Kazakhstan may not have much of a reputation as a tourist destination, but with the removal this year of most the country's significant nuclear infrastructure, the former Soviet Republic became the first country in the world to voluntarily give up its nuclear program while further opening the dark heart of Cold War nuclear jockeying to visitors.
A vast swath of eastern Kazakhstan is littered with the cement skeletons of the Soviet installation where over 450 nuclear tests took place as the east and the west stared each other down. Though many of these abandoned buildings still sit in the middle of empty fields and sparsely populated villages, the testing wells that once pockmarked the area have now been shut down, sealing in at least some of the area's radioactive waste. It might not be Club Med, but this corner of the the Central Asian Steppe can given travelers a real perspective on the conflict that defined the modern world.
Other nuclear test sites also provide the opportunity for travelers to see something both exotic and significant. Though invariably far flung -- the idea being to minimize impact on larger populations -- these sites have natural, military and radioactive histories that are all tethered together by happenstance and national ambitions. Some, like Bikini Atoll, are beautiful while others, like Lop Nur, are basically as close as humans can get to Hades, but each offers its own glimpse into the Cold War mentality and a vision of the holocaust the world has avoided thus far.
One of the tiny islands that makes of the country of Kiribati, Malden Island was used as a test site for British H-Bombs in the mid 1950s. Like <a href="http://www.oceandots.com/pacific/line/">other Line Islands</a>, Malden is largely protected and exceptionally remote. In fact, this pacific paradise is one of the places on Earth furthest removed from dense human habitation.
Bikini Atoll may be the most famous destination on this list because of its exceptional beauty and the famous mushroom cloud images shot during U.S. testing at the site. <a href="http://www.bikiniatoll.com/">Visitors to this Micronesian outpost now find beautiful, clear water</a> and a fairly healthy reef ecosystem that is <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5ea32yWzPU">positively crowded with sharks</a>.
This <a href="http://www.wsmr.army.mil/Pages/Home.aspx">3,200-square-mile missile range</a> in southern New Mexico was the site of the Trinity Tests, making it the oldest test site in the world. Visitors to the area can take in the gorgeous views of White Sands National Monument, <a href="http://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm">which encompasses a sea of dunes</a>.
Pokhran, which sits next to the Thar Desert in the Indian state of Rajasthan rose to fame in the 1970s when the Indian Government detonated a <a href="http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/india/pokharan-test.htm">miniaturized atomic device in a test it dubbed "Operation Smiling Buddha."</a> Strangely, the range, which is still active, sits quite near many of India's more touristed cities, including Jodphur and Jaipur.
Mururoa may by a beautiful corner of French Polynesia, but, thanks to Gallic testing, <a href="http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2003-02-17/moruroa-nuclear-tests-linked-to-cancer-case/711514">locals suffer from high rates of thyroid cancer</a>. The radiation may have dissipated, but resentment hasn't.
A remote town in the Algerian Sahara, Reggane was used as a French testing site in 1960s. As with other French sites, <a href="http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE6230HA20100304">the effects of the radiation have been felt by local populations</a>. Though getting to this remote spot isn't easy, Algeria is <a href="http://www.aps.dz/Over-700-tourism-projects-in.html">desperately trying to build its tourist economy</a> so it may be accessible soon.
Gulag labor built the test facilities near <a href="http://www.rferl.org/content/soviet_nuclear_testing_semipalatinsk_20th_anniversary/24311518.html">Kurchatov City in northeast Kazakhstan</a> where Soviet weapons tests took place in the late 1940s. The area continued to host tests until the late 1980s. Strangely, <a href="http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Kazakhstan/blog-79170.html">the ravaged site </a>was submitted as a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
A dried up salt lake in China's Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, Lop Nur hosted Chinese nuclear tests in the 1960s. The fallout from the tests may have killed <a href="http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/china-news/chinese-nuclear-tests-allegedly-cause-750000-deaths-14535.html">an astonishing three quarters of a million people</a>, but travelers can still come to the lop desert <a href="http://history.cultural-china.com/en/52H6280H12113.html">to wander through the bleak landscape</a>.