Archive for the ‘Airport’ Category

Once a massive air base and home to 13000 people, now a partly abandoned civilian airport – the Flughafen Frankfurt-Hahn is kind of a zombie facility in the middle of nowhere, more dead than alive, surrounded by countless abandoned and partly abandoned buildings.
The tax wasting drama began 1951 in Paris, when the occupying French forces decided to build a military airport in the countryside of Rhineland-Palatinate; 100 kilometers west of Frankfurt, Germany. A year later the United States took over and expanded the airfield to the seventh biggest Air Force base in Europe and the second largest in Germany – thanks to the 7356th Air Base Group. In late summer of 1953 the 50th Fighter Bomber Wing was transferred from Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, and consisted of the 10th Fighter-Bomber, the 81st Fighter-Bomber and the 417th Fighter-Bomber squadrons; the last one being commanded by legendary test pilot Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager. Three years later the 50th Fighter Bomber Wing was transferred to France for safety reasons, the Americans being worried that Warsaw Pact forced could overrun West Germany and get hold of the wing’s nuclear weapons. Over the years many different units / squadrons were stationed at Hahn Air Base, including the 496th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 7425th Air Base Group, and the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing. When the Cold War ended, Hahn AB was one of seven major US air bases within 100 kilometers – and the first one to be closed. In 1991 all flying units were inactivated or transferred, and on September 30th 1993 most of Hahn Air Base (consisting of 672 apartments in 43 buildings, 25 barracks, 22 office buildings, 52 repair shops, 51 storage buildings, 343 hangars and bunkers, 23 shops, 5 schools, a hospital consisting of four buildings as well as more than 30 leisure facilities, including a golf course, a football field and a shooting range!) was returned to the German authorities, who had already decided to turn it into a civilian airport.
While current the name of the Frankfurt-Hahn Airport is borderline deceit of potential customers (it is located about 100 kilometers away from Frankfurt in another German federal state without a train or direct highway connection), the intentions were good – the remains of Hahn Air Base basically provided everything you needed to run a civilian airport, due to its remote location it came with a night flight permission, and Frankfurt Airport (the real one, 10 kilometers south of Frankfurt) was at its limits anyway. At first named Rhein-Mosel Airport and mostly run by Fraport (the same company responsible for Frankfurt Airport), the former military airport grew quickly from 19k passengers in 1997 to almost 4 million passengers in 2007 – but neither growth nor size means financial success, so Fraport sold its 65% shares to the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate for 1 EUR – and 120 million EUR in debt. In the following years the state tried to consolidate the airport, but passenger numbers dropped significantly to less than 2.5 million in 2014; a rather insignificant number in comparison to Frankfurt Airport’s 59.5 million. Despite losing about 10 million EUR per year and the state’s futile efforts to sell at least parts of its shares to investors, Rhineland-Palatinate keeps Frankfurt-Hahn running and is even investing it its future, reactivating / expanding a decommissioned railroad track by 2018 to make access to the airport more comfortable.

Meanwhile other parts of the former Hahn Air Base became abandoned and started to fall into disrepair. Despite most buildings being used by the Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, a police academy, and rented to private companies running a variety of businesses, a lot of them were of no / little commercial value in an area with low population density… especially the barracks / apartment buildings and their parking lots. Some have been demolished to accommodate the needs of the new civilian airport, but quite a few are still standing there, with open fences and barely visible “private property” signs.
Although other facilities in rather close proximity are still in use, most of the abandoned apartment buildings suffered severely from vandalism and consequential damages like mold; not so much externally, but inside – hardly any graffiti, but lots of smashed windows, shelves and fixtures. Some of the buildings have been boarded up after initial damages, but after 20 years of standing around without being used, you can see that whoever is in charge of the former housing area has basically given up on it. A handful of blocks were still in decent condition, but most of them looked like they were beyond repair. A few hundred meters away from the main area of abandonment we found a closed “Ringeltaube” (wood pigeon) shop, right next to and in the same building as the commissary of the Hahn AB. (I didn’t know about them either, but my sister was with the German Air Force for several years and did training at / with Lufthansa – and Ringeltaube is a chain of shops exclusively for Lufthansa employees; food and non-food.)

