Friday, 30 November 2012

Urbex FAIL: The Sathorn Unique, Thailand

Bangkok doesn't agree with me... or perhaps, rather, it agrees too much. Either way, on my last night in the city I decided that it would be a superb idea to get myself good and drunk, before trying to tackle an abandoned fifty-story skyscraper in the heart of Bangkok. The result? Well, it certainly wasn't my finest moment.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

I first spotted the building from Sathorn Pier. I had spent a day visiting temples around the city, choosing to travel by boat up and down the Chao Praya River. Stepping back onto dry land near my hostel, I happened to cast my eyes upwards... to spot fifty floors of abandoned skyscraper towering over me.

Driven by curiosity, I headed in for a closer look. The fifty-storey tower lies just off a busy street in the Sathorn District, the entrance securely sealed with a chain link fence. I adopted the guise of 'lost tourist' (confused expression, map in hand, only non-Asian in sight), before slipping down one of the alleys that runs parallel to the skyscraper.

The narrow residential street led nowhere, but I was able to spot a few possible entry points towards the rear of the building. Although with this many people about, I knew I would have to return under the cover of darkness.

Just then, as I turned to leave, I made out voices - the sound of several people engaged in a heated argument, on one of the higher floors of the ghost tower. It was at this point that I decided against exploring the site alone.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

Time for some research. Construction of the building, titled the 'Sathorn Unique', was set into motion in the mid-nineties... a time when Thailand was enjoying something of an economic boom. The skyscraper was designed for exclusive, luxuriant apartments - close to the city centre, and overlooking the river.

However, 1997 saw the dawn of the Asian Financial Crisis, and the Sathorn Unique was one of many grand projects which were subsequently abandoned; developers withdrew their funding from this concrete monolith, and the building, now nearing completion, was doomed to become another one of Bangkok's 'ghost towers'.

Bangkok Bound

The evening drew on, while I sat back at my hostel drinking beer and searching for more information about the tower. I'm a huge fan of Thai lagers such as 'Chang', but the often unpredictable alcohol content, combined with the humid, balmy heat of Thai monsoon season, was having more of an effect on me than I realised.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

As I became increasingly more desperate to find a partner in crime, I resorted to approaching strangers around the hostel; drunkenly asking,

"Do you like danger?"

It seemed as good an opening as any, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the tactic got me nowhere. A few hours later I was sitting alone in the house restaurant, just finishing off a panang curry and contemplating bed, when someone waved at me from a nearby table.

"Do you like beer?" he asked.

It transpired that he had accidentally bought more than he could drink. As it happened, I did like beer; and so began a brief yet beautiful friendship.

My friend - let's call him 'Agent Chang' - struck me as the adventurous sort. However, I didn't want to risk coming on too strong, as regarded the whole 'danger' thing. So instead, we headed out for a couple of beers in Patpong.

Amusingly, Wikipedia describes Patpong as an 'entertainment district'. To give the place its dues though, it certainly was entertaining. After fighting our way through the chaotic crowds and declining several dozen invitations to 'Ping Pong' shows, we eventually found ourselves sat in a quiet, civilised bar tucked away into a back street.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

For a few moments it felt as though normality had been restored... until a bell rang, and a line of girls in matching lingerie and tagged with large, numbered labels were paraded out in front of us.

"Just to talk," the proprietor assured us, "have a drink, make talk."

It turned out that my new female companion, who went by the curious name of "27", was actually working as a bar girl to fund her way through a history degree. I spent a delightful half hour quizzing her about the Japanese occupation of Thailand and their subsequent movements into Malaysia and Myanmar, before Agent Chang and myself made our farewells.

It was on the way back to the hostel, now that we were both fully inebriated, that I popped the inevitable question:

"Do you like danger?"

Inside the Ghost Tower

Pretty soon I was guiding Agent Chang down the alleyway I had found earlier, that runs the length of the Sathorn Unique. Strangely, he hadn't batted an eyelid when I pulled two torches (one waterlogged, the other with flat batteries) from various pockets about my person.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

The security fence was tight around the tower itself, but on the other side of us stood a derelict multi-storey car park - a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the main building, perhaps five floors above our heads. A portion of fence had come loose at the back of the structure, and it was here that we made our entry.

An abandoned multi-storey car park looks remarkably similar to a functional multi-storey which just happens to have no cars in it. There wasn't a lot to see here - save for a selection of camp beds apparently fashioned from cardboard and plastic bottles.

When we finally reached the covered walkway on the fifth floor however, we found our way barred - the metal tunnel that ran from this building to the ghost tower itself was hermetically sealed with a thick, barred grate; the only way to cross it would have been to cling to the outside, and shimmy hand over hand to the other building. Given the circumstances, this didn't seem like a wise option.

Thwarted, we returned to the ghost tower itself... approaching from the side, where vines and creepers had laid claim to the romanesque arches and columns of this potentially magnificent structure.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

Scaling the fence, we dropped gracelessly into the compound - waking a couple of stray dogs that had been sleeping inside. They seemed harmless enough though, more confused than anything else.

The Sathorn Unique is a modern ruin left in a curious state of decay; great concrete pillars line the main foyer, which for the most part is without walls. The forecourt seemed to be in use as a private parking space for a range of battered tuk-tuks and delivery bikes, while there were few corners or crevices inside which didn't show signs of having been slept in.

From this grey, open hall rose the escalators - symmetrical travelators frozen in time, plastic wrappers still trailing from the sleek steel exterior to collect dust. We ascended by the nearest of these, being careful not to trip on the rubber drive belts; which had been torn free from the motors to lay splayed across the ground like tendons on a butcher's slab.

