Tunnels stretch for miles on end – stark lighting just about illuminating the gloom – while mementos of a time when the threat of nuclear war loomed large can still be seen, albeit covered in mold. Incredible to think that these labyrinthine passageways were designed for the safekeeping of an entire city; indeed they comprise a city in themselves.
The Cold War triggered a profusion of bomb shelters that were once so ubiquitous some science-fiction stories foresaw humanity’s future lying underground. Movies like George Lucas’s THX 1138 predicted entire subterranean civilizations that had left the surface world behind. But could this really have come to pass?
In 1969, as tensions between China and the Soviet Union were reaching boiling point due to the border clashes centered around the Zhenbao Island incident, Communist China envisioned just such a subterranean future. What’s more, the ruling government acted upon it. Today, the remains of the herculean task they began – burrowing out all manner of bunkers and basements below the surface – still exist underneath the bustling streets of Beijing.
Forty percent of Beijing's population were to enter Dixia Cheng in the event of emergency, with the rest routed to shelters in the mountains around the city.
The original network of air-raid shelters and tunnels that make up Beijing’s Underground City – also known as Dixia Cheng – is said to extend all the way from the center of the Chinese metropolis to beyond the outskirts near the Great Wall. The subterranean complex was excavated primarily by hand – by hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, following an edict and rallying cry from Mao Zedong. “Dig deep the tunnels, keep vast the stores of grain, and never seek hegemony,” pronounced Mao. And the people dug.
In total, the tunnels (at least what's left of them) are thought to cover 85 square kilometers (33 sq mi), linking the city's major districts anywhere from 8 to 18 meters (26–59 ft) below street level. The complex was designed to shield those inside it against either conventional or nuclear attack, and was dubbed the ‘Underground Great Wall’ – a reference to its protective design. The tunnels were secured by thick concrete and lead-lined doors, some 20 centimeters (8 in) thick, which could be sealed to prevent flooding. And airshafts and special hatches were built in an effort to safeguard against chemical weapons and radioactive fallout.
Key to Dixia Cheng’s protective capabilities was the idea that this should be a stronghold where people could live – and for a long time. The plan was that it be able to house up to 40% of Beijing’s population, if not all of the city’s then 6 million inhabitants – or so it was claimed. The tunnels were extensively ventilated and the complex equipped with water well sites and grain storage reserves as well as medical and schooling facilities. Cafeterias and a movie theater were provided, and later even shopping areas and a roller skating rink.
The tourist entrance to Dixia Cheng. There were reputed to be trapdoor entry points accessible by every apartment and house at one stage.
However, with international tensions perceived to be melting away, work on the complex ended in 1979. The Underground City lay largely forgotten, at least to younger local residents, though some tourists did gain access, and activity underground persisted. Gradually Dixia Cheng became a ‘shadow city’ where over time entrepreneurs opened cheap restaurants, stores or hostels catering to poor migrant workers. Then, in 2000, in the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the hodgepodge subterranean network was officially reopened, and visitors flocked in to take a peek at its relics of the past.
A father and son in their five-square-meter apartment – a former bunker in Beijing's Underground City; 2010.
This flurry of commercial activity lasted all of seven years before it was decided that Dixia Cheng should be made off-limits again. However, many people were unwilling to let go of their livelihoods without protest, some having been there for decades. The authorities prohibited business owners from renting space in underground shelters but have failed to act on similar rulings in the past. Meanwhile, any promises of affordable housing for residents would well be met with doubt, as previously such projects have often resulted in buyouts by developers who resell the homes at a higher price.
A modern subway stop at Beijing's Xizhimen Station.
What will the future hold for this Cold War testament to the power of the collective will? With more and more tunnels being destroyed or blocked off for reasons of safety or security, opportunities to explore Dixia Cheng are dwindling. Many of the subterranean passageways are shallow enough that they interfere with subway expansions and the deeper foundations needed for the construction of new buildings. And urban development tends to get what it wants.
A recent report in the China Daily announced plans for a new underground city to offset the strain of overcrowding in Beijing. Hoteliers from the existing subterranean spaces demonstrated as recently as 2010 to preserve their businesses, but recent reports describe the increasing frequency of tunnel closures, and the sense is that Dixia Cheng is largely abandoned and falling to pieces, with flooding described.
Some tour operators still include the Underground City in their packages, but travelers are advised to make haste if they want to see this vast, sprawling relic beneath Beijing before it disappears forever.