July 27, 2011

Beijing's Underground City

Despite spending almost two and a half years in Beijing, one place I never made it to was the fabled underground city. Built in the seventies to shelter Beijingers from a potential nuclear attack by the Russians, the tunnels reach depths of 18 meters, with 30 kilometers of tunnels covering an area of over 85 square kilometers. 300,000 people chipped in to build a thousand shelters that could hold forty percent of Beijing's then population. Beijing's city walls, its ancient defense mechanism, were torn down and the material used to construct the underground complex. Apparently, each citizen knew where to find the nearest trap door entrance to the tunnels from their house, and could quickly go into hiding if necessary, which it never was.

There were a few underground shopping areas scattered through out the city that I explored, but I could never confirm they were previously bomb shelters. I located the official tourist entrance in a back alley near Tiananmen Square. A polite message, shockingly inscribed in English, was posted on the door saying that it was closed indefinitely. A few friends mentioned that there was a staircase that descended into complete darkness in their apartment complex, and surmised that this could be an entrance to the subterranean chambers. Another urban legend is that these underground shelters have been converted to makeshift dwellings and rented out to poor migrant workers, who emerge from them only to work, eat, or smoke. Another rumour is that due to safety reasons the underground city will not be opened to the public anytime soon. Until then, what lies beneath will remain lurking in the catacombs of the imagination.


Message posted at the entrance: Welcome to our under-ground City. Since April We have a big constru-ction inside until now So we don't open for the public. We're so sorry about this. May be. it'll open next Year.

Beneath this, someone has scrawled: May be. I'll come back.