Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

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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“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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Why staying at Kyongsong? Because if the town was good enough for Kim Il-sung, his wife and his son, it is damn good enough for any western tourist! And of course there were more things to see, like the house the most famous Kims stayed at while giving guidance on location, now part of the Kyongsong Revolutionary Museum. There we listened to some “fascinating” stories about the Kim family, for example about how Kim Jong-il was really smart at a very young age. When he asked his mother Kim Jong-suk why most animals drink with the help of their tongues, but not chickens, his mother told him to observe the feathered fellas and come to a conclusion by himself. So he watched the chickens for seven days straight and then told his mom the correct answer at age 5!

Just out of town we visited the Jipsam Revolutionary Site, where three generals met during the Japanese occupation to defeat the invaders. Luckily our guides kept the story short; either because they were still hung over or because they slightly panicked when they saw planes practicing starting and landing at the nearby Kyongsong-Chuul Airport a.k.a. Kyongsong-Chuul Military Airfield. We got permission to take photos freely, except of the airplanes. Which was kind of hard to do, because the machines were coming down every other minute right over the scenic fishermen’s village. Luckily the planes were so tiny in the distance that nobody really cared – yet Mr. Li yelled another “No take photos!” at me when I took one of a boat on the shore. So we were allowed to take photos of everything – except for the unmentioned things they didn’t want us to take photos of. Sometimes I really had the impression that our guideguards had no clue what they were doing… So I paid even more attention to keep out of their sight without losing contact completely, because nothing is worse than an unaccounted tourist! And by chance it happened that I “accidentally” caught some of the planes on video when filming the coastline. I have no idea what kind of planes were starting and landing there, but the whole thing felt like a WW2 airshow. If that was a representative example of the DPRK’s airforce, those poor pilots better stay on the ground and hide somewhere in case of another war!

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a kindergarten in Chongjin – and we all know what that means, right? Singing and dancing children! Yay!
Luckily this kindergarten had so much more to offer, involuntarily!
For example the playground in the yard. Sure, it was a bit rundown, but it had a new layer of paint recently. And the rides were awesome, amongst them a rough merry-go-round with rockets and even a small Ferris wheel. I think children all over the world would have loved those playground attractions. The problem was: I am sure none of them had been used in the past couple of months, since branches of nearby trees blocked their movement! At first I was like “Hey, cool, those are awesome!” before the “Wait a minute…” moment kicked in. Kind of sad to maintain those rides and then make no use of them.
But that’s not all, because we also got a tour of the building. Well, part of the building. We witnessed an art class, saw the room for the kids’ afternoon nap, even had a look at the indoctrination rooms where the little ones were taught about the lives of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The hallways and staircases were decorated with Hello Kitty and nature motifs (like a partly sculptured tree), all beautifully executed. The children’s performance was on the third floor, so when we went from the first to the third through a staircase, we were kind of rushed as the kids were waiting. Nevertheless I was able to walk down a hallway on the second floor for a few of meters, where I took a picture of a painting I am sure we were not supposed to see. It showed some armed children attacking a couple of snowmen. Even without being able to read what was written on them I knew that I struck gold – later I found out that the snowmen were labelled “American Bastard” and “Jui Myung Bak”, a play on words meaning “rat-like Lee Myung Bak”; Lee being the 10th President of South Korea. Lovely, just lovely!
But to be honest with you, it’s actually this kind of photos I was hoping for before the tour started – you can see quite a few pictures of Chongjin and Mount Chilbo on the internet; little gems like the snowman propaganda painting I’ve never seen anywhere before. At the same time experiences like that are the main reason why this series of articles is so much more negative than the first one – they make it so much harder to believe the show you get presented in Pyongyang. Everything in North Korea is full of contradictions all the time!

Well, lunch was at the Chongjin Seamen’s Club and I mainly mention it for the “hot se(a)men” jokes somebody has to make sooner or later; and now let us continue to pretend that the fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t exist. The Seamen‘s Club is actually one of the few places in North Korea where foreigners and locals can mingle, though it seems like in the end everybody sticks with their own kind – and of course we were seated in a separate room, though we were allowed to roam the gated area freely. It was there that I bought my first souvenir of the trip, a hardcover copy of Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of cinema” for 2 EUR! I almost felt bad getting it for that price, but in the end it probably was a good deal for both sides; and one of the few things I was able to buy overall. (More on prices and overpricing in the article about Day 7!)

