Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category

A lot of Japanese people are very proud of their country’s distinctive four seasons – summer, autumn, winter and spring. Yet a lot of them mention a fifth season, which explains why they are not very proud of their math skills… rainy season. Rainy season is a period that lasts for about two to four weeks, usually starting in early or mid-June, turning most of Japan (especially Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) into a humid hellhole for about three months. Personally I don’t think Japan has four seasons as it stretches too much for a general statement like that. Okinawa definitely doesn’t have a winter, and in my personal experience, Osaka has only two seasons: “Kind of nice” and “unbearably hot and humid”.
The period of rather intense rain began early this year, in the first week of June, starting to turn Osaka into a sticky place where you don’t want to wear any long clothes or do anything that requires even the slightest effort. Luckily my friends Dan and Kyoko weren’t eager to stay in Osaka either, so I planned a nice little weekend trip to Shikoku… which I had to re-plan after the weather forecast changed – Chubu instead! (Chubu is one of eight major regions in Japan, basically the central part of the main island Honshu between Nagoya and Mount Fuji)

Three days later I found myself sweating like pig hiking up a mountain in Shizuoka prefecture. A couple of minutes prior we passed through a small village on the slope, located in the middle of nowhere, where only one old lady was living, at least part time – she and her husband were tea farmers, but he passed away a few years ago, so she takes care of what is left; everybody else had died or moved away many years before…
We escaped Osaka’s rain and humidity, but central Japan’s countryside was surprisingly warm for early July. The hiking trail us three were on connected the hamlet with its school, closed in the late 70s and officially abandoned in the early 90s. Why it wasn’t built directly next to the settlement is beyond me, but farm land was probably more valuable than the place for an elementary school; and so the kids had to hike up that mountain every day, an elevation gain of almost 100 meters! Even after 30 years the path was clearly visible, yet partly overgrown and covered by several layers of foliage, making it a rather slippery climb these days. I was taking another break enjoying the beautiful surrounding and silence, when I heard Dan from above: “The school is up here!”

A few minutes later I saw the school near the top of the mountain myself – a surprisingly big wooden building with a living quarter annex; probably for a teacher or two to live in. The main building consisted of two classrooms and an office (all wooden floors), plus a tatami room right next to the office. Outside was a small playground with a slide and leftovers of some swings and a soccer goal. And there was a shrine with a wooden building, empty according to the old lady…
What made the Shizuoka Countryside School quite special was its authenticity. While a lot of “abandoned” schools in Japan are still maintained by the local community (like the *Kyoto Countryside School*), it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the case here – yet there were barely any signs of vandalism, with small exceptions like the pink painted nipples of the female gypsum bust or the smashed wooden metronome. There were signs of visitors though – not only did I find a Sony lens cap in the grass, you could see that certain items were staged for photos and that some explorers crashed through the wooden floors when they were not cautious enough. Most of the rooms had plenty of interesting items left behind, like a chair and table combination, a table tennis plate, books, posters, chalk, and whatever you think should be at an abandoned countryside school – considering that it was basically a two room school I think it was rather well equipped and I really loved some of the tacky items, like the National manufactured red record player. The icing on cake, of course, was the location itself. Near the top of a mountain, with a shrine next to it, on a lovely late spring / early summer day… quite magical. Sadly I had to share one of the rooms with a suzumebachi a.k.a. Giant Asian Hornet. There are a lot of them at abandoned places these days and usually I avoid them, but in this case that would have meant not taking pictures of one third of the school. Half the time it was trying to leave through a window and failed, half the time it was flying around the room, causing me to hastily leave. After a few rounds of hide and seek I got most of the shots I wanted to take and called it a day.

Just getting out of Osaka for another two days was a blessing, exploring an abandoned countryside school in good condition and being able to share that with friends… priceless!

