A bus stop in Gagra in the disputed region of Abkhazia.

A bus stop in Gagra in the disputed region of Abkhazia.

The bus stops were just waiting for pictures

Surrey photographer Christopher Herwig’s book has a title that says it all: Soviet Bus Stops.

Something odd happened on the way to St. Petersburg.

In 2002, Christopher Herwig, then a London-based photographer, decided to ride his bike to Russia, and challenged himself to take a photograph every hour along the way.

“I did this so I would force myself to photograph things I normally may have overlooked as not exotic or exciting enough,” says Herwig, who was born and raised in Surrey (B.C., not England).

By the time he reached the Baltic states, he realized that something repeatedly caught his eye.

“Along the way, I had photographed some bus stops through Western Europe, but it wasn’t until I entered Lithuania that I really started to get amazed by the variety and creativity of the shelters.”

It turned out that the Soviet Union’s bus stops were anything but drab products of bureaucratic utilitarianism.

The designers and architects were given apparent free rein to build colourful, flamboyant, sometimes almost animated bus stops, often on seemingly deserted stretches of road in the middle of nowhere.

And it’s to those nowheres that Herwig returned in subsequent years, gathering material that would lead to his book Soviet Bus Stops, now in its second edition.

Its 157 images are the products of 30,000 kilometres covered by car, bike, taxi and (of course) bus from 2003-2006 (when he lived in Kazakhstan), 2008, and when most motivated for making a book, three weeks in the summer of 2013 in Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Abkhazia. Herwig also returned to Belarus in 2014 and 2015 for a few updates to his book.

The Soviet Union, all 11 times zones of it, broke up at the end of 1991, leaving its 15 republics more open to visitors than before.

Sometimes he had some trouble explaining what he was doing – especially if the bus stops were in bad shape and locals weren’t proud of them.

Herwig maintained that he was impressed, and was bringing goodwill.

While Westerners might have their own idea of what the Soviet Union was, or what its remnants are, Herwig got to see the differences in the cultures and landscapes.

“Central Asia was great. It wasn’t only wide-open steppe, but also incredible mountains climbing to over 7,000 metres, magical ancient cities and green rolling hills,” he recalls. “Many of my favourite bus stops were in the middle of nowhere, which for me provided a perfect backdrop without distractions.”

Herwig, who speaks “pretty good” German and a rough Russian, French, Spanish and Swedish, says most people were friendly, most of the time.

In one trip, he got his Lada Niva (a rudimentary cousin of the Jeep) stuck on a mountain road and had to share a yurt with a shepherd family in Kyrgyzstan.

He recalls having a “friendly chat” with two KGB-like officials in suits and sunglasses in a small room on the Tajikistan-Afghan border.

And he had to fork over about $200 to a taxi driver in Abkhazia who accused Herwig of being a Georgian spy. Herwig secured his memory card safely in his underwear just in case he lost his camera, too.

Herwig, 40, currently lives in Amman, Jordan with his Swedish wife, a UN development worker, and their two kids.

Herwig produces photos and videos for organizations such as UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and has had photographs published for dozens of magazines and news organizations over the years.

His family’s moves and his love of road trips have helped him mentally prepare for projects such as Soviet Bus Stops.

As for all of the former Soviet Union’s bus stops, Herwig admits missing one republic.

“Sadly I have nothing to show from Azerbaijan. I was there in 2008, but was not specifically hunting bus stops. Also, the few bus stops stops I have from Russia did not impress me so much, so they are not in the book.”

The new edition of Soviet Bus Stops is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1Yw2iFe

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