Exploration

07.08.14

Discovering Underground Labyrinths, Remote Cities, and More of the World’s Lost Places

In our modern world, it seems like there aren't many places left to discover. Not so, says Alastair Bonnett. His new book looks at the most fascinating forgotten and uncharted spots.

In a destitute neighborhood in the Philippine capital of Manila, some 6,000 living and breathing inhabitants reside in tight quarters with the dead. Many residents have raised whole families in the crowded mausoleums of North Cemetery, and some of them grew up there themselves. Across the world, a rusty World War II fort floats off the English coast. It’s the Principality of Sealand, a self-proclaimed sovereign nation with its own royal family. Thousands of miles from that, Mount Athos soars above Greece and is populated entirely by monks—women are not allowed within 500 meters of the area under threat of imprisonment.

“The most fascinating places are often also the most disturbing, entrapping, and appalling,” Alastair Bonnett writes in his newly published book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. These little-known places may not appear to have much in common, but the social geographer has managed to weave them and others into a chronicle of the world’s missing and hidden treasures.

In Unruly Places, Bonnett has launched an investigation into uncharted, underground, and undiscovered worlds. These locales—some abstract, some lost, some disappearing, and some perfectly accessible—are everywhere: underground, above ground, and in the middle of the ocean. There are islands that never actually existed, a town in Somalia where modern-day pirates stash their booty, a labyrinth under St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Erik de Castro/Reuters

But all of his 47 chosen spots, like Manila’s North Cemetery, serve as a deeper reflection on the interaction of space, history, and human inhabitants. To Bonnett, these graveyard dwellers may have nowhere else to go, but they’re also inadvertent participants in an experiment of the human relationship with geography. “They’re reorganizing the relationship to the dead in a geographical sense,” Bonnett says of the North Cemetery’s residents. “A lot of us who live in cities…we live cheek to jowl with the dead.”

In other words, this isn’t your mother’s coffee-table book of mysterious places: there’s no Area 51, Bermuda Triangle, or Easter Island. Unruly Places is all about going off the map, metaphorically and physically. It’s divided into chapters with names like “Ephemeral Places” and “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations,” but it isn’t intended for utilitarian purposes. “It’s very much not a guidebook. It is a book about remarkable places, each of which is making a stink about the possibilities of place,” Bonnett says. And the author is certain that if these sites—some of which he only recently discovered—fascinate him after three decades in the field, they’ll capture readers’ imaginations too.

“In this village called Baarle, Bonnett found that by walking a straight line for one minute, one can cross five or six national borders.”

Throughout the book, Bonnett manages to imbue the mundane—a traffic island in Newcastle, England—with the same gravitas given to the politically and historically weighty—an empty decoy city in North Korea meant to lure defectors from its southern neighbor.

Some spots he has personally visited, a favorite of which is a bizarre patchwork of borders on the dividing line between Belgium and the Netherlands. In this village called Baarle, which hosts a complicated collection of two dozen enclaves of Belgian land within Dutch territory and vice versa, Bonnett found that by walking a straight line for one minute, one can cross five or six national borders.

To the bewilderment of the area’s inhabitants, who don’t get many visitors, Bonnett was fascinated by the abstractness of the land and arbitrariness of the divisions.

“People think of borders as negative things; it’s often said we want a world without borders,” Bonnett remarks. But, he says, Baarle has “made me think true borders aren’t only about exclusion, but also about identity creation. Where in a world without borders could you possibly ever escape to?”

While investigating the concept of carving out boundaries in the course of researching his book, Bonnett says he became “obsessionally” interested in renamed places. He sought out the remnants of Siam in Thailand, and Rhodesia in Zimbabwe, and Leningrad in St. Petersburg. “Changing names is something people got very fond of doing—as if you could rebrand somewhere and delete the past—but the old city can sit there and haunt [the] new city in all sorts of way,” he says.

Bonnett has been a risk taker since his early days in the field of geography. It was, he says, “a stodgy and old-fashioned discipline” when he entered it in the 1980s. A decade later, Bonnett was immersing himself in the nascent field of urban exploration, an increasingly popular discipline that is now the subject of constant media attention.

In 1992 he started Transgressions, a magazine devoted to the practice of experimental exploration. He and his cohorts practiced “psychogeography,” taking maps of other cities and applying them to their own. “We were interested in reinventing exploration, taking it away from colonial past and into something people did around the corner, rediscovering their own city,” he says.

His early interest in breaking into abandoned insane asylums and traversing suburban England with maps of the Berlin subway has made way for a more refined field of study, though a simplistic form of exploration surfaces occasionally within the book. In a chapter titled “Fox Den,” he braves brambles in an attempt to follow his neighborhood urban fox.

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‘Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies’ by Alastair Bonnett. 288 p. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $15.81 ()

Bonnett remembers that as a kid in London, he and his brother would construct little hideouts under the foliage. The modern world has strayed somewhat from fostering the same sense of adventure that bred his youthful imagination. “My two kids make dens on the Sims,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m nostalgic or not, but it doesn’t provide quite the experience of hiding under a wet bush.”

Even in a world where Lonely Planet documents the most remote places and urban exploration can be done with the click of a computer mouse, Bonnett says he hopes to reveal the always-evolving opportunities for discovery with Unruly Places.

“The hidden and remarkable places are havens for the geographical imagination,” he writes in the book, and “redoubts against the increasingly if not exhaustively all-seeing chart that has been built up over the past two hundred years.”

There’s much more to the world, he seems to say, then what’s on the map—and equally prevalent, if you dare, are opportunities to get off of it.