After lunch we headed north to Rason. Since there is no freedom to travel in North Korea, not even within North Korea, we had to cross an internal border and needed two different “visa” for North Hamgyong and Rason – and also two different sets of guardguides, since Mr. Li, Mr. So and Mr. Sin were not allowed in Rason unless they had special permission. (And none of us were allowed in Pyongyang! If we would have hurt ourselves seriously, they most likely would have taken us to China, not to the capital – because we didn’t have proper documents to enter…) About half an hour away from the internal border the unavoidable happened – our bus broke down with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and it took about an hour to fix it. Luckily we had a spare on board, so we left the forest just before the sun went down. Interestingly enough there were many locals strolling through the forest – probably the cause of the omnipresent plastic waste. Seriously, this was one of the dirtiest sections of forest I’ve ever been to! A real surprise, given that it was plastic trash and North Korea. Who knew they even had plastic there?! 😉

Finally arriving at the Rason border, Mr. Kim and his team took over (not the driver of the North Hamgyong bus, another one…) – and he turned out to be a jokester. First he apologized for the bad quality of the road, but hoped that we would enjoy the free massage for the next 10 minutes. When we asked him to turn off the internal lights of the bus, so we could have a better look outside (it was dark by then), Mr. Kim told us that one of the advantages of the DPRK (and the huge number of blackouts) was the fact that there was no light pollution in North Korea. Damn, if I ever do a comedy routine about NK I’ll definitely steal those two jokes!

Exactly 10 minutes later we left the bumpy dirt road and reached a normal one – and soon later we passed Rason Harbor on our way to the city center of Rajin. (Rason is a Special Economic Zone consisting of the cities Rajin and Sonbong – here the DPRK experiments with capitalism in cooperation with its ex-communist buddies China and Russia, plus a few others.) And by “normal” I mean that the road was not only smooth, it had street lamps! Light. In the darkness. 13 adult travelers excited like little kids. It’s interesting how fast you forget that you miss certain things you are used to – and how equally easily excited you can be to get them back. We all take electricity for granted and it’s truly amazing how much of it industrialized countries waste. While North Hamgyong is clearly lacking supply, Rason uses it reasonably; Yanji wastes quite a bit and Osaka… I’m sure Osaka uses more electricity than all of North Korea – and given that pretty much every apartment building and busy neighborhood is lit up like a Christmas tree, Osaka probably wastes more electricity than North Korea uses; which is amazing given the constant talk about being green and how the electricity price exploded in Japan after Fukushima!
After dinner at a well-lit (!) restaurant (in the same building as the local travel agency), we were supposed to check into our hotel just down the street, the Namsan Hotel – but Mr. Kim had a surprise for us: Instead of staying at the slightly run-down accommodation in Rajin’s city center, we drove up a mountain between Rajin and Sonbong to the newly built Pipha Hotel with a stunning view at the city’s (in)famous Emperor Hotel and the beautiful Changjin Bay. Upon arrival we found out that we were the first guests there – EVER. (And probably the last, as itineraries for future Northeastern Adventures still mention the Namsan Hotel…)
The Pipha Hotel turned out to be a slightly weird… installation. First of all, the hotel didn’t have a reception; it looked more or less like an annex building. We entered via an external staircase on the second floor, basically through a tiny lobby with a couple of seats in a hallway. There was a first floor / ground floor, but we never went there. As Mr. Kim said, the building was brand-new, so it was by far the most modern and overall best hotel I stayed at in North Korea across both trips. Hot water, running water and a (not working) AC, which was compensated by heating blankets. The first shower in three days felt wonderful! At the same time the Pipha Hotel showed how little experience North Korea still has with tourists. For example:
The bathroom had some toiletries, but those were sealed shut. While it’s worldwide standard that little packages of shampoo have a small cut so you can open them easily, the ones we were provided with had to be opened with a pair of scissors.
The room itself was quite nice, but when the architect planned the hotel, it seems like he didn’t think along… and put the main light switch of each room in the hallway instead of inside the room right next to the door. As a result it was impossible to switch the light on / off from within the room.

None of it affected our happiness about hot running water or the overall experience, those are just two more examples of things that we take for granted and that stand out when they are not the way we are used to. And despite looking strangely familiar, it turned out that Rason was full of things that were not the way we are used to…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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An abandoned combat theater, double fence with watchtowers, a dozen covered bunkers and a really creepy dead animal – the Aschaffenburg Local Training Area (ALTA / Truppenübungsplatz Aschaffenburg) delivered much more than I was hoping for…
Whenever I am on vacation in Germany, I throw in a couple of urbex days. And since those days usually involve several hours of driving and walking, it’s a good way to reconnect with people I haven’t seen all year, to get some alone time and adventure without too many distractions. One of my favorite urbex partners back home is my sister Sabine, especially when exploring abandoned military bases as she is ex-Luftwaffe (German Air Force) herself.

The Aschaffenburg Local Training Area dates back to the Kingdom of Bavaria, which bought 32 ha of land in the south of Aschaffenburg in 1912/13. After being used as a parade ground and farm land, the Wehrmacht took over in 1936 to supply training ground for some newly constructed barracks in Aschaffenburg. In the last weeks of WW2 the US Army made use of the area as an encampment with a field hospital.
From 1946 on part of the area was used by locals as farm land, while the US Army expanded and modernized the training ground by building new facilities like shooting ranges for pistols, machine guns and bazookas, a tank training area (including new roads for heavy Abrams tanks!), a helicopter pad, several bivouac areas, and many more. “Highlight” till this very day was a Special Ammunition Site for MGM-52 Lance missiles – including nuclear warheads, which explains the double fence and the watch towers we found in the center of the area in the middle of the woods. (Greetings to the 1st Bn 80th Field Artillery Regiment (1974-1987) and the 3rd Bn 12th Field Artillery Regiment (1987-1991), who took care of those deadly and always controversial babies…) In addition to the 2 FAMs all kinds of units stationed in Babenhausen, *Darmstadt*, *Hanau* and Würzburg used the ALTA for their training purposes.
The deactivation of the MGM-52s marked the beginning of the end of the Aschaffenburg Local Training Area. In 2007, after several years of indecisiveness on the part of the US Army, the whole area was given back to the original owners, resulting in 337 ha for the city of Aschaffenburg and 240 ha for the Federal Republic of Germany. Since an ornithological mapping was executed in 1992, it was pretty clear from the beginning what should become of the former military area – a nature sanctuary. Now, half a decade later, 237 ha are designated as a preserve area and open to the public, despite the fact that a lot of the former military installations haven’t been demolished yet.
Sabine and I parked our car at the edge of the wood and the first thing we saw was a huge old sign with the general layout of the former training area. We followed a road and quickly found an abandoned yet unspectacular building with metal-grilled windows to the left… and a combat theater to the right, just across the street. Despite mostly gutted too, the combat theater was quite an interesting place to explore. Since I’ve never done even basic military training myself, I’ve never been to a place like that, but judging by the layout and the things left behind, Sabine was convinced that it was a AGSHP (Ausbildungsgerät Schießsimulator Handwaffen/Panzerabwehrhandwaffen – something like “Training Unit Shooting Simulator Small Arms/Antitank Small Arms”), built by Thales Defence Deutschland GmbH. I uploaded a walking tour of the whole building to Youtube and you can watch it at the end of the article after the photos.
Definitely the highlight of the ALTA was the storage area of the MGM-52 missiles and warheads. When I wrote about the *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage* (where also nuclear warheads were stored at one point in time), a commenter mentioned that the typical structure of two fences and watchtowers were already gone – well, that structure was clearly intact in Aschaffenburg. More or less. The gates of the fences looked like Bender Rodriguez had a go with them… and the watchtower wasn’t in good shape either, but even amateurs could see that they hadn’t been storing vegetables behind those barb-wired fortifications! Most of the ammunition bunkers were open at the time of our visit, but they were also smaller and in worse condition than their counterparts in Hochspeyer. While the Hochspeyer ones were all cleaned out, a surprised was waiting for me in the unmaintained forest depths of Aschaffenburg. Over the years I’ve encountered my share of living and dead animals while exploring abandoned place, but the creature I found in one of the dim bunkers looked really creepy – most likely a mummified cat, judging by the size of it. Not exactly a pleasant sight!