The first floor was as far as we would get.

Either the balcony walls were yet to be built, or they had long since disappeared... all that was left was a sheer drop over the edge, down into the vast foyer chamber below.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

Steering well clear of the rubble-strewn edge, we started looking for a passage upwards, towards the fifty floors of residential flats and apartments above. I had come across photos from the Sathorn Unique during my online research - it seems the developers had got as far as installing plumbing, electricity and even interior fixtures such as wardrobes and desks into the rooms, before construction was abandoned.

Twin staircases led up from this open-plan reception area, fore and aft of the escalators. I charged eagerly up the first of these, only to be met by a thick iron grill welded firmly in place. In typical Thai style, this first security measure had been embellished by others - to create a warped tapestry of corrugated sheet metal, bars, chain link and even barbed wire that stretched across the stairwell like some kind of demonic spiderweb.

The other stairwell was no different. The haphazard arrangement of scrap metal appeared infuriatingly flimsy, but on closer inspection (I inspected those metal sheets until my hands were bleeding and I was pouring with sweat), there was absolutely no chance of getting past.

I made one last reckless attempt at reaching the higher floors. Beside one stairwell stood an elevator shaft - its doors welded together, to remain forever closed. However, in the small bare chamber beside it, a series of pipes and cables led up through a narrow hole in the ceiling.

Urban Exploration | The Sathorn Unique, Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing into the alcove behind the pipes, and by resting my back against one wall while planting my feet firmly on the opposite, I was able to slowly climb my way up.*

Managing to scramble through the first hole, I reached a bare, sealed chamber. From here I continued to climb, passing through another floor... before reaching a dead-end. The pipes stopped above me and there was no way out - but for a securely barred doorway ahead, through which I could make out a long corridor lined with what appeared to be residential apartments.

And so, the mission ended in failure. While the foyer itself was pretty impressive, I only got to look at three out of fifty floors of this colossal ghost tower. My drunkenness had nothing to do with the fact that the Sathorn Unique was already on a tight security lockdown; but it was nevertheless pretty damn stupid. I certainly wouldn't advise anyone else to go scrambling up elevator shafts in such an inebriated state.

If like myself, this adventure left you desperate to get a look inside the remaining forty-seven floors of the Sathorn Unique, then go and see how it ought to be done - courtesy of Dr. Hank Snaffler Jr., at Abandoned Journey.

More Urban Exploration...

*The technical term for this climbing technique is 'chimneying'.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Urban Exploration: Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Somewhere North of Moscow, hidden deep in the sprawling pine forests which cover so much of the Russian countryside, there lies an old, forgotten holiday camp. Decorated with bizarre, otherworldly and oft-times terrifying sculptures of deep sea creatures, this Soviet Young Pioneer camp seems now to have fallen into the hands of a somewhat more sinister sector of Russian society - as I was to find out for myself, when I headed out into the forest looking for it.

Russian Road Trip

It was the Florida-based photographer and urbex enthusiast Emily Dietrich, who set this particular expedition in motion. Not only did she bring the site to my attention in the first place, but she even supplied me with coordinates... and so in return, I'm dedicating this report to her.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

We set out from Moscow in a rental car; myself and several equally curious companions. As we drew closer however, we discovered that the coordinates pointed to a nondescript patch of forest, apparently miles away from the nearest road. We had no choice but to navigate our way around the target area, testing each turn-off in search of an access point.

The journey took us through a scattering of remote, rural villages, to a deserted cemetery tucked away in a discreet woodland clearing, and along many miles of the rough and boggy forest tracks used by local woodcutters. While traversing one of the latter, the car became so deeply stuck in the mud that for a while we wondered if we would need to abandon it there.

A little later we were following a straight tarmac road through the forest, when we spotted a group of men cutting across a clearing for a nearby forest path. The satnav confirmed that they were heading towards our destination, and so we tried to catch up with them... they scattered when they saw the car approaching however, melting into the forest with elvish speed. We tried to pursue on foot - but the track was thick with undergrowth, and we were distinctly unsettled by the prospect of being watched by the strange party who had been so keen to avoid us.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Driving back to the main road, we skirted another 90 degrees east around our elusive destination. The next road we tried led to a remote hamlet - no more than a handful of houses - and all built in the traditional local style; sharp, triangular domiciles constructed from wood and clay. One of our party was able to ask a couple of workmen for directions in Russian - I made out a few words, such as "camp," "old," "where?". The workers replied with blank faces and so we drove on past them, following a narrow, wooded lane that wound deeper into the forest.

Suddenly, just as we were beginning to lose hope for ever finding our destination, we stumbled across a great, bulbous arch beside the road. It appeared to be formed from multicoloured styrofoam; more grown, than built. We had arrived.

We pulled up beside the entrance... but before we had even turned off the engine another vehicle appeared, approaching us fast from further down the forest track. Behind it in the distance lurked the shape of a factory, or perhaps a warehouse, mostly hidden by thick green foliage.

The vehicle - a smart 4x4 with blacked out windows - drew up alongside us before the driver slowly unwound his window. The man inside was in his mid-forties; bald, formally dressed, and partially obscured behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. He spoke to us only in Russian.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

"What do you want?" he asked.

We decided to play stupid: claiming to be lost, and expressing an innocent interest in the buildings behind us.

"Go back to Moscow," he said. "There are churches and museums for tourists. There is nothing for you here."

There was something in the man's eyes, something in his tone of voice that brooked no argument. Even without understanding every word the threat was clear. As we sheepishly obliged, turning the car back the way we had come, he watched us in silence with cold, unblinking eyes. Then he began to follow us. Slowly and at a distance, he escorted us out of the forest, back through the village and all the way to the main road. Here he pulled up beside the turning, and waited until we had disappeared from sight.

We had come a long way by this point, had already invested a lot of time and energy trying to locate our destination. More than that, I had been researching this site for months, poring over maps and coordinates. None of us had any intention of leaving empty handed. And so, as we sat drinking cans of beer outside a nearby village shop we decided, against all common sense, to sneak back for another look.

A Leninist Nightmare

There was brief talk of ditching the hire car, and walking back to the camp through the forest; the only thing that sounded worse than meeting our friend again though, was the notion of running into him without an escape plan. Besides, we had a crazy Glaswegian cabbie in the driving seat, who was confident he could outmaneuver anything on four wheels.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

The road was clear as we returned to the entrance of the camp, and parked up facing our escape route. We left one man with the car as the other three of us clambered through a hole in the chain link fence, sprinting for cover behind a row of bushes, then rounding the corner... to come face-to-face with a hideous, cyclopean octopus halfway through devouring a building.

From here on in, things got weird.

I can't tell you much about the history of this site in particular, other than the fact that it was abandoned in the mid 1980s. It is one of many such sites however, which lie dotted across the former USSR. The Young Pioneer camp (or in Russian, 'Пионерский лагерь') was a concept popularised by the Soviet Union. The first of these state-governed holiday parks was built near Gurzuf, Ukraine in 1925; the famous Artek Camp. By the 1970s there were almost 40,000 pioneer camps scattered across the USSR, with millions of children in attendance nationwide.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Typically, parents would have to pay to send their children to one of these camps... though in some cases the parents' employers would subsidise the child's place. Enrolment in one of the more prestigious camps however, such as Artek, was generally reserved for those children born to influential families.

Naturally the pioneer camps were richly fed with state propaganda. The initial intention of Lenin's Young Pioneer Organisation, after all, was the propagation of communist ideals into young, impressionable minds. In addition to a wide range of sporting activities, many camps subsidised this Soviet grounding with career-specific education - there were camps themed for young technicians, others for geologists; some were aimed at developing the interests of young naturalists, which, I suspect, may have been the case in this instance.

After the tentacles there came other indescribable horrors. In every corner of the camp we found great, eldritch shapes of nameless menace; shoals of fish gloating from high pedestals, while writhing red vines burst forth from walls to clutch blindly at the sky. A flock of grazing sheep scattered as we ran past, bleating as they dispersed amidst the hollow buildings.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Around another corner, in a paved clearing amidst the centre of the madness, I stumbled across a blasphemous effigy of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov set in a flaming plinth of antiquarian stone; Lenin himself, watching blindly over the arcane decadence of the camp.

Elsewhere a bird of prey perched high atop a crimson cliff, while beneath it some creature of the deep peered up through cold eyes. An abnormal beast of unspeakable origins gazed on impassively - the head and tail of a monkey stitched clumsily to the lumbering body of a kangaroo.

For the duration of my stay in this camp of horrors, my mind was torn between getting in and getting out. I tried every door I came across, every window, but they all proved securely locked. Meanwhile, I was painfully aware that at any moment we might be discovered by our host; an unnaturally intimidating man of unknown motives. In the end I resigned myself to simply exploring the grounds surrounding the buildings. Between the looming shapes of otherworldly creatures and my own racing adrenaline levels, this proved adventure enough.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Perhaps most singular amongst these terrors, however, was the figure of a naked child... held high in the squamous grasp of some writhing, loathsome thing from the ocean's depths.

I simply cannot fathom the intentions of the architects. Though I'd like to imagine that these strange designs have grown more bizarre over the years, as they began to slump into inevitable decay, nevertheless this pioneer camp must have been somewhat unnerving even at the time of its construction. Whether the initial idea was to entertain, or perhaps rather to scare the resident children into obedience through such disturbing imagery, is impossible to say.

It was with some relief that we made it back to the car without incident; a sense of relief which grew as we left the camp, the forest and then the village behind us, and got back out onto the open road.

On Messing with the Mafia

As with my previous report on urbex in Russia - which involved the infiltration of a disused military satellite base - this outing was filled with an unsettling sense of very real, and imminent danger. I have tried not to sensationalise the above report by making any unfounded suggestions as to a mafia element; but I'll tell you now, that we were all thinking it at the time.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Here we were in a rural Russian village, miles from anywhere, and seemingly populated solely by aged babushkas in faded floral dresses and headscarves.

The presence of a sharp-dressed businessman in an executive vehicle (and one with dark tinted windows at that), was incongruous to say the least. Furthermore, he didn't challenge us until we had started making our way down an unmarked road towards a complex of large warehouses.

It could have been sheer coincidence that we crossed paths when we did... but his stern, authoritative and professional manner seemed to suggest that he had experience at intimidating people. Another theory later crossed my mind. We had asked two workmen in the village for directions, before driving on towards the camp - it is feasible that they might have made a call to alert the local 'security'.

Urban Exploration | Soviet Camp Cthulhu, Russia

Another possibility is that there was absolutely nothing untoward taking place here - and that the man we encountered was simply a passing local with a penchant for suits, and a strong distaste for foreigners. Perhaps.

