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The World’s Eeriest Ghost Cities

Nowadays, cities are repeatedly touted as the way of the future. Census results show more and more people moving from rural to urban areas. Experts declare our modern times as an era of urbanization. At this rate, sci-fi movies depicting the entire world living in a series of mega-cities are becoming more and more accurate every day.

But behind the scenes this modern-day tale of urbanization lies the debris of failed cities left behind. As lively and packed as urban centers today can be, ghost cities are the exact opposite: deserted and unused. For a place meant to accommodate thousands, even millions of people, seeing urban areas abandoned makes for eerie entertainment; sometimes, even for skin-crawlingly creepy thrills.

In some cases, tours explore these abandoned metropolises. I mean, who wouldn’t want to wander around a city reclaimed by nature like they were the last survivor in an apocalypse? But why bother traveling all the way there when you can just explore them from the comfort of YouTube? Whether it was nature driving people away, disasters rendering the city uninhabitable, poor planning, or just plain bad luck, these metropolises have become some of the world’s eeriest ghost cities.

Tianducheng, China

China has seen an unprecedented urban boom over the past century. Just from 1978 to 2020, the percentage of people living in urban areas has skyrocketed from 17% to 60%. With over 800 million people living in cities and many more sure to follow, cities are popping up on China’s landscape like a game of whack-a-mole. But, like those unlucky moles, not all of these cities avoid being struck down.

Tianducheng is one such example. Built in the suburbs of Hangzhou, a wealthy city in one of China’s wealthiest provinces, it was meant as a luxury housing development. Its setting was tailored to be high end, even attempting to cash in on the big fascination among many in China with all things French.

Tianducheng Bird-eye View
Tianducheng Bird-eye View. By MNXANL, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Replete with a 300-foot-tall Eiffel Tower replica, an imitation of a fountain from the Luxembourg Gardens, and a main square aptly named Champs Elysees, Tianducheng was ready to partake in the urban boom and rake in the cash. But that never happened.

The developers originally intended it to accommodate ten thousand people. But, nowhere near that many people wanted to live in this faux-France. Only about 2,000 people live in this ghost town, and many of them are employees of a nearby French-themed amusement park.

While Tianducheng adeptly imitates the architecture of Paris, sometimes eerily well, from statues and facades to fountains and even the (once) inimitable Mona Lisa, the one thing it can’t seem to emulate is the reams of people that pack the actual Parisian streets. C’est la vie.

Varosha, Cyprus

Imagine a high-class tourist resort with some of the Mediterranean’s best beaches that once charmed the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Think white sand beaches, crystal blue waters, and… barbed wire?

Even though it may seem odd, that is exactly the fate of the once booming resort town of Varosha, Cyprus. For much of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the luxury resorts and beautiful beaches that graced this Mediterranean city attracted the rich and famous of the time.

That is, however, until Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus in 1974. Since warfare does not make a peaceful or safe background for vacationing, or anything for that matter, tourists and locals alike fled the area. They took refuge in safe harbors, waiting for the day when it was safe to return.

For over 40 years, this waiting game has continued. Ever since 1974, Varosha has remained under the strict control of the Turkish military. So strict, in fact, that the only people allowed into the area are members of the military and UN personnel.

However, recent developments may spell a comeback for Varosha. To the delight of Turkish Cypriots, but the ire of Greek Cypriots, the Turkish military opened up Varosha to visitors at long last. On October 8, 2020, soldiers ushered visitors through a military checkpoint to a mile-long stretch of beach now open for business.

Though the beaches are still as beautiful as ever, the town itself still has an eerie vibe about it. On their way to the oceanfront, visitors walk along taped-off roads lined by beleaguered businesses, hollow homes, and thick, snake-infested undergrowth that has reclaimed the land.

Many on the Greek side of the debate, especially those who fled their homes in 1974, decry this re-opening and fear it is a first step towards a total Turkish control of Varosha. Those on the Turkish side see this an “historic moment,” one of joy national pride.

The fate of this once shining Mediterranean gem is still uncertain, though it probably is nowhere near returning to its former fame. Once thing remains certain: the tale of Varosha is a unique and eerie look at what happens when vacation meets violence.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, the capitol city of Turkmenistan, has been described as the point in Asia “where Las Vegas meets Pyongyang.” This city, built for national glory and decadent opulence, has fallen far short of its lofty goals, however.

In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan gained its independence after over one hundred years as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Republic. The Turkmen Supreme Soviet named Saparmurat Niyazov as the first president of independent Turkmenistan.

Niyazov immediately launched his mission to usher in a “Golden Era for Turkmenistan,” which started with a dramatic revamp of the capitol city. For an area that was almost entirely wiped out by an earthquake in the 1940s, this revitalization process was a huge undertaking, costing billions of dollars and using millions of cubic meters of imported, white Italian marble. That’s right, Ashgabat is made largely from marble.