I guess it’s safe to say (and a bad pun) that the future of the airport Frankfurt-Hahn is up in the air – and so is the future of the remains of Hahn Air Base. Looking at the area on GoogleMaps, it is pretty obvious that the level of abandonment has increased since those satellite photos were taken – and so has the amount of destruction. While there were no signs of active demolition work, some of the apartment buildings still visible online are already missing… and the parking lot in front of the Ringeltaube / commissary is not nearly as busy anymore; it actually went down from several dozen cars to… zero. With that in mind it’s only a matter of time until all visible signs of Hahn Air Base are nothing but a memory, absorbed by Frankfurt-Hahn Airport… and nature. Let’s hope that the airport will survive the current struggle and be profitable soon – the livelihood of hundreds, probably thousands of people depends on it. And there are already enough abandoned airports all over the world… *even one in Frankfurt*!

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You would think that after eight years in Japan surprises and weird situations should become rather rare, yet Hachijojima was full of them – good and bad…

In early 2014 a bunch of interesting looking abandoned hotels popped up on Japanese urbex blogs, with one thing in common: they all were located on an island I hadn’t even heard of before, Hachijojima. Turns out that it is right next to Aogashima, a hard to reach volcanic island that is often part of those “the most remote places in the world” lists that are so popular on Facebook and other social media sites. When you are living in Kansai, basically one big city of 22 million people (plus 0.7 million spread across the countryside), “the most remote place in the world” sounds wonderful, at least to me – so I decided to do a combined Hachijojima / Aogashima trip during the first half of Golden Week. Long story short: I was able to locate three gigantic abandoned hotels on Hachijojima, but I failed to organize the side trip to Aogashima due to unpredictable weather, high risk of boats getting cancelled and the season I was travelling in; *Golden Week can be a real pain* as even the biggest Japanese couch potatoes think that they should travel, because everybody else is. So I stayed on Hachijojima for 3.5 days – part relaxing vacation, part urbex trip.

For the first night I booked a small minshuku on the east coast, just five minutes away from one of the abandoned hotels. Sadly the place turned out to be in a very remote area with hardly anything around… and even worse, it was terribly overpriced due to Golden Week. So instead of extending my stay, I took a taxi to the local tourist information the next morning – and the super friendly staff managed to get me a cute little hut at a local lodge with breakfast, bathroom and internet for the same price as the basic tatami room with shared bath / toilet and without food or internet, a.k.a. the night before. They even drove to my new accommodation to introduce me to the owners of the family business as they barely spoke any English – a pleasant surprise after the cold reception at a local sushi restaurant the previous night; upon entering the chef, smoking outside, was asking his wife who just came in… and she answered “a foreigner”, using the slightly derogative term “gaijin”. Thanks a lot for the warm welcome! Luckily my new hosts were the exact opposite, some of the friendliest and nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet. Should you ever go to Hachijojima and don’t mind a little bit of a language barrier, try the *pension Daikichimaru*!

