Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
Somewhere between Beijing and the Great Wall of China, towering over the Hebei plains and the nearby Chenzhuang Village, there stands a lonely, broken castle. The site was once conceived as a parallel to Disney’s great amusement parks; the dream passed however, and now this gothic tower – no more than a crumbling concrete shell – marks the miscarriage of Asia’s largest theme park. They call it Wonderland.
In Search of Wonderland
The tattered remains of Wonderland offer a poignant hint at the cracks in China’s economy, and lend credence to analysts’ fears of a developing property bubble. Funded by the Thailand-based Reignwood Group, it was intended to become Asia’s largest theme park; covering a total area of 120 acres.
However, the park soon fell victim to financial problems. After failed negotiations with local officials and land owners, construction of this amusement park was abandoned in 1998. Despite subsequent attempts to revive the project in 2008, Wonderland remains no more than a skeleton of a dream.
I first came across photos of Wonderland Castle in a report by the Washington Post. Digging a little further, I managed to find the castle on Google’s satellite maps; its gothic spires casting long shadows across the surrounding fields.
I made the trip from Beijing, where I had got chatting to two Australians in a hostel bar. They were both keen to go, and, as chance would have it, one of them had already been looking for a way to visit Wonderland for herself.
There are semi-regular trains that connect Beijing station to the small town of Nankou in the north, a walkable distance from Chenzhuang Village and Wonderland. We headed out to try and book our tickets. I’ve taken a lot of trains around China in the past, and it was somewhat foolish of me not to plan further ahead this time; the station was a purgatory of security barriers, ticket halls and seemingly endless queues, and it took us a good half hour before we had worked out where to buy tickets. We queued for another half hour, only to be told that no seats were available on any train that would get us to Wonderland before sunset.
I had my heart set on getting there… and fortunately, my Aussie friends were just as keen. We flagged down a taxi outside the station, and after a heated bargaining session we talked the driver down to 600 Yuan for the 40km journey.
We were almost certainly paying too much by Chinese standards – but I was tired, desperate, and (at around £20 each for the day trip) I wasn’t in the mood to argue more.
Tourism in China is very often a case of following the herd. With such a colossal population, the more interesting or famous destinations are invariably rammed shoulder-to-shoulder with domestic tourists – and as a result, there is a tendency for people to allow the crowd to guide them.
It can sometimes be hard, for example, to explain to a Chinese tour guide or taxi driver that you want to visit one of the quieter sections of the Great Wall. A common mentality here is to assume that the crowded parts must be the best parts: so imagine the pained confusion on this taxi driver’s wind-burnt face, when we tried to direct him to an abandoned amusement park in the middle of nowhere.
As we pulled up on the busy highway outside the faded yellow turrets of Wonderland, the driver looked at us in dismay.
“It’s closed,” he said again in Chinese. “No rides today.”
The Magic Kingdom
Rather than approach the main gates and risk drawing unwanted attention, we opted instead to hop the fence at the corner. As it later transpired however, our presence went entirely unremarked. Scrambling through a trench and over a pile of dirt and plastic debris, we stepped abruptly into a picturesque Bavarian-style street; the recent snow lay crisp and unspoilt beneath walls topped with battlements.
Many of the Wonderland images floating around the web seem to have come from a visit in 2011 by Reuters photojournalist, David Gray. His photographs show the outside of the castle, the elaborately tacky streets and a few shots of a rusted pavilion. As striking as these images may have been, they gave little indication of the building interiors. I was here to finally satisfy my curiosity; to infiltrate Wonderland.
Walking along the Bavarian streets, many of the doors I tried were locked. The entrance beneath one of the corner towers opened at a push however, and so I stepped into the darkness.
I was surprised how clean the building was inside: no litter or graffiti, only thick dust and the occasional rubble from crumbling walls. A series of white-washed rooms led to a circular chamber in the base of the tower, and from here a spiralling metal staircase ascended towards the blue spire above.
Once up top, we walked out onto the balcony to admire Wonderland. We were inside and above the city wall, which marked the front perimeter of the park – spreading out on either side of a central plaza. Beyond the wall lay a cracked expanse of grey tarmac: the car park may never have been used, but its hedges and borders were nonetheless attractive and well maintained. Behind us meanwhile, lay Wonderland Castle itself.
The metal pavilion pictured in the 2011 images was gone, while the cornfields had been replaced by rocks and dead grass. Beyond a desert of browns and greys, right in the centre of the park, rose the hollow spires of the concrete castle.
After a quick foray along the battlements, we made it back down to ground level. On our right were the shallow buildings which formed the front wall of the park, topped with crenelations and tiled steeples. The building on our left was much larger however, and when we headed inside we found ourselves in a vast, barren warehouse.
It’s hard to imagine what had been planned for this drab empty space, and there weren’t any clues inside. A mountain of red corn cobs had been left to dry in a corner, while a pile of boards stacked against a far wall looked suspiciously like asbestos.
Stepping over a broken wooden pallet, I headed up a freestanding flight of concrete steps to the upper level. There was only a little graffiti to be seen here, much of which appeared to have been left by site labourers. One end of this higher floor could almost have been planned for a restaurant, judging by the large double doorway opening onto a rooftop terrace.
I had a look around the rooftops at either end of the building, admiring the view of the abandoned castle across the field. Then I headed down to the street. A central courtyard here featured some of the most ornate buildings we had so far passed; grand palatial facades, decked with balconies, turrets and shuttered windows. In many ways, the faux-architecture on display here felt like a gaudy, technicolour parody of Romania’s Bran Castle.