Despite being easily accessible and extremely popular amongst runners, Nordic Walkers, bikers as well as dogs and their owners, the Aschaffenburg Local Training Area doesn’t seem to have many friends amongst the German urbex community. Maybe it’s because Bavaria has a reputation of being difficult for urban explorers (fewer locations, stricter police), maybe it’s because Aschaffenburg is a little bit off the beaten tracks. Whatever it is, I enjoyed the little trip to Franconia as I was finally able to see a few things with my own eyes I only knew from pictures in books before – like a combat theater and the double fence with watchtowers structure…

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The Pioneer Kaserne in Hanau is one of those countless former American military bases that currently are in kind of a limbo – the US Army gave it back to Germany (under the management of the BImA), but the local government hasn’t decided what to do with it. During the Cold War Hanau was one of the biggest US garrisons in the area, in case the Red Army would try to break through the Fulda Gap and attack Frankfurt. Back then up to 30.000 soldiers and civilians were working at the Pioneer Kaserne and other locations like the Francois Kaserne (returned to Germany in 1992), Coleman Barracks (1992) Hessen-Homburg Kaserne (1992), Grossauheim Kaserne (1993), Hutier Kaserne (1994/2007), Fliegerhorst Langendiebach (2007) Hanau AAF, Wolfgang Kaserne (2008), York Hof (2008) and the Argonner Kaserne (2008) – one third of Hanau’s total population. While most of the other locations already found new purposes and are currently converted (or have been in the past), the destiny of the Pioneer Kaserne and its two housing areas is still up in the air. With a total size of more than 600.000 square meters the Pioneer area is gigantic, nevertheless it’s only about a quarter of all the military estate Hanau has / had to integrate into its city planning concept…

Like pretty much all closed military bases rather close to city centers (like the *Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne* in Darmstadt), the Pioneer Kaserne is kind of fortified – of course it is, it’s a huge former military base! But unlike most others, this one didn’t have any “Trespassing is strictly forbidden!” signs. No, the local security company is more subtle. They only put up signs stating “Das Betreten des Geländes erfolgt auf eigene Gefahr” (“Entering the premises happens at your own risk”) – right next to a sign warning about watchdogs… including a drawing of a German shepherd. I guess the message is clear!
Despite those threa–… announcements… I did my best to avoid the usual “fence from the outside” photos you can usually find on the internet, resulting in quite a few scratches and bruises… Oh, and if you ever worked at the Kaserne or nearby: the KFC is gone now, but the Café del Sol still is really popular. Thanks to the watchdogs and the security guards pretty much all the buildings are in fantastic condition, so let’s hope that the city of Hanau will find a new purpose for the Pioneer Kaserne soon!

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The Hochspeyer Munitions Storage (HMS, a.k.a. Ammunition Storage Annex Hochspeyer) was one of the most fascinating and mysterious military installations I visited during my trip to Germany in the summer of 2013. I actually wanted to visit the place two years prior right after exploring of what was left of *Sembach Air Base*, but sadly we ran out of time back then after my buddy Gil and I were surprised by a cloudburst…

Just a couple of weeks ago I came back with my friend Catherine. The Palatine area is perfect to combine long walks with urban exploration, so I chose the forests around K-Town (commonly known as Kaiserslautern) for a little catch up trip. The first location we went to turned out to be proof of Germany’s interesting energy policy and a terrible disaster for fans of abandoned military bases as it was converted into a gigantic solar farm; the next one, Hochspeyer Munitions Storage, on the other hand was kind of a jackpot.
We entered the premises via a road blocked by two concrete barriers – no cars allowed, only bikes and pedestrians. We actually didn’t see a single “Don’t trespass!” or “Trespassers will be shot!” sign, so we felt very comfortable there, despite the fact that there was not much to see at first. Just a single green building, the interior smashed to pieces, and a big asphalted area with only basic foundations left – probably a motor pool half a century ago. Heck, even the fence was mostly gone, with only a couple of concrete posts left. Although I did quite a bit of research on the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage I am still not sure whether or not this area was officially part of it – if it was, it was mostly demolished and abandoned decades ago. But the HMS dates back to the 1960s, so it’s rather likely that both area saw activity at the same time back in the days. And while one part was left deserted, the other got modernized again and again…
Deeper into the forest Catherine and I found a locked gate, part of a really tall barbed-wire fence with a series of lamp posts every 25 meters set 5 meters behind the fence. Despite its location in the middle of the woods this area was carefully deforested and secured – trespassers could be seen easily from large distances. Abandoned or not, the people who planned this area knew what they were doing, eager to keep people out. Everything there was in great condition at first sight: the fence, the gate, the locks, the lamp posts, the security perimeter… only some open doors at a building in the distance indicated that the area really might have been abandoned. So we looked for a way in and indeed found one.
We quickly approached the green building, eager not to be seen from people on or off the premises – with Ramstein Air Base not being far away we saw plenty of stuff flying across our heads. The flat part consisted of a machinery room, restrooms and a couple of office / conference rooms, the rather high part seemed to have been a storage and / garage, probably to de/load vehicles. SIgns were either in English or bilingual, English and German. The most interesting one was just airbrushed onto the wall:
Explosive Limits
1.1  5,000  lbs
1.2  5,000  lbs
1.3  10,000  lbs
1.4  Physical Capacity
Personnel Limits
2 Supervisors
5 Workers
2 Casuals
Okay… this definitely wasn’t the average administrative building you see when entering abandoned military bases, this was serious stuff! And everything looked pretty new, aside from some vandalism. Was this area really abandoned?