I continued Day 2 by exploring the second big hotel on the island before climbing the most famous local mountain, Mount Nishi (literally “West Mountain” – guess where it is located…), better known as Hachijo-Fuji, thanks to its resemblance to Japan’s most famous mountain. 854 meters tall and of volcanic origin, Hachijo-Fuji turned out to be quite an exhausting and steep climb, especially on the last few hundred meters – but the view up there was amazing; one of the most rewarding hikes I ever did. (You can actually see the hiking trail on the first photo I took from the plane during landing approach.) If you are free from giddiness you can even walk along a sometimes just foot-wide path along the crater, but from where I started it looked like a rather risky walk, so I opted to descent to the green hell of Mount Nishi’s caldera; 400 meters wide and 50 meters deep it is home to lavish vegetation and even a shrine!
On the way down from Hachijo-Fuji I made a quick stop at the Hachijo-Fuji Fureai-Farm, a dairy products selling petting farm, which offers a great view at the plain between Hachijojima’s two mountain ranges. Upon arrival at the base of the mountain, near the airport, I came across a local guy and his dog. Despite being on a leash, the pooch ran towards me at full speed, barking like a mad dog (not a spaniel!) without any Englishmen; stopped by the slightly mental grinning owner maybe 20 centimeters from my ankles. Luckily it was one of those field goal dogs and not a German Shepherd or a British Bulldog, so I wasn’t too worried, but still… what a weirdo!
Almost as weird as my visit to a local supermarket the night before. After the sushi snack I had (made from local varieties like flying fish), I thought it would be nice to get some local products, so I entered a mom-and-pop store, the owner at the cash register talking to a customer. I grabbed a couple of things and when I was about to pay I saw the other customer leaving – and the owner told me that the shop was closed. So I asked if I could pay for the items I already grabbed. No! So I put the stuff back, which probably took longer than paying for it, and left empty handed… literally. Really strange 24 hours!

Day 3 was a lot more unspectacular. I took a bus to the southern part of Hachijojima and explored the third gigantic abandoned hotel after passing a police car basically in sight of it. Then I continued by bus to the Nankoku Onsen Hotel – which turned out to be a vandalized, boarded up piece of garbage with a neighboring house just 10 meters across the street. So instead of wasting any time I enjoyed a soak at a really, really nice onsen (without a hotel).

My last day on the island I spent mostly walking – to the Kurosuna sand hill and then along the coast back to the second abandoned hotel and then to the pension, from where I got a free ride to the airport.

Spending a couple of days on Hachijojima was one of the best things I did in all of 2014 – it’s just such a surreal and yet neat place! The main roads on the island for example look brand-new and very expensive. Given the massive drop in tourist numbers one wonders how a place like that can survive financially. Sure, three planes and a ferry per day bring quite a few tourists, but at the same time the three biggest hotels on the island and a few smaller ones are abandoned. Back in the 1950s and 60s Hachijojima was known as “Japan’s Hawaii” as it is much closer to Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka than Okinawa, but those days are long gone and I doubt that fishing and some local farm products can pay to keep the island as neat as it is today.
Some of the islanders were just plain weird… and others were quite the opposite, the most helpful and welcoming people you could dream up. While mainland Japan became somewhat predictable to me over the years, Hachijojima gave me that “first visit feeling” back, where you just roll with the punches and expect the unexpected at all times. The nature on Hachijojima was absolutely stunning, the food was amazing (especially at the *izakaya Daikichimaru*, same owners as the pension; the best sushi I ever had!) and I even enjoyed the onsen visit… though usually I don’t like onsen at all – but the entrance fee was part of the bus ticket, so I gave it another try and liked it tremendously.
*Facebook followers of Abandoned Kansai* might remember two photos I posted to the “Brand-new and Facebook exclusive!” album in late April this year – those will show up in future articles as I will start the Hachijojima series with the most unspectacular of the three hotels on Thursday, two days from now; though unspectacular is relative, especially if you are into abandoned arcade machines…

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Life is friggin weird sometimes: Not only is there a rather small city on Kyushu called Usa – it’s also home to several Japanese military ruins from World War 2!