Ashgabat, new avenue
Ashgabat, new avenue. By Michael Karavanov, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The city measures about 22 square kilometers. In that area, there are over 500 buildings made from this imported marble. Niyazov used so much marble that, still today, Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the highest concentration of marble buildings. Grand monuments and regal statues stand tall in large squares, and at night, bright neon lights illuminate the buildings and statues.

The only thing missing from the picture is the crowds. Because of Ashgabat’s lack of people and abundance of white marble, many have dubbed it “The City of the Dead.” Turkmenistan’s capitol city is a ghost town.

This could be because it was ruled for the first ten years of its independence by an eccentric dictator who issued laws controlling men’s facial and hair grooming, banning dogs from the city, and renaming months of the year after his family members. It could also be because Turkmenistan is hardly ever toured by outsiders. In fact, it is one of the world’s least visited countries.

Though Ashgabat may look the part of Las Vegas, and you may see extravagant monuments and buildings that would put even Sin City to shame, don’t go here expecting the same level of entertainment.

Pripyat, Ukraine

The nuclear age dawned halfway through the twentieth century when Project Manhattan gave humankind the ability to harness the power of the atom. Although nuclear power could be a potential alternative to polluting fossil fuels, humans quickly put these capabilities to more nefarious uses. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a testament to the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

A panorama of Pripyat during summer. The Chernobyl power plant, currently undergoing decommissioning, is visible in the distance, at top center.
A panorama of Pripyat during summer. The Chernobyl power plant, currently undergoing decommissioning, is visible in the distance, at top center.2011. By Bkv7601, is licensed under CC-BY

Even when used in the civilian sector, nuclear power has proven to be nothing to trifle with. Fukushima, Japan stands tribute to this. But before most of the world had heard of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Chernobyl introduced the world to nuclear power’s dark side. The Ukrainian city of Pripyat ended up footing much of Chernobyl’s costly nuclear bill.

Built up as a nuclear city, specifically to house and entertain workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat grew to the size of a respectable mid-sized town, replete with all the amenities. There were over 50,000 people living there enjoying 13,000 apartments, schools to accommodate over 5,000 children, and various other facilities like stores, cafes, cinemas, and even a hospital.

The town seemed to hum along as smoothly as the nuclear reactors neighboring them. Until those reactors stopped humming along. On April 26, 1986, the number four reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear facility exploded during a low-power test.

Pripyat, being Chernobyl’s close neighbor, experienced the brunt of this catastrophe. The nuclear fallout that resulted from the blast made large swathes of the Ukraine, Western Russia, and other parts of Eastern Europe uninhabitable. The blast was so powerful, releasing 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere, that radioactive fallout spread all the way to Sweden.

Nowadays, Pripyat remains a ghost town, inhospitable to residents. It has been possible to tour the city and the surrounding “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone” ever since 2011, though authorities do issue warnings about the health and exposure risks associated.

Pripyat was once a standard of Soviet industrial and city planning. Now, the only thing that attracts people to this city is its eerie, abandoned apartments, stores, and recreation halls. There is even a deserted amusement park to visit, though fun is far from the only thing in the air there.

Oradour-sur-Glane, France

The French countryside: picturesque, serene, and, in the early 20th century, the host to some of history’s bloodiest battles. World War I and II devastated many places in Europe, turning peaceful towns and nature into scenes of carnage. The French countryside was no different. But the history of Oradour-sur-Glane has a more sinister side to it.

This idyllic village, nestled among farming fields, fell under German control when the Nazis invaded France early in World War II. For years, the village avoided the fighting that raged across the fronts. The villagers went about their lives as normally and peacefully as they could while under Nazi rule.

However, the reality of war came crashing down all too suddenly and brutally. On June 10, 1944, the 2nd Waffen SS–Panzer Division carried out a massacre of the inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane. In one afternoon, SS soldiers killed 642 men, women, and children, wiping out the village’s population, save for the unintended survivors they left behind, and destroying its homes and buildings.

According to survivor accounts and historical records, the massacre seemed to have just come out of the blue. There was no pre-empt for it, as if there ever is justification for horrors like these. There has been no explanation given for it to this day. Different explanations have been put forth to try to explain the reason behind the horror, but they have offered nothing comprehensive. The only certain thing about this day in history is the desire for people to remember.

No one has tried to rebuild Oradour-sur-Glane. No revitalization projects or attempts to start again have happened. Instead, people have preserved the village as a monument to the 642 victims and as a reminder of all the unimaginable crimes that result from war. Every year, on June 10, locals hold a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre.

Oradour-sur-Glane sits as an abandoned testament to the gruesome side of World War II. It’s bone-chilling story and purposeful abandonment are enough to make it a somber and eerie place to visit.

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