While this threatening presence didn't stop us from going back for another look, it did manage to put a serious limitation on the amount of time we were comfortable spending at the site... and with a car parked out the front, we were hardly inconspicuous. It also acted as a powerful deterrent against getting caught breaking into one of these bizarre buildings.

If you're still curious to get a glimpse inside however, then have a look at the report over on English Russia. Needless to say, the architects' taste for interior decor is equally alarming.

More Urban Exploration...


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Urban Exploration: Industrial Espionage, Bulgaria

And now for something completely different.

It was a bright and sunny Sunday in November, and the city's main shopping centre was alive with bustling crowds and garish Christmas decorations. However, while the people below shopped and queued and ate and bickered, little did they know that we were right up on the roof - scampering around in an industrial landscape of pipes, fans and cooler exhausts.

Urban Exploration - Urbex | Industrial Espionage, Grand Mall, Varna, Bulgaria

Getting up onto the roof was easy enough; marked with an emergency exit sign, a large double door led into an unlit service corridor.

Luckily these doors were unalarmed, and so from here the torches came out as we made our way through the dark, past numerous signs marked 'access prohibited', and then out into a stairwell. Moving swiftly past the CCTV camera that stood sentry on each floor, we headed up to the top, and through an access door onto the roof.

Before us lay an open expanse of asphalt veneer; blue aluminium pipes sprouting here and there like extraterrestrial undergrowth. First checking to make sure the door could be opened from the outside, we followed a series of ducts that ran the length of the rooftop.

Urban Exploration - Urbex | Industrial Espionage, Grand Mall, Varna, Bulgaria

There wasn't a lot to see in this central area, but as we followed the pipes they were joined by others, eventually fanning out and twisting into a great, gleaming circuit board. Here a series of steel steps led up to gantry above the pipework, allowing access for maintenance workers. Every now and then we passed by extractor fans the size of jet engines, which blasted us with warm, stale air.

The terrain became more interesting the further we moved from those areas designed for human traffic. Following a ganglion of vents where they passed under a low gap in the wall, we found ourselves on a kind of balcony - a concrete observation platform, looking down upon the forecourt, the car park, and the milling crowds below.

Urban Exploration - Urbex | Industrial Espionage, Grand Mall, Varna, Bulgaria

Heading back the other way, we were afforded a panoramic view of the city around us - houses, shops and Soviet-era apartment blocks faded away into the distant hills.

Beneath us on a lower level, we watched two teams playing a five-a-side football match on an outdoor rooftop pitch. From up here the distant traffic was inaudible, blending into the nondescript background hum of the city.

We left as easily as we had arrived... back down the stairs, through the dark service corridor, and then straight into the public areas, mingling into a crowd of Sunday shoppers. I had prepared in my head an excuse about looking for the toilets and getting lost along the way, but nobody questioned us as we emerged from the door marked 'staff only'.

I have always been fascinated by 'accidental' landscapes.

As a species, we are unique in that most of us are constantly surrounded by a world that has been designed for our comfort and convenience; tarmac, hand rails, street lights, benches and bins.

Urban Exploration - Urbex | Industrial Espionage, Grand Mall, Varna, Bulgaria

How refreshing it is then, to escape all of this and enter into a realm which was never intended for human traffic. To forge a path through the unseen infrastructure of this societal bubble, amidst the trailing roots and unkempt offshoots of our shared artificial world. This is the very essence of exploration.

The rooftop of this particular shopping centre was neither special, nor unique. It was no different from thousands of other rooftops, in every corner of the world; no history, no secrets. We had seen all there was to see here in about ten minutes, and yet we lingered... between the blue skies above and the haphazard growth of aluminium tentacles beneath, it made as good a place as any to enjoy a lazy Sunday morning.

More Urban Exploration...


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Urbex FAIL: The Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

The Ryugyong Hotel has towered over the North Korean capital of Pyongyang since construction first began in 1987. However, even 25 years later the building remains unfinished... leading media agencies to dub it the "Hotel of Doom", the "Phantom Hotel", and even, somewhat cruelly, "The Worst Building in the World".

From the moment I first laid eyes on this pyramidal monstrosity, I was desperate to get inside and have a look around. However, there's a very good reason why the phrase "urban exploration in North Korea" doesn't get thrown about all too often... and at the risk of spoiling the punchline, I'll tell you now: I didn't get inside.

The Capital of Willows

The Ryugyong Hotel was planned to stand as a testament to the power and wealth of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

'Ryugyong' itself translates as 'capital of willows', a reference to one of Pyongyang's ancestral names. Boasting a total of 105 floors, and topped by a stack of five revolving restaurants, this 330m structure stands as the tallest building in North Korea by far.

The original plan was to have the hotel open by 1989, at which time it would have ranked as the tallest hotel anywhere in the world. In fact, it wasn't until 2009 that a taller hotel was built: the Rose Tower in Dubai. Some sources suggest that the Ryugyong Hotel was intended as an answer to the towering Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore - built by a South Korean company, and completed in 1986. This would have been a typical example of the kind of one-upmanship that flourished between these two nations during the Cold War.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

However, five years after construction commenced, the project was put on hold in 1992. The fall of the Soviet Union had dire financial implications for the DPRK, which spiralled into a period of economic crisis. By the time Kim Jong-il ascended to leadership in 1994, the country was a mess; as a result, the Ryugyong project was temporarily abandoned.

