The Road to Eskişehir

Photographer Konstantin Vulkov visits Turkey’s new cultural hotspot

The first Turk in Sofia, my hometown, to whom I share my intentions to go to Eskişehir (literally translated as “old town”), says to me: “Well done, very good choice, my wife is from there.” I expected to surprise him with my choice of destination, but no.

The second Turk tells me that I can even leave my car in Istanbul because there is a fast train to the city and, again, a little praise for my choice: ”very nice city, great choice, there is a great mayor there, he has been a mayor for several terms, he has done an amazing job.”

I didn’t bother to ask a third Turk.

A month ago the borders were completely open, no need for a PCR test, so I packed my bag, booked a hotel in Istanbul for the following night (I will make a pit stop there) and off we go, as they say.

I thought that Eskişehir would be an unexpected choice, but it turned out to be a must.

I remember a year ago I read a lengthy piece in an architectural website about a new museum of contemporary art, designed by Kengo Kuma, that had just opened in Eskişehir. I saw the pictures again, checked Google maps and it turned out it is 9 hours driving from Sofia. I made my plans, then winter came, I had even forgotten about the town, when suddenly another lengthy piece, this time an interview with Kengo Kuma appeared and I was sold all over again. This time for real. I had to visit this place that’s set to become Turkey’s new cultural hotspot, before everybody else.

Apart from the Turks that I’d asked, few people outside Turkey have heard of Eskişehir, another city destined to experience the popular Bilbao effect. Located just between Istanbul and the capital Ankara, it now has a fully functioning contemporary art museum, funded by the construction billionaire and prominent art collector Erol Tabanca and designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates, built to speak in an easy manner with the old part of Eskişehir. Initially, the Odunpazari Modern Museum was built to house the vast modern art collection of Tabanca, but now there are ambitions for regular new exhibitions. Odunpazari, which means firewood market, used to be the centre of trade in the city. Completed at the end of 2019, the museum building which consists of a group of square-shaped blocks, has an area of 3582 sq.m.

Apart from the museum, it is one of the largest university towns in Turkey – bustling with activity – a typical student hotspot with a lively and convivial atmosphere. It is true that part of this social atmosphere is born from the Turkish lira, with its record lows, making everything so damn inexpensive for visitors. Just as Norway or Iceland are so stressful and you often leave either prematurely or nervously because of the skyrocket prices, the low lira clears the mind and soul in an unexpected way and erases all problems with a wave of a hand.

Eskişehir has the feeling of a modern, European, cosmopolitan city, though geographically it is located in the relatively conservative Turkish region of Anatolia. Perhaps because of the three universities or settlers from the years of the Ottoman Empire, there is a youthful, global outlook. I actually like the city. Did I tell you about the prices? Yes, I did.


Stranger Than Fiction

Photographer Konstantin Vulkov
 visits the ghostly empty Avaza seaside resort in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan, from the time it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until the end of 2006, was run by a tyrant – Saparmurat Niyazov. Despite the fact it has the fourth largest proved natural gas reserves base globally, the country is practically bankrupt.

Since 2007 there is a new madman in power, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a dentist and former Minister of Health.

One of his dream projects has recently been completed. Avaza is a seaside resort like no other. Built very recently, virtually in the middle of nowhere, it is a gallery of ultra modern high-rise buildings and ghostly 5-star hotels. Avaza is probably the least known and most peculiar resort in the world. It’s inspiring to be the second Dubai, but it is empty – the sea there is cold, the climate is hot during the summer months and on top of that a visa is required.

It is extremely difficult to get a visa and journalists can visit only very rarely. I visited last August during the First Caspian Economic Forum. It was a 48-hour trip to dream of, because just between five to six thousand people visit Turkmenistan per year, despite the fact they have a newly built airport with a capacity of 17 million passengers per year. A recent report of the British think tank The Foreign Policy Centre suggests the country is on the brink of collapse.

The media control is strict. There is no Internet as we know it. You are not allowed to travel like a tourist. The state-run shops are practically with not enough food.

While walking around, you can see the president’s yacht; the tight security – because he is riding a bike (followed by reporters and cameramen) – and the only “real” people you encounter are the ladies cleaning the state-of-the art bus stops, with no buses in sight.

Mal d’Afrique

Photographer Konstantin Vulkov captures all manner of life in Nigeria

 It was my first transcontinental flight back in my younger days, Port Elizabeth was the port of call. Damn, it was mesmerising. I had read tons of articles on the ever-expanding creative energy coming out of, and inspired by, Africa. This interest naturally grew, along with my journalistic endeavours, to numerous interviews, stories; what else? – everything, I suppose, those African voices were vital.

I grabbed every single opportunity to go to Africa and have been several times to South Africa, then to Tanzania, to Zanzibar, to Egypt, to Morocco, and suddenly, just at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, just a week after the first reported cases in Italy, an opportunity to visit Nigeria came. My desire to visit as many African countries as I can is as impossibly vast as the term “Africa” is. I made my arrangements, a dozen appointments with an inspiring, fresh generation of creative thinkers, from artists and photographers, to models and popstars, to journalists and state officials.

It was a late arrival at Lagos International Airport that reminded me of that term, “mal d’Afrique”, that embodies my mood. It’s the unparalleled desire to always go back to Africa. If it continues at its current growth rate, like Nigeria, Africa’s population will double by 2050. That’s 2.5bn people. Can you imagine? Only India and China will be larger than Nigeria. And its mêlée of cultures, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, talented and non-talented, younger and and even younger ones, will be shown as an example – of an African country, bigger than any other and still democratic.

Even during my week-long stay, Nigeria went from one crisis to another, but somehow managed to pull itself back. When you talk to all those young Nigerians, the boys and girls from Lagos, those who dance together, stay together, laugh and love, then you think about “mal d’Afrique”, that desire to go again and again. It is a feeling that you never forget, the deep yearning to return back to Lagos, and that sadness, that due to the boom development, due to Chinese investments, probably, sadly, when I go back everything will be changed. The cultural vanguard of the nation will still be there, as well as the African heat, that different type of heat that I love so much. It is just “mal d’Afrique”.