Top 10 Weird Towns

Fortean Times online Aug 2010

News this week that southern Sudan is to rebuild its cities in the shape of animals and fruit; Chinese developers plan to construct an imitation Cadaqués, the Costa Brava port that was once home to Salvador Dali, in Xiamen Bay. And these visionaries are by no means the first to get all creative with urban planning. Some schemes are never more than castles in the air, others get built but are demolished by practical-minded authorities (farewell Walled City, we mourn you Sanzhi UFO houses), but nevertheless the world is strewn with fantastical follies, themed towns and surreal cityscapes. Here’s our top ten.

Chess City
A city themed around chess may sound like something dreamt up by Lewis Carroll but the impoverished Republic of Kalmykia has transformed it into reality, albeit a costly one. Boasting neatly lined streets and a magnificent Chess Palace, the city was masterminded by the nation’s chess-obsessed president (who also claims to be an alien abductee) but is largely deserted.

Jewish Autonomous Oblast
Birobidzhan, Russia
An artificial Jewish homeland created by Stalin in inhospitable far eastern Siberia, Birobidzhan is today a strange, cold and half-deserted historical relic, a monument to those idealistic early inhabitants whose dreams of a “Soviet Zion” were swiftly crushed by the 1930s purges. Few Jews remain, yet its unlikely history still echoes through this largely-forgotten region, an incongruous outpost of Yiddish culture, architecture and traditions.

Dwarf Village
Kunming, China
With each of its residents measuring in at under 1.5m, this curious mountain commune in Kunming was created either (depending on the source) as a safe haven for persecuted Chinese dwarves or as a tasteless theme park. The latter seems more likely, given the strange mushroom houses that litter the landscape, the medieval costumes worn by the diminutive denizens, and the bizarre musical numbers put on for baffled visitors.

Garbage City
Manshiyat Naser, Egypt
A city in which trash flows freely from apartment doors and is stacked several stories high may sound nightmarish, but to the residents of this Cairo suburb it’s a vital money-making opportunity: ‘Garbage City’s’ inhabitants make a living by cheaply collecting, sorting and disposing of the vast waste produced by Africa’s most populous city. It’s a dangerous lifestyle, but they manage to recycle an astonishing 80-90% of what they find.

Battleship Island
Hashima Island, Japan
At one time the world’s most densely populated location, this artificial island off the Japanese coast whose high sea walls make it look like a huge battleship is now possibly the world’s largest ghost town. Originally founded as a coal-mining facility by Japanese giant Mitsubishi, it contained casinos, cinemas and scores of people until the mine’s closure in 1974, whereupon it was swiftly abandoned. The walled island was recently reopened to curious tourists drawn to the eerie silhouette it casts on the Nagasaki horizon.

White Man In A Hole
Coober Pedy, Australia
Though commonly known as the opal capital of the world, Coober Pedy (an anglicised version of the Aboriginal words ‘kupa piti’ or ‘white man in a hole’) is perhaps more remarkable in that the majority of its 3,500-strong population live underground in refurbished mines. This cavernous community was built by miners sheltering from harsh daytime temperatures, and now includes an underground church, museums, potteries, shops, an art gallery and a hotel; residents emerge at night to play golf on grassless courses using illuminated balls.

Modern Ghost Town
Kangbashi, Ordos, China
This gleaming, over-designed new district of a rich Inner Mongolian coal-mining city has earned itself the name ‘China’s modern ghost town’ due to the fact that its intended population has – for the most part – yet to arrive. Though built to attract residents from the Ordos old town, the only inhabitants to grace its abstract landscape so far have been construction workers, and its extensive infrastructure remains practically unused. Still, the construction continues…

Federation of Damanhur
Boasting extravagant underground temples constructed by a neopagan commune nestled in the foothills of the Alps, The Federation of Damanhur’s ‘Temples of Humankind’ have been dubbed by the Italian government ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World.’ Secretly constructed by former insurance broker Oberto “Falco” Airaudi based on his own childhood visions, the community also now has its own university, currency and award-winning eco homes, and is famed for its time-travel experiments.

Thames Town
Songjiang, China
Commonly referred to as ‘Thames Town’, this picturesque Shanghai satellite has been built to resemble Middle England as closely as possible in the hope of attracting Chinese homebuyers, and features exquisite Georgian terraces, quaint village greens and winding cobbled lanes. It’s not the only themed community planned by local authorities; neighbouring towns based on Italy and Barcelona are already in development, as well as an ‘auto-town’ boasting a Formula 1 track and BMW plant.

The Villages
Florida, USA
This surreal suburban utopia has been dubbed the world’s first age-segregated community; not only does it refuse residence to anyone aged under 19, but it also insists that each household contain at least one person over the age of 55. It’s designed as a haven for active retirees, and Villagers can enjoy a range of tailored activities, tune into a local radio station that only plays ‘oldies’, and get around on the community’s preferred mode of transport – souped-up golf carts.

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