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Why would anyone live in the desert? In Coober Pedy, 850km north of Adelaide and 680km south of Alice Springs, the answer is opal, a colourful little gemstone. Since the first findings in the beginning of last century people have despised the harsh environment and settled down here in the middle of the outback. The surface is hot, burned and dusty so most residents have searched for cooler temperatures underground. Dugout homes, shops, bars and churches have been refurnished from old mines and you can even spend the night in one of the cave hotels. If you haven't seen enough weird things, you can visit the Great Barrier Fence, the dingo fence running the whole stretch from coast to coast adding up to about 5400km, just a bit out of town.
Tunnels of Mao
62 Xi Damochang Lu, South East of Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Under the broad boulevards of Beijing exists a system of tunnels that Chairman Mao ordered to be dug out in the late 1970's in the event of a Russian attack. The whole system should be longer than the Chinese wall (5000 km) and some parts wide enough for the Chairman's limo. It seems that these tunnels are long forgotten by the Chinese themselves, and rumours are that Chinese tourists are not even allowed in them. More the reason to visit them, if not for the history then just for the absurdity of them.
In the surrounding hills of the village of San Andres de Pisimbala are several groups of underground burial chambers, also known as Tierradentro. Not much is known about the ancient culture that left these behind, but it is believed that the tombs are from 6th to 9th centuries AD. The inside of the chambers were painted in bright geometric patterns and creatures, and to this day it can still be seen in the best preserved ones. A visit to all four sites (Segovia, El Duende, Alto de San Andres and El Aguacate) will at least require a day's walking in the beautiful mountains and will also include the site of El Tablon where mystical stone statues, similar to the ones at San Agustin, can be seen. It is the only place in the Americas where such tombs have been found, and a wonder why they are so seldomly visited.
Orheiul Vechi monastery
Trebujeni village, 10 km southeast of Orhei
According to statistics, Moldova ranks as one of the least visited places on Earth. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the country lacks any significant tourism sites. But one thing is for sure, if you ask any local what you should see in the country, it is almost guaranteed the first answer will be Orheiul Vechi. A short drive north of the country's capital, and slightly outside the town of Orhei, an old monastery stands on the edge of a cliffside perched over an ancient winding river. The monastery complex, the Church of the Ascension of St. Mary, is the first thing that visitors will notice. However, it is the descent into the darkness of the underground monastery that is the real draw. Luckily, for those with a bit of claustrophobia, fresh air and lovely views over the fertile valley are never too far away. Remember not to visit on a weekend or holiday, unless you like being squished in with pretty much half of the population of picnickers from the city!
Underground winery tour
Cricova and Milestii Mici vineyards
Very few seem to know this, but Moldova is actually semi-famous for its wine. You will however notice this right away when arriving to the country for every hill and every field seem to be covered in long rows of grapevines. The two biggest wineries are Milestii Mici and Cricova, both can be visited on a winery tour. They are both located underground in limestone mines and are very large, as in largest in the world. The wine collection at Milestii Mici alone contains more than 1.5 million bottles, which makes it the largest collection in the world. The underground network at Milestii Mici is more than 200 km long (Cricova is "only" 120 km in length), though only 55 km of those are used for storage, and every underground street has a catchy wine-name like Sauvignon street. Any wine tour ends of course with some wine sampling, which in our case was more about quantity than quality. Keep in mind that bookings are necessary with these not-so-foreign-tourist-friendly wineries.
Soviet bunker 42
Bld 11, 5th Kotelnicheskiy (metro Taganga), Moscow
During the Cold War of the 50s and 60s, the USSR feared an atomic attack from USA and built secret underground bunkers. Bunker 42 is such a bunker aimed for the military communication unit. Placed in a residential area underneath a dummy apartment block, it sits 60 meters underground and was staffed by more than 2500 people at its peak. After the Cold War and the fall of USSR, the bunker was no longer useful and got auctioned off. Today, it is turned into a Cold War museum where you get taken 18 floors underground and walked through the armored tubes and halls - and if you ask nicely, you might get to hold an AK-74.
Throughout the region, the Berber people are renowned for their resourcefulness in living in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They manage to find a harmony with the land to provide the essentials of life, like food and shelter. Nowhere is this more apparent then in the tiny village of Matmata. In order to stay cool in the sweltering mid-summer heat and warm in the surprising cold of winter, they have building their homes into the ground, literally. 5-10 meter deep artificial craters act as a central courtyard to rooms dug into the steep walls. The best way to experience this unique accommodation is to stay overnight. It's also the best way to experience the friendly village of Matmata. Most tourists show up on luxury buses, take pictures of the cave that was Luke Skywalker's home and leave. Spending the night seems to allow the village to open up to you, before getting closed into your cave room.
Chimney rocks and underground cities
A landscape so imaginary and weird that it's hard to believe it's made by nature. The soft underlaying volcanic rock has been shaped by time, wind and water and left in the most fantastic formations with harder boulders balancing on top of tall rock chimneys. To add further magic to the place the mountain sides and underground have been dug out for housing, monasteries and even whole underground cities for thousands of years. It was in these multi levelled underground complexes where the Christians hide from the Romans to escape their prosecution. Some of the cities are more than 80 meters deep with eight floors and could accommodate more than 20.000 people. It's a truly unique place and you can even sleep in some of the many cave hotels in the area.
Kiev Pecherska Lavra, Kiev
Underneath several gold-domed churches are two monastery caves, upper Lavra and lower Lavra. Each is an underground pathway with several niches where coffins and mummified monks are on display for public curiosity and worship. It is a strange religious tourist attraction where candle sellers also boast kitsch souvenirs like plastic icons. The passageways are pitch dark so you need to buy a candle to light your way, which can seem a bit dangerous when the tunnels get jam-packed with pilgrims. Though some visitors just come for the novelty factor, most consider it holy and a place for miracles. They cross themselves, kneel down for a short prayer and some might even kiss the glass cases containing a dressed corpse of a deceased monk. Photographing in the caves is not allowed, as you would have guessed from the above ground picture.
Under the Thames
Greenwich Foot Tunnel
The foot tunnel under the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs was first open in 1902. It was built so the workers living on the south side of the Thames could get to their workplace at the docks and shipyard on the north side. The 300 m long pedestrian tunnel is still functional today and is probably the most unusual way to cross the Thames.