The world's most curious and unexpected places revealed

The London Bridge that was moved to the U.S, the lava-filled Mexican village and Madagascar’s bizarre stone forest: The world’s most curious and unexpected places revealed

  • Zheleznogorsk is a city in Siberia that was secret until 1992 and didn’t even appear on any Soviet maps 
  • Varosha was a glitzy resort in Cyprus that attracted the rich and famous but was abandoned in the 1970s 
  • Tashirojima in Japan – more commonly known as Cat Island – has hundreds of felines that rule the roost  

Consider the mysterious mapped – thanks to the Atlas of Improbable Places and the Atlas of the Unexpected.

They chart all manner of curious and quirky sights, from the secret Soviet city that didn’t even appear on maps to the lava-filled Mexican town and the bridge in America that was shipped over piece by piece from London. 

Scroll down for a sneak peek at some of the tomes’ findings.

Zheleznogorsk, Siberia – the former closed Soviet city 

The secretive Soviet city of Zheleznogorsk in Siberia. It was not even acknowledged on any maps until 1992 

Zheleznogorsk is a formerly closed Soviet city in Siberia, where secrecy was everything – and until 1992, it was not officially acknowledged on any maps.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, the city was created as the Russian centre for plutonium production and even the workers and scientists who lived there needed permission to enter or leave. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the book says the city’s fortunes took a tumble, but in the 2000s it received a new lease of life when it was involved in developing Russia’s Glonass navigation system.

However, the book says: ‘Retaining its 1950s “Motherland” cinema and regimented rows of functional five-storey housing blocks, Zheleznogorsk could be taken for a vintage Soviet theme park.’

No Man’s Land Fort, The Solent – a long shunned coastal bulwark 

The No Man’s Land Fort in the Solent was created to guard the UK’s naval ports. It was decommissioned in the 1950s 

No Man’s Land Fort is one of four iron and granite structures that stand like ‘tarnished stones in the murky tidal waters of the Solent’.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, it was built in the 1800s to protect UK naval ports in direct response to fears of a potential threat of invasion from across the English Channel. But once completed after a delay, it was dismissed as an ‘irrelevant folly’.

The fort was finally decommissioned in the 1950s then revamped into a luxury hotel and party venue in 2008, complete with a ‘helipad, wine bar, billiard room, swimming pool, laser quest arena and guest rooms, most decorated in a nautical theme, with portraits of Lord Nelson a charming addition to some’.

San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico – abandoned after a volcanic eruption 

A tangle of thick forest and lava shrouds the church in San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico. It was the only building spared in the city after a volcanic eruption in 1943 

San Juan Parangaricutiro was abandoned in February 1943 when the Paricutin volcano, two miles away, erupted and began to spout molten lava.

However, the flow of the lava was languid and the Atlas of Improbable Places says: ‘It would be a year before it eventually reached the town, allowing everyone plenty of time to pack up and leave.’

For the next eight years, a thick layer of volcanic rock ‘swallowed up whole streets of houses, even flowing indiscriminately over tombstones in the church graveyard’. 

The only building that escaped largely unscathed was the church, ‘marooned in a grim expanse of solidified lava’. It is now a site for pilgrims. 

Wittenoom, Western Australia – the asbestos-ridden industrial town

The once-thriving town of Wittenoom in Western Australia. In 2007 it was officially cut off by the Australian government after being riddled with asbestos

Wittenoom in Western Australia sprung up when the discovery of blue asbestos ‘fed a Gold Rush-style boom in this outlying part of the outback in the 1920s and 1930s’.

But following a damning medical report about the dangers of the mineral, the mine was closed in 1966, and the town went with it.

Now, ‘its buildings are empty of people, but they remain riddled with asbestos’. In 2007, the Australian government officially cut off the town by removing it from official maps and taking it off power and communication lines.

Varosha in Famagusta, Cyprus – the abandoned tourist resort

Varosha, pictured, was once Cyprus’s answer to the French Riviera but has been abandoned since the Turkish occupation in 1974 

Often described as the ‘French Riviera of Cyprus’, Varosha in Famagusta was known for its ‘sandy beaches and high-end, high-rise hotels’.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, the Argo Hotel there was a particular favourite in the 1960s with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But in the summer of 1974, Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus and visitors fled.

‘For 40-plus years Turkish soldiers were just about the only people to step upon its sands,’ the book says. 

The area remains out of bounds but those who have ventured there have found ‘closets full of once-fashionable 1970s clothes and a car showroom full of rusting models of vehicles not seen on the forecourts since the end of Opec’s oil embargo’.

London Bridge over Lake Havasu, Arizona – the 1831 bridge that was shipped across the Atlantic 

The old London Bridge, which is now located in Lake Havasu City in Colorado. It is the centre-piece of the region’s ‘English village’ 

Lake Havasu is located amid the desert peaks of Arizona and is the unlikely setting for the original London Bridge.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, the 1831 bridge was put up for sale by the Corporation of London in 1967 and eventually bought by the ‘flamboyant millionaire oil baron’ Robert P. McCulloch, who had the bridge shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.

