China Underground > China Photo Gallery: Images and pictures of China > Interview with Urban Explorer and Photographer Greg Abandoned

Interview with Urban Explorer and Photographer Greg Abandoned

Greg is an urban explorer and photographer. From 2018 to 2021 he visited some suggestive and evocative abandoned places in China such as space stations, military depots, cities, theme parks, and power plants. The images and stories have been collected in a book out this month called Abandoned China (Book 1), published by Jonk Editions. Greg traveled across nearly every Chinese province, from Inner Mongolia in the north to Yunnan in the south, stopping in over 100 cities, towns, and villages along the way.

Featured image: An abandoned train dating back to the Sino-Japanese War

Where does your passion for exploring abandoned places come from?

That’s a very intriguing question for me to answer as I frequently ask myself the same question. I was always a curious kid growing up. There was always something new that would spark my interest but I was never able to focus on a certain topic for a long time. Everything changed for me when I went on a tour of Chornobyl. It’s a very long story how I ended up there but the main point was what happened to me over there. Standing on top of one of the residential buildings and looking down at the abandoned city of Pripyat where 50000 people used to live and now seeing how Mother Nature reclaimed it, was a light-switch moment, a truly life-changing event. I knew instantly: this was what I want to do – find places like this. Afterward, everything made sense. I was always longing for the sense of adventure exploring nowadays gives me. On top of that, I always enjoyed post-apocalyptic themes in popular culture: video game Fallout, books like the WOOL trilogy or The Road, or movies like Book of Eli or Mad Max series. When I go exploring it feels like being in a movie or playing a video game set in after the apocalypse.

abandoned-china-bulletrain

Why did you decide to make a book about China?

Look, I have been in China for almost 4 years and my Chinese language skills are still pretty poor. At some point, it becomes embarrassing to admit that. I felt like I needed to achieve something tangible when I look back at my time in China. I love books and in hindsight, this was quite obvious for me to focus on writing a book. However, I didn’t want this to be your typical coffee table book, I needed it to be more than that. In Abandoned China Book One the pictures you see accompany the stories and they give you the visual context of what I described inside.

abandoned-china-desert

What were the main difficulties you encountered while making your report? What were the biggest challenges in exploring these places?

There are two answers here. The first is about the book, second is about exploring. It felt like more challenges I encountered were about writing the book, not exploring the places. When you think of exploring places and writing about them, there are a few technical challenges. You can’t reveal too much information if you want to stick to ‘urbex code’ (urbex being the term for exploring abandoned locations). Urbex explorers are preservationists and they care about locations. Also, they are aware of the overexposure to the location they create by sharing the pictures. This is, in my opinion (based on experience) a contributing factor to the places’ ultimate demise. In layman’s terms – the more people know about the place, the quicker it will get trashed. You won’t find exact GPS coordinates in my book nor will I provide you with references. I spent hundreds of hours researching the places I visited. I wanted to provide the reader with a “why is the place abandoned” answer. Researching in Chinese isn’t easy and isn’t the easiest task, it’s very tedious and it obviously requires translation tools. For Abandoned China Book One I tried to pick the most relevant or ”juicy bits”.

Secondly, when it comes to actually exploring the places I went to I was mostly fine besides a few injuries, falling down from the wall, dealing with police, or being chased by security or dogs. Just your regular urbex experience.

abandoned-china-dino

What are the rules that an urban explorer must follow to stay alive?

I would say, double-check if the plane graveyard you are about to visit is in fact a plane junkyard, not an active military base (haha)! But to be quite serious I would say, be polite when the ‘shit hit the fan’. Try to deescalate as much as you can in those hairy situations. I found, through my travels around the country, that Chinese people can be extremely generous and friendly. Also, be very careful where you go as many of the old structures simply aren’t safe. I once fell down with the wall! The quality of that perimeter wall was terrible and as I fell from it, the brick wall followed me. I was very lucky.

abandoned-china-powerplant
A power plant control room

How do you find information about the places you want to visit? What precautions do you take before exploring an abandoned place? What does your main equipment consist of?

This might be a bit unusual but I mainly find information about places after I visit them. Mainly I focus on finding places and exploring them and I later dig into the history and try to answer why was it abandoned. It might be hard to understand but I try not to know too much information before I go somewhere. I don’t want the voice in my head questioning if I should go or not. I don’t like to worry beforehand.

When it comes to the gear I use or precautions I take, I must admit I’m not the best person to offer advice. There was a year when I was known as a flip-flop explorer when I posted a picture of climbing a gate in my flip-flops. That was, however, one incident where I went out with my non-exploring friends and I spotted a building I wanted to visit. And obviously… I did, wearing what I had at the time. On a normal urbex day, I would have proper hiking shoes, long trousers, water, and a mask. The last one is important since the black mold and asbestos are what you encounter a lot in those dilapidated buildings. Besides that, I always carry a bag with my camera and drone. And maybe advice for myself and others – eat breakfast because the reason you have that headache in the evening is that you explored all day without any food or drink:) Adrenaline doesn’t last that long!

abandoned-china-rocket
A 62-meter-tall Long March rocket located on a small island

What do you think is the future of these places in China? Do you know if the government or urban planners will intervene to clean up the areas?

