Transnistria. If the name draws a blank, then don’t worry – you’re not alone. This tiny sliver of land located along the Dniester River between Moldova and Ukraine is almost unanimously unrecognized. Even amongst the relatively few Westerners aware of its existence, Transnistria is best known as the time-locked non-nation where the Soviet Union forgot to die. Such preconceptions do a disservice, however, to what is in reality a fascinating, safe, and largely misunderstood region of Eastern Europe.

Transnistria's independence, contested as it may be, came by way of the War of Transnistria (1990-92). Under the Soviet regime, this region was a special industrial zone, and when the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova morphed into today’s democratic Republic of Moldova, the Transnistrian province was loathe to relinquish its ties with Moscow.

The region was supposedly responsible for large-scale weapons manufacturing for the USSR, and Russia's continued military investment in Transnistria would appear to lend credence to such stories. It was Russian soldiers who ultimately drove the War of Transnistria into the uneasy ceasefire which has held since July of 1992. The Moldova-Transnistria border is patrolled by Russian tanks to this day, and, in the wake of the recent troubles in Ukraine, the Russian Federation upped its Transnistrian contingent, which now numbers at over 2,000 stationed troops.

Military parade on Transnistria's Independence Day (photograph by Darmon Richter)

A map of the Transnistrian region (photograph by Darmon Richter)

Soldiers parade outside popular local fast food joints (photograph by Darmon Richter)

But that’s politics. Transnistria features in the Western media rarely enough, and when a journalist does visit they’re usually chasing up a story about the oft-reported bribery and corruption, or simply gawping at the proliferation of Soviet symbolism in this small, unrecognized state. 

Such themes, however, are neither unique to Transnistria nor are they representative of the local culture and lifestyle. In the case of Soviet symbolism, one need only look to other post-USSR nations such as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, to find similarly ominous icons of the past. 

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From August to September, Eames Demetrios, Geographer-at-Large for Kcymaerxthaere, is serving as the Geographer-in-Residence at Atlas Obscura. Here he explores the lines between Kcymaerxthaere, a world parallel to our own, and Atlas Obscura.

When I tell people I am a Geographer-in-Residence at Atlas Obscura, they think it is virtual. And I can understand that. But the Atlas involves a community, and that humanity is part of what, for me, makes it mostly a real-world residency, because the energy of everyone, visitors, stewards, and creator, is tied to the physicality of the world. The interaction is virtual, the ultimate action is physical.

I say this, paradoxically, because, for this post, I wanted, as the storyteller of Kcymaerxthaere, to turn inward and explore the magic Atlas place database a bit. I cheerfully read through the site, the same way I used to read Peter Freuchen's Book of the Seven Seas as a kid. I have used the Atlas a lot, but always felt a little bashful about commenting on places. So the least I can do is get over that for two months.

I planned to comment on some of the Atlas places I've been to. I've noted some of my own sites as ones I have visited, and I will add to them piecemeal over the course of my residency. I also thought I should contribute some sites — besides my own Kcymaerxthaere.

But as I began to understand that my Traveler's Map will be a kind of canvas whose only paint is the reality of five actions (where I've been, where I want to go, what I have added, what I have edited, and my articles), I continued to browse.

First, I made seven pairs of sites. I wanted to find sites I loved that were already on the Atlas, and are near Kcymaerxthaere sites.

article-imageNoah Purifoy Site (all images courtesy the author)

In Joshua Tree, California: When you visit Noah Purifoy's site, check out Kcymaerxthaere's Krblin Jihn Kabin, just a mile or so away.

In London: Postman's Park, in the shadow of St Paul's and so naive and affecting, will give you plenty to think about as you make your way to the Great Dangaroo Flood marker.

article-imageDead Vlei

In Namibia, if you're on your way to Sossusvlei (and there you must see the Dead Vlei), then you will probably go through Solitaire. Get out and see Each and Every Word — and send us a picture, we haven't seen one recently!

In the Melbourne Area (and this is a stretch, but we haven't uploaded all the Australia sites yet!): A visit to Loch Ard Gorge (which is very cool to see), could be rationally followed by a trip to the spas of Daylesford and, more important, a moment of reflection over A Precinct for Gods.

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article-imageThe Corpse Flower (photograph by Kate Lain, courtesy the Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens)

“Nature has its own clock.”