It was reassembled as the centre-piece of a visitor attraction called ‘ye olde London town’. The book says: ‘In its heyday in the 1970s and 80s it could boast a traditional British pub that served beer in tankards and a red double-decker bus converted into an ice-cream parlour’.

Polveglia Island, Venice – the former plague quarantine island 

Polveglia, pictured, is an island in Venice. It was once plague-riddled, but there are now plans to turn it into a luxury resort 

Five miles off the coast of Venice, Poveglia Island became the place where the city’s ‘dead and diseased’ were dumped during the Plague in the 1500s.

After the collapse of the Republic of Venice in 1797, Poveglia was deprived of its role as a quarantine island and the church became a lighthouse. In 1922, the island’s old quarantine station was converted into an asylum for the mentally ill but was closed in 1968 and the island has remained uninhabited ever since.

The Atlas of Improbable Places says that it gained an ‘unwelcome reputation for being the most haunted place in the world’. However, in 2014, the ‘cash-strapped Italian government sold Poveglia for £400,000’. There are hopes the old asylum can be converted into a luxury hotel.

The Hill of Crosses, Kryziu Kalnas, Lithuania – the home of 100,000 crosses

The Hill of Crosses in the Lithuanian town of Kryziu Kalnas. The crosses were placed there as memorials to the dead 

The town of Kryziu Kalnas in Lithuania is famous for its hill packed with hundreds of thousands of crosses – ‘from the most basic wood twigs to magnificently carved crucifixes several feet high’.

Historians believe the tradition dates back to the 14th century when the crosses were placed as memorials to the dead and as totems of resistance.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, when Lithuania became part of the USSR, the hill was declared out of bounds. It later took on a ‘renewed significance as an arena for memorial and dissent’. The hill re-opened in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and two years later, Pope John Paul II planted a cross there.

Cold War Spy Tunnel, Berlin – the telephone tapping centre

A section of the Cold War Spy Tunnel that ran under Berlin, which is now on display at the Allied Museum in the city 

The Cold War Spy tunnel was a 1,476ft-long underground tunnel that ran from Rudow in West Berlin to Altglienicke in East Berlin, built in 1954 by the CIA and MI6.

According to the Atlas of Improbable Places, the purpose of the tunnel was to tap the Soviet telephones lines that ran through an East Berlin exchange and this project was officially code-named Operation Gold.

It cost $6.7million to build, 3,100 tonnes of earth had to be moved and spies successfully managed to tap 443,000 conversations. In 1956, the tunnel was discovered by the Soviets. The book adds: ‘A section of the tunnel is open to visitors at the Allied Museum in Berlin, the city reunified since 1989.’

Fly Geyser, Nevada – the accidentally discovered geyser

The Fly Geyser in Nevada, which is now owned by the people who run the Burning Man festival

The Fly Geyser is located in Nevada, the driest state in the U.S, and was located by total fluke.

According to the Atlas of the Unexpected, a ranch-owner accidentally created the geyser when he began drilling ‘in the hope of tapping an underground reservoir and establishing a well from which to draw water’. However, the water he hit was a blazing torrent and he capped the well and forgot about it.

In 1964, further drilling work uncovered the geyser once again and ever since it has been left to spurt untamed. The Atlas of the Unexpected says: ‘Since 2016, the property in which the geyser stands has been owned by the organisation that runs the annual Burning Man Festival. For the time being, the formation is enclosed behind a fence.’

Grand Tsingy, Madagascar – the largest stone forest in the world

Grand Tsingy in Madagascar is a series of razor-sharp limestone pinnacles. It can take a day to negotiate just 800 metres 

Grand Tsingy is the largest stone forest in the world and according to the book, is ‘seemingly one of the most inhospitable environs Madagascar has to offer’.

The word tsingy roughly translates as ‘where one cannot walk’ and the Atlas of the Unexpected adds: ‘It is a name that accurately describes the sheer impenetrability of the spiky terrain while reinforcing a local superstition that the stone forest, once the domain of evil spirits, is best left undisturbed.’

Visitors have to walk on suspended rope bridges but lemurs rule the land here and they love to ‘jump from place to place’.

Cat Island, Tashirojima, Japan – the island where felines rule the roost

Tashirojima island in Japan is more commonly known as Cat Island. Felines run the island and there are even cat-themed chalets for visitors

Tashirojima is a tiny Japanese island where humans are in the minority as there are estimated to be at least four times as many cats.

According to the Atlas of the Unexpected: ‘The semi-feral creatures not only have the run of the place but are honoured with their own shrine. Their every need is met by the island’s residents, who believe cats bring them good luck and actually saved the island from complete destruction when it was hit by a tsunami in 2011.’

The island is now popular with tourists with ‘ailurophiles flocking from all over the world to see “cat island” and even to stay in one of the cat-themed chalets that can be rented in the summer months’. 

Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield, published by Aurum Press, and Atlas of the Unexpected by Travis Elborough, published by White Lion Publishing, are available to buy now. Travis’s latest book is The Atlas of Vanishing Places

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