Catherine and I continued to explore the area. Next we found the former main gate with the gatehouse. One window open, others smashed – raw violence, because those windows were made from bulletproof glass. Again, serious stuff. When I opened a small door on the back I could feel that it was really heavy, despite the fact that it opened smoothly. The interior of the building was mostly gone, but you could see that once it must have been stuffed with tons of electronic devices. Probably not too long ago, given that you could basically start to reuse the building after a couple of hours of repairs. Nothing too serious, but probably costly.

I have to admit that I felt a bit more more uneasy inside the fenced area than outside in the 60s foundation area, and that didn’t change when finally reached the bunker area, tire tracks still on the ground, low vegetation, filled water reservoirs after a hot summer, the pool liner still in great condition. This site was definitely closed, but was it really abandoned? That thought resounded my mind like spoken words in the open bunkers. The acoustics there were fantastic, especially since I am so used to shut bunkers, sitting there inaccessibly everywhere in forests all over German. Finally being able to enter some of them was amazing, one of those minor urbex highlights you stumble across every once in a while. As was a nearby tool shack, where the silhouettes of the equipment were painted onto the wall, so even Private Paula would know where to put things back. Another minor highlight was that one bunker that was built differently in many ways and had a gigantic safe built in, installed by Garny – founded 200 years ago in 1813. (This was a newer model, of course…)

Usually it takes me months, sometimes even years, to write about my explorations, but the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage was a truly exciting exploration, one that made me write this article while I was still in Germany, taking an afternoon of doing research about what the place really was.
Sadly not much is known about the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage. At first I thought it was related to the *Sembach Air Base* I mentioned earlier, which it probably was at one point, but since the airfield there was closed it seems like the HMS was part of the famous Ramstein Air Base; some guy in a German internet forum claimed at one point it was a sub-camp of the USAF Depot Morbach-Wenigerath, now known as Energiepark Morbach (energy park Morbach).
The few facts are that the HMS was 88 acres big (about 356000 square meters), had 30 bunkers, was part of the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe), that the road there was built in 1957 thanks to a Captain Joseph T. Sampson – and that it was closed in 2007 as part of “Air Force Smart Operations for the 21 Century” (AFSO21) to save a couple of bucks. In early 2007 Ramstein’s 435th Munitions Squadron started transporting material from Hochspeyer to their main base, the last truck leaving on October 12th of the same year. Apparantly most of it were BLU-109 bombs, nasty buggers that are used against HDBTs (Hard and Deep Buried Targets) and can break through 1.8 meters of ferroconcrete before exploding. Which explains the setup of the facility – it’s the kind of technology you don’t want to have fallen into wrong hands… and the kind of technology local civilians shouldn’t know about.
The rest is vague. Some people claim that the area was returned to Germany, others say that it is still under the control of the USAFE. (Since there were no warning signs in German I assume the area still belongs to the US. In cases like that the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (BIMA, Institute for Federal Real Estate) usually takes over – and they are pretty good at putting up signs. Making good use of the area? Not so much. Putting up signs? Hell yeah!) Some people claim the premises are abandoned, others say that they are still used for emergency drills and patrolled by security – or in this case rather security police.

Whatever is true, I am happy that I was able to explore the Hochspeyer Munitions Storage without causing trouble for me and my companion. It was a very memorable experience and I did as much research as possible afterwards, but if you know more about the place, having worked there or being a (hobby) historian, please feel free to add facts and anecdotes in the comments section!