After nearly a week of watching, waiting, and preparing for the bloom of the Amorphophallus titanum, or less delicately known as the “Corpse Flower,” this truth spoken by Huntington Garden docent Nancy Howard couldn’t have been more apt. At approximately 3:01 pm on Saturday, August 23, an announcement was made at the Huntington Conservatory in San Marino, California. The world’s largest flower had begun its beautiful, short, and stinky life.

article-imageInside the Corpse Flower (photograph by Erin Johnson)

The Amorphophallus titanum, shorten to Titan Arum, is a rare tropical plant native to the Indonesian rainforests of Sumatra. It has been known to grow up to eight feet tall and four feet diameter, earning the distinction as world’s largest flower. The irony, of course, that it isn’t actually a flower. It’s a inflorescence, meaning it’s made up of hundreds of tiny flowers inside the base of the stem.

The Titan Arum has two visible parts: the spadix and the spathe. The spadix is a fleshy upright column that sort of resembles a cactus without needles. This part of the plant, if reaches its maximum height, can grow to be taller than Shaq (who is seven foot one inch). The spathe is the petal-like outer covering. Green on the outside, like a corn stalk, but when the plant opens up during bloom, the distinct purple, maroon color of the inside reveals itself to the world. It's truly a gorgeous, unique, and intimidating plant. But what really grabs your attention is the smell.

article-imageDetail of the Corpse Flower (potograph by Kate Lain, courtesy the Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens)

There is a reason we call it the “Corpse Flower.” The stench that this flora emits is similar to rotting flesh. The reason for the smell is to attract pollinators, and in its native habitat that is the sweat bee. When in bloom, the plant sends out this odor near and far to bring in the bees to help pollinate both this particular flower and others across the forest. Like nature is known to do, the Corpse Flower has its own unique way of ensuring its survival.

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Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital (photograph by Kimberly Wadsworth)

With space at a premium and construction at a fever pitch, ruins in New York City usually don't last long. But sometimes an abandoned property falls through the cracks — maybe it's a historic structure, or it's in a remote location, or its ownership is unclear. The developer's loss, though, is the urban explorer's gain, and some are surprisingly easy to get access. Here are eleven of New York City's most explorer-friendly ruins.


Rockaway Beach Branch (photograph by Kimberly Wadsworth)

The Rockaway Beach Branch initially connected northern Brooklyn with the beaches of Rockaway, Queens. Then as subway connections increased, ridership on the line decreased, and service was cancelled in 1962. But Long Island Railroad kept the property rights, leaving the track to decay. 

A three-mile stretch of the track has become a ready-made trail for Queens hikers, following the abandoned rails from Rego Park through woodsy Forest Hills down to Ozone Park. Fans have recently sparked a movement — Friends of the QueensWay — to turn the track into a reclaimed urban park much like Manhattan's High Line.

Rockaway Beach Branch (photograph by Jim Henderson)

Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital in 2002 (photograph by Lee Semel)

Built in the 1850s on the East River's Roosevelt Island (then Blackwell's Island), this Gothic-inspired hospital was designed to both quarantine and treat smallpox patients, many of whom were recent immigrants. The building later became the dormitory for a nursing school on the island. When the city moved both the school and the hospital to neighboring Queens, the building was abandoned, but its striking architecture rallied preservationists to lobby against its demolition, and architect Giorgio Cavaglieri even coordinated a 1971 effort to reinforce the crumbling building in an effort to save it.

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Recently we interviewed Chandler O'Leary of the fantastic illustrated travel blog Drawn the Road Again. We are thrilled to be sharing a series of O'Leary's illustrations of roadside attractions, along with their place on Atlas Obscura, in a summer series. 

article-imageWall Drug's 80-foot dinosaur, illustrated by Chandler O'Leary

In terms of roadside oddities, Wall Drug, South Dakota, is the forerunner of them all. As Chandler O'Leary writes in introducing her illustrations of Wall Drug for Drawn the Road Again:

I was born 50 miles west of Wall Drug. True story. I think, therefore, that my undying love of roadside attractions is imprinted on the genetic level. Even if you don’t have this place in your DNA, it’s pretty hard not to be curious about something hawked by a hundred billboards as you drive through the back of beyond.

Starting as a drugstore purchased in 1931 in the town of Wall by Ted Hustead, it was when his wife Dorothy decided to offer free ice water to travelers journeying to the recently completed Mount Rushmore that things took off. Now it's a cornucopia of curiosities, from the 80-foot dinosaur to the jackalopes in "taxidermy," and in fiberglass that you can ride. O'Leary makes special mention of "the creepy animatronic Gold Rush puppets" who sing "North! To Alaska," noting: "Sorry, no sketch of that. I was too scared."

article-imageJackalope mounts & a painted lady at Wall Drug, illustrated by Chandler O'Leary

article-imageSigns for Wall Drug, illustrated by Chandler O'Leary

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article-image"Singing, Ringing Tree," played by the wind in Lancashire (photograph by Mark Tighe)

Other than the ubiquitous wind-chimes sounding on your balcony, there are a variety of instruments that are played only by the wind, ranging from those small enough to sit on your windowsill to massive pieces of modern art and poorly-designed skyscrapers.

While known in ancient Greece, India, and China, the Aeolian harp ("Aeolian" from the ancient Greek god and "keeper of the winds," Aeolus) was "rediscovered" in Europe during the 1650s, by Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit priest, and went on to become a popular feature in Romantic-era households. The idea is simple: a number of strings (usually an even number) are strung over a sound chamber, and the instrument is then left somewhere with a strong breeze. The wind does the rest.

article-imageAeolian harp revived by Athanasius Kircher, illustrated by Friedrich Schultes, woodcut on paper (1684) (via Deutsche Fotothek)

The modern world has never gotten over this obsession with wind-played instruments, and Aeolian harps can be found all across the planet. And there are other instruments played by or involving nature, such as the Wave Organ in San Francisco, the Singing Drain Pipes in Kunsthofpassage, Germany, and the Great Stalactite Organ in Luray, Virginia. Yet from the coast of California to the Eden Project, the humming of Aeolian harps can be heard. The instruments themselves are interesting, not only because they are played by the wind, but also because they are the only instruments that can play only chords. 

At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, quite near the Wave Organ, sits a 27-foot-tall Aeolian harp, designed by local artist Doug Hollis. The harp is situated to be strummed by the fingers of the wind that pass through a wind tunnel, creating an eerie humming sound.

Other Californian Aeolian Harps include the Lucia and Aristides Demetrios Wind Harp, also in San Francisco, which, at 92 feet, is the largest wind harp in the world, and the Solvang Wind Harp, which appears to have fallen into a terrible state of disrepair.  

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article-imageSanta Muerte in Tepito (all photographs by Toni François)

The Santa Muerte rosary service held in Tepito, Mexico City's most notorious barrio, is the signature public ritual of the burgeoning cult of the skeleton saint.

On the first day of each month, thousands of devotees converge on tiny Alfareria street to participate in both the recitation of the rosary and the carnivalesque street scene that precedes the epic prayer to both the Virgin Mary and Saint Death. Many arrive hours in advance of the late afternoon service to claim a few feet of sidewalk space for their portable altars.

As seen in these photographs, the diversity of images of the Bony Lady is astounding, and gives testament to the creativity and dedication of devotees. True to the reputation of the barrio, the air is thick with an intoxicating mix of marijuana, tobacco, and glue, which is huffed by some of the teens. On the first of August, 2014, Mexican photographer Toni François and I teamed up and spent the afternoon at this, the most famous Santa Muerte shrine founded by cult pioneer, Enriqueta Romero, on Halloween, 2001.




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The foundation of Atlas Obscura is contributed by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or delving into history that's been all but forgotten. Here we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community.

Treviso, Italy

article-imagephotograph by Oriol Ferrer Mesià

One man spent over 40 years handcrafting the Ai Pioppi Playground out in an Italian forest. Contributed by Atlas Obscura user viliusdidit, the enchanting amusement park is filled with complex rides, all off the grid and designed to blend into nature, such as swinging bridges and other kinetic wonders.

Luya, Peru

article-imagephotograph by Gaston E.

Look closely at this assemblage of giants and you'll see some are wearing human skulls. These are the Sarcophagi of Carajía in Peru's Utcabamba Valley, contributed by Atlas Obscura user pnasrat. Standing eight feet tall, the mysterious sculptures date back to the 15th century and are burial vessels for human remains. 

Hinterbrühl, Austria

article-imagephotograph by Victor Wong

The largest underground lake in Europe was never intended to be. In 1912 a detonation gone awry caused a gypsum mine beneath the Austrian town of Hinterbrühl to fill with water. Now the Seegrotte, added by Atlas Obscura user Quisquilia, is a subterranean attraction, inviting visitors to ride an eerie gold boat on its lake, which must be drained each day.

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