At first sight there was nothing special about this old airplane bunker in the middle of rice fields somewhere in the Japanese countryside on Kyushu. It’s pretty much as rural as it can get and train stations were rather rare in this beautiful area, just a few hundred meters away from the coast.
I got off the train at a station called Buzenzenkoji on a gorgeous spring afternoon and got on again several hours later after dark at another one called Yanagigaura. Stories that the area was bustling with military 70 years prior intrigued me, but reports on the internet said that barely anything was left to see. The stories were about bases and bunkers, often kilometers apart, not visible on GoogleMaps, most of them even destroyed. Information about locations was vague, but what did I have to lose? Walking through the Japanese countryside on a sunny, warm spring afternoon was a treat by itself; always has been, always will be.
When I reached what I hoped would be the quarters of a naval aviation unit… I saw nothing. Nothing but some concrete foundations as well as gardens and fields at the edge of a small town. The Moriyama Emplacement and its moat probably had been levelled decades ago to help growing food for the hungry Japanese post-WW2 population.
So I continued along the road in hope to find the Shiroi Combat Group of the Usa Naval Aviation. I am actually not sure if I really found it, but I definitely found said airplane bunker. It was located right next to a house and it seemed like the owners were still using it – not to protect an airplane, but as a storage. I took a couple of quick photos and a short video before continuing my way as the sun started to set.
This time I was looking for Usa Naval Aviation’s motor workshop a few kilometers northeast on the way to the train station… and I found it after looking for a while in a rather new residential area, surrounded and broken up by fields. The workshop was in miserable condition, nevertheless it looked like it was still used by locals as storage space. I quickly took a handful of photos (most of them against the light…) and barely reached the Yanagigaura train station before it got dark – but not before stopping at a fourth location, a small wooden and completely boarded-up house that looked like it was from the late 19th, early 20th century.

To me this little stroll was barely more than enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon on my way to some serious explorations (including *Shidaka Utopia*, but if you are into World War 2 history and do some research in advance, I am sure you can find some pretty interesting stuff in the area. To me even the airplane bunker was just an airplane bunker and the main reason this afternoon walk turned into a full article was… because after I returned home I realized that those World War 2 ruins were located in a town called Usa – exactly my kind of humor, I find that extremely funny… 🙂

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The world famous Rhein-Main Airport in Frankfurt is more active than ever, but like most other big cities, the Hessian banking metropolis had more than one airfield available when aviation was in its early days – the now abandoned Military Airport Frankfurt-Eschborn was one of them.

Built by Nazi Germany as part of the preparations for war, the Military Airbase Frankfurt-Sossenheim (later renamed after Frankfurt’s district Eschborn, or in German: Militärflugplatz Eschborn) was constructed at some time between 1935 and 1939; information varies due to the utmost secrecy of the project. The airport originally consisted of five hangars made of bricks while the rest of the buildings, including the commandant’s office, were made of wood. The runway was a simple patch of grass, kept short by a herd of sheep (hence the code name Schafsweide, sheep pasture) –concrete areas were in front and inside of the hangars to store and maintain the aircrafts. The main purpose of the airport: training pilots and getting military gliders behind enemy lines. The first flying units were stationed at the Military Airbase Frankfurt-Eschborn in 1941, the same year further construction was stopped in favor of the Rhein-Main Airport just some 10 kilometers away. The Nazis used the airfield till August 15th 1944, when it was severely damaged by an American airstrike.
Even before the official end of World War II the Americans took over and the Military Airbase Frankfurt-Eschborn became Camp Eschborn (Y-74). They had some of the damages repaired by German prisoners of war and used the facilities as an alternate airport until the destroyed Rhein-Main Airport was rebuilt. After that the area was used by sapper units with heavy equipment. Overall the Americans were rather secretive about Camp Eschborn, and rumors have it that atomic mines were stored there in case the Cold War would turn hot and the Russian would try to break through the Fulda Gap.
Camp Eschborn was used till October 15th 1991 (when the 317th Engineer Battalion left) and finally returned to the German State in 1992. At first some of the barracks were used to house asylum seekers, then most of the buildings were demolished, so the area could be turned into a nature reserve and a commercial zone. What finally will happen to the rest of the former flying field is still up in the air, and until then the one remaining hangar and a couple of partly demolished buildings are used by several groups for regular training sessions, including the Federal Agency for Technical Relief and the German Federal Police – both training with dogs, which is one of the reasons why you should be extra careful at this only partly abandoned place. Oh, and a bunch of minors (not miners!) use the area as a hangout!

