Ordos - China's Ghost City 1

Welcome to Ordos: The World’s Largest “Ghost City”

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Built for over a million people, the city of Ordos was designed to be the crowning glory of Inner Mongolia. Doomed to incompletion however, this futuristic metropolis now rises empty out of the deserts of northern China. Only 2% of its buildings were ever filled; the rest has largely been left to decay, abandoned mid-construction, earning Ordos the title of China’s Ghost City.

Last year I travelled to Inner Mongolia for myself, to get a closer look at the bizarre, ghost metropolis of Ordos… and the experience, as I would discover, was far stranger than anything I could have prepared for.

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The Ghost Town of Inner Mongolia

China’s property market is in a strange place.

With a population reckoned at 1,351,000,000 and rising fast, the resultant boom in property development has led to scores of new-made millionaires and a rapidly growing elite class; at the same time however, analysts fear that this property bubble is set to burst. The country itself owes coming on for a trillion dollars in debt.

Meanwhile, a billion people are waking up to the possibilities of fast cars, smartphones, broadband Internet and credit cards.

Ordos - China's Ghost City 15-DRSome of China’s most rapidly developing cities are virtually unheard of in the West; but for every overnight economic success story, there seems to be a hidden swathe of near misses, dead ends and bankruptcies. Out of all these phantoms however, nothing compares to the strangeness of China’s ‘Ghost City’: Ordos.

The city of Ordos is a heavily stylised population centre located close to the Ordos Desert, and it’s one of the main cities of Inner Mongolia. This area is famed for its rapidly expanding population and developing urban areas – the region of Inner Mongolia boasting a higher GDP than even Beijing itself.

Inner Mongolia is an interesting place. Once the birthplace of Genghis Khan, only 79% of the population belong to China’s predominant Han ethnicity, while 17% are of Mongol origin. It was once a part of Greater Mongolia, though consecutive Chinese empires and the latter-day rise of the Communist Party saw Inner Mongolia moulded and cast, time and time again, as a subservient province of China.

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Interestingly however, Inner Mongolia is one of the only places in the world that still uses traditional Mongolian script. While Mongolia itself adopted Cyrillic during the communist years, perhaps the Mongols of China felt they had more to prove; clinging fiercely on to their heritage, and with it, the ancient characters that still now appear on street signs across Ordos and Kangbashi.

When a conglomeration of property developers began planning a new urban centre just outside the existing city of Ordos in 2003, the Kangbashi New Area, Ordos seemed set to become the futuristic jewel in China’s crown of city states.

However, nobody quite anticipated how quickly this new development would fall flat on its face. Deadlines weren’t met, loans went unpaid, and investors pulled out before projects could be completed – leaving entire streets of unfinished buildings. The ridiculous cost of accommodation in this dream city put off many would-be inhabitants, so that even fully completed apartments became difficult to sell.

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According to one local taxi driver I spoke to, many of those who did make the move to Kangbashi were already abandoning their homes – and breaking out of the ghost town.

While some developers still labour on with their thankless construction projects, others are busy slashing prices. Typical housing prices in Kangbashi have fallen from $1,100 to $470 per square foot, over the last five years alone.

Nowadays the Kangbashi district, planned to accommodate a population in excess of one million, is home to a lonely 20,000 people – leaving 98% of this 355-square kilometre site either under construction or abandoned altogether.

A November 2009 report on AlJazeera exposed the city of Ordos to a worldwide audience, and the story was run the next year by Time Magazine. Pretty soon, Ordos had earned the accolade of ‘China’s Ghost City’.

Journalists and photographers representing a number of world-renowned publications have since been to capture Kangbashi’s empty streets, its row upon row of apartment blocks abandoned mid-construction.

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However, none of these reports seemed to venture far from the city centre and its adjoining streets; resulting in broad, post-apocalyptic cityscapes that left much to the imagination. The more I read about Ordos, the more I wanted to know what lay beyond these hastily fitted doors and windows; to actually see inside, and under the skin of a city that never came to be.

