Mail Rail: London’s Abandoned Underground Train System
Every day, 6.5 million passengers take a ride on the London Tube. Few of these riders know that among the crisscrossing lines of the Underground lurks a ghost Tube: the Mail Rail.
Officially known as the London Post Office Railway, the 6.5-mile-long system opened in 1927. Its purpose was to transport letters and parcels to sorting and delivery stations across the city, from Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west. Operating between 19 and 22 hours a day, the Mail Rail chugged back and forth using driverless trains, never having to worry about getting stuck in the traffic that clogged the roads above.
Over the decades, the cost of operating the trains became higher than transporting mail by truck. After many of the sorting stations were relocated, and their associated stations closed, the Mail Rail finally ceased operations in 2003. It has sat idle since, but plans are afoot to convert the system into a museum equipped with mail trains modified to seat passengers. According to the BBC, the project is expected to be completed by 2020.
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Tropical Islands: Summer Fun in a German Airship Hangar
Seeking a relaxing escape from winter? You could always take a trip to a German airship hangar built on a Luftwaffe air field. There you will find Tropical Islands, a year-round beach resort where it’s always summer.
The complex is located inside the Aerium, a massive dome built in 2000 to house dirigibles. CargoLifter, the company that constructed the Aerium, declared insolvency in 2002. Shortly afterward, Malaysian company Tanjong snapped up the empty hangar and turned it into Tropical Islands.
The resort, maintained at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, features an array of pools, water slides, beaches, and a rain forest teeming with tropical plants. The décor is a mishmash of cultures—the jungle contains temples modeled on Angkor Wat and Elephanta, a network of eighth-century Indian cave temples. “Asia House” is modeled on a Japanese pavilion. The evenings bring Latin rhythms in the form of a Cuban dance show.
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The Rusty, Creaking Cable Cars of Chiatura
Around 20,000 people live in the mining town of Chiatura, located in a manganese-rich valley in the west Georgian region of Imereti. Back in the mid-1950s, when the mining industry was more prosperous and the population much higher, and Georgia was part of the USSR, the Soviet government installed a network of cable cars to transport manganese production workers more efficiently.
Though the hammer-and-sickle crowd has long since departed, many of these cable car lines continue to operate. The rusty, creaking cabins are the main form of transport for miners and factory workers traveling up the mountain. Some Chiatura kids also use the cable cars to get to school.
The ride up the mountain is less scary than it looks, but the odd incident does occur. During an interview for Chiatura, My Pride, a 2011 short film, a cable car rider says she was in mid-journey in 2007 when one of the cables tore. Despite initial screams, all 17 passengers calmed down enough to joke around and were rescued one by one by mountain climbers dispatched from the capital, Tbilisi.
Day to day, the greater issue seems to be dealing with drunk miners. Another cable operator interviewed in the film says that, while the official policy is to not let intoxicated people onto the cars, miners are often impervious to such requests. In those instances, she says, “we just hug drunk people so they cannot fall down.”
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The Strange Story of Australia’s Mysterious Marree Man
Charter pilot Trec Smith was flying over South Australia toward the opal mining town of Coober Pedy in June 1998 when he saw it: a 2.6-mile-tall naked indigenous man, his left arm raised and ready to launch a hunting stick toward unseen prey.
The perfectly proportioned figure, carved into the earth, was dubbed the Marree Man due to its proximity to the small outback town of Marree. Its wide lines, dug 10 inches into the ground, could only be seen from the air. But despite the planning, precision, and sheer boldness required to create it, no one came forward to claim authorship of the geoglyph—and apparently no one witnessed its creation.
The situation only got stranger. Anonymous press releases appeared, seemingly written from an American perspective. They used U.S. units of measurement, referred to local places with awkwardly formal names, and referred to the Native American Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. In June 1999 a fax from the U.K. revealed that a message had been buried beneath the Marree Man’s nose. Authorities surrendered to curiosity and dug it up to discover a plaque that was decorated with an American flag, the Olympic rings—likely referring to the 2000 Sydney Olympics—and a quote about Aboriginal wallaby hunting from The Red Centre, a 1936 book on outback Australia.