The bare pyramid stood for 16 years without windows or interior fittings, an ugly and embarrassing blemish on the city's skyline. For this time it was widely ignored; I spoke to a tour guide who had operated during those years, and was told that when asked questions, locals would deny all knowledge of the colosal building... for almost two decades, the Ryugyong simply didn't exist.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

It wasn't until 2008 that anything further happened to the Ryugyong, when salvation came in the form of a serious investment from Egyptian telecommunication giants, the Orascom Group. Orascom already had strong ties to North Korea's mobile phone network, and it is rumoured that they are in the process of installing a powerful aerial into the conical tip of the Ryugyong Hotel.

Finally back on track, official sources now claim that the Ryugyong will be in partial use by August 2013 - planned to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's 'Eternal President'. The property is being managed by the German hotel group Kempinski AG, and the interior will be designated into an array of accommodation suites, retail outfits, office spaces and leisure facilities.

Inside the Phantom Hotel

On the final night of my week in Pyongyang, a strange and unprecedented thing happened; we had been out clubbing in the capital with our Korean guides (that's a story for another day), and had retired to our allotted hotel.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

Our accommodation was at The Yanggakdo International Hotel, one of the two foreigner-friendly hotels in Pyongyang... and the country's second tallest building, just behind the Ryugyong itself.*

It was late by this point, and we were sat outside with a few bottles of strong Korean beer. Our guides, both girls, were tired, and decided to head back to their rooms... leaving a handful of us drunk and untended in Pyongyang. Granted, the hotel is isolated from the city itself, located on the small Yanggak Island at its heart. Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of us and we started walking in the general direction of the Ryugyong.

Yanggak Island is joined to the streets of Pyongyang by several small bridges. We approached one of these bridges along a quiet, tree shaded avenue, and for the briefest of moments it seemed as though we were about to cross unhindered; however, at the last minute a young guard poked his head out of a discreet sentry box, and came over to meet us.

Urban Exploration | Urbex | The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

The unarmed guard spoke a little English, and he was perfectly friendly - chatty, even. He visibly approved of our chosen brand of beer, and seemed almost glad for the company at this ungodly hour. Nevertheless, when we began to coyly gesture towards the road that led to the city centre, he shook his head. "Forbidden," he managed to say, and we decided it was best to leave it at that.

Despite my own failure to get anywhere near the Ryugyong Hotel, it seems however that a select few are being invited to view the progress inside the building. Such was the case in September this year, when Western members of the company Koryo Tours were granted access right to the very top balconies of the Ryugyong Hotel. You can see their photos for yourself, on the NK News site.

For now at least, it seems as close as anybody is likely to get to urban exploration in North Korea.

More on North Korea:
Tourism in Pyongyang
The Demilitarized Zone
Pyongyang Metro

More Urban Exploration...

*Many people take "foreigner-friendly" to mean "bugged". The elevators in the Yanggakdo Hotel skip straight from Floor 4 to Floor 6, and rumours abound that the missing fifth floor houses a control centre for the microphones and cameras hidden throughout the property. However, it seems that the reality of the situation is quite different - although equally strange. Once again, you can get the full lowdown on the Yanggakdo's secret propaganda centre over on NK News. Unfortunately for me though, and perhaps as a result of all the photos from Floor 5 which are now circulating the Internet, by the time I got there the doors were firmly locked.


Dark Tourism: The Bridge on The River Kwai, Thailand

The destruction of the bridge over the River Kwai represented a crucial turning point in the Pacific War. The Japanese invasion of Thailand in 1941 is generally considered one of the key events that set the Pacific theatre into motion; and as the Japanese sought to strengthen their move into the formerly British-occupied Burma, so began work on the Death Railway. This direct track from Thailand to Burma would have allowed the swift transport of Japanese strength into the Allied colonies, and as such, was deemed impermissible by Allied forces.

The events that transpired however, would later be recognised as one of the most tragically inhumane episodes of the twentieth century... the weight of the slaughter resting heavily on both Allied and Japanese consciences.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

Eager to learn more about this significant turning point in the Pacific theatre of war, I booked myself a Kanchanaburi tour from my Bangkok hostel. I paid 1000 Baht for the day trip - that's around £20. It seemed like a good deal, but I was still a Thailand newbie at the time... I would later discover how easy it is to travel the country by rail, even without speaking a word of Thai. The train from Bangkok to Kanchanburi costs the equivalent of about £1.50, and it would have spared me the experience of my travelling companions; most notably a brash young American couple who insisted on filming everything that happened in the course of the day, and began each conversation with a proud declaration of their Californian heritage. It was to be my first and last experience of attending such a tour.

The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Our first stop was The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (or as it is locally known, the Don-Rak War Cemetery). While my new-found friends posed for photos with the bus, with pedestrians, and pulled funny faces on the steps of the Kanchanaburi Memorial, I disappeared alone into the solemn green rows.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

The Don-Rak Cemetery marks the final resting place of many of the prisoners of war who perished in the construction of the Burma Railway. It contains the graves of almost 7,000 former POWs; most of them British, Australian and Dutch.

Many of these bodies were recovered from the mass graves inside the south section of the railway between Nieke and Bangkok... where they were discarded once unable to provide further labour. Two additional graves in the cemetery contain the ashes of those victims whose remains were cremated.

The Don-Rak War Cemetery is located on Saeng Chuto Road, the main thoroughfare which leads through the town of Kanchanaburi. It must be one of the few small corners of Thailand which is not permeated with Buddhist paraphernalia; this solemn, timeless location could have been anywhere, defined only by the green grass, clear blue skies and row upon row of neat marble graves dedicated to a Christian God.

The cemetery is presided over by the Kanchanaburi Memorial, which provides the names of those cremated... in addition to the names of 11 Indian prisoners of war, who were buried elsewhere in Muslim cemeteries.

