At the end of the 1960s, when the relationship between China and the USSR was more tense than a violin string, the Mao Zedong government made a decision, very much in line with the Cold War: it was necessary to prepare for an attack nuclear. So far, things are not surprising. In 1969 both communist powers had collided in Zhenbao and we had to be ready for the worst case scenario. The funny thing is how they did it. The authorities decided to build a huge underground city under Beijing, a network of galleries and bunkers capable of accommodating half the city’s population if necessary. Today Dìxià Chéng is a forgotten city under the skin of the capital.
The vast network of tunnels was built during the 1970s thanks largely to the work of 300,000 residents, winding for 30 kilometers at eight to 18 meters deep and covering an area of 85 km2. Along its route, a thousand anti-aircraft structures are distributed with a design designed to accommodate thousands of people. According to the China Internet Information Center, the underground city was equipped with spaces for shops, restaurants, clinics, schools, theaters, factories, warehouses for grain and oil, barbershops… More than 2,300 ventilation ducts, hatches and 70 slots to dig wells guaranteed survival underground.
A universe meters deep
Fortunately, Dìxià Chéng —also nicknamed the “Great Underground Wall” because of its size— was never used, but the authorities’ plan was that in the event of an attack they could house more or less 40% of the capital’s population while the The rest took refuge in the hills, outside the city. Although the Information Center explains that it is not known exactly how the tunnels are distributed, it is believed that they link at least the main areas of downtown Beijing.
The old underground city was practically forgotten by the residents for more than two decades until it was recovered, at least in part, in 2000 and added to the tourist offer of Beijing. In 2008, however, at the gates of the Olympic Games that were held that same year, access was prohibited to visitors. “It’s like they’re trying to bury this place before the games,” a neighbor told CNN. Websites aimed at tourists, such as Beijing-visitor, Trip.com, Tripadvisor or Atlas Obscura collect reviews that indicate that it is closed. On some websites, it slips as a cause that “restoration work” is being carried out.
Does that mean the tunnels are empty? Well not exactly. Or at least that’s how it was until not long ago. in 2017 National Geographic published a report in which he assures that at nightfall more than a million people, mostly migrant workers and students from rural areas, make their home in Beijing’s “underground universe,” where he estimates there are some 10,000 bunkers left over from the Cold War. The entrances are relatively easy to locate, but access is more difficult, especially for foreign visitors.
In 2020, the Beijing authorities prohibited the use of the former nuclear shelters as residences for not meeting the minimum conditions, but the spaces continued to house residents who find it difficult to find housing and pay rent in the capital. Different international media have also echoed in recent years the community that still lives underground, baptized as the “rat tribe” or shuzu.
Images | Alex Lee/China Travel Compass (Flickr) and Wikimedia
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism