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Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

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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My summer vacation to Germany in 2013 felt a little bit like the weirdest USO tour ever as I was basically heading from one abandoned military base to the next – in the end I went to about a dozen of them, ranging from “demolished” to “dangerously decaying” to “in almost perfect condition”. And of course some of them turned out to be just closed and heavily guarded… but since urbex is one big grey area I’ll write about all of them sooner or later.
The Babenhausen Kaserne I remember vividly from back in the late 1990s, when I saw it every couple of weeks on my way from my hometown to my place of study – I was always impressed by the massive red stone wall and the surprisingly beautiful buildings, but I had no idea that its history dated back to the turn of the century (between the 19th and 20th century that is…).

After the necessary negotiations with the Reichstag and the war ministry in 1899 (pre-Orwell and therefore pre euphemisms like Ministry of Defense!), the construction of the Babenhausen Kaserne began in the following year, with a groundbreaking ceremony on July 3rd. 15 months later the construction of 21 buildings and a water tower were finished and the 2nd battalion of the 61st field artillery regiment of the Grand Duke of Hesse was the first unit to move in. Almost 13 years down the road, on August 7th 1914, the regiment was transferred to fight in World War I. Now empty, the Kaserne soon was used as a hospital during the war. Upon Imperial Germany’s defeat in November 1918 the regiment briefly returned and then was deactivated in December; three months later the hospital was closed. In the following 15 years the Kaserne had many tenants: a French infantry battalion, a Reichswehr regiment, the Hessian security police, the Hessian police school, a section of the University of Darmstadt, the SA, the 36th Field Artillery Regiment, a horse riding and driving school for the German cavalry, a flying school and development detachment, a maintenance company, a Flak unit and several other smaller groups – and for some time it was even completely empty.
On March 25th 1945 the 3rd infantry division of the US Army liberated Babenhausen, confiscated private houses and used the Kaserne as a camp for displaced persons and as a POW camp for up to 30.000 German soldiers – PWTE-A-20 was disbanded in October 1946…
In May 1947 the US Army officially took over the Kaserne for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), organizing refugee camps for Russians and Poles as well as shelter for displaced people from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
From February 1951 on the Kaserne became a military purpose again. The US Army expanded the base and in August the 36th field artillery group moved in – followed by the 36th FA GP; 18th, 519th and 593rd field artillery battalions, the 41st field artillery group (later becoming the 41st field artillery brigade). In the early 1990s the HHB 41 Brigade, 1/27 FA, 4/77 FA, 77 Maintenance Co and the 72nd Ordnance Battalion supported Operation Desert Storm from Babenhausen.
The deactivation of the Babenhausen Kaserne began in 2005 and on July 9th 2007 more of 100 years of military history ended with a closing ceremony.

Phew – researching and writing about the history of the Kaserne in Babenhausen actually took a lot longer than exploring it as the whole area was fenced off and guarded very well. Heck, when I got close to the main gate a watchdog started to bark and didn’t stop until I was very, very far away. Heading for the back of the area, now home to a small airfield, didn’t do much either – barbed wire metal fences, concrete blockades and massive gate made it impossible to infiltrate the base without getting hurt or caught by security.

Sadly the future of the Babenhausen Kaserne is still uncertain. Right after the barracks were closed several interest groups developed the Brundtland-Park concept, but a dedicated homepage in German hasn’t been updated since 2009. More recent news articles show that there has been lots of talking in the past years, but no decision making – and so the area is slowly decaying, heavily guarded…

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Urbex is quite an unpredictable hobby, especially in Japan, where wrecking crews can demolish buildings in no time; abandoned or not. (It actually happened once that I went on vacation and when I came back a building in the neighborhood was turned into an asphalted parking lot…) But demolition is not the only enemy urbexers have. Sometimes you go to a place and you think you know exactly where it is, but it turns out that your research wasn’t good enough. Luckily that never happen to me, but I’ve been on trips with fellow explorers who carried wrongly marked maps – and in that case is can be enough to be off by a street or two and you will never find what you are looking for (it almost happened to me when looking for the *Amano Clinic*, a frustrating and time-consuming experience!). Sometimes buildings have been boarded-up and are therefore inaccessible now, on other occasions they are still locked and electronically secured, which explains why your source only had outside photos. Every once in a while you run into nosy neighbors who keep a close eye on you, and sometimes places are so trashed that it’s not worth having a closer look. The latest trend, at least in Germany, is turning abandoned military bases into solar parks – they get rid of the remaining buildings and use the vast areas of concrete and asphalt to set up some green energy. With no good videos and barely a handful of photos, those locations are not worth an own article, but as compilations they should be entertaining enough to carry this blog for a week. Welcome to the first issue of “Worst Of” – 14 disappointing locations on 6 exploration days!