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The Radio Relay Site Langerkopf is a relic of the Cold War and one of the urbex highlights of my summer trip to Germany in 2013. Sometimes referred to as CRC Langerkopf (CRC = Control and Reporting Center), this former US communications installation looks like a mix of summer camp and high security prison. It is named after the highest point of the Mosisberg (Mount Mosis?), called Langer Kopf (long head).
The history of the Langerkopf site dates back to the 1950s and 60s. Back then the base was indeed a Control and Reporting Center, manned by the 603rd AC&W Sq (603rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squardron) and featuring a radar unit called “Surveillance Radar” just outside of the current premises. In the late 60s the station was remodeled and taken over by the Det 4, 2134th Comm Sqnd (Detachment 4, 2134th Communications Squadron) of the USAFE contingent in the area, to function as a microwave radio relay hub for the European Telefone System called AUTOVON as well as for the radio data transmission system AUTOSYN. From the 1980s on the station was operated remotely before it was shut down and partly demolished in 2007.
In late 2011 a couple of scenes for the German mystery thriller “Lost Place” (the rather ridiculous “German” term for an abandoned location… amongst both geocachers and urban explorers) was shot at the Langerkopf site. I would sum up the story for you, but the flick ended up with a 5.2 rating on imdb.com, so I guess it’s safe to say that nobody gives a damn anyway.
Also on the premises and still in use till this very day is a tiny unmanned, but definitely secured station of the AFCENT CIP 67 system (Allied Forces Central Europe Communication Improvement Program 1967).
Sadly I couldn’t find a more detailed history of the Radio Relay Site Langerkopf – and even the little I found I had to compile from half a dozen sources, both English and German. It also looks like that the whole area was locked up after my visit, with official tours now organized by BUND / AK Denkmalschutz, IG Area One and VEWA.

Despite being (in)famous for its foggy weather, my friend Catherine and I arrived in Palatine and at the Langer Kopf during the most beautiful sunshine possible. While recent photos show the heavy gate shut tight, it was wide open when we carefully approached the former military base. The massive concrete walls behind the barbed wire NATO fence were impressive to a degree that we both felt a bit intimidated. We expected a run-down collection of shacks somewhere in the woods – not a high security prison that could hold the Joker! We passed another gate to get closer, only to find all the doors of the installation busted wide open, the interior smashed to pieces; graffiti everywhere. Outside, below the radio relay tower, some kind of generator. Heading further east we passed what once must have been some kind of security checkpoint with what looked like embrasures. The building there, yellow and in good condition from the outside, turned out to be a gym on the upper and an administrative building on the lower floor – severely damaged on the inside by arson, but at least not completely burned out like the next building.

Back outside and the smell of burning still in my nose, I headed over to the AFCENT CIP 67 station – barbed wire fence, use of firearms warning, really nothing to see.
Well, nothing except for the back part of the Langerkopf Radio Relay Site. Which looked pretty much exactly what I had expected in the first place: severely vandalized, decaying buildings from the 1960s, 70s and maybe 80s. The first one to the right must have been the barracks for the personnel (basically gutted now), followed by some light shacks beyond repair, mainly consisting of brittle wood and thin metal. To the left another building that looked decent from the outside, but was severely damaged inside – while about every second abandoned place in Japan shows signs of airsoft players, Europeans prefer paintball; you can imagine the results… and if you can’t, just have a look at the photo gallery below!
At the farthest end of the base, close to the barbed wire fence, we explored a one room building with turquoise pipes and storage tanks, probably the (backup) power supply of the station. Not only did we not expect to see that lovely color at a highly secured military base – we also didn’t expect to find a July 1991 copy of Model Railroader! If you left yours there, you might be happy to hear that it’s still waiting to be picked up…

The Langerkopf Communication Station was close to what I would call a perfect exploration. In the middle of nowhere, open, unique, in decent condition overall (or at least in interesting condition), just the right size, beyond my expectations, fantastic weather, lovely company. In a perfect world the place would have been barely touched, but considering reality, this was pretty much as good as it gets. Good times – especially after exploring the *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage* earlier that day! 🙂

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The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.

Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!

Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.

Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…

Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)

From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.

Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!

Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…

More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.

The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.

Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!

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A couple of weeks before I went to Germany to visit family and friends last year I received an e-mail from Sebastian, a reader of this blog. He told me about exploring a rather recently closed US Army base in Darmstadt – half an hour away from where I was staying for my vacation. I really love abandoned military installations, so we continued talking via e-mail and agreed to meet up to have a look at the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne (CFK) together.

The Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne (Cambrai-Fritsch Barracks) in Bessungen, now part of Darmstadt-Eberstadt, was built from 1936 to 1938 as two barracks next to each other – the southern part was known as Cambrai-Kaserne (named after the French city of Cambrai where Paul von Hindenburg had his headquarters during World War I and where the first tank battle in history took place in 1917), the northern part was called Freiherr-von-Fritsch-Kaserne (named after Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch, Nazi Germany’s Commander of the Army at the time). Most of the buildings on the premises were named after locations where famous WWI battles took place, like Verdun or Flandern.
The Fritsch-Kaserne opened on October 12th of 1938 and was home to the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Artillery Regiment, part of the 33rd Infantry Division. Later that month the 3rd Battalion moved into the Cambrai-Kaserne.
During the final days of World War II the US Army took over the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne in March of 1945, making it the home of the 22nd Signal Brigade, the 233rd Base Support Battalion and the 440th Signal Battalion. Lots of service and recreational institutions were located at the CFK in the decades to come – AAFES Food Court, American Red Cross, Andrews Federal Credit Union, Darmstädter Catering Center, PX (post exchange), SATO Travel, Shopette, U.S. Post office, USO and standard facilities like a motor pool, a gym, a movie theater, a sports field and a bowling center.