It were those minors and my friend Torsten that made exploring the rather unspectacular remains of Camp Eschborn so memorable. As you can imagine, the remains of the hangar area were fenced off and we had to find a way in. As chance would have it, we saw a bunch of those kids, teenagers… age 14 to 17, probably… and while I would have avoided them completely, my old buddy was up for a little chat and waved them over. Torsten is the fatherly friend kind of guy, always mellow, always friendly; must be the social worker in him. So he talked to those kids for a while, gained their trust, and of course they told him how they got in and described to us how we could, too, maybe a 20 minute walk from where we were on the other side of the area. We thanked them and were about to leave or even already turned to go, when Torsten addressed them again with something like: “Uhm, guys, that stuff in your hands… that isn’t beer, is it? You look way too young to be of legal drinking age! That stuff really isn’t good for you at your age…” I know I probably should have been more loyal to my friend, but he totally cracked me up with that, so I bursted into laughter: “Dude, you just interrogated those kids for five minutes on how to commit trespass – and now you give them a lecture on legal drinking age?!” while at the same time the guy on the other side was like: “I am 16 already. I know I look younger, but I swear, I am already 16!” (And 16 is the legal drinking age for beer in Germany…) It was just hilarious! Everything calmed down immediately after that, of course. But for a second or two this was one of the funniest things ever to me. After the guy left with his bottle and I convinced Torsten that it really didn’t matter if he was 15 or 16 (though I barely ever drink alcohol myself and I wouldn’t mind if they’d change the legal drinking age to 20 or 21, like in many other countries), we continued on the road we would have continued on anyway… and found a hole in the fence just around the next corner.
The rest of the exploration was less entertaining and not exactly spectacular, though of course we met our teenage friends again, who were hanging out with more of their friends – and the second group clearly wasn’t happy at all that the leader of the first group turned into some kind of self-proclaimed guide for us. Neither were Torsten and I, because first of all it destroyed the atmosphere just a tiny little bit – and then there was the risk factor. The buildings, including the hangar, were in pretty bad condition and I have no problem taking responsibility for myself. But at the same time I was a bit worried that one of those slightly drunk youngsters would hurt themselves… and then what? I don’t need stuff like that, so after a while we managed to say goodbye when the second group left us with a little speech about how they planned on climbing the roof now. At that point we had seen most of the few leftovers anyway, despite the fact that most of the hangar windows were bricked up, so we went to the maintenance concrete area, where I shot the usual walkthrough video before we finally left the former Military Airport Frankfurt-Eschborn.

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“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

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Air Koryo is the state owned and government run airline of North Korea, based at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. It was founded under the name SOKAO in 1950 as a joint venture between North Korea and Soviet Russia, but had to suspend business shortly after due to the Korean War. A successor was established in 1954 under the name of Choson Minhang and started operations in late September of 1955 before being renamed Air Koryo in 1993. Air Koryo from the beginning was placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration, a part of the North Korean Airforce – which means that all pilots are military officers. Due to North Koreas close affiliation with the soviets all airplanes in the fleet of Air Koryo are Russian models. Antonovs, Ilyushins, Tupolevs. During the Cold War Air Koryo flew to more than three dozen destinations within Korea and all over the world – nowadays there are only three regular international connections (Beijing three times a week, Shenyang twice a week and Vladivostok once a week) plus a couple of charter flights. In Europe Air Koryo is blacklisted since March 2006, though that ban was lifted four years later for two newly acquired Tupolev Tu-204s.