The created-by-Americans angle seemed to be a red herring planted by an audacious eccentric. That’s where Bardius Goldberg, now considered the most likely perpetrator, comes in. Goldberg, an artist prone to provocation, had been making Aboriginal-style dot paintings near the desert town of Alice Springs when he got into a dispute with the traditional land owner, Herman Malbunka. National newspaper the Australian spoke to retired drilling contractor John Henderson, who said Goldberg used a borrowed GPS and a tractor to send a spiteful message to Malbunka in the form of the Marree Man.
Unfortunately, Goldberg died in 2002—according to the Australian, after getting a tooth dislodged in a bar fight, he refused to go to the dentist and developed fatal septicemia—meaning the mystery of the Marree Man has never been officially solved. Goldberg’s other schemes included planting eucalyptus trees in the shape of a giant kangaroo and installing a magically disappearing Virgin Mary in the wall of a house. To those who knew him, he was the only possible culprit.
The Marree Man is gradually disappearing due to erosion. In 2013 some impassioned locals spearheaded by Marree pub owner Phil Turner made a public plea to restore the geoglyph at an estimated cost of half-a-million dollars.
“It’s really no different to someone restoring a masterpiece, a Rembrandt or something like that that’s been lost and covered in dust,” Turner told Australia’s ABC News.
The Magnificent Ottoman Ruins of Ishak Pasha Palace
On a plateau overlooking Dogubeyazit, the last Turkish town before you hit the Iranian border, sits a ruined Ottoman palace.
Still grand despite the wreckage, Ishak Pasha Palace was built from 1685 to 1784. Multiple generations of the Pasha family contributed to its construction, with Colak Pasha kicking things off in 1685 and his grandson Mehmet Pasha adding the finishing details in 1784. The palace is named for Ishak Pasha, son of Colak, who also pitched in with the bricklaying. (This Ishak is not to be confused with another Ishak Pasha, the 15th-century Ottoman Grand Vizier whose mystical armor shows up in Assassin’s Creed.)
During its glory days, the 366-room palace boasted two courts, a harem, a bath house, servent stations, apartments, a mosque, dungeons, and a mausoleum. The decline of the Ottoman Empire brought the abandonment of Ishak Pasha Palace, but its ruins retain a sense of magnificence, enhanced by the hilltop location. Over the last few decades, the Turkish government has been conducting restoration work on the palace, making a few questionable choices along the way—the glass roofs with orange beams now covering some of the ruined rooms are a definite departure from the Ottoman aesthetic.
If a few glass roofs don’t arouse your sense of controversy, you could always head down the road to the area’s other big draw, the Durupinar site. This boat-shaped natural rock formation was hailed as the remains of Noah’s Ark by a few faithful after an earthquake made it visible in 1948.
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Inside the Stunning Mosques of Shiraz, Iran
The south Iranian city of Shiraz is home to three neighboring mosques with jaw-dropping architecture.
Chief among the trio is Shah Cheragh, first built during the 12th century. Though its golden minarets and intricately tiled facades are impressive, the most stunning parts are the interiors lined with millions of tiny, glittering mirror shards and hung with chandeliers.
Nasir al-Mulk mosque, just next door, is remarkable for the stained glass windows lining its indoor prayer hall. Visit early in the morning and you’ll see sunlight streaming through the colored glass, painting kaleidoscopic patterns onto the supporting columns. Completed in 1888, Nasir al-Mulk is also known as the Pink Mosque due to the pink tiles lining its interior.
Across the road, Vakil mosque, built between 1751 and 1773, features an expansive outdoor prayer hall ornamented with spiral columns, brick-patterned arches, and floral tiles.
Non-Muslims may visit each mosque, but cameras are often forbidden and women should don a chador before entering.
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The Dish: How an Australian Sheep Farm Brought the Moon Landing to TV
On Monday Australia’s Swinburne University announced that one of its astrophysics Ph.D. students, Emily Petroff, had become the first person to witness a fast radio burst arrive at Earth from billions of light-years away. Fast radio bursts, known in the astrophysics biz as FRBs, are a known phenomenon but until Petroff saw one arriving last May had never been witnessed live. FRBs last just milliseconds but can give off about as much energy as the sun does in a day. Their source is unknown, but, according to Petroff, “the neat idea that we are seeing a neutron star imploding into a black hole remains a possibility.”