The first dud of my trip to Germany in 2013 was the Türkenlouis-Kaserne (a.k.a. Quartier Turkenlouis) in Rastatt. Built by the French occupational forces in the 1950s and left behind in 1999, the barracks weren’t able to find a new owner, so they were demolished in 2011 – I had a hunch that it happened, but I wanted to see for myself and was (not) disappointed.
Just a few kilometers away I had a look at the vandalized entrance of the BWR, Bauknecht Werk Rastatt, founded originally as Waggonfabrik Rastatt (Rastatt Coach Factory) in 1897. The company struggled several times from the 1970s on, was split up and partly closed. Upon my visit, parts of the area were used by the BWR Waggonreparatur GmbH (BWR Wagon Repair Company) – and their employees kept an eye on the abandoned area.
Down the street in walking distance I found a partly collapsed, unnamed factory. Sadly the employees of a neighboring business had a company party on their parking lot…
On the way home I stopped at what supposed to be an abandoned gravel pit, but there were cars parked on the premises and a diving competition at the nearby lake prohibited any reasonable exploration.
But that’s not all! The fifth dud of the day (out of six locations!) was the Special Ammunitions Site Philippsburg, which actually looked quite active – it was probably used for training by the police or other groups. What a frustrating day, especially for my childhood friend Nina, who actually did all the driving. Sorry again, Nina – but that’s urbex sometimes… 😦

The next day I was going exploring with my sister Sabine. At the fortified Lampertheim Training Area I took a crappy photo through the fence – and the closed bunkers of the Panzerwald Viernheim were very disappointing in comparison to the awesome *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage*.
The HMS I explored with my friend Catherine and it was in walking distance of another former military base, which is still visible on GoogleMaps, but has been demolished more than a year ago to be replaced with one of said green energy facilities, in this case the Solarpark Metro Tango Ost.
Since my article about the *Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne* was a huge success I decided to go back there on a second day of exploration with my sister. We parked in the area and walked for like 10 meters, when a security guard stopped his car right next to us and forbid us to take photos. Straight ahead. No polite small talk, not friendly asking to refrain from taking photos. “I forbid you to take photos!” Well, I’m not a media lawyer, but as far as I know you can take photos on public streets pretty much wherever / whenever you want in Germany – hence Google’s Street View (though some people in Germany had their houses pixeled like Japanese porn, but they were not able to have Google remove the images completely). Since the guy acted like a stubborn a**hole right from the beginning of course I pretended to agree and just waited until he was around the next. He wasn’t even smart enough to come back two minutes later to see if we would really obey his rule. And nothing much had changed anyway, so I took a few snapshots and then we moved on to the Santa Barbara Village down the road and across the street – it was interesting to see though that they tightened security at the CFK instead of turning it into student dormitories, as the original plan was. The St. Barbara Village on the other hand is an example for successful privatization. Once a housing area for the surrounding barracks it is now a neat, quiet residential area and far from being abandoned.

The Old Argonner Barracks in Hanau are currently under redevelopment – the housing area is getting renovated, the former school on the premises is now a special educational center to support kids in the areas learning, language development and physical development, called Elisabeth-Schmitz-Schule. (I took a quick video, but with a different camera, so please excuse the quality…)

The Ray Barracks in Friedberg are famous for one special soldier, Rock and Roll legend Elvis Presley, who was part of the 3rd Armored Division and met his wife Priscilla while being stationed there. The base was closed in 2007 and it seems like not much has happened since then – the grass kept growing and the surrounding fence was airtight, so my buddy Torsten and I left after a couple of minutes, realizing that it was a big mistake to suffer through a painfully long evening rush hour traffic jam…

Last on the list of failures in Germany 2013 was a three location streak with my old friend Gil.
The Quartier Castelnau, a former French military base south of Trier, was under redevelopment in its third year and one big construction site. We found a way onto the premises in a very remote part, but there was not much to see, barely worth spending any time on – so we didn’t and moved on.
The Quartier DeLattre, another French occupational military base, was definitely closed, but not really abandoned either. Parts of it were used by the municipal works, but it didn’t look like there was much activity on the premises. Much more so outside. Lots of kids and walkers, including an old French guy and his wife who wanted to have another look at the place he spent a couple of years at almost half a century prior.
Third and final flop of the day (and the trip) was the so-called Weingeisthaus (Spirit of the Wine House, an old mansion in the middle of a vineyard, famous amongst urban explorers for its beautiful exterior and the dilapidated condition inside. It seemed though that somebody invested quite a bit of time and money to keep intruders out, installing two lines of pretty tight fences. Running out of time that day and respecting the effort, Gil and I took a couple of shots from the distance before leaving.

And that’s it. Lots of short impression, but nothing really spectacular. What do you think I should do with small / failed explorations in the future? Ignore them completely and pretend they never happened, write collections like this one or publish individual small articles, but keep them as the lead for only a day instead of a week?

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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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“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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