It was on board of one of those two machines that my fellow travelers and I started our trip to Pyongyang in Beijing. Some websites still recommend using Air China (or the 24 hour train…) to get to North Korea’s capital, but I would have chosen Air Koryo anyway if I would have been asked to choose. How often do you have the opportunity to fly Air Koryo?!
Interestingly enough our predominantly white Air Koryo plane was parked right next to a predominantly blue plane by Korean Air – the flag carrier and largest airline of South Korea. Since the Korean Air machine took off before we even boarded I had the great opportunity to take a photo of both machines at the same time when the Seoul bound machine was on its way to the runway. Two planes, one photo. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I am sure North Koreans would have loved the picture, them being all about one united Korea. (And so would have the dozen Christians wearing “A United Korea 4 The World” sweatshirts that boarded the plane with us. I seriously hope they were able to leave the country without running into trouble – they might love Korea, but (North) Korea doesn’t love missionaries. And those guys looked like they were on a mission from God…)

Air Koryo actually was the first positive surprise of my *trip to the DPRK*. After using *Ukraine International Airlines to Kiev* three years prior, my expectations on (former) communist airlines were as low as they can get; but the Tupolev Tu-204 was a perfectly fine modern plane with the usual seat spacing, the flight attendants were as friendly as they were beautiful (and they were gorgeous!) and the food was living up to international standards, too.
When checking in I was asking for a seat away from the wings to be able to look outside and maybe take a quick video secretly. At that point the photography situation was a bit up in the air (no pun intended…) – we were told that it’s okay to take photos on board, but not of the stewardesses; and nobody asked about video or footage through the windows. So I took a few quick snapshots until one of the other foreign travelers was shut down when he violated the instructions we got and took photos of a flight attendant… Even worse: After we all settled in and were ready to take off about a dozen Koreans boarded the plane and occupied seats all over the aircraft cabin. Just a coincidence? Or a way to keep an eye on the foreigners at a time when the official guides were still waiting for our arrival in Pyongyang? I felt a bit uneasy, but decided to give the rather young fella sitting next to me the benefit of the doubt. Which turned out to be right about an hour later. Lunch was just served and I was wondering if it was okay to take a photo of the meal – as we all know from Western media: Taking pictures most likely is a crime… So I slowly unwrapped all the small containers and before I could even start to eat my meal the guy in the neighboring seat pulled out his smart phone and took a photo himself. Easy going! The same situation a couple of minutes later. While I was wondering whether it was okay to take some photos of the landscape passing by (there could have been airports or train stations or military camps – or worse!) we were informed that we just entered Korean airspace – and all of a sudden everybody took photos, including our late arriving Koreans. Lesson learned: Don’t shove a lens into somebody’s face and you can take photos of pretty much everything you want…

Air Koryo’s home airport Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is as small as you think it is – two landing strips, one of them closed permanently. There are 10 regular international flights a week at Sunan (7 by Air Koryo, 3 by Air China), plus charter flights and some cargo flights – that’s it! There are no official statistics about flight movements within the DPRK, but I doubt that there are many, given the rather high cost of air transport and the regime’s problem to get fuel.
On the positive side: Immigration is a piece of cake. You show your filled out forms, your passport and your visa – and then you are in. No bag checks, no other bullshit. When you want to enter Japan on the other hand you get treated like a criminal as they take your finger prints and a photo. Every… friggin… time! I’m on my third Japanese long-term visa, I never ran into trouble, I always pay my taxes – nevertheless I get treated like a murder suspect every time I come back from an overseas trip… Welcome home! (Of course this treatment only applies to foreigners, Japanese people just waltz in…)