Last year, my dream became a reality. I teamed up with Gareth from Young Pioneer Tours – a man just about crazy enough to share my fascination for this otherworldly ghost metropolis – and together we started planning our journey into Inner Mongolia.

Arrival in Ordos

The city of Ordos is served by the newly-built Eerduosi Airport. From the moment we got off our plane, it was apparent that someone, sometime, had made grand plans for this city.

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The futuristically sculpted terminal building is decked out with fountains and hanging baskets, chic coffee shops and sub-lit escalators glowing in shades of green and blue.

While the population of Ordos is now just 10% Mongolian to 90% Chinese, nevertheless the airport was resplendent with proud icons of a Mongolian heritage; effigies of horses and minstrels gaze down across the central concourse, while the departure hall features a vast mural, a ring of painted scenes depicting the life of Genghis Khan.

For all this opulence though, the airport was close to empty.

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We took the second of two daily flights from Beijing to Eerduosi; departing from the smaller, former military airfield in the suburbs of the capital. It brought us to Inner Mongolia after dark, and we hopped onto the transfer coach headed towards Ordos city centre.

We were on this luxurious coach for around half an hour, enthroned in soft reclining seats replete with cup holders, leg rests and a movie channel… all the while, half-seen hulks of concrete and metal sped past our windows, distant, shadowy shapes appearing and disappearing out of the gloom.

I felt hemmed in on all sides by invisible construction sites. It was hard to make out much of our surroundings, given the bright interior lighting on the coach. On the final stretch into Ordos however, we passed by the shell of a stadium-to-be; the vast, skeletal seating areas rose up in a ring around a central playing field, lit by industrial spotlights and the regular, telltale flares of several hundred welding guns.

Never in my life have I seen anything so closely resembling the second Death Star.

Ordos - China's Ghost City 20-DRWe arrived in Ordos sometime in the early hours of the morning, checked our bags into a hotel, and grabbed a beer for the road. The city centre is not a long way off completion: it has shops and apartments, cafés, bars and restaurants. For all this seeming normality however, downtown Ordos is presided over by a series of doom-struck towers, grey office buildings, flats and shopping malls – and most of them are completely empty.

We walked for a few hours, past restaurants, bars, casinos and sex shops. The lights were shining bright in every establishment, but the people were nowhere to be seen. Cutting through one backstreet, we passed the pink lights of a brothel. The shop front was lined in wide, glass windows, to expose a troupe of young girls stood as if on parade in a wardrobe of matching lingerie. These dozen-or-so prostitutes numbered more than any pedestrians we’d managed to count all evening.

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Everywhere, there seemed to be a show of readiness; of establishments with their doors thrown wide open, not just to welcome guests but also, perhaps, to prove a point. To show this city for the functional, hospitable destination that it so desperately wants to be.

We tried to get something to eat at a backstreet restaurant, approaching the doorway where local kids were fighting with a water hose.

“Do you have food?” we asked.

“Come in, come in,” they said, gesturing at a dimly lit booth within, at the fridge beside it stocked with cold noodles and soft drinks. There was no sign of an adult on the premises, no sight nor smell of a chef at work. As with so much else in Ordos, the lights were on but nobody was home.

By the time we got back to our hotel, to its luxuriously oversized beds and in-room bars that featured whisky, peanuts and gas masks, we were still struggling to get to grips with this place, to make sense of the city.

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Through and through it felt like a construction site: a builders’ canteen stretched to accommodate a full city. For working men, there were primal comforts aplenty – bars, snacks and brothels – but while the fine restaurants and casinos made a show of being ready for tourists, delegates, or better still, investors, most of them were no more than empty fronts and meaningless displays.

By the light of the following morning, we got our first impression of the sheer scale of abandonment. We stopped off for a fast-food breakfast, the restaurant cowering in the shadow of the city’s CBD. In place of industrious office buildings however, a series of hollow fingers rose up to the sky; the shells of would-be towers, one after another, row after row, vanishing off into the distance.

Immediately above us towered what could have been the headquarters of a bank – forty floors of office space, wrapped in a shell of mirrored panels. In its un-maintained state however, these reflective scales were falling away in great swathes, to expose the bare concrete beneath. Not even finished yet, and already it needed a makeover.

