Under Beijing

Underneath Beijing is a vast network of tunnels built during the Cold War to shelter three million people during a nuclear attack.

Following the ideological split between Chinese and Russian communism in the early 1960s, China became increasingly worried about the possibility of nuclear attack from their Soviet neighbours. They responded by going underground – literally.

Many of China’s underground structures were military in nature, like the 816 Nuclear Weapons Plant in Chongqing that contains (apparently) the largest artificial cave in the world or the Underground Great Wall that can supposedly transport ICBMs all around China in the case of a nuclear attack. The tunnels underneath Beijing constitute one enormous civilian nuclear shelter; the original intention was for them to be a refuge for fully half of the city’s inhabitants.

I find the idea of an underground city immensely evocative (having once visited Derinkuyu in Turkey) – something vast, secret, everywhere and yet unseen anywhere. The tunnels under Beijing carry that mystique so well: up to ninety secret entrances are dotted around the city, hidden behind shop fronts like the one pictured above. Those entrances, and hatches dotted throughout the city, lead into a vast network of tunnels designed not just to transport people but to house, feed, and entertain them. Restaurants, theatres, apparently even a rink for roller-skating…

The Chinese government opened up sections of the tunnels for tourists a couple of decades ago, but closed them again quickly. Underground Beijing has fallen into disrepair, with parts now underwater and others given over to storage or squatters.

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