The JEATH War Museum

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

Next, on to our main port of call. The JEATH War Museum is situated on the junction of the Rivers Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi, right on top of the old rail tracks. The name is an acronym recognising the primary nationalities of those involved in the construction of the Death Railway; Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland. To the locals it is known simply as the Wat Tai War Museum.

The museum is divided into several sections. While the main path through the exhibitions charts Thailand's involvement in the Pacific War (from first invasion through to the destruction of the bridge, and finally Japan's retreat accompanied by the release of prisoners), other areas offer a range of different perspectives on the region.

One room focusses on the prehistoric evolution of the area, while another charts the annual winners of the Miss Thailand competition. There seem to be Buddhist shrines tucked away into every empty corner, and there isn't an inch of wall space that hasn't been written on. Some of it in Thai, other passages in French, English or German, these verses range from military history through to religious philosophy. To read them all would have taken a day at least.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

Perhaps the most striking feature of the museum however, are the wooden effigies used to depict the suffering of Allied POWs. Carved in a similar style to those that appear in Thailand's numerous Buddhist Hell Gardens, these often crude figures show naked men engaged in hard labour, being tortured, or lying dead and bloody at the bottom of rivers.

The intention is to shock... but also to bring home the very real pain and suffering which prisoners were subjected to; and which many of us living comfortable Western lifestyles find it so hard to fully comprehend. My fellow travellers were living proof of this, as they jokingly cupped the testicles of flayed men, or mimicked their expressions for photographs.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

Towards the end of the museum, a courtyard is walled in with mounted figures of WWII's military leaders: Churchill and De Gaulle; Mussolini and Hitler; Japanese Generals Tōjō and Yamashita; Joseph Stalin and General Douglas MacArthur. On an adjacent wall, written in both Thai and English, hangs a sign which reads, "War is sinful behaviour".

Perhaps the most poignant feature at the JEATH War Museum however, is the broken wooden structure which protrudes from the riverbank beneath an observation platform. This is all that now remains of the former bridge, and is a stark reminder of the tragedy that befell here; in 1945 both the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force mounted bombing raids on the bridge, but after both attacks it was repaired using prisoner labour.

Finally on 24th June 1945, an RAF squadron was ordered to halt the Japanese movement into Burma at any cost. Fearing defeat, the Japanese filled the bridge with as many Allied prisoners as they could fit, in a hope to deter the bombers. It failed however, and when the bridge was finally put out of action, its destruction came at a cost of many Allied lives.

These events were later immortalised in Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel, 'The Bridge over the River Kwai'.*

Hellfire Pass & The Death Railway

The last stop on our tour was a ride on the Death Railway itself.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

The route was first surveyed by British colonists in Burma at the turn of the twentieth century; however, this treacherous landscape of jungles, rivers and mountains was deemed far too rough and remote a terrain to ever form the basis of a successful rail road.

Hellfire Pass in particular, a crossing point through the Tenasserim Hills, would have required an enormous effort - with rail workers forced to cut their way through solid rock in order to build foundations for the track.

Nevertheless, as the Japanese pressed on towards Burma in 1942, it became apparent that they would need to find a way through. At this stage they were sending supplies by boat across the the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea; these waters were well guarded by Allied submarines however, and so a direct railway seemed the only viable solution.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

Work began in June. It is believed that somewhere in the region of 330,000 POWs and civilian labourers worked on the line. The majority of these were Asian (Thai, Chinese and Burmese in particular), while approximately 16,000 captured Allies (mostly British, Australian and Dutch) were put to task.

The POWs were forced to work under filthy and inhumane conditions, forbidden such niceties as bedding or even clothing. As a result, the camps were rife with disease - many of the workers died from dysentery or cholera, if not starvation and exhaustion. Over the six weeks it took to build the cutting through Hellfire Pass, 69 men were beaten to death by their Japanese guards.

By the end of the project, roughly 90,000 civilians and 16,000 Allied POWs lay dead beneath the tracks.

We had been promised five stops on the train - boarding from the station at Wampo, then north through the pass, and dismounting at Rin Tin. I was eager to lose the rest of the group. So, when the rusty old train pulled up to the platform in front of us, I waited for everyone else to get on first... and then climbed up into a different carriage.

Dark Tourism | Kanchanaburi & The Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand

As the track rises up into the Tenasserim Hills and through the pass, it clings precariously to the face of the cliff. Wooden supports rattle and groan beneath the weight of the carriages, making for a thoroughly unsettling experience. The overall effect is that of a rollercoaster built upon heinous war crimes - I was left feeling a strange mixture of adrenaline, greif and awe.

More Dark Tourism...

*As an interesting side note, on the release of David Lean's subsequent film, 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', thousands of tourists flooded to Thailand to see the bridge for themselves. Of course, no bridge now remained on the River Khwae, although a similar wood and concrete construction spanned the nearby Mae Klong. So, the Thais renamed this stretch of the Mae Klong the 'Khwae Yai' ('Big Khwae'), while the original Khwae became 'Khwae Noi', or 'Little Khwae'.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Editorial: November

November is upon us. As we move on into a new month, here's a review of what I've been up to in the last few weeks... as well as a few sneak previews of things to come.

New Features

Fu Shan Tunnels, Qingdao, China

In the last month I've had two more photography features on the Business Insider website; the first from my mission in search of Soviet satellite dishes in Russia, the second taken from my trip to China, and the abandoned military bunkers under Fu Shan Mountain.

