What is it about abandoned buildings that people find so intriguing?
On the internet, you’re never far from photos of them – glimpses of gutted hospitals, run-down amusement parks and empty prisons frequently grace the pages of our favourite websites. And if there’s an abandoned building near your home, you’ve probably explored it. There’s just something about the left-behindedness of these places that we all find irresistible: The shattered windows, the graffiti-covered concrete and the naked rebar. Yet as much as I knew I loved these sorts of places, I hadn’t really experienced any first-hand until recently.
That changed on a recent trip to Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is an amazing country for a number of reasons. It’s huge, it’s home to some amazing wilderness, its cities are incredible, its locals are friendly and welcoming… the list goes on…
Yet there is far more to Kazakhstan than what’s visible on the surface. Within the country’s borders lay countless treasures. Around every corner, the country surprises.
Such was the case when Google Maps took my fellow travellers and I on a confusing detour during a drive down the highway toward Astana. To this day, I’m not sure why we were led off a stretch of perfectly good highway and onto an old dirt road, but I’ll forever be happy that we were. Let this post serve as my official thank-you to Google.
After a long, dusty stretch, we rounded a bend and found ourselves on the outskirts of a completely abandoned town. We were entirely alone with its gutted buildings and cars. From the highway, we didn’t even notice it was abandoned. Some of the closer buildings certainly looked rough, but rundown buildings are not especially uncommon in that part of the world.
We pulled off so I could find a place to pee. I picked the side of an old building that was clearly no longer being used for anything. I unzipped and looked around. That’s when I realized what we had come across. To my left was a rusted out blue car. Behind that was a watchtower with a hollow interior that echoed with the cooing of pigeons. Scattered in all directions were empty homes, barns, factories and what appeared to be a school.
I remember thinking “holy shit,” as I came to grips with the setting of my bathroom break. No other words suffice when you realize you realize have a Kazakh neighbourhood all to yourself.
I called my friends over. Once they realized what we had stumbled across, the agreed that only option was a few hours of exploration. We meant to reach Astana by night time, but some things are just too good to pass up. We split up and commenced our exploration.
The dusty ground crunched under my feet as I weaved in and out of buildings, through ground-level windows, and decrepit door frames. It was incredible. Thankfully, I had enough clarity to remind myself that this would probably go down as one of the coolest moments of my life, and took some pictures on the beat-up iPhone I was using at the time.
We explored for at least two hours. On more than one occasion I got lost inside these buildings. Maybe that should have terrified me but it didn’t. I knew I’d eventually find my way out, and there’s a real peace in the emptiness of places like that one. It’s hard not to feel comparatively full in a place so empty of everything.
Eventually, of course, it was time to move on. We meandered back to the car, thrilled by the experience Kazakhstan was giving us. The key turned in the ignition and our car lurched on down the road. As we kicked up a cloud of dust with our tires, I saw the strangest thing. Out among the skeletal buildings, was a man pulling a piece of sheet metal by a rope handle— a makeshift sled. He was gathering scraps. How he’d gone undetected while we explored I don’t know. He was unfazed by the purr of our engine and the dust thrown up by our tires. Maybe he was a ghost.
I’d love to go back to that little empty sliver of god-knows-where, Kazakhstan. The problem is, I know I’d never be able to find it again.
This article debuted on WildLives.co on 22/5/2017.