The mysterious cosmic burst was observed via the Parkes Radio Telescope, a 210-foot-wide dish in the middle of a sheep paddock 240 miles west of Sydney. The story of this telescope, known affectionately as The Dish, is a very Australian one. In the mid-1950s, the CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) went looking for a sparsely populated site free from radio interference. There they would establish an observatory formidable enough to impress the Americans.
Given Australia’s population density, the CSIRO was spoiled for choice. Eventually it settled on an area in the Goobang Valley, just outside of the small town of Parkes. In 1958 sheep farmer Australia “Austie” Helm—named after the July 1915 holiday Australia Day, on which he was born—sold 170 hectares of paddocks to the CSIRO for its observatory. The Dish began operating in 1961. Eight years later it played a major role in one of humanity’s greatest achievements—in an inconspicuous way.
On July 20, 1969, 530 million people—then a fifth of the world’s population—watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon. Live signals from the moon landing were beamed to three receiving stations: California’s Goldstone and two Australian locations, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes. As Armstrong emerged from the lunar module, NASA switched between signals, wanting to broadcast the best image possible for the historic moment. Parkes’ transmission was the clearest, and NASA stuck with it for the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour broadcast.
Parkes’ part in the Apollo 11 broadcast forms the plot of The Dish, a 2000 Australian film crammed with quirky characters that takes a few creative liberties with the story. (The CSIRO notes that, unlike in the movie, “there was no animosity with Americans.” Also, despite cinematic depiction to the contrary, astrophysicists have never played cricket on the surface of the telescope.)
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El Peñón de Guatapé, the Giant Rock Stitched With a Staircase
From a distance, this 10 million-ton stone towering 650 feet above the Colombian town of Guatapé looks like two halves of a giant rock messily stitched together. Get closer and you realize that the “stitching” is actually a zigzagging staircase wedged into the crack running down the rock.
Once worshiped by the local Tahamies Indians, the rock—known as El Peñón de Guatapé—had come to be regarded as a nuisance until 1954, when a group of adventurous friends climbed it using a series of boards jammed into the crack. The ascent took five days, but the view from the top of the rock was so spectacular that it had to be shared. A 650-step staircase was installed in the crack, and El Peñón soon began attracting visitors eager to make the trip to the top. You, too, can climb to the summit after a three-hour bus ride from Medellín.
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The Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo in Italy
Just north of the small Italian town of Bomarzo is a quiet park where sunlight filters through the canopies of trees and lands on moss-covered stone sculptures. Many of these sculptures, however, are less than tranquil: There’s a reason the place is called Parco dei Mostri, or the Park of the Monsters.
The sculptures in the park emerged from the tormented mind of 16th-century Italian prince Pier Francesco Orsini. The prince endured a brutal war, saw his friend killed, was held for ransom for years, and returned home only to have his beloved wife die. Seeking a way to express his grief, Orsini hired architect Pirro Ligorio to create a park that would shock and frighten its visitors.
The park exhibits the 16th-century Mannerist style—an artistic approach that rejected the Renaissance’s elegance and harmony in favor of exaggerated, often tortured expressions and a mishmash of mythological, classical, and religious influences. Its wretched sculptures—including a war elephant attacking a Roman soldier, a monstrous fish-head, a giant tearing another giant in half, and a house built on a tilt to disorient the viewer—caught the attention of Salvador Dalí, who visited in 1948 and found much to inspire his Surrealist artwork.
A trip to the park is not complete without a walk down the stone stairs leading into the “Mouth of Hell”: the face of an ogre captured midscream. Walk into its gaping maw, inscribed with “all reason departs,” and you’ll find a picnic table with benches.
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Ascend to the Clouds in This Breathtaking Outdoor Elevator
The summit of Bürgenstock, a mountain overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, offers stunning panoramic views of the Alps, the serpentine lake, and the bustling yet bucolic city of Lucerne. And the journey to this spot is just as thrilling as the destination: To ascend to the top, you ride in Europe’s tallest outdoor elevator, built in 1905.
The trip to the peak, which rises 3,714 feet above sea level, begins at a rock pit inside the mountain, reached via hiking path. Step into the 12-person, glass-walled Hammetschwand elevator and you’ll be rocketed up the last 500 feet to the summit in under a minute.
Lest you be concerned that the cables on this 110-year-old contraption may be getting a little frayed, rest assured that the elevator has been upgraded over the decades. In 1935 the speed was increased from 3.3 feet per second to the current speed of just under 9 feet per second.
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