Chairman Mao's Underground City

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In 1969, Chairman Mao commanded the construction of a second Beijing beneath the surface of the original city, designed to accommodate all six million of its then inhabitants so that if nuclear war did kick off, folk would still have somewhere to hang out and play Mah Jong while the rest of us burnt to death in a shower of atomic rain. War never came, but the city is still there.

To be fair to the Chairman, by that time he was lost in the midst of those closing dark days of China’s brutal cultural revolution; the onset of motor neurone disease had shifted his ongoing descent into madness up to warp speed. No one really knows how much of the subterranean nuclear metropolis was actually completed, or just how far the network of underground tunnels and caverns was due to be extended, though it’s generally believed they connected up with all of Beijing’s main hubs and governmental locations, including Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s Central Station, and the Western Hills. Having never been fully operational, it is largely forgotten and neglected these days. In fact, most Beijingers aren’t even aware it exists.

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It’s pretty hard to get down there now, but by a few deft strokes of magical luck during my last visit to Beijing I got put in touch with a friend of a friend of someone who knew a guy who heard a story of a bloke with a mate who had an access point down into the tunnels built incongruously into the back room of his small house in the center of the Hutong district of town. On the condition that we didn’t reveal the exact location of the access point, his identity, or how much of a bribe we paid, he agreed to take us down.

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It was always going to be highly unlikely that the police would ever pick up on us going down there, but obviously, getting busted would be fucking awful and our guide was skulking like he was being followed by searchlights and sniffer dogs as he lead us through the back streets towards the entrance point: this dilapidated shop.

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We corkscrewed down several unlit staircases before reaching an underground thoroughfare. Incredibly, despite the tunnel network reaching between eight to eighteen meters underground, the Beijing electricity board are still pumping the volts through the crumbling artifice – here and there the light switches still worked.

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As we got deeper, the groundwater level rose. Soon we were up to our knees in freezing cold, shitty, disease-ridden slop. Here the lighting was a bit more volatile. Sometimes it worked, sometime the water-damaged bulbs would explode above our heads as soon as we flicked the switch.

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Most paths – if they weren’t already flooded beyond accessibility – were blocked up with wood or trash. Our guide insisted that if we were to shift all the wood to get over the top, we’d be able to get all the way to Tiananmen Square, where the tunnels are apparently large enough to accommodate rolling tank processions.

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It has periodically been put back into use – for local council storage space, depressing accommodation for manual laborers shipped in en-masse from the countryside, or for mad raves held by daring Chinese punks wearing miners' headlamps. But much of it has also been concreted up, flooded, or destroyed to make way for Beijing’s new subway train network.

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For a time, a small portion of it was also opened as a tourist attraction, done up to look as it would have if Mao’s underground utopia had ever come to fruition, but has since been shut down again after Beijing backpackers spoke with their wallets and realized they liked spending their money on cheap Chinese rice liquor more than on exploring empty, rat-infested tunnels.

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As we snooped around we found various rooms in different states of disrepair. I guess this is where the proposed underground restaurants, offices, hospitals, schools, theaters, factories, and even roller skating rink would have ended up.

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Here’s some evidence of the tunnels being multi-layered, though here the upper floor has been blocked off, or was never completed.

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As we wandered on a bit, we found a couple of tiny bedrooms – one complete with damaged old posters on the walls. Great place to bring a girl back to.

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Further down the flooded path, we found a few fading tokens of the dream that built this barren bunker.

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A crumpled picture of the man himself, and a commemorative plaque reminding everyone to be good communists by "digging deep tunnels, storing more food, not seeking hegemony." That's always been my motto.

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Here’s a bit of a map we found that gives you an idea of the complexity of the tunnels.

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Then something quite unexpected happened. As we walked further, presumably close to another ground level exit, we spotted lights already on ahead of us, and a couple of rather pleasant potted plants.

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Turns out the People’s Republic of China are still pushing their proles underground, and some poor folk are actually living down here as a testament to Beijing’s swelling population and housing problems.

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Just because they’re on a washing line doesn’t mean they’ve ever been washed.

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Look! More proof people live down here – a big kitchen!

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And most charming of all, this recent innovation in toilet socialism: fully exposed, communal squat shitters.

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Our guide started to get anxious that we were seeing too much and our feet were now soaked and freezing...

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So we got the fuck out to return to the communist utopia of contemporary Beijing at ground level.

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