China is massive. It is vast and varied, over a billion people divided between 56 ethnic groups, and between them speaking almost 300 different languages. Above all else, China is unpredictable; a fact to which the following report stands testament.
We set out one bright morning in March, in search of a rumoured network of military tunnels buried beneath a city park. We found the tunnels alright... but the expedition soon turned into a surreal odyssey featuring abandoned playgrounds, giant insects, dead puppies and Orwellian security systems.
Qingdao Zhongshan Park
There are more than 40 parks in China named 'Zhongshan', as well as one city. The name comes from Sun Yat-sen, founding father and first president of the Republic of China. In Chinese, this great political leader is more commonly known as 'Sun Zhongshan'.
When I first heard stories about a network of tunnels beneath Qingdao Zhongshan Park, it didn't sound too far fetched; on a previous visit to this city I had explored a series of abandoned military tunnels, dug beneath the nearby Mount Fu by nineteenth century German colonists.
The notion of further tunnels, right in the heart of the city, seemed to be a theory worth investigating.
Our taxi pulled up on the street outside an old Taoist Temple, and we stepped into the middle of a disturbance of sorts. Two police officers were trying to move a woman sat on the pavement, while another woman heckled them in a raised voice. We sailed past the growing throng of spectators, taking a side street that cut along the back of the temple.
This narrow lane came out by an ornamental lake tucked away into one corner of Zhongshan Park and, moving clockwise around the water, we reached a grassy hollow with a series of concrete levels rising from the sump.
The structure was built across two floors, connected by steps, the edges of the concrete crumbling abruptly into the dirt. The higher of the two featured some kind of circular base, which had likely served as a platform for a rotating artillery gun. The lower, meanwhile, was fitted with an ominous-looking entrance.
I got a little closer, and stole a look inside. Peering into the darkness I could make out a pile of black refuse bags, rising out of a sea of scattered leaves and soiled clothing. Suddenly something moved - and then I spotted a pair of feet in worn leather shoes, sticking out from an alcove to the right.
I made one last scan around the walls, looking for any kind of entrance to the tunnels beneath, before backing out quietly to avoid waking the sleeping vagrant. This first chamber didn't seem to go anywhere, or to connect to the tunnels we had heard about. Back outside, I stumbled across a square shaft that had apparently been filled in with concrete - evidence at least, that there had once been something beneath the ground on which we stood.
We proceded north through the park, ascending the hill that rose up towards the peak of TaiPingShan. Qingdao's Zhongshan Park contains a number of tourist attractions; including Little West Lake, the Sun-Wen Lotus Pond, Qingdao Zoo and the ornamental Plum Blossom Road. We were visiting off-season though, and had the park more-or-less to ourselves. The cable cars installed for ferrying passengers up to the peak of TaiPingShan were out of use and dangled lifeless, just within arm's reach.
Around halfway up the slope we stumbled across a small fun fair, a few simple rides clustered about a darkened pavilion where bumper cars sat wrapped in tarpaulin, waiting for the summer tourists. A few times I veered off the path, and everywhere I found the same holes carved into the mountainside; brick entranceways disappearing beneath the ground, as if this whole mountain had once been hollowed out like a Swiss cheese.
Many of these tunnels displayed signs of inhabitance. One example looked more like a cave, dug into a rock face on the eastern side of the slope. Plastic chairs were assembled outside to form a rudimentary patio area, while clothes hung out to dry on the surrounding rocks. Another tunnel, a little higher up, had the appearance of a brickwork rabbit hole. I climbed down into the pit to find a mattress and bedding inside, along with an assortment of clothes and other personal effects.
By this point we had lost the path completely, and, scrambling up through bracken, we eventually came out onto a road that looped around the mountain peak. Directly in front of us was a large engraved panel, depicting Chinese revolutionary soldiers surrounded by smiling, welcoming peasants. It reminded me of a painting I once saw of the Chinese army arriving in Tibet; the grateful Tibetan villagers gathered around with gifts of food and flowers.
From the peak above us rose a bizarre spherical installation - an observatory, from the look of it. The road spiralled clockwise up towards the white dome, and so we followed it, past a series of security cameras mounted on white metal poles.
And then a strange thing happened.
A loud crackle emitted from the nearest pole, and after a few moments I was able to make out garbled speech. A speaker was attached to the base... and from the sound of it, had been severely damaged by moisture. That's when I noticed the camera above, which had angled down to stare right at us.
We kept walking for a time, the camera pivoting to follow our every move. As we approached the next pole, this too burst into life. Although I didn't understand any of the words - and wouldn't have, even had the speaker been fully functional - it was clear that we were being addressed with some urgency. The voice was raised, and seemed to be shouting orders at us. All along the road, we could see cameras turning slowly to watch.
It didn't feel like we were in for a warm welcome at the observatory, and so we retraced our footsteps - following the road downhill instead. The cameras did not relent, as we approached the gates to a large and secure-looking facility. According to the sign it was a naval base; a naval base perched halfway up the side of a mountain.