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We found a mosque near the city centre, a modern, cubist structure formed out of clean, white blocks. On closer inspection, it appeared as though the temple had never yet been used; peering through the glass doors we saw nothing inside but open space, while the doors themselves were still wrapped in plastic – as though fresh out of a warehouse somewhere, and hastily assembled.

Before proceeding to our main destination, we decided to get a better look around this, the older, more densely populated centre of Ordos.

We found an amiable taxi driver, who was more than happy to take us past some of the city’s main sights. He drove us down a long boulevard, lined with ornate lamps crafted into 1930s-style art deco figurines; past an overgrown park, and row upon row of concrete shells. Eventually we came to a halt, before a grand statue of a horse set into the middle of a roundabout.

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“Ordos,” the statue’s inscription proclaimed, to nobody in particular, “The Outstanding Tourism City of China.”

It was almost too much to process… but as it would turn out, so far we had only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. Nothing could have quite prepared us for the unadulterated strangeness of the Kangbashi district.

The Kangbashi New Area

The new residential zone of Kangbashi was built on the north bank of the Wulan Mulun River, where its spacious layout, innovative monuments and striking, sculpted skyscrapers look every part the 21st century metropolis; or they would have, that is, if anybody had been living in them.

“They will come,” our taxi driver kept insisting, on the drive over from the old heart of Ordos. “You don’t think our city is beautiful? You’ll see. The people will come.”

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Ordos - China's Ghost City 10-DRHis confidence was to be paraphrased by almost every local that we spoke to on that trip; a blind assurance that these beautiful buildings couldn’t stay empty forever. It was inconceivable that all of this hard work might have been for nothing.

We drove back along the freeway, which links old Ordos to Kangbashi, before continuing northeast towards the airport at Dongsheng. On the way we passed by the stadium again, less dramatic by the light of day, while beyond that a forest of dusty, unfinished towers fanned out from either side of the road. Cranes stood sentry over some of these construction sites, many of them rising as much as forty, fifty stories high above the desert. In contrast, the road itself was smooth and well maintained; its shoulders and central reservation decorated with well-watered shrubs, and artistic horse motifs.

The taxi dropped us off at the top end of Genghis Khan Square, from where we gazed out across the desolation of Kangbashi. Around us rose the figures of khans and their royal advisors, of men, women and horses dressed in traditional Mongolian finery.

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Roughly 600 feet to the south, at the heart of a wide, open courtyard reared up two colossal horses, perhaps the most iconic of Kangbashi’s monuments. Beyond the horses, this vast central plaza fed into a park, dusty sand in place of grass and with paths that fanned out to form the shape of a sunburst.

Residential and corporate towers rose up in all directions – a satisfyingly symmetrical alignment of blocks and skyscrapers – while before that, hemming us in, Kangbashi’s most notable works of architecture lined the paths of Genghis Khan Square. Along the left hand side, past the two rearing horses sat the Kangbashi Theatre: a curious building, its shape supposedly inspired by a traditional form of Mongolian headwear.

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To our right, the library building resembled a cluster of leaning books while beside it, the Ordos Museum sat like… well, it’s hard to say exactly. Mad Architects, the aptly-named firm behind the project, have suggested that the design reflects, “the crossroads faced by the surrounding community which is striving to interpret their local traditions within the newly constructed urban context.”

Make of that what you will.

The square around us was not completely empty. A man watched nearby, as his son flew a kite; the bright sail drifting high above the heads of the noble khans. There was very little traffic about, but the occasional car or bike would cruise past us now and again, none of them seeming to be in any particular hurry.

There was a steady trickle of people moving in and out of the Ordos Museum, and we spied a few more stood around the horses’ hooves; though as we drew closer, we’d notice these were dressed in the drab uniforms of street sweepers. Over the course of the day, we’d find that maintenance teams in Kangbashi outnumbered pedestrians tenfold.

