Where time stands still
There are places in this world that never stop changing, like Rome — built on the ruins and debris of its previous iterations — or New York, with its ever-rising skyline.
And then there are places where time stands still. Whether frozen in time by natural disaster or simply left behind because no one cared to stay, these spots stand virtually undisturbed, encapsulating a moment of the past.
The ancient city of Pompeii was arrested in time in A.D. 79 by Mount Vesuvius. The volcano buried the town and any inhabitants who could not evacuate in a thick layer of volcanic ash. The bodies of the dead decomposed, leaving behind voids in the ash that archaeologists later filled with plaster and excavated, resulting in the eerie death casts that made Pompeii famous. But the volcano preserved other things too, from advanced plumbing facilities to colorful carved frescos and graffiti. Excavations have revealed the nitty-gritty details of life in A.D. 79, including at-home first aid equipment and tiny barbecues that probably cooked quick, casual meals.
Two Guns, Arizona
Among the American West's weirder ghost towns is Two Guns, an abandoned roadside attraction. According to Atlas Obscura, Two Guns was nothing but a few scattered homesteads until the early 1920s, when it became a travel stop on what would morph into the famous Route 66. An eccentric entrepreneur named Harry Miller leased the site, building a mini-zoo and fake Native American ruins. Exploiting the late 19th-century deaths of a group of Apache warriors killed during a battle with the Navajo people, Miller gave tours of the cave where they died and even sold skulls he said were from those Apache. Miller later shot the landowner who leased him the land, but was acquitted. In 1929, after a fire and a legal battle over the land ownership, Miller left. Route 66 soon left too, rerouted across the canyon. Two Guns changed hands a few times before burning down again in 1971. Today, only a few stone buildings and part of the old zoo's mountain lion enclosure remain.
Salton Riviera, California
When the Salton Sea formed, quite by accident in 1905, people called it a miracle. Thanks to an irrigation accident, water from the Colorado River filled a formerly dry lakebed in southeastern California. The resulting lake, the Salton Sea, became a resort attraction (it's still a state recreation area today).
Within a few decades, though, the disaster of the Salton Sea became apparent. With no outlet, the lake concentrated both salt and agricultural runoff, turning it into a stinking environmental disaster, complete with piles of dead fish along the shore. Most of the buildings near the lake have been abandoned, and local authorities have agreed to let the Salton Sea wither. As of 2018, 40 percent less water is being directed into the Salton Sea than at its inception, according to The Verge, which will gradually lower the lake level by 20 feet (6 meters). As lake turns to dust, more residents may flee, according to The Verge; the air in the Imperial Valley is among the worst in the country.
Hashima Island, Japan
Once the site of a major coal-mining operation and home to more than 5,000 people, Japan's Hashima Island is now heavily built up — but empty. The island is a mere 16 acres (6.3 hectares) in area and is almost entirely covered by the marks of humanity: a seawall, multi-story buildings and an abandoned shrine. The island was abandoned in 1974 after all its coal was depleted. In 2009, it opened to tourism, and, in 2015, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you can't get there in person, you can tour the island in great detail via Google Earth.
It was a bit like a modern Pompeii. On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused the release of 5 percent of the reactor's radioactive core. According to the World Nuclear Association, 28 people perished in the following weeks because of acute radiation sickness. In the nearby town of Pripyat, 45,000 people had to leave overnight; ultimately, more than 220,000 people would have to evacuate the contaminated zone around the plant.
The buildings left behind are full of shattered glass and abandoned furniture. An abandoned Ferris wheel sits by a long-unused merry-go-round. Nature has reclaimed the catastrophe zone, with wolves, moose and wild boar roaming where humans used to bustle.
The bone-dry Namib Desert is a hard place for life to survive. The town of Kolmanskop didn't manage to.
Founded in the early 1900s after diamonds were discovered in the region, Kolmanskop was built by the Germans who controlled what is now Namibia at the time. The architecture is oddly Teutonic, with arched windows and wrought-iron railings. According to the now-ghost-town's website, residents survived thanks to water trucked in from 75 miles (120 kilometers) away. By the 1920s, the diamond mines were drying up and new deposits were found elsewhere. The town shrank rapidly, and it was finally abandoned for good in 1956.
Sanzhi UFO Houses
The Sanzhi UFO Houses were a row of oddly shaped pod-like buildings put up in the late 1970s as a resort on the northern tip of Taiwan. The two-story pod-buildings were never finished, but they were painted a cheery pink and yellow, making them look as though some friendly futuristic extraterrestrial had just dashed down to the store for a cup of sugar and might be back at any minute. These odd ghost buildings wouldn't last forever, though; they were demolished in 2010 to make way for new development.
Deception Island, Antarctica
Can something qualify as a ghost town if it's on a largely uninhabited continent? Deception Island might. This outpost in Antarctica has been a whaling station and the site of several scientific labs, but it's also the caldera of an active volcano. In 1967 and 1969, that volcano erupted, destroying the British and Chilean scientific stations that were active at the time. According to Atlas Obscura, the island is now visited by the occasional seasonal science team and by tourists who enjoy views of the place's deserted airplane hangar and rusting boilers and tanks.
Located in the "instep" of Italy's boot, the village of Craco dates to A.D. 1060 (though monks and earlier settlers lived in this rugged region prior to that time). Throughout the Middle Ages, about 1,500 people lived in Craco at any given time. It had four plazas, multiple churches, and, by the 1800s, it was big enough to be split into two districts, according to the local historical society.
But Italy is a seismically active place, and the slopes where Craco was built are steep and unstable. In the mid-1900s, earthquakes and landslides damaged the town. In 1963, the last residents left, relocated to another village nearby. Today, the abandoned town is a historical site and tourist attraction.
A tragic casualty of World War II, Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed by the Waffen SS in 1944. It was a horrific atrocity. On June 10 of that year, Nazi forces entered the village and rounded up its citizenry on the pretense of doing identity checks. Instead, they separated the village's men from its women and children and began to massacre them. They killed 642 men, women and children, then set the village on fire. Only a handful of people survived.
After the war, France decided to leave the village as it was in memory of the massacre. A Centre de la Mémoire stands at the sight to guide visitors through the abandoned buildings and execution sites. The village crypt contains artifacts like watches and clocks stopped at the time of the fires.