We had split up a while back, but met again as we made our way out of this wing, and into the main plaza. A group of Chinese were sat on a stone bench in the centre, an ornate herbaceous border behind them. We approached tentatively, but they seemed more amused at our presence than anything else.
The man started speaking to me as I came closer, while the two women with him watched on.
“听不懂,” I replied.
Pronounced “Tīng bù dǒng,” this handy little phrase means, “do not understand”. However, it seems that through overuse I have somehow refined this statement to a fine standard of pronunciation. The result, ironically, is that Chinese people sometimes assume I simply haven’t understood them on a philosophical level.
The man proceded to elaborate. Luckily, one of the Australians spoke enough Mandarin to have a basic conversation with these people. They were curious to know where we came from, and what had brought us to this place. When he explained that we came from Australia and Britain, that we didn’t know each other but had decided to visit after seeing photos of Wonderland on the Internet, they found the notion hilarious.
After saying “goodbye” (“Zàijiàn”), we crossed the plaza to check out the opposite wing. It wasn’t hard to picture how this area could have been. An attractive square bordered by crafted hedges, the metal framework of the ticket booths and the queuing lines behind that. Out beyond the car park, a stylised walkway spiralled up and over the busy road.
“Wonderland Amusement Park” read a painted crest above the door ahead of us, the text accompanied by the park’s dragon mascot.
The next building was in worse shape than the last. The gold crowns that topped each spire had been taken over by birds; twigs and straw poking out the top like a coarse mop of hair. Inside, the halls and corridors smelt of dead birds and urine.
The Bavarian street – a mirror of the last – took us to the southeast corner of the park, where a side road looped out around the fairytale facade to reach a series of huts at the back.
These wood and metal constructions were numbered one to three, backed up against the drifting snow beneath the city wall. Most likely they had provided accommodation for site labourers; it’s not uncommon in China to see workers shipped in from other provinces, living in crude shelters on a construction site.
The builders left Wonderland a long time ago though, and now these huts were used for storing (what appeared to be) farming equipment.
By now we had explored the entire length of the street, and had nowhere else to go; the time had come to get a closer look at Wonderland Castle.
The Enchanted Castle
The path to the castle broke off from the paved central plaza, passing between broken pillars marked with the Chinese characters for “don’t go in” and “dead”; it meandered through the dried-up husks of a corn field, past the shells of warehouses into a field strewn with concrete boulders.
When David Gray photographed Wonderland in 2011, he captured a haunting view of the castle seen from beneath a canopy of girders. All that now remained were a neat grid of concrete boots, knee-high, waist-high. The pavilion itself had been destroyed, taken down and presumably sold as scrap metal.
We took a look inside one of the warehouses.
The sharp winter sun spilled in through cracks in the boarded-up windows, to fall across a mountain of dry sacks. Plaster, concrete, cement: row upon row of building materials, stacked up and gone to waste. There was a pile of excrement in the far corner – human, from the look of it.
We drew closer until we could make out a clean blue hatchback parked beneath the fairytale castle, a Chinese brand, and a handful of workers in the adjacent field. They looked at us in bewilderment as we approached. No attempt at communication – we must have seemed too alien for that – but when I smiled at a middle-aged woman hoeing a plot of seeds and gave her a friendly “Ni Hao”, she smiled warmly in reply then got back to her work.
The castle had looked imposing from a distance, but up close it was colossal: a concrete titan.
Walking around the wide concrete base, I found myself trying to imagine how the construction had worked. There was no way of getting up to the higher floors from here – other than with a grappling hook or by reassembling the original scaffold.
From where we stood the ground level appeared equally inaccessible, a heavy grey shell. Following clockwise around the castle wall, we came to a sharp inward corner. Another local was loading wood into the back of a car, and didn’t seem to notice us. A stack of concrete bricks leaned against the castle wall, beside a large cavernous opening in the concrete. I climbed through the gap, and swung my legs over the darkness.
It must have been about eight feet down to the bare earth floor within. The ground level of the castle had been dug down into the earth, below the intended floor level; as if to install sub-floor heating, perhaps.
I dropped myself down into the bowels of the castle and crossed a series of chest-high concrete barriers, which divided this inside area into a row of earthen cells.
Aiming towards the heart of the castle I hit a dirt bank, a high ridge of soil ringing its way around the central chamber just beyond. It wasn’t too hard to scramble up this, until I was back at ground level and looking down at a wide trench on either side of me.
This semi-subterranean foundation level was built around the square base of the tower. The base was sealed on all sides, other than a large rectangular window, roughly ten feet from the ground. The wall looked close enough to jump to, so I tried it; I managed to catch the ledge, landing with the soles of my feet against the wall.
From here I got up onto the windowsill, and looked down on the heart of Wonderland: a deep concrete chamber, overflowing with shadows and dust.
I met the Australians outside, and together we walked back toward the main road; pausing every few steps for another backwards glance across the abandoned amusement park.
China’s Wonderland never came to be, and now even this thin scattering of half-completed buildings is beginning to fade away. Meanwhile, a team of staff from Chenzhuang keeps the car park free from windblown litter, trims the hedges, weeds flowerbeds.
The return of the farmers tells another story though, as they tentatively reclaim this land for agriculture. Here, in a country where communism, for many, is more than mere memory, it serves as a perfectly poignant illustration of failed capitalism; a post-apocalyptic Disneyscape crumbling beneath the workers’ feet.
UPDATE – 9/5/2013
‘Wonderland’ has been destroyed. The demolition project began in late April, due to finish tomorrow, on 10th May.
I had no knowledge of this when I visited the site at the end of March. It’s sad to think that such an iconic ruin has gone forever… but I’m glad that I managed to get there in time to see it for myself.
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