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Ambling around the paths that lined the city centre, we passed small speakers mounted on stems, which blasted out Mongolian folk music to no one in particular. Further down the plaza, past the horses and the theatre, printed signs advertised a café and we decided to have a look inside. We took the elevator up to the top floor, where the doors opened to reveal a gaggle of giggling, school-age girls stood in a line to greet us. It looked much the same as the brothel we’d passed the night before, save that this time the girls were fully dressed.

A wave of surprise and curiosity rippled through the staff when two foreigners stepped out of the lift. We were shown to a window seat, from where we looked down across the vast expanse of Genghis Khan Square. Kangbashi, without a doubt, was the strangest city I’d ever seen.

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We had a coffee, then a beer, as we chatted excitedly about the empty streets, the bizarre monuments beneath us. This was everything we’d seen from the photographs, a surreal, desolate metropolis; ancient Mongolia spliced with scenes from the distant future, set against the swirling sands of the Mu Us Desert. Up until this point though, we’d only seen the city from the streets, from its roads and pedestrian paths… it was time to go deeper. We finished our drinks, and set off to do some proper exploring.

Part Two: Urban Exploration in Kangbashi

Abandoned buildings, tunnels, construction sites and rooftops… in the world’s largest Ghost City.

Read it Now!

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Ordos - China's Ghost City 21-DR

Post a comment

  1. Outstanding work on dark tourism..I live in a former communist country,Romania.Maybe you will find an interesting place here too.Hopefully I’ll get to visit some of these places also

    • Mulțumesc, Radu! I’m really glad you like the website. Actually I’ve written 3 posts about Romania already, including one on Bran Castle… I’ve got a lot more material still to publish though. I have spent a fair amount of time in Romania already, but it’s such a big country, with so many interesting places to see, that I know I need to come back and explore some more one day!

  2. Hi Darmon – Great article! I will be heading there this weekend (by myself, for research) and this article is a good heads up on what I should expect. Any traveling tips you could give? Were taxis hard to find? And please let me know if you know anyone there I could contact for some support; that would be lovely. Thank you!

    • Hey Diana, hope the trip goes well! Taxis were relatively easy to flag down in the older part of Ordos, and they’re very cheap. There are not so many in Kangbashi, though still a few floating around. Do you speak any Chinese? There’s not a lot of English spoken there, though certainly some of the younger generation are likely to be able to help. Like most places in China though, people are friendly so you can generally get by with sign language and smiles. Hotels were pretty easy to find, though again, you’ll find more of them in the older parts of town. Sorry to say though, I don’t have any local contacts in Ordos. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with though!

  3. Your link for part two doesn’t work. Please update, can’t wait to read it!

    • Thanks for pointing this out – I recently had the website redesigned, and there are still a few small bugs. Anyway, I’ve been away all weekend, but just got back and have now fixed the link. Hope you enjoy Part Two!

  4. It has a very similar structure/blueprint as the city in Astana, Kazakhstan (http://www.thebohemianblog.com/2012/12/dark-tourism-illuminati-capital.html) // Looks like it didn’t thrive for Mongolia, or location was moved abruptly.

    • That’s a good point, actually. There’s definitely some similarity between the two – not just the weird architecture but the layout and the landscape too. I wonder if there was any crossover between architects / design teams… I know that Astana was largely planned by outsourced, foreign architects, but I’m not so familiar with the rationale behind Ordos. Anyway, thanks for bringing this up – it’s an interesting point.

  5. Proof that the “economy” builds the most useless shit on Earth. This is the result of a sickness called the Military Industrial Complex. Absolutely shocking and a disgrace to the environment.

    • Yes, the environmental factor is pretty shocking when you think about it. It seems though, that this approach toward building cities in bursts can often be successful; you see it happening all over China.

      I think in the case of Ordos, what we’re looking at is the result of bad planning, and perhaps bad luck. That’s not to excuse the effect on economy and ecology, but nevertheless I think this result is a rarity.

  6. One of the weirdest places on earth!

  7. How did you get there? any advice?

    • It’s not too hard to get there, though I don’t think this trip would have been possible without the help of my Chinese-speaking friend. We flew from Beijing to Ordos airport, then travelled by taxi to Kangbashi.