The Bohemian Blog has also been featured in the Bucharest-based newspaper Romania Libera, while there should be a few more online features appearing in some exciting places this week - watch this space!

Bulgarian Road Trip

Last weekend, I celebrated my birthday with a road trip around Bulgaria. The main agenda of this trip was to try and squeeze in as many visits to abandoned communist monuments as possible... and in that respect, it was a roaring success.

Shumen Monument, Bulgaria

Kicking off with an atmospheric night visit to The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship here in Varna, myself and a friend then headed out to nearby Shumen. There, perched on a mountain above the town itself, we found The Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria. This bizarre cubist installation is regarded as the only one of its kind in the world - its enormous concrete figures charting every stage of Bulgarian history, from the founding fathers through to present day.

In addition to the monument itself, I also discovered the entrance to a facility built into the mountainside beneath - which I suspect was built to serve as a bomb shelter, in a similar fashion to the vast network of tunnels beneath the Varna monument.

Buzludzha, Bulgaria

After that we spent a night in the old capital of Veliko Tarnovo, before trekking up into the Balkans the following morning... to pay a visit to The House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party at Buzludzha.

The inhospitable weather conditions on this trip made for a difficult journey, but the sight of this ominous concrete saucer looming out of the mist was a truly atmospheric experience. Since my last report the Buzludzha monument has changed hands, and work has begun on the colosal task of renovating it - the iconic 'Forget Your Past' slogan has been painted over now, and the tightly sealed doors forced us to find a slightly less conventional mode of entry...

After Buzludzha it was south to see the monument at Kalofer, and then on to another one at Stara Zagora. You'll be able to read more about all of these expeditions soon, as they begin appearing on the blog.


I managed to completely miss out on Halloween this year; no costumes, no parties, and not a single egg thrown. To make up for this I have decided to indulge myself with a suitably macabre weekend break, to somewhere that I have wanted to go since around the age of ten - Dracula's Castle.

Castle Bran, Romania

More correctly known as Bran Castle, this 14th Century gothic fortress in Transylvania has long been closely associated with both Stoker's novel, and the local folk tales which inspired the fiction. I can't tell you how excited I am to finally be going...

Anyway, my plan is to spend a long weekend in Bucharest while I'm there, and take in some of the local sights. I've seen photographs from an old network of tunnels and catacombs beneath the city, so with a bit of luck I might even find a way in.

Coming up Next...

Over the coming weeks I'll be uploading my most recent report from Buzludzha - and I'm hoping to have a few new articles to share after my trip to Bucharest. You will also be able to see more of my photos from North Korea online this month... as I turn away from the capital of Pyongyang, to look at some of the more rural areas I visited.

First though, a report from Kanchanaburi, Thailand - and the ill-fated bridge over the River Kwai.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Urban Exploration: Dead Satellites, Russia

The Russian State Company for Satellite Communications (or "Подведомственное Федеральному агентству связи ФГУП Космическая связь") controls the majority of satellite transmissions in and out of the Russian Federation. The company owns satellite centres in a number of towns dotted around the Moscow region, or 'oblast' - including the Satellite Communications Centre (SCC) at Dubna, as well as further installations in nearby Vladimir and Medvezhy Ozera.

However, there are numerous other satellite dishes dotted around Moscow Oblast... and unlike those maintained by the RSCC, many of them have been left to slowly rust. I was staying at a hostel in Moscow city centre, when I got chatting to someone else crazy enough to go looking for these forgotten monstrosities; by the next morning we had gathered a party of four, hired a car, and were on our way.

The Scrapyard

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

Perhaps the most impressive of Moscow's abandoned space communication satellites can be found close to the town of Monino, due east of the Russian capital. A friend had tipped us off to the existence of a vast dish, measuring 60m in diameter; and now left to the mercy of the elements.

It sounded too good to be true, and perhaps it was.

We began noticing the array of dishes as we approached the town. They seemed to sprout above the horizon in all directions, like a field of metal mushrooms. Driving past what appeared to be a military installation, we spotted an open gate - and behind it, the towering silhouette of a satellite dish.

We pulled up nearby, and, cautiously peeking around the end of the sliding metal gate, found the area inside abandoned. Whatever this site had once been, it bore little trace of that now.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

It seemed to be a dumping ground for assorted mechanical parts - a cluster of worn-out old trucks were parked in one corner, their engines long since removed; iron tanks and girders lay strewn between bland concrete hangers; a vast walkway rose over the far end of the rough track, from which winches would have facilitated the unloading of heavy cargoes from incoming lorries. Perhaps strangest of all was the plastic geodesic dome partially hidden behind trees at one edge of the compound, surrounded by a sea of discarded plastic bottles... hard to describe, other than as some kind of strange, Soviet igloo.

A similar dome, though this time constructed from metal, sat on the other side of the scrapyard; and it was from this structure that we heard the only signs of life.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

As we approached, jets of sparks shot out from the side of the dome accompanied by the harsh sound of metal grinding on metal. Suddenly the noise stopped, and a thick-set man in overalls came out to greet us.

Luckily one of our group was able to speak a little Russian, and so we asked him about the satellite dish - which lay just beyond a high concrete barrier.

He told us the dish had been out of action for many years, and that nobody even guarded it anymore. He then pointed towards an adjacent field, which ran the length of the concrete perimeter, and which he suggested would offer a better view... adding that on no account were we to try and get inside.