And sadly (for urbex explorers) this is happening more frequently. There were a few places I re-visited after I start writing the book – some of the places I originally went to in 2018 or 2019. I went to many of them again to take drone pictures just to discover they were no longer there. Some places stay abandoned for longer – especially the ones really far away from metropolitan areas – some, on the other hand, the ones inside the big cities, get demolished pretty quickly. Also, it is worth mentioning there are a lot of articles about ghost cities as the rapid modernization is happening daily in China. Many cities are expanding and new apartments are being built at a frightening speed. I believe there is twice the amount of flats in China than its population. Not all of those houses get sold and moved in quickly. Hence, we are told about “ghost cities” in China. In reality, they are housing developments being built or not yet occupied. I feel like I probably went for too long about this point but it is a bit of frustration of mine as I have visited many of those sites and they were pretty much all in use. For Book 2 I will give examples of the real ghost towns – the northern former oil towns abandoned in the 60s and 70s. Those desert towns are truly fascinating!

abandoned-china-rollercoaster

Why have these places been abandoned?

Every place is different but there are similarities, of course. Most places become abandoned because someone had a “great” idea to create a business somewhere very remote and miscalculated how remote the location was. If it is too far away people won’t go there and there won’t be profits. However, let me be more specific. If I can bring one of my favorite stories it would be the abandoned Buddha temple. There was this unfinished temple with the Buddha statue lying on the floor. After visiting it and talking to the local villagers I learned the government and the locals didn’t agree on the land deal and the locals revolted against the constitution that began and as a sign of their protest, they pushed the statue to the ground. Somewhere else in China there was a theme park run by two individuals. They ended up fighting with each other and one of them ended up sending 40-odd criminals to sabotage the engine room by blowing it up. On top of that of the 40 invaders was a man wanted by the police for 2 years for rape and kidnapping. Therefore, as you see every story is different 🙂

Urbex is an activity in which individuals investigate abandoned urban constructions such as abandoned structures or underground railways, or try to get access to locations that are normally inaccessible to the public, such as skyscraper roofs.

abandoned-china-tank

Have you ever met anyone in these places? What were they doing?

I met security guards 🙂 Also, I saw locals stealing stuff from the places, and sometimes I needed to hide from them for a long time to avoid being seen. I also saw dogs guarding the places and very rarely did I meet other explorers. If it was up to me I rather not meet anyone.

What is the place in China that most impressed you?

Since exploring abandoned space shuttles in Kazakhstan which to this day remains the best day of my life I have been slightly obsessed with anything space-related. Therefore, I would have to say it’s the abandoned space rocket I saw here in China. That would be my number one spot. And yes, that is the reason the book opens with the chapter: Rocket.

abandoned-china-train

Can you tell us some anecdotes about your trip? What were some of the most unexpected or most exciting moments?

Getting mistaken for a spy is probably the one I will never forget. I was hinting at that earlier. Once I was flying my drone somewhere where I wasn’t supposed to and to make matters worse the manufacturer of the drone, DJI didn’t put the not flight zone on that location. You see, if there are sensitive places, your drone wouldn’t fly, it wouldn’t even start. At that particular location, you would expect the No-Flight-Zone but that wasn’t the case. After a few minutes of flying my bird I was greeted by a soldier and what followed ended up a long interrogation I wouldn’t want to repeat. And obviously, since I am not a spy [haha – I’m Polish for Christ-sake, what have we ever done to anyone but be invaded by others:)]. Fortunately, I had my laptop on me and my phone and camera are full of evidence of what I do: explore abandoned places. They let me go.

abandoned-china-trains

What’s your next project? What will we find in the second volume?

I host a podcast called Chasing Bandos* (bandos is a slang term in the urbex community for abandoned locations) and I’m super excited about our new mini-series coming up soon called History of Urbex where I will interview old-school explorers who have been doing urbex for many years like going back to 70s with John Law (San Francisco Suicide Club & Burning Man), or 80s and 90s with Steve Duncan, Moses Gates or members of Australian Cave Clan or many more. Currently, I am also researching and writing for Abandoned China Book Two which will feature abandoned hospitals, schools, ghost towns, movie sets, theaters, temples, and hotels while the first one focused on a space rocket, power plants, factories, planes, ships, trains and car and bicycle graveyards. Besides that, I post pretty regularly on my Instagram @gregabandoned 

Photo courtesy of Greg Abandoned

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