On a very long bike trip from London to St. Petersburg, Christopher Herwig made up a game: Every hour, he’d stop and take a picture of whatever happened to be in front of him. In places like Latvia and Estonia, miles from any visible civilization, he started to notice amazingly weird bus stops.
Designed by Soviet-era architects at a time when there were few outlets for creativity, the bus stops seemed to be free of any design regulations.
“It fell under this classification of a ‘minor architectural scheme,'” says Herwig. “It wasn’t something so big that it needed to subscribe to any ideological propaganda. It wasn’t designed to show off to the rest of the world. It was really made by locals for locals, and a chance to express themselves.”
Herwig spent three years living in Kazakhstan. Whenever he went anywhere in Central Asia, traveling along ancient silk routes in the middle of the desert and steppe, he kept photographing the bus stops along the way.
Eventually, his obsession grew to the point that he decided to start seeking them out in other former Soviet countries. He grilled bus drivers for clues, and poured through travel blogs, searching for “bus stops” in German and French. Since Google cars map the area, he also spent a couple of days skimming through Google Earth and zooming in on bus stops to map out a route.
“These were places I never would have traveled to,” he says. “But they were gorgeous landscapes and cool towns. You get to see a way of life you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Some of the bus stops he photographed were designed by Zurab Tsereteli, now well-known as an artist. “He was one of the ones who proposed that bus stops should be a way of bringing art to the people,” says Herwig. “He said they shouldn’t just be functional, but they should give people pleasure–they should be touched by the hands of an artist.”
Tsereteli’s designs didn’t necessarily work that well as bus stops, but he didn’t care. “His are really over the top, sort of Gaudi-esque sculptures, spaceship-like things,” Herwig says. “When he was asked why do some of them not have a roof, or function as bus stops, he said, ‘I’m an artist, I do things artistically. It’s not my problem if there’s a roof or not.'”
Many of the stops are no longer in use. “At some of them, I have no idea if they ever got a bus, because they’re in such confusing spots,” he says. “Possibly there was a collective farm nearby, or something like that. Now it just looks like they’re in the middle of nowhere.”
And as some of the bus stops start to fall into disrepair, they’re being taken down and replaced. When Herwig tried to revisit a couple of particularly unique stops in Belarus this year, they had disappeared. “They were really amazing, sort of one-off bus stops,” he says. “Now it’s just of like a tin shed.”
After more than a dozen years of travel–covering 18,000 miles in 13 countries (more than once, accused of being a spy), Herwig now has what he believes to be the world’s largest collection of Soviet bus stop photos.