This patch of rough ground the mechanic had directed us to was easy to reach, through a gap in the chain link fence surrounding the scrapyard. Here all manner of rubbish had been dumped, ranging from books and clothes through to television sets, and what appeared to be an old reel-to-reel recording device.

The high concrete barrier allowed little in the way of a view, but then we spotted a gap beneath it - a muddy trench, where dogs or some other animals had dug their way under, and through to the satellite enclosure beyond. Just a quick look around, we decided.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

I was the first through the gap, and as I brushed the worst of the dust and dirt from my clothes, I looked around at what seemed to be a military base - a row of identical, whitewashed barracks in the distance, combined with storehouses, hangers, and an expanse of neatly regimented lawns. Around the perimeter of the compound the ground sunk down into a ditch, while the satellite relay rose majestically ahead of us - the dish itself supported on a vast and complex cradle of interlocking metal parts, atop a grand base station tiled in navy blue.

Rather than spend too much time out in the open, I decided it would be safer to stay in my trench... and so I began skirting around the perimeter of the site until I was closer to the dish. Here I found a number of tunnels, cut into the side of the bank, and leading beneath the main enclosure. I tried getting into a few of them, but most had been bricked up not far from the entrance - and each one now served as a dumping ground for old light fixtures, surveillance equipment, electrical cables and box upon box of mildewed books.

By now my comrades had caught up, and we approached the dish itself. The service hatch set into the base was securely locked, yet it was an overwhelming experience just to stand in the shadow of this towering symbol of Russian telecommunications... I found myself wondering just how far its signals had reached, this space age device which the Soviets had designed to relay messages between shuttles and satellites.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

However, our exploration was to be cut short - as we heard the sound of voices in the distance, and looked across the compound to see a small group of figures marching in our direction. It seemed the site was still in military use after all. One of our party had served in the United Nations Peace Corps, and his training kicked in now.

"Don't run," he told us, "they might shoot if you run". Instead we fell into rank. From a distance we would have appeared just another drill team, as we marched briskly away from the relay dish and across the lawn... then disappeared over the brink of the perimeter ditch.

As we left the scrapyard, the gate was being drawn open to make way for an incoming vehicle. The driver confronted us as we passed - demanding to know who we were, and what we were doing in his yard. We told him that we were just having a look around, and that the mechanic hadn't minded.

"You must leave," he said. "There is nothing for you here."

Access Denied

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

After this pleasant interlude, we got back on the road - in hope of finding the main target. Following the vague directions we had been given, it wasn't long until the dish came into sight.

Appearing first as a glowing disk on the horizon, it was some time before we came close enough to appreciate the sheer size of the thing. Once we had a visual, we turned off the main road; weaving our way through a winding network of dead end roads, in between a scattered estate of threadbare houses and garages.

The site in which the satellite dish stands is now owned by an aviation company called "MKPK Universal"... or "МКПК Универсал", as the sign on the fence informed us. A patchwork construction of wood and corrugated metal panels formed a perimeter fence around the compound.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

This tired-looking fence rose to a height of roughly eight feet; but by climbing on scattered bricks or peeking through knot holes in the warped wood, we were able to get a good look iside.

What would once have been a concrete plaza had now given way to the onslaught of bushes and bracken, the hard ground cracking as weeds sprouted forth in ordered, green ranks. Here and there we were able to spot a number of low, metal roofed sheds, in addition to what appeared to be the remains of an Antonov An-72 - a Soviet transport aircraft which first became popular in the 1970s.

Getting inside the compound seemed easy enough. We had parked up near the main entrance, not much more than a concrete track connecting the yard to the nearby highway. From here we decided to trek around to the side of the perimeter fence, where concrete gave way to mud; brickwork to forest.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

The fence was in even worse repair on this side, some sections reaching a near 40 degree angle. Before the first of us could drop down into the compound though, a noise from inside caught our attention - a long, low growl, as a lean hound loped stealthily toward us across the paved yard. Within seconds another beast had taken up the warning, emerging from behind one of the tin sheds.

I'm not a fan of guard dogs, and by the time a third had woken up, we conceded defeat. In a final desperate attempt at getting inside we headed back to the hire car, and tried one last resort - ringing the doorbell.

The buzzer was set into a plastic mount beside the main gate, and at first it appeared to have done nothing. A minute or so later though, we spied an old man pacing slowly across the yard towards us. He came barely within range of the gate, before calling out and asking what we wanted.

Urban Exploration | Dead Soviet Satellites, Russia

Again we turned to our translator; "just to take a look," he said.

This was met, unsurprisingly, with a flat refusal. Growing ever more desperate, we offered him money.

"You have nothing I need," came the reply, as the man shuffled slowly away.

A Few Final Thoughts on Urban Exploration in Russia

Ultimately, I felt it appropriate to file this report as a failure. Although the additional site we visited along the way proved to be fascinating (and allowed for some dramatic photo opportunities), our main target for the expedition still managed to elude us.

It was frustrating to get so close and then hit a dead end, and yet this report is typical of most of my experience of urbex in Russia: extremely difficult. It doesn't help of course, that our target was such a prominent technological installation - or that it was an important relay point for coded transmissions throughout the Cold War.

Moreover, the experience felt much more dangerous than some of my other explorations. Back home in England, the rules are simple - and the worst I'd be likely to face for trespassing is a night in custody followed by a free breakfast. In much of Eastern Europe and even Asia, the greatest dangers you are likely to encounter (besides the inherent risks of the structures themselves) are wild animals, homeless people and paying expensive bribes if you get caught. Here in Russia though, it's hard to know what exactly is at stake.

More Urban Exploration...