When I met Sebastian on a warm, sunny summer day he told me right away that the CFK was closed, but not really abandoned. The high barbed wire fences were in exceptionally good condition 3 years after the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne was shut down in 2008 – and Sebastian also mentioned that security guards were still patrolling the outskirts of the premises a couple of evenings per week. Well, we met in the morning, so what could happen, right? Let’s get this infiltration started! Like the *Federal Armed Forces Depot Pfeddersheim* the CFK is now the responsibility of the Institute for Federal Real Estate (Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben / BIMA) – they have to decide what to do with the 25 hectare (250.000 square meters or 2,7 million square feet) big area. Most likely it will be reconverted into housing for 2500 people, but German bureaucracy is slow and of course nothing has been decided yet. Not in summer of 2011 and AFAIK not in late spring of 2012. But while the BIMA obviously doesn’t care anymore about the depot in Pfeddersheim they seem to smell money when it comes to the CFK – housing for 2500 people, that’s serious real estate! And that’s why the keep the area in good shape by hiring gardeners and plumbers to take care of the premises. All the buildings we tried to enter were locked, hardly any of them were damaged by vandalism or graffiti.
It’s an absolutely mind-blowing experience to explore closed US army barracks, especially with a rather tight security system like this one. The weather was amazing that day and the video material I shot turned out to be nice, too. It was a perfect exploration until… well, we were less than 30 meters away from our top secret entrance / exit when it became clear that infiltration is for pros and neither of us was Solid Snake. I will spare you the details, but like running into security at *Nara Dreamland* this wasn’t exactly a fun experience. No legal consequences since we could convince the people involved that we were just harmless photographers, but this was pretty much the day I realized that urban exploration and urban infiltration are two different things – and I decided that I will limit myself to UE and abandon UI.
Sebastian and I were lucky that day, but entering the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne without permission can have serious, serious consequences, so I highly recommend to stay away or to take photos through the fence.

To all the American (ex-)soldiers reading this article, most of them probably stationed at the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne: When I was a pupil in the 80s my elementary school was way ahead of its time and had a friendship program with the Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim. I have nothing but pleasant associations with that exchange program and I consider this exploration a “Thank you!” for the kindness I experienced during that time (I think we went bowling as a big group and then had lunch at our exchange partner’s home, which is a pretty big thing when you are 8 or 9 years old and barely understand each other’s languages!) – I hope I was able to bring back some fond memories of your time in Germany!

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Urbex in France? Urbex in Luxembourg? Urbex in Belgium? Or urbex in Germany? That was the big question after our visit to the *Deportation Prison Birkhausen* was a unexpectedly short one – where should we continue our urban exploration day trip? There were plenty of options, but since Kaiserslautern (a.k.a. K-Town, especially amongst American military) was rather close we decided to continue our explorations there. The next place to visit: The USAREUR Communication Facility Lohnsfeld.
Very little is know about this former US military installment. The Energy Engineering Analysis Programm (EEAP) from August 1986 prepared for the Department of the Army, European Division, Corps of Engineers described it as “Located at Lohnsfeld, the station consists of a barracks and receiver building”. The facility was open from at least 1953 and on 1998-09-03 the U.S. Department of Defense announced that the Lohnsfeld Communications Station will be returned to the host nation, in this case Germany. It seems like my home country didn’t have any use for it and left the comm fac in the middle of nowhere abandoned, until… it was demolished in October of 2007. Which I found out about after I went there with my old buddy Gil – after we drove through the middle of nowhere for maybe half an hour, including dirt roads along some fields and an airport for model aircrafts. So maybe urbex in France, urbex in Luxembourg or even urbex in Belgium would have been a better alternative. (The place I really wanted to go, Villa Viktoriastift, one of the few abandoned mansions in Germany, became inaccessible a week prior when the new owner of the place was fed up by geocachers swarming the place – so he informed the police, threatened to sue some people (including the person who put the cache there!) and hired security…) Luckily Lohnsfeld wasn’t our last stop on our trip to Palatinate – and the last location made up big time to the first two less successful ones…

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