jesuit scholar and “last renaissance man” who is listed as the inventor of both the “vomiting statue” and the “cat piano”.

But their taste for the wondrous began much earlier: with travels across that most obscure and wondrous of countries: their very own US of A. Dylan Thuras recalls: “I was twelve and my parents took me on a family vacation around the mid-west which is filled with all kinds of bizarre places: Wall Drug, the South Dakota Badlands, and the most amazing and unbelievable was ‘The House on The Rock’. It was like entering a fantastical universe someone else constructed for you.” And indeed, its Atlas Obscura write-up does make it sound enticing. It’s a sprawling construction in Wisconsin that houses a collection of automated orchestras and a 200-foot model of a sperm whale.

Joshua Foer’s coming of age came later: “I was 19 and I bought a beat-up minivan and spent two months driving around the country. At the time, I’m not sure I could have told you why I was doing it, except that I was curious to know what the rest of America was like. I spent a lot of time trying to find wondrous and curious places. It was a life-changing experience.”

Both quickly realised that was no single, great resource for travellers like themselves. Until they realised the power of the Internet and user-generated sites. But while all are welcome to contribute, the listings are edited and fact checked. “We love these places and want to respect and honour them,” says Thuras.

So yes, it turns out that our Earth is still, as Thuras describes it, “a very big and very weird and interesting place, and there are plenty of things left to be discovered by the traveller.” Isn’t that wonderfully reassuring?


The editors of Atlas Obscura Editors give their top wacky destination tips — as of September 2009 (since “our favourites are always changing”).

 Dylan Thuras:
1. “The Root Bridges of Cherrapungee in India take at least ten to fifteen years to build. Locals guide tree roots over a river and have them take root on the other side. Some of these living bridges are over a hundred feet long and strong enough to support fifty people. There’s even a double-decker one.”

2. “The Gates of Hell is a 328-foot wide hole in the desert that has been on fire for thirty-eight years after a Soviet drilling rig accidentally drilled into a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and poisonous fumes to be released. To head off a potential environmental catastrophe, they set it on fire.”

3. “The Relampago del Catatumbo is a near-constant lightning storm over a river in Venezuela. For almost half the nights of the year, for ten hours at a time, there’s almost constant lightning. Weirdly, it is silent because all the electrical activity happens way up in the air. It’s just insanely cool.”

Joshua Foer:
1. “The other day someone posted an absolutely frightening place that I have no interest in ever visiting: Snake Island off the coast of Sao Paulo, Brazil that is filled with venomous pit vipers: one snake per square meter. Try to picture that…”

2. “The Tempest Prognosticator (a.k.a. the ‘Leech Barometer’) is an ingenious weather-prediction device that debuted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Leeches get really worked up before a storm, so if you attach bells to them you’ve got yourself a pretty good barometer. A full-scale working model can be viewed at the Barometer World Museum in Devon, England.”

3. “I long to visit New Zealand to see the Electrum, the world’s largest Tesla coil, in action. It stands four stories tall and zaps out three million volts. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Posted: July 14, 2010 at 11:23 am.

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Moscow Metro

Posted: March 31, 2010 at 6:47 am.

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Rocket to Russia

homewithvictorandvalentinaWe just returned from a profound week in Moscow reinvigorating our Yuri Gagarin project. We met some profound cosmonauts, space psychs, arctic survivalists  and regular good ol’   folk — all of whom knew how to toast us into submission. A big story is coming out of this and we shall return soon! So stay tuned… Space is indeed the place!

Posted: February 28, 2010 at 8:56 am.

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Routes Award 2009














Thanks to  the  European Cultural Foundation,  I interviewed two very  inspiring folks:  Borka Pavicevic (pictured) and Stefan Kaegi. They  were the winners of  the Routes Award for Cultural Diversity 2009  for their work in theater championing the voices of  the “other”.

Borka, in particular, has long been a hero of mine ever since I first visited ex-Yugoslavia. As the founder of  Belgrade’s Centre for Cultural Decontamination, she has fought the good fight against a steady stream of nationalists, gangsters and populist pricks.  The Centre was one of the first places I went when I felt dirty  from sitting behind  Mira Markovic, wife of Milosevic, on a flight between Amsterdam and Belgrade in 2001.

I went to  the awards ceremony in Brussels a couple of weeks ago and certainly had a couple of culturally diverse moments. It was at the Royal Flemish Theater and when we arrived early,  my friend and I went to the  next door  cafe  to kill some time. The waitress  refused to talk  Dutch with us — which we thought ironic since we were at a Dutch-language theater for an award’s ceremony dedicated to cultural diversity.  

After the ceremony I went over to introduce myself to Borka and she greeted me very warmly thanks to some  common friends (ah, I do miss the Balkans sometimes…). She asked me if I had  ever met Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. I hadn’t so I shook  the princess’s  hand. Then Borka wanted to introduce me to   some Belgrade journalist — “you actually probably  know him, he’s the one that they tried to blow up with not one but two bombs.” But just as I was about  to shake his  hand, a plate of oysters came by and the crowd — royalty, journalists, etc — swooped in.  It was a moment of true diversity. The oysters were dang tasty as well.

But really, read the interviews:
Borka Pavicevic
Stefan Kaegi

Posted: February 12, 2010 at 9:36 am.

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War criminals of yesteryear, part 1

Arkans-HouseTen years ago Serbian warlord Reljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic  was shot dead  in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel. He was a gangster. He was a nationalist. He was the Mr Clean of ethnic cleansing. I wrote about him in ‘Arkantecture: A Field Guide to Serbian Gangster Kitsch‘.   The picture on the left is of his former home in Belgrade where I believe his widow, the turbofolk queen Ceca, still lives. Apparently a movie about Arkan starring Vinnie Jones will be released later this year.   Ouch.

Posted: January 16, 2010 at 11:24 am.

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