Realms of imagination

Cincinnati Subway, by Jonathan Warren. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners

Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield, London: Aurum Press, 2021, 208pps. Hb, £24.99

Some years ago, I was on holiday in Iceland. We had hired a very inadequate car (limited budget) for a road trip from Reykjavik to the spectacular Vatnajökull glacier on the southern coast. Whilst driving through the wonderfully bleak, black volcanic landscape we spotted an orange tailfin of what looked like a fighter plane. We stopped to investigate and after a short walk came across a full size replica of a MiG-31; a balsa wood testament to Russian aeronautical ingenuity. No signs, no explanation. It was only later that we learnt that it was a left behind prop for a Clint Eastwood film, Firefox.

This spurred my interest in historical and geographical anomalies, such as the suburban bungalow in Essex that disguised the UK’s Cold War HQ beneath. When The Atlas of Improbable Places arrived on my desk, I devoured it in one sitting. It is a labour of curiosity and love by Travis Elborough and cartographer Alan Horsfield.

Lithuania’s Hill of 100,000 Crosses, by Diego Delso. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It details dream creations, deserted destinations, architectural oddities, floating worlds, otherworldly spaces and subterranean realms. I learnt about the Hill of 100,000 crosses in Lithuania. The crosses were planted to commemorate people who had died combatting their Russian overlords.  Often dissidents would just go missing, so in the absence of a body, a cross was erected on a small hill near the city of Siauliai. The first crosses appeared in 1831. The Russians ordered that the crosses be bulldozed but within a few days more had been erected. So they spread sewage over the hill but still the crosses appeared in defiance of cordons and KGB guards. Pope John Paul II planted his own cross on the Hill in 1993. It is now a site of political and spiritual pilgrimage.

Portmeirion gets a welcome mention as does the extraordinary underground postal railway in London, now a tourist attraction. Beijing’s abandoned Disney-land-style theme offers a rather different view of China, as does Teufelsberg, the abandoned US spy station in Berlin, a far from subtle eavesdropping nerve centre in the Cold War. You can also learn about Cincinnati’s still abandoned subway system and the illicit tunnels constructed by Chinese immigrants in Moose Jaw, Canada. When racism and economic decline hit the city, the Chinese were targeted. They went underground, reappearing to run a laundry in the daytime or such like, and bamboozle their oppressors.

For creepiness, you cannot beat the Ibaloi Mummy Caves at Benguet in the Philippines. The tribe favoured an embalming method of smoking and drying out bodies, leaving a sort of desiccated husk. When mummification was complete, they were laid to rest in wooden coffins and stacked in cave tombs. They await your visit.