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The now abandoned Sembach Air Base has quite a long history. The location was first used as an airfield after World War I by the French occupation troops in 1919 with 10 sheet-iron barracks and 26 wooden hangars. When France retreated from Germany in 1930 the air base was abandoned on June 15th and the land was returned to farmers who used it as a hay field. (The area around Sembach is very rural and agriculture is an important economic factor till this very day.)
In preparation of World War II the Nazi-German Luftwaffe deemed the area proper to build a fighter base and claimed the land in early 1940, but gave it back to the owners in June of 1940 after France was conquered in a blitzkrieg now known as the “Battle of France”.
After the defeat of Nazi-Germany in May of 1945 Sembach was part of the French occupational zone. In April of 1951 German surveyors along with French officers were looking for suitable locations for air bases. The Cold War had begun a few years prior and both the NATO and the Warsaw Pact armed themselves at a remarkable speed. The NATO’s lack of air fields suitable for modern jets made it necessary to build new military airports – so the French authorities began with the construction of a hard surface airfield in June of 1951, much to the protest of local farmers, who demonstrated in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, without much success. On September 1st the United States took over the construction site, naming it Sembach Air Auxiliary Field, and pushed hard to finish the base – completing the 8500 foot concrete runway by the end of the month working round the clock using nighttime illumination. The rest of the airfield (tower, hangars, repair shops, storages and other buildings) were built during the winter. Local protests rose again when plans for the construction of barracks and office buildings surfaced in April of 1952 – this time with a little bit more success: Instead of using valuable farm land the new buildings were constructed on a sandy area with little agricultural value about 1.5 kilometers away from the airfield (Heuberg). Everybody was happy and after another year of construction the American flag was finally raised at the base now known as Sembach Air Base on July 8th 1953, when a RB-26 Invader arrived from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. It was part of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the first of many units to be stationed in Sembach.
40 years after Sembach Air Base was opened protests rose again – this time because the Americans announced plans that the base will only be used as a substation of Ramstein Air Base; a huge economical setback for the town and nearby cities, directly (German civilian employees at the base) and indirectly (soldiers spending money in the area). The airfield was returned to German control two years later on March 30th 1995, the installations in Heuberg were renamed Sembach Annex. In summer of 1998 the demolition of the base began, the runway being the first “victim” of this process. Since then most of the buildings on the former air base have been demolished – but not all of them, at least not by the time Gil and I arrived at the location.
After the *Deportation Prison Birkhausen* and the *USAREUR Communication Facility Lohnsfeld* turned out to be quick stops we decided to tackle another big one and drove to Sembach to have a look at what was left of the air base. First we went to the western part and found some half-underground bunkers, inaccessible of course. Next was a small office building (?) that looked like it was made of corrugated cardboard. Quite interesting was the former Fire Station, part of the Fire and Emergency Service. I was rather surprised by the coloring of the toilets – white and pink. Seriously? The restrooms of the fire department on a US Air Force base were pink?
In the afternoon, when we left the fire station, the weather started to turn drastically. The sunshine was gone and dark grey clouds approached quickly. While we were making our way to the abandoned tower the wind sped up massively – to my favor as I should find out minutes later. I just finished shooting the tower building when a wall of rain came closer quickly and before I had the chance to take shelter it poured liked I was standing in the shower; a first class cloudburst. At that time I was close to the eastern wall of the tower, so I pressed myself against the high wall while the wind was blowing so hard that it actually blew the rain over my head. About 15 minutes I was standing there, hoping for the wind to continue and the rain to stop. When the heavy rain turned into light drizzling I started to look for Gil, who found shelter in a nearby building I assumed was inaccessible. That building was boarded up (almost) completely and its massive walls made me wonder right away what it was used for. Sadly it was pretty much empty, nevertheless we found some interesting items – a sleeping bag and other signs of a homeless person being there for a while, a perforated cardboard character and some documents with rather sensitive information; like special travel orders, granting individuals the permission to hand-carry a M16 rifle. I have no clue how those documents escaped the shredder, but I guess I better refrain from posting photos since each sheet of paper contained several names including ranks and addresses…
Going on an exploration trip with Gil was absolutely fantastic (thanks, man!). While the first two locations were quite disappointing from an urbex point of view Sembach Air Base made up for it big time. It was the first US military base I was able to explore (yes, I went to a second one, so stayed tuned!) and I had a blast – no pun intended. The locations in Germany differ quite a bit from the places I usually get to see in Japan, so I really enjoyed this refreshing experience!

Addendum 2013-08-27: If you liked this article, check out the one about the nearby *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage*!
(If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* and *follow this blog on Twitter* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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