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It takes almost a whole day to go by train from Pyongyang to Beijing – and it’s quite an experience…

One of the few limitations Americans have when visiting the DPRK is the fact that they are not allowed to ride trains as the railway system is considered a military installation; so if you are American and you want to travel to North Korea you have to enter and exit by plane. All other nationalities usually take the plane in and the train out (or vice versa) – not because it is cheaper (it actually isn’t, at least not for the customer, probably for the travel agency though…), but because it is part of the fun. 23 hours on the train, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Well, to some people. Not to me necessarily. So I decided to split the train ride in half and have a 24 hour layover in Dandong, right at the border between China and the DPRK.

My last hours in North Korea began with the usual morning routine, but instead of going sightseeing after entering the bus, we went to Pyongyang Station – and I wish I had taken some photos outside instead of rushing inside with the flock as the square in front of the huge station looked quite modern, including some advertising and huge screens. Instead I spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the waiting room for international travelers, featuring the last gift shop before leaving the DPRK.

Pyongyang Station actually isn’t that busy and it seems to have only one platform – a gigantic platform where you can park buses crosswise. Nevertheless it serves four lines: One to Nampo, one to Rajin in the far North, one to Kaesong (theoretically to Busan via Seoul, but you know the problem there…) and one to Sinuiju; the one our group took.
The standard procedure is the following: The train leaves at around 10.30 in the morning for Sinuiju with several stops at stations along the way. At around 15.30 you arrive in Sinuiju, where you have to go through customs on the Korean side, which takes about two hours – sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the train crosses the river Yalu to Dandong, China. There you have to go through Chinese customs, which takes about 30 minutes. (Don’t forget to adjust you watch as China is in a different time zone!) Then you have about half an hour before the train continues at 18.30 to Beijing, where it arrives at 8.30 in the morning. At no time you have to leave the train – customs on both sides take care of everything on board. People going to Beijing directly are located in nice 4 bed compartments, travelers getting off at Dandong enjoy the 5 hour ride plus 2 hour long customs process in a smelly wagon with open 6 bed compartments. Since I opted for the layover in Dandong I was with the latter group…
We had seen lots of settlements and fields on the way to Kaesong and Nampo, but the northern part seemed to be a bit greener – and the train wasn’t nearly as shaky as that bus, so I was able to take some nicer photos and a really decent video.

The train ride through the North Korea countryside was actually quite relaxed, despite the fact that the 160 km long trip took a whopping 5 hours. The reason for that is the fact that the railway system was in abysmal condition. Like I said, we were not allowed to take photos and although we said goodbye to our Korean guides back in Pyongyang I stuck with it – out of respect and out of fear to get in trouble at customs. Our train was by far the most modern one on the way as all the other ones looked like they were from back in the days when Japan was still in charge of the country. The stations were in decent condition, but the trains… it’s actually hard to describe. First of all I don’t remember seeing many of them being in working condition, we saw only a couple of them with passengers in them. The trains and wagons parked within stations… half of them looked like they were involved in fires or explosions, the other half looked like they were rusting away for decades. I guess shock and surprise was another reason why I didn’t take photos. People thought the East German railway system was in bad condition when the FRG “bought” the GDR – but damn, this was a whole different level! Another sign that there was no to barely any railroad modernization since the 1930s or 1940s were the electricity posts along the track you can see in the video and on one of the photos. I’ve seen similar ones in Japan. Along railway tracks. Abandoned tracks! The DPRK must have spent quite a chunk of money on maintenance, but I am sure the railroad system in the 1960s was in better condition than it is now… except for the rather luxurious overnight wagon to Beijing.
Customs in Sinuiju took indeed a little bit more than two hours, but they weren’t really thorough. We occupied 5 or 6 beds in the smelly wagon, but they didn’t look at any of our photos and even forgot to look inside one of our suitcases…
Customs in Dandong were even faster, basically a passport and visa check, they didn’t even open any of our luggage. After the Chinese custom officers were done we left the train, said goodbye to our fellow travelers continuing to Beijing and left the station, where our 24 hours in Dandong began; three people from my group, four people of the other group. More about that on Friday!

