There are people who get off the beaten track in China, and then there is Greg Abandoned.
Born in Poland, before moving to the UK, divorce from his wife led to a trip to Chernobyl that changed his life – one he now dedicates to UrbEx, the exploration of abandoned spaces.
In 2018, Greg moved to China – an ‘UrbEx gold mine’ – amassing over 100,000 followers on his Instagram @gregabandoned. He also hosts the Chasing Bandos UrbEx Podcast, as well as compiling an Abandoned China book trilogy.
Intrigued, we sought out this capturer of apocalyptic images to find out what makes him tick.
Abandoned armoured train found on the movie of The Hundreds Regiments Offensive (2015)
When and why did your fascination with abandoned spaces come about?
I have to thank my ex-wife for divorcing me, as that was the catalyst for the decisions I made afterward. I’m half-joking, of course, but the divorce was a major event in my life that made me realize many things, and one of them was that I should try new things that I haven’t done prior.
Around the same time as the divorce, I met a guy at work who shared a similar attraction towards apocalyptic themes – we both like the Mad Max movies and The Book of Eli. I was blown away after reading Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road and The Wool Trilogy. There is something mesmerizing about the end of civilization that drives my imagination.
One day, my friend and I decided to visit Chernobyl; he was relocating to Spain and I figured this would be a memorable visit for us, as we wouldn’t be able to see each other that often anymore.
Chernobyl changed my life. Standing on top of buildings in the abandoned city of Pripyat, looking down at the site Mother Nature had reclaimed was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
At that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I want to find places like this. Everything made sense from that light switch moment.
An abandoned warehouse hosting various dinosaurs.
How did you get into photography?
After Chernobyl, I started to share my pictures on Instragram and received a positive reaction.
Some feature-hub accounts used my pictures, and from there I realized that there are other people who go to abandoned places and use specific hashtags to share their findings with the community.
Subsequently, I learned about UrbEx, a sub-category of urban exploring – going to abandoned places. I used social media as motivation to keep going.
Once I was in China, I realized I had stumbled across an ‘UrbEx gold mine,’ and the rest was history.
Tell us about the UrbEx Code?
“Take only pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” might seem like a cheesy slogan, but I always say that “even pirates had their code,” hence we should also follow some guidelines:
Never damage property! Just because it is abandoned, it doesn’t give the right to do anything you want. Most likely someone still owns it.
Do not steal! Some places have stuff left behind. It is not yours, even if it is left in an abandoned place.
This seems pretty obvious. Just use your common sense. Explorers don’t break; explorers don’t steal – vandals do.
An abandoned train graveyard.
How do you choose where to shoot?
I have shot hundreds of different locations and, without sounding like a snob, nowadays I try to find places that make you go, “Wow!”
I love an overgrown corridor with paint coming off the walls as much as the next guy, but recently I’ve tried my best to find more unique locations.
I love my camera, but I also can’t explore without my drone. If I crash it, I buy a new one the same day (this has actually happened too many times). I love flying my drone and taking drone pictures. If there is a chance to take one, I can’t resist it.
Greg operating his drone in an abadoned train station.
What do you look for in a photograph?
It isn’t something specific; it is all about locations. Can I show the scale of abandonment in this building? How unique is this place? Have I seen this type of picture before?
I’m not that into close-up shots like many Chinese explorers – I like big scale.
Abandoned power plant, chemical building
How do you find out about new locations?
This is one of the most common things people ask me on Instagram or on the podcast, and there is no one answer to this question.
Let me give you an example: there was this one abandoned water park somewhere in China I tried to find; I can’t even remember how I found out about it in the first place.
It took me six months to find the exact location; scanning the internet for clues and spending hours on satellite maps. I even called the manufacturer of the rides and asked them for help, as I noticed many water parks use the same types.
Some locations are easy and some are hard to find. But anyone can find anything as long as you are willing to put the time and effort in to do it.
These days, I feel like the abandoned places find me rather than the other way around.
Two locomotives found in a small, unassuming building near abandoned lime factory.
What is your favorite place you have shot so far?
There is one place UrbEx explorers call the ‘Holy Grail’ – in the middle of the desert in Kazakhstan there are abandoned space shuttles and a space rocket.
Exploring this place was the hardest, most physically challenging and most dangerous mission I have ever done. Walking fully equipped through a desert with your gear, food and water to last you two days was hard enough. Not getting caught while on site was something else entirely.
I gathered info on this place for almost a year and trained for three months to get physically able to do it. I used to pack my bag and walk from 8pm on Friday night to 5am on Saturday morning to prepare myself for the hike of my life.
However, waking up on the top floor of the space shuttle hangar and looking down at two abandoned shuttles remains the best day of my life. The excruciating journey and all the pain endured – it was all worth it.
The Holy grail. Greg hiking in Kazakhstan.
Have you ever had any close encounters or scary moments with authorities?
When you do UrbEx, it is impossible not to have those moments. I’m always very careful, but there are moments when you simply can’t avoid getting caught.
Probably the scariest moment of my ‘UrbEx career’ was when I got mistaken for a spy at a military base, which I wrongly took for an abandoned plane graveyard. That was certainly one long interrogation I wouldn’t want to repeat.
