Written by Staff Writer at CNN.
Henry Lai happens to work at CNN. As part of our series on some of the world’s most impressive spaces, she was granted exclusive access to the deserted City of Orenburg, Russia, one of a number of ghost towns abandoned by the retreating Tsarist army in the early 1800s. Over the coming weeks, we will explore notable sites around the world. More information on each destination can be found here.
1 / 28 Photographer and writer Henry Lai wanted to find a location that best reflected the soundscape of the area and the way it would have seemed to residents 150 years ago. He focused on a cave village that sits alongside the Tristan stream, making sure to take advantage of the natural light as much as possible. Credit: Stuart Dove/Bissinger Family Limited
Like many visitors to Georgia’s mountainous country, I’ve been drawn to the region for its striking geography. The capital of Tbilisi lies at a dynamic junction between the snowy mountains of the Odessa Plain and the flat Caucasus Basin. Accompanying it is a curved ribbon of Lake Babur.
Beyond the country’s capital lies a jumble of villages, swallowed up by its legendary mystical Caspian Sea which, according to legend, looms like a god over the ever-flowing waters. One of the region’s prized qualities is its famous summer retreat. The Georgia Journeys winter brochure describes the archipelago of Orenburg as a “terrifying rock-rewared metropolis.”
Back in Russia
When asked why he opted to paint it out of existence, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in 1903 that “there are many such places in the world which are more beautiful than Russia.” The city had once been a thriving metropolis of artists and intellectuals, a stronghold of the “spiritual Russia.”
The author is credited with making Orenburg’s Cave of Vardzia a symbol of the destruction wrought by the Tsarist Empire — before his death, he would write in an essay that it was “the place most like Russia itself.” Now a Unesco world heritage site, the bustling city was destroyed during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but miraculously reborn under communist rule.
But in reality, Orenburg remains untouched, offering an unrivalled experience of abandoned luxury. As should be clear from the photographs, this story was about the unforgettable experience of being in this place, which Lai had visited in the summer of 2016.
The closed town was smaller in scale than his original sketch, but it had more similarities to his vision of Russia. Within his sketches was the outline of a centrally located camp with large stone walls and secret garden grounds, the place he would eventually write about in the book “Orenburg . . .”