Official figures suggest that as many as 8 million visitors flock to Beijing’s Forbidden City each year. The majority of these visitors are unaware of another city right beneath their feet, however; and unlike the thriving tourist hotspot above, this one is truly forbidden. The vast, disused complex known as the Beijing Underground City was designed to accommodate 6 million people in case of nuclear attack, and public entry is strictly prohibited.
How could I resist?
Beijing Underground City
The Beijing Underground City, or “Dixia Cheng”, dates back to a plan first laid in 1969. During the time of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Chairman Mao was looking for ways to defend China against a potential Soviet attack. One of the solutions was a complex of bomb shelters. Dug 10 metres beneath the ground, the shelters featured a series of concrete doors, water-proof hatches and ventilation systems, able to protect against everything from floods to radioactive fallout.
Work began in earnest in the early 1970s. The tunnels were dug out mostly by hand, and as many as 300,000 of the city’s inhabitants were involved in the project.
Covering a total area in excess of 85 square km, the complex had space and facilities for 40% of Beijing’s population. In the event of an attack, the remaining 60% would be able to flee through tunnels leading into the Western Hills . By the time of its completion the Chinese government intended to be able to provide permanent subterranean shelter for all 6 million inhabitants of Beijing.
The photo on the right comes from China.org, where it featured in an article dated April 2005. Located on the quiet outskirts of the Qianmen district, this shop front led to a portion of the tunnels approved for tourists. Opened in the year 2000, tour groups would be taken down into the subterranean passages and shown examples of soldiers’ quarters, store rooms, infirmaries and meeting halls.
Unfortunately though, this visible portion of the Undercity was closed in February 2008 for renovation… and hasn’t yet been reopened.
I was exploring Beijing with a friend, and we decided to try and find our way down to the Underground City; neither of us had been in the country long at this point, and it sounded like a perfect introduction to urban exploration in China. The former public entrance seemed a good place to start, and so we headed to the address along West Damochang Street, Qianmen.
The long street led us further and further from the bustling metro station at Qianmen, following a rough map I had drawn up from my research. It was soon clear that we were beyond the usual tourist zones; old men playing mah jong in the street would look up as we passed, eyeing us with suspicion. Almost half an hour down this narrow alley, we finally found the address.
Other than the number ’62′ scrawled on a nearby wall, there was little to tell us what the building had once been. The heavy wooden doors facing onto the street were locked shut, and so we sauntered around to the courtyard at the side of the property, to see if we could find an alternative point of entry.
Here an old man sat in a broken plastic chair propped against the wall, smoking a clay pipe as he watched us with interest. We were peeking through a barred window at a staircase descending into darkness, when the man spoke.
“Close,” he said.
I had been preparing for this moment… and so I whipped out my phrasebook, and asked him, “当打开?”
While Chinese pictograms are actually much easier to learn and recognise than one might imagine, their pronunciation is not always kind on Western tongues. I fumbled the noises out, and the old man looked at me blankly.
“Close,” he said again, this time accompanying the word with a gesture of arms crossed vigorously in front of his chest. As if to further illustrate the point, he waved towards a pile of rubbish in the corner of the courtyard. There behind black bags of household waste, the old museum sign was leant up against the wall.
“Close,” he repeated, a note of triumph creeping into his voice. We tried offering him money for a look inside, showing him a wad of cash equal to a week’s salary by basic Chinese standards. The man only chuckled in dismissal, and repeated his one English word.
There are believed to be perhaps 90 entrances to the Dixia Cheng Undercity still in existence, although many have been put to other uses since. In Wangfujing an air raid shelter now serves as a youth hostel; the tunnels at Chongwen and Xuanwu have been converted to deep, cavernous theatres. Some of the other entrances lie hidden beneath factories and warehouses, markets, restaurants and schools.
The next address on my list was at Dazhalan Jie, Qianmen. This busy commercial district not far south of Tiananmen Square was a chaotic mess of shoppers and tourists, rickshaws and con artists.
Picking our way through noisy markets, and turning down offers of art shows and traditional tea ceremonies, we made our way to the address. It took us to an indoor supermarket, a cavernous hanger filled with stalls of books, clothes and perfume.
Walking the circumference of the market stalls, it didn’t seem as though we had found the right place – until we spotted a flight of unlit steps in a corner near the entrance, leading down to a lower level. We discretely made our way towards the basement stairs, browsing through stalls until we were close enough to make out a sign which read: “Air defence basement”.
Waiting for a crowd of shoppers to pass between us and the kiosk, we made a dash for it.
The stairs took us down into something between an office and an antique shop. Two Chinese women were sat working at desks amidst cabinets full of aged documents – many of which had price tags attached. We tried (and failed) to blend in and look natural.
We explored both basement rooms before settling on a large, metal-plated door set into a wall and heavily chained. Both clerks had been watching us attentively all this time, so we asked them about it.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what they said to us, but the general meaning was clear enough. Reaching for a wallet made the women angry and uncomfortable, and so we apologised and left.
The Carpet Factory
The first two addresses had got us nowhere, but I still had one more to try. We would need to leave the Qianmen district this time, heading towards nearby Chongwen. I had read reports about a carpet factory on Xingfu Dajie, which often used to feature as the final stop on a tour of the Undercity.
We hailed a rickshaw near Qianmen Metro, and gave the driver the address. He agreed a price of 20 Yuan upfront – it was steep by Chinese standards, but at just £1 each for the two of us we didn’t mind. At some point during the journey the price doubled however, and when we arrived on the street the driver told us the figure had been a quote per person.
We knew we were being conned, but as the argument had attracted the attention of a handful of other rickshaws parked nearby, we decided to cut our losses and leave.
The address seemed to take us to a theatre this time. The show was about to start, and so we milled in with the crowd wandering towards the foyer.
On either side of the entrance, steep flights of stairs led down to a lower level – but these were sealed behind chained glass doors.
Instead we made our way around the outside of the theatre, squeezing past a crowd of men in tight lycra and makeup who stood smoking cigarettes outside the stage door.
Our search proved fruitless, but as we were leaving we spotted the factory sign outside a neighbouring plot. The site had been bulldozed.
Nothing remained of the factory, other than the tiles and wallpaper which still clung to the outer walls.
Searching the rubble for some kind of tunnel entrance I found a broken wooden door covering a manhole, weighed down with rocks and stones; on inspection though, the only thing it hid was a shallow sewer.
Our attempts to enter the Beijing Underground City ended in failure, but you can see a selection of photos from inside Dixia Cheng here.
I learned later that the citizens of Beijing are strictly forbidden from inviting outsiders into the tunnels; although documentary footage available on the Internet shows some portions of the complex being used to store factory goods, or rear chickens.
In other spots the dark, humid conditions – and a constant temperature of 27 degrees Celsius – create the perfect environment for the cultivation of mushrooms.
Entrances to the Underground City were placed close to residential areas, schools and workplaces, and even now the shelters are regularly checked and maintained by city officials.
Unless you have a local contact willing to take a risk for you however, it seems the only way you’re going to get in is by breaking into random houses to inspect the cellar; fist-fighting unarmed women in a department store basement; or by offering a large incentive to someone very important.
 Some reports say the tunnels go further, even as far as the port at Tianjin.