Author Finds Inscrutable Spaces, Secret Cities For 'Unruly Places'

Alastair Bonnett sought out uncharted and forgotten territories for his new book, Unruly Places. He tells NPR's Tamara Keith about the quest, which included a visit to a traffic island.

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

It's easy to think that there is nowhere left to discover on Earth. Every part of the globe has been visited, mapped and settled. But a new book by Newcastle University geography professor, Alastair Bonnett, takes a fresh look at the world we live in. It's called "Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, And Other Inscrutable Geographies." When I spoke with Bonnett about the book, he said the idea that every corner of the Earth was already known didn't sit well with him. That unease sent him on what turned out to be an illuminating journey.

ALASTAIR BONNETT: I did think that the world was completely known - there wasn't anywhere left. And that did give me a certain sense of frustration or claustrophobia. And I think a lot of people share that. So I went looking - I went looking for places which were the new territories of exploration. And I tried to take a lateral approach so it wasn't just often going into the exotic high lands of Papua New Guinea. I was thinking I was as likely to find these places around the corner as I was 3,000 miles away.

KEITH: I want to go to a place that probably has the craziest borders in the entire world - Baarle-Herztog and Baarle-Nassau. One is in the Netherlands, one is in Belgium, but they're all mixed together, and there's little bits of each country in the other. Can you try to describe this?

BONNETT: Yeah. It's not easy. What you have, though, is 22 bits of Belgium, which are inside the Netherlands. And inside these bits of Belgium are six bits of the Netherlands. And when I went over there, I was able to walk across five national borders, in a straight line, in under 60 seconds because of the number of borderlines that you find in this village. A lot of the borders in Europe used to be like this. And then Napoleon and people of his ilk tided the wall away. And Baarle is a throwback. It's a futile remnant of a day that people thought and had long gone.

KEITH: I want to move on to a hidden place. And I'm going to let you pronounce the name of it if you can. It's a Soviet city home to a top-secret nuclear reactor that has become sort of the ultimate gated community.

BONNETT: Yes. Yes that's right. Krasnoyarsk 26 is what I'll call it. In fact, that was it's old in this area city was Krasnoyarsk and it was given a postal address near to it. So Krasnoyarsk 26. And...

KEITH: That's the easy part to pronounce.

BONNETT: ...That's the easy part, and that's the one I'm sticking with. The fact is, what's extraordinary about this place is it was one of many closed cities in the Soviet Union. No one could get into it. And people thought that when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was born and people had choices in their lives, these closed cities would open up. But when people were given the vote in 1996, the people of Krasnoyarsk 26 voted to remain a closed city. And not so much anymore a kind of Soviet enclave, what they are - what they're choosing to be is a gated community. And if you call them a gated community, suddenly they resemble all sorts of other places which aren't so unfamiliar to many of us.

KEITH: And 90,000 people live there.

BONNETT: Yeah.

KEITH: Not a lot of services, and yet people want to stay.

BONNETT: People want to stay in the gated community because it keeps out the chaos and anarchy they see in the rest of Russia. They can choose who comes to visit them. They can choose what kind of town they're going to live in. This is why they want to keep it as gated just like people want to keep gated communities in London or New York.

KEITH: Now, the book isn't just about cities. You also cover international airspace, pumice and trash islands - all kinds of crazy things and a traffic island in Newcastle. And I'm hoping you can read your description of it.

BONNETT: Yes. (Reading) I am staring at a triangle of land surrounded on all sides by steel crash barriers and busy roads. Two corners are covered in bushes and saplings with the center and the sharpest end, which is under an overpass, are stony and bear. This unreachable traffic island is on my walk to work, which, for about five minutes, takes me alongside a section of intercity motorway. It's visible through the wire mesh that fences in the motorway - a semi-verdant kingdom that features on no maps.

KEITH: And you actually crossed a few lanes of traffic to get out there and check it out.

BONNETT: Yeah.

KEITH: What did it feel like to be in that no man's land?

BONNETT: Yeah. I know, I felt like Robinson Crusoe. I felt like some postmodern Vasco da Gama, I don't know. The idea to go into this place - obviously completely ludicrous 'cause no one would go across these lanes of traffic, which travel at quite a speed. And so of course I pretended to be like from the Council or some person in authority, you know, classifying the shrubbery. You know, I did my little faux survey and then escaped. But yeah, what a strange feeling and available to all of us 'cause we've all got these places around where we live.

KEITH: Alastair Bonnett is the author of "Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, And Other Inscrutable Geographies." Thanks for talking with us.

BONNETT: That's fine. Thanks.

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