If you could shoot a place you have not yet, where would it be?
I love space-related places. Space rockets, space shuttles, even abandoned theme parks with space shuttle replicas – let me explore any of those any day.
However, the Chinese space program is relatively new, so the chances of me finding abandoned space-related places here are rather slim – but not impossible…
I would even settle for a tourist visit to any of the four Chinese space launching locations, and if you knew me personally you would understand the significance of this statement: I never do tourism!
Sadly, as a foreigner living in China, even a tourist visit like that is mission impossible.
Abandoned Long Match Rocket bought by a housing developer and left rotting away due to failed enterprise.
What advice would you give someone trying to shoot abandoned spaces?
Do it for the right reasons.
If you are looking for Insta-fame, or your goal is to grow your social media status, and you think this is the way to do it, then don’t bother.
Do it because you love those places and you feel a sense of protection over them. UrbEx will give you incredible experiences; stories you would never expect – because you will be doing things that society told you over and over not to do.
When you learn to let go of what others think and you stop listening to what others tell you and follow your instincts, you will be ready.
Challenge yourself and stay safe. Bring someone with you; you don’t want to fall through a broken floor and break your leg by yourself.
I was once trying to get access to this Bulgarian UFO-like monument building located on top of a mountain that required me to jump four meters down to a pitch-dark basement. But, since I was with someone else, whatever happened to me, at least I wouldn’t be alone – that is my mindset.
I can’t stress this enough – worry afterward not before.
Follower Greg on Instagram @gregabandoned or scan the QR code:
Visit Greg’s website at www.gregabandoned.com or scan the QR code:
Abandoned China Book Trilogy
After living in China for many years, I felt I would like to look back at my time here and be proud of something I achieved. I didn’t want it to be your regular coffee-table picture book; it needed to be something more.
The book is fifty-fifty stories with pictures that go along with them. I have done my best to research the locations and explain why they became abandoned.
After compiling the book, I realized that, with the sheer volume of places I have been to, even cherry-picking the locations – you would have to go the gym just to be able pick it up. It was that heavy!
Hence, I decided to divide it up into three separate books:
Abandoned China: Book One focuses on abandoned rockets, power plants, factories, trains, ships, planes, cars and bicycle graveyards.
Abandoned China: Book Two, which is the one I am currently working on, will feature abandoned hospitals, schools, theaters, temples, ghost towns, movie sets and hotels.
Abandoned China: Book Three will be all about amusement parks, as well as some miscellaneous locations I can’t categorize. China has so many abandoned theme parks, amusement parks, water parks, indoor and outdoor that is simply mind-boggling!
Scan the QR code below to purchase a copy of 'Abandoned China: Book One':
Chasing Bandos UrbEx Podcast
Having a big social media following, I had many interactions with other explorers from around the world. Many of them would tell me “Guess what happened to me when I went here,” or “Greg, you won’t believe what we did in this place.”
Then, in September 2020, I was invited as a guest on a photography podcast and I realized how cool it was. Since I’d always loved stories, I figured an UrbEx podcast would be a great idea, especially as there didn’t seem to be anything like that out there. And so, the idea for Chasing Bandos was born.
‘Bandos,’ for those not in the know, is a slang term in the UrbEx community for abandoned places, so ‘Chasing Bandos’ means exploring abandoned locations.
On the pod, I mainly talk to other explorers, as they share their incredible adventure stories – and some of them are just insane!
They are some of the most fascinating people you can come across. One of my guests, legendary explorer John Law (you might know him as the co-founder of Burning Man) said it best:
“The UrbEx stories you’ve captured in your podcast are just phenomenal. When you listen to the podcast, the stories are so inspirational, so amazing, and you can learn so much from them and be inspired, not even to do UrbEx, but to do your own creativity.”
I encourage my listeners to recommend guests, and I always say – if you have a cool story to tell, you are welcome. If I come across an amazing UrbEx gallery on social media, I introduce myself and send an invite.
You don’t have to have millions of followers to appear on the podcast. We’ve had a huge range of explorers, from famous YouTube stars to an 18-year-old who started exploring with his mom.
We’ve had a Harvard fellow, and we had people who used to be homeless and UrbEx saved their life. We’ve had explorers from America, Norway, Cyprus, Slovakia… the list goes on; I believe we’ve featured explorers of around 30 different nationalities.
As long as you can communicate in English, and you have a good story to tell, you can come on the pod and share it with the listeners.
We also have more topical episodes, specials and mini-series. We did a series on Chernobyl; on the abandoned ghost city of Famagusta in Cyprus; on Buran and the previously mentioned abandoned space shuttles in Kazakhstan; and currently, we are about to finish a 10-part series on North Korea, which I had a chance to visit in 2019.
North Korea has been a little fascination of mine since my early twenties, and – honestly speaking – it doesn't technically fit with the podcast; however, I put a spin on it calling it ‘Dark tourism.’
Basically, if you love stories and would love to find more about the pictures you see here, you don’t need to look any further than Chasing Bandos. Don’t let the one-hour episodes scare you – it will be worth it!
[All images by Greg Abandoned]