Abandoned places around the world – a guide

Original article written for momondo, available here.

We speak to Morten Kirckhoff and Jan Elhøj, two explorers with a love for picturesque decay, about their adventures travelling the world in search of abandoned places

Abandoned buildings exist in the grey zone between life and death – dim shadows of their former selves now reduced to dust-strewn relics that echo with a ghostly aura and a bewildering sensibility.

Dig beneath the dereliction, however, and there’s an inextricable beauty that surfaces for the eyes of those who dare to let their curiosity run wild.

We caught up with Jan Elhøj and Morten Kirkhoff, two avid travellers who have made discovering abandoned buildings across the globe their ardent pastime.

Their adventures have been published as a series of three glossy books (with a fourth on the way soon), exhibitions, a TV series as well as countless photos of their exploits. Here is what these two keen explorers had to share about their travels across the globe in the quest for abandoned places.

When did you start exploring abandoned places?

We grew up together, as teens. We first ran into each other during the happy 80s. Exploring abandoned places quickly became one of our pastimes and to this day, empty, abandoned places are something that we associate with great childhood memories.

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What goes through your mind when you walk into an abandoned building?

There are many layers in this process. For one thing, we are in places where we’re not necessarily supposed to be, so we always think about the dangers. We also think about what sort of history a place has. Who lived or worked here? Decoding this is the most interesting part of it all for us. But there is also another layer – capturing the essence of the place we’re in.

We need to process what sort of lines and forms are present when it comes to taking a good picture. Back in the day, it was all about shooting as many pictures as possible and going home. These days, we put a lot of thought into finding where the story fits. We were once approached by a priest who told us that what we do touches everyone so profoundly because our work explores some of the biggest taboos in the West – loneliness, ageing and, the ultimate taboo of them all, death.

We never saw things this way up until we came across this priest so it was an eye-opener and something that we very much agree with.

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What inspires you when you travel?

As with many other forms of travel – the adventure in itself. For some, our exploits may seem a bit extreme, but they are actually a form of modern archaeology in which we find places that are trapped in a time capsule. The thrill of finding extraordinary, untouched places inspires us a great deal. But It’s not just about the thrill of finding abandoned places – it’s the hunt for them and the build up to it, all of which are impossible to plan from home.

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How do you plan your travels?

In essence, we have a loose overall plan, but when other possibilities arise over the course of our travels, we take them. We seize the opportunities as they come. The experiences from doing so are monumental. We are very mobile when we travel in the sense that we have everything that we need with us – from cooking pots to tents. We set up camp exactly where we want to sleep, and sometimes this leads to some unreal experiences.

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What sorts of challenges arise when you travel in this way?

There can be guards hired to watch over some abandoned places and all sorts factors that we can’t predict. We are also confronted with a lot of prejudices about the places we visit. I always think about the many times we tell people that we’ll be visiting a particular area. We are often approached with totally unfounded responses. For me, every place has its everyday life and of course, when there is something out of the ordinary, people read this on the news and it taints their perspective. It is very easy for people to sit at home in their comfort zones, browse the tabloids and believe everything that they read.

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Of the many abandoned places you visit, are there any that stand out more than others?

Places with an element of familiarity stand out. Abandoned homes, for example, particularly those that we come across in Denmark contain things we can easily relate to. There are always pieces of furniture or artefacts in them that we can recognise – perhaps because our grandparents also owned something similar once.

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The power station in Hungary is quite an interesting story. We travelled in search of it and set up camp nearby. There was an active power station very close to the disused one, where everything was bolted up. Shortly after setting up base, our cover was blown by a guard who was watching over the premises and we had to run away. A few days later we returned and saw that the guard was in his house but still within eyeshot of the entrance to the abandoned plant. Later that day, he hopped on his bike and disappeared so we took our chances and made our way in. We wandered around for a bit in search of an entry point before eventually crawling in through a window in the roof. Inside, we made our way to the control room, which was styled in a beautiful art deco finish as a tribute to modern technology at the time (1927).

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Another place we recall fondly was an amusement park in Japan. It was spring so everything was in bloom. We were surrounded by small red flowers that shot up through the earth and there were no graffiti tags nor broken windows. We split up because it was so big and bumped into deers and other wildlife. We missed the sound of shouting children and rollercoasters and the scent of popcorn – it felt like we were all alone in the world.

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Do you ever research the stories behind the places that you visit? 

Not as much as we used to. More often than not there is a sad story behind it all, or money issues, if we’re talking about a private home. We think that it’s always an amazing experience when we step inside such places – there are pictures of children and grandchildren hanging on the walls, photo albums and cards with stories in them. We are often left wondering how there can be a whole family who doesn’t care about the place anymore. It’s not something we bother investigating, however, though we do think that there are others who perhaps ought to.

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What advice would you give to anyone interested in exploring abandoned places? 

Have a plan but always be prepared to change it. If you travel with an open mind and a mindset in which you don’t constantly have to get something done, there are countless experiences that come your way. One of our own dogmas is that we never give the exact location of an abandoned place away.

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What projects are you currently working on?

We’ve got trips to Portugal, Russia, Greenland, Greece and Kazakhstan coming up. Greenland will be split into three expeditions starting on the East coast, after which we will travel inwards over the ice.  There are military installations and other hidden places waiting for us in the permafrost. We need to find the money for it first though.

You’re a savvy traveller but please approach abandoned places with caution and respect. Acquaint yourself well with the environment you’ll be exploring and be prepared for anything #staycurious!

For more work from Morten and Jan, check out their trilogy Abandoned -‘Forladte Steder’  (in Danish) and follow their adventures on Facebook.

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