I'm not sure exactly how we ended up so far from the approved path, but it was clear that we weren't wanted here. We contemplated our next move, speakers barking their warnings at us from both sides, and every electric eye locked squarely on us... when suddenly a whistle started blowing, somewhere inside the base.
We panicked and - unwilling to retreat back down the mountainside - dived into the bushes that separated us from the peak. The slope was steep, but pretty soon we were hidden from the road as we scrambled up the overgrown flank of the mountain. Then, as we hopped over a ridge and ducked into a gully to hide ourselves from anyone who might be following, we came face-to-face with the brickwork entrance to a tunnel.
Stooping under the lintel and into the darkness, I mused (not without a little irony) that we probably weren't the first to find shelter in these subterranean passages. Although, traditionally, it would have been German colonists evading the British Navy.
At the entrance of the tunnel, the passage split in two; to the right it fell away into an abyss, a steep shaft disappearing at an almost vertical angle. We took the left passage, and followed the winding brickwork corridor into the darkness.
Under the earth the ground was strewn with debris - clothing, broken bricks and cardboard. It was clear the area had been squatted, although we never met the residents. One passage snaked upwards, and following the speck of light at its end I eventually came out into a circular chamber. The rusted metal base set into the floor suggested at a former gun turret perhaps, while a wide-angled viewport looked out towards the observatory. Turning back and exploring the other direction, I reached a similar conclusion. This time the window faced out from the mountainside: a spectacular view of the sprawling cityscape, disused cable cars hanging forlorn in the foreground.
We headed back out towards the entrance, cautiously scanning the mountainside for security guards, angry sailors and the like. The coast was clear - but I couldn't resist going back in, and taking a look down the steeper, right-hand passage.
After half scrambling, half climbing down the earthen slope, I found myself in a rocky, subterranean cavern. The passage appeared to continue downwards, but the tunnel had been severely flooded and I could go no further. It was strangely reminiscent of Gollum's cave.
The litter here was worse than in the other passage, as locals had presumably used the steep shaft as a kind of rubbish chute. Broken chunks of polystyrene lay thick about the floor. I was just backing up against one of the rock walls, attempting to get a better angle for a photograph, when I felt something move against my neck.
I jumped back from the wall, and, shining my torch across the rocky surface I discovered it to be thick with crawling insects. The closer I looked, the more I saw - until I realised that every surface in this dank cavern was covered with jostling, chitinous bugs. Their sizes ranged from miniscule, through to larger specimens which were as much as four inches across, whip-like antennae eagerly probing the darkness.
I made a swift exit.
The Descent of TaiPingShan
This whole expedition had been mounted on a whim. We had no concrete evidence to go on, only rumoured reports of tunnel entrances. That, bolstered by my past discovery of military tunnels on FuShan and the existence of the nearby Mount Qingdao Fort Museum, had felt like enough - and it had been justified. With no idea what other wonders we might find on TaiPingShan, we took the opposite path down from the peak, heading in the direction of the Qingdao Television Tower.
Not much further along, we came across a couple of abandoned concrete huts. The buildings appeared to be some kind of lookout point perhaps, but had been stripped entirely bare over the years. Inside we found a gruesome scene: two dead puppies, apparently beaten to death with rocks. One of the pups lay spread in the centre of the floor, a stone balanced on its corpse. The corner of the room was scattered with what appeared to be human faeces.
The cable cars continued on this side of the mountain, descending towards a station near the base. Much like the first one, it had been closed down for winter. The thin scattering of shops had their doors barred, and windows tightly shuttered. Heading on towards the television tower (itself resembling Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower), we passed by a series of small, domed huts, set behind a chainlink fence. The meshwork was covered with a thick hanging of padlocks and ribbons, romantic gestures that had rusted almost beyond recognition.
The huts were brightly painted, but securely locked; despite the scenic location, not one featured a window. I was wondering what the purpose of these shacks could be, until we found one decorated with an image of two children kissing; these were lovers' retreats, available to rent by the hour. I narrowly avoided stepping on a discarded condom as we moved on down the path.
We reached the bottom soon enough, where our path emerged through a desolate playground populated by broken plastic animals. A towering giraffe with three legs appeared to be fleeing from a malformed Tyrannosaurus Rex. We were at the entrance to the zoo now. As we stepped out of the playground, we almost bumped into a group of marching soldiers. I froze for a moment, remembering the tannoy systems, the cameras and the urgent whistling.
The troops marched on by however, to be replaced by a man in a monkey suit who danced behind us all the way to the main road. It was a suitably surreal ending to the day's exploration.
It's hard to say how far the Zhongshan Bunkers spread beneath Qingdao's TaiPingShan; assorted oddities aside, we had found three or four distinct tunnel entrances. All of these had at some point been blocked, however - either with water, concrete or sleeping tramps. I think it's reasonable to suppose that subterranean passages had once connected all of them as one, which would have represented a vast underground network threading through this small mountain. What tunnels there might once have been beneath Qingdao Zhongshan Park however, are now sadly lost forever.
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