24 hours later we were back at the station – well, me and my other two group members Patrick and Juliette as the group A guys actually stayed for 48 hours in Dandong.
This time we checked into one of those luxurious sleeper cars with four beds and a door, shared with a young Chinese woman travelling from Dandong to… somewhere in China. The train stopped every couple of hours and she left maybe two hours outside of Beijing. When I woke up in the middle of the night we just had stopped at one of those stations and I took a photo over my head aiming outside of the window – it turned out to be a quite nice one, so I added it to the gallery.

Overall the train ride to Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be, probably because I was able to split it into two halves. Arriving in Beijing though my bad luck in the city continued: While at the *Mansudae Art Studio* I bought a lithography too big to put in my suitcase, so I was having an eye on it for almost a week. At Beijing Railway Station I left in a hurry and after about three minutes I realized that I didn’t have the lithography in my hand anymore. Despite the masses, the heat and the humidity I immediately ran back to the train compartment where the cleaning personnel already started their work, less than five minutes after I left in this huge, loud, summer smelly crowd – of course nobody understood me or had seen anything. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anything since I was five years old! But that was just the beginning of another horrible, horrible stay in China’s capital…

(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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Everybody knows the Berlin Wall – but have you heard of the Korean Wall before?
According to North Korea the wall is 240 kilometers long, 5 to 8 meters high and packed with soil form the southern side (so it can be accessed by vehicles / military personnel) and it is completely invisible from South Korea. The United States and South Korea claim that the wall does not exist… but the DPRK is more than happy to show it to tourists.

We left the *JSA via the DMZ* and headed to the countryside; most likely northeast, probably for an hour. I tried to pin down the exact location of where we went to, but I failed. There are military posts on both sides of the DMZ every couple of hundred meters and it’s close to impossible to figure out with one we visited, so please consider the mark on the map a more or less wild guess.
Our driver parked the bus directly next to a small manned outpost and from there we went up a hill through a narrow trench like passage. Up there we found a rather flat building, partly hidden into the mountain, although the southern side very well knows what’s going on there…

What was going on? Well, a retired Colonel of the Korean People’s Army asked us to take a seat in surprisingly comfy chairs and told us all about the Korean Wall. How big it is, when it was built (between 1977 and 1979) and that it is slightly shorter than the DMZ, since there are openings at border crossings and at the Joint Security Area.
Afterwards we went outside to have a look ourselves. Sadly it was an overcast day and the visibility was everything but good, although the South Korean fortifications were less than 4 kilometers away. Even with the help of the ready to use binoculars and rather big zoom lenses it was impossible to clearly recognize the wall. The visible South Korean outposts were all on top of a mountain range and it looked like there was a wall or two below – whether it was a 240 kilometer long wall to separate the country or just a small construction to support the slope is hard to tell…

(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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There is no frozen banana stand in the DMZ, dear Arrested Development fans! Which isn’t really a surprise, given that it’s not exactly easy to get bananas in the DPRK. Or chocolate. Or nuts. Or a freezer. Or a reliable source of electricity…
Nevertheless I kept my eyes peeled after watching the show’s final episode (of season 3…) for the gazillionth time – at the *Minsok Hotel* on a media player the night before going to the North Korean side of the DMZ / JSA.

I decided to not bore you with too many facts about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), especially after I dropped way too many numbers and Korean terms in the previous article – there are plenty of ways to educated yourself about the Korean war and its end, and you probably know the basics anyway. Instead I would like to talk about how it is to visit the DMZ when in the DPRK.

First of all: People who say that they’ve visited the DMZ most of the time actually visited a very tiny part called Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where soldiers from both Koreas get close to each other and don’t stand 4 kilometers apart – to the best of my knowledge tourists can only visit one other part of the DMZ: A lookout where you are supposed to see the Korean Wall. “The Korean Wall?” you ask? Yes, the Korean Wall. More about that topic next time!
I’ve never been to the southern side of the JSA, but I’ve heard it’s not exactly a relaxed trip. You have to sign a waiver (since there is a theoretical chance that you might be injured or killed…), groups are split by languages (sometimes prohibiting couples of different nationalities to go together), you have to apply several days in advance (some nationalities have to go through a background check), there is a dress code, you are not allowed to do certain things (like pointing at DPRK soldiers) and overall it seems to be quite a rushed experience.
Going to the northern side of the DMZ / JSA is actually quite laid-back. We went through a background check before entering the DPRK, none of us brought offensive clothes, no matter what nationality all of us spoke English, 80% of the previous locations were a rushed experience anyway and our guides knew we would behave properly without reminding us – and signing a waiver was not necessary. It felt like just another place to see, to my surprise without any photography limitations. Even usually off-limit motives like military personnel were no problem at all. Heck, our local guide in the rank of daewi, Captain, patiently posed for photos with everybody who was interested in having one.

Visiting the JSA from the northern side started a couple of kilometers northwest, pretty much at a distance where the DMZ technically begins. There everybody had to leave the bus at a military checkpoint for checks unspecified to us. The procedure took about 20 minutes – and to keep people busy there was a decent gift shop and a separate restroom building. When the buses were ready to continue the waiting groups got a little lecture about the history of the DMZ in front of a huge painted map. Meanwhile the buses actually drove about one hundred meters past a checkpoint and everybody had to pass through an opening in a wall next to the road (rows of two, like in school!) before boarding the bus again. (No metal detectors or being padded down involved…)
About 1.5 kilometers down the road was the first of two stops, a neatly gardened area with a building where the armistice was negotiated and the building where it was signed, now housing the North Korea Peace Museum. Located in the former village of Panmunjom, the buildings were specifically constructed to house the negotiations and the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement.
The second stop was the actual Joint Security Area, which most people visit from the southern side. First we visited a monument dedicated to Kim Il-sung reading and signing a document about Korea’s reunification on 1994-7-7, the day before his death. The signature plate is 7.7 meters wide, the whole monument 9.4 meters; and of course it is richly ornamented with Kimilsungias, an orchid named after guess who. From there we went to the Panmungak, the building for visitors on the northern side of the JSA, to take some photos and… that was it. There was barely any activity on the southern side and since it was a quiet sunny morning, the whole visit felt quite peaceful and slightly surreal.

People always seem to be so excited about visiting the JSA, especially those who step into North Korea for half a minute in one of the blue conference buildings on the border between North and South Korea, but after having spent six and a half days in the DPRK the experience was rather underwhelming; nothing in comparison to standing in front of *Chernobyl’s Reactor #4* or *having lunch with North Korean locals*. No disrespect to the incredible importance this place has in history, but to me the first stop was much more interesting than the second one…

(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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Sometimes you just gotta be lucky. Like my friend Nina and I were when we were walking up to the former Ammunition Depot Achern in the southern part of Germany. We didn’t know anything about the location except that it was there – and when we tried the handle of the gate it opened to our surprise. Right next to the entrance we found a small building in excellent condition, locked, a bicycle inside, the logo of the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) on the side. In case you are not familiar with German institutions – the THW is a Federal Office, the official English name is Federal Agency for Technical Relief; the THW helps in cases of floods, earthquakes and other disasters. So the depot wasn’t part of the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) anymore, but now belonged to the THW… interesting, from military to civil protection. Right next to the building the road split 3 ways and we walked down the most southern one, towards the 17 former ammunition bunkers of different sizes and an abandoned train used for training missions. We took a couple of photos and then we heard voices… Damn! When we reached the end of the road we headed north to the middle road and saw a couple of guys on a training mission. Since they didn’t see us and we didn’t want to cause any trouble we took the most northern road and headed back to the entrance, continuing to take photos as we made a strange discovery in that area: A huge aviary inhabited by dozens of exotic birds. The former ammunition depot really wasn’t that abandoned…

I forgot how we knew, but when we came back to the entrance we realized that somebody must have had entered or left since we got inside. Maybe the gate was not fully closed anymore or we left it open and it was closed now. Maybe there was another bike… I forgot, but I remember that we knew that people were still coming / going. Being back to safety I got gutsier again while Nina decided to wait at the entrance just in case somebody would show up and lock the gate without us knowing; which would have been bad, because the place once was a restricted military area and still is in the possession of the German state – if we would have gotten caught we most likely would have been in trouble; but if we would have gotten locked in, there most likely wouldn’t have been a way out due to lots of barbed wire everywhere… and probably motion detectors on the fences. Nevertheless I went back inside to take a quick video before we finally left after about half an hour altogether.

I mentioned it before and I’ll stick with it: I don’t like infiltration and this was (hopefully…) the last time I did it; mainly because I misjudged the situation – I actually wasn’t aware that the THW is a Federal Agency, I thought it was a private NGO / NPO like the Red Cross, probably because 99% of its members are volunteers… So I guess I dodged at bullet at the abandoned ammunition depot! 🙂

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