Gallivanting Among Ghosts: The Rise of the Global Urban Explorer
Some go for the beaches. Others for the booze. Many go travelling to immerse themselves in foreign cultures – to step outside of their comfort zone, gain a fresh perspective on the world or simply to plunge themselves into strange new cultural flavours like a starving man at a banquet. Then you have the collectors… the travellers who tout their list of UNESCO heritage sites like they were notches on a bedpost, ticking off countries as if they were bingo numbers.
But for all these motivations, there’s a growing number of travellers who cross oceans and continents in search of broken things. Ruin. Decay. The dirty laundry of foreign nations, the skeletons in the closet of some far-flung state a world away.
If the title of this article sounds sensationalist, that’s simply because it needs to be. This is all about sensation. It is a process of dreaming and imagining, but more than that it is escape. Loosely termed ‘urban exploration’, the practice of visiting ruins, rooftops, construction sites, the otherwise unseen places on the peripheral of normal human living space, has long been the domain of specialists – architecture geeks. Photographers. Graffiti artists, ghost hunters, or anyone else who craves extra-real experience and an escape from the set parameters and (occasionally) suffocating security of the conventional fold.
Perhaps the rise in travellers dabbling in urban exploration has something to do with saturation; visit Thailand, for example, and everywhere you go you’ll be wedged between the suntanned, tattooed, singlet-slung shoulders of gap year explorers, spring breakers, travel bloggers and Instagram photographers: it is a playground for affluent white Westerners. While shifts in global economy produce an ever burgeoning traveller class, goaded on by photoblogs and armed with those ubiquitous selfie sticks, the act of travelling to another country can sometimes feel less a case of daring adventure – and increasingly, an exercise in following the herd. Travel-by-numbers.
Crawl inside the ruins of an abandoned temple though, sneak past security to climb an unfinished concrete tower on the city limits, and suddenly you’re alone in a foreign place where not even the ghosts speak English.
Exploring Underground in Australia
I’ve seen it for myself, on countless trips. In Australia I looked to the drains and sewers for my escape, my opportunity to connect with the other: a sprawling network of interconnecting tunnels beneath the streets of Melbourne, which would offer me the sense of true exploration that, thanks to YouTube, colonialism and Neighbours, the surface of Australia was unable to provide.
I didn’t want to venture into these depths alone however, and so I put out an ad on Couchsurfing.
“Fellow adventurer required,” it read, “to explore tunnels beneath the city. I have a map. It might be dangerous. PM me.”
My inbox exploded. I had made the mistake of featuring my phone number in the forum post as well, and it rang incessantly – day and night – for the next 36 hours, until Couchsurfing admin removed the post and cautioned me for inciting illegal behaviour.
Bangkok’s Sathorn Tower
A similar thing happened in Bangkok; only that time I missed the party. The Sathorn Unique is a towering 50-floor skyscraper, abandoned mid-construction over a decade ago and left ever since as a grim monument to the capricious whims of global finance. As one might well image, the view from the top is something rather special… and so for a while it became a popular haunt amongst this new breed of tourists, those disenchanted with the sickly delights of Khao San Road and other popular social hubs of Bangkok.
One weekend there was a Couchsurfing meet-up that involved a group of 10 people climbing to the top of what the locals call the ‘Ghost Tower’. Photos began appearing on travel blogs, left, right and centre, and soon enough the authorities caught on. If that didn’t bury the place, then the later death of a tourist falling from one of the upper floors of the building ought to have done it. By the time I visited the Sathorn for myself, every entrance had been barred and sealed, a fine steel mesh welded over any conceivable passage leading to the upper layers.
Buzludzha – Bulgaria’s most unlikely tourist attraction
But while some of these iconic global ruins are accessible only once in a blue moon, there are others which operate as perennial attractions.
You might already be familiar with the Buzludzha monument; or to give this impressive saucer-shaped structure its full name, the ‘House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party’. Perched atop a rocky peak in Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountains, this iconic ruin – abandoned in the wake of regime changes back in 1989 – has risen to Internet fame in recent years, appearing on virtually every one of those viral lists that boast, “The X Most Beautiful Abandoned Places in the World!”
Visit the Buzludzha monument on any given day, and you’re likely to meet Dutch explorers. Australian photographers. Independent filmmakers from Britain; French academics, skateboarders from Slovakia and a gang of Brazilians on a round-the-world cycling trip. Much to the chagrin of the Bulgarian government – who frankly, would rather just forget this unwelcome reminder of their nation’s communist past – the site has fast become almost as popular an attraction as Bulgaria’s monasteries, beaches and ski resorts.
And then of course there’s Chernobyl – where Ukraine gives the rest of the world a schooling in how to manage a ruin.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (and of particular note, the abandoned ‘city’ of Pripyat at its heart) is the archetypal beautiful corpse. Site of the infamous nuclear meltdown back in 1986, since evacuation the ‘Zone has been inundated by curious visitors, spawning a healthy tourism industry that now ranks the location as Ukraine’s single most popular tourist attraction. Do a quick image search and you’ll find an abundance of photos detailing rotting corridors, empty classrooms, discarded gas masks and children’s toys. For all that perceived emptiness however, more than 10,000 people visit Chernobyl’s radioactive ‘Zone of Alienation’ every year – that’s more tourists than some countries’ capitals receive.
Is Urban Exploration for you then?
So have you booked your flights yet? Or perhaps you just don’t understand the appeal of wading through drains, hopping over rubble or climbing scaffold up to restricted rooftops in a foreign land. And that’s okay – those who don’t get it almost certainly never will. But it remains to be seen that an increasing number of travellers are turning their focus to the lost, the forgotten, the hidden or obscured at the midst of our global urban settlements.
If Magellan, Columbus or Marco Polo were alive today, do you think they’d be content to sit in a Starbucks in Costa Rica? Join a package tour of Tibet? The lust for discovery that fuelled the explorers of history is alive and well today… the problem is, we’re simply running out of places to explore. Those with sufficient curiosity however, those with a passion for discovery and yet lacking the means to carry them into space – or down to the depths of the ocean floor – will always find a venue for expression amongst the ghosts: the tunnels, the rooftops, the ruins, skeletons and other accidental landscapes of our human civilisation.
This was a guest post very kindly written by Darmon Richter.
Darmon is a freelance writer and photographer; an experienced urban explorer and self-confessed dark tourist. His interest in unusual destinations has taken him from the ghost cities of Inner Mongolia to the hell gardens of Southeast Asia; from the frozen conflict zones of the former USSR, to vodou temples in the Caribbean.
When he’s not exploring subterranean tunnels – or filling out visa forms – you’ll find Darmon writing up his various (mis)adventures over at The Bohemian Blog… and for the past few months he’s been hard at work laying the foundations for his debut tour around the Eastern Balkans in September 2015.