      Although, having said that – my friends over at Young Pioneer Tours have just started running tours to Ordos! You can get a discount too, if you mention ‘The Bohemian Blog’ when you book.

  8. This is utterly amazing! I’m going there in few weeks. Can’t wait! :D

    • Brilliant! Are you going alone, or is this an educational trip? Hope you enjoy yourself, it really is a fascinating place.

  9. Soooo no pictures of the prostitutes or the sex shops…did your camera break? What gives?!

    • Haha, no… I did actually have my camera with me at the time, and nearly took a picture. But then I decided that it didn’t really feel fair, and so I focussed more on the architecture instead. Architecture doesn’t mind being exploited.

  10. wonder why the movie “I am legend was not shot here”

  11. This is an amazing account.

    Though, just as amazed about this report, I am amazed at the fact that you, the writer, did not venture and make the piece more complete.

    By making an analysis of the facts, of why this building site did not mature into a city. You would have elevated your writing from a “look at the crazy neo billionaires building fata-morgannas and burning dough.” To an even better piece than just a real nice contribution.

    That IS something I would truly have been interested in…
    But of course it’s much easier to complain. So, sorry for that.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Daniel.

      I appreciate your criticism – I, too, would love to read an account which really tackles the facts here, analysing how and why the city of Ordos (and other “ghost cities”, for that matter) came to be the way they are.

      However, that’s just not what I do. I have no education in economics, and I fear that any analysis I wrote would ultimately risk being flawed, ill-informed, and therefore devalue what I can contribute…

      …which is an honest and thorough examination of the symptoms on display here. I leave it to others, those with a better working knowledge of economic and sociopolitical processes, to join the dots and offer their prognosis.

  12. Fascinating post. I’m starving here for a proper *explanation* of just how something like this happens. Any idea if any sociological work has been done on China’s ghost cities? This is just crying out for an explanation.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andres.

      I’m yet to read anything that gives a true and complete explanation for how this happens. There are theories that China’s economy tends to work this way though, through a process of “boom and bust”. For example, there are many empty buildings in Shanghai still – the country goes through periods of rapid infrastructural growth, which are later followed by mass movements of population into the new spaces.

      I guess in this instance though, it just didn’t work out as planned.

  13. There are some very strange and fascinating things in China-

  14. Very interesting! Didn’t realize the occupancy was as low as 2% at one time. Just wrote an article on the broader impact of ghost cities in China and found that the 20 million Chinese are moving from the countryside to cities each year. Maybe someday they will fill up!
    http://www.cityclock.org/ghost-cities-in-china-on-the-rebound/

    • It’s completely possible that these places will fill up in time. However, the problem for Ordos is that many parts of the city have been left empty for too long… as I noted above, there are signs of serious wear and decay, in buildings which haven’t even seen an occupant yet. I fear that in this case, the prophesied population boom has come too late.

      Thanks for the link to your own article, I’ll be interested to read your perspective on this.

    • it won’t happen cause the displaced rural poor have nothing to invest. their land was stolen from them by water mining > water table drop and industrial agriculture. millions will die but Ordos won’t live. read here http://www.derrickjensen.org/work/endgame/endgame-premises-english/

    • Good article, and some very fair points. Thanks for adding this perspective.

  15. That looks so surreal. Must have felt like being in some type of Eerie zombie film or something?

    • Yes – that thought went through my head a few times! Truly post-apocalyptic.

  16. Amazing place. I don’t know about a second Death Star, but that airport looks like the rotunda in Deep Space Nine. Great post as usual.

    • You should have seen it at night, Dale… sadly I couldn’t get a worthwhile photo out the window of the coach, but that place was epic.

  17. this is fascinating great post and you may enjoy @yomadic

    • Thanks Rebecca, glad you found it interesting!

      And yes, I know Yomadic well – in fact, we’ve shared more than a few adventures already…

  18. Fantastic! I’ve wanted to see this city from the moment I heard this happens in China. Love it that you’ve made what seems to be a proper inspection to the interesting side. Looking forward to the next posts. Keep us great work!

    • Thanks for the comment, Heidi! I was exactly the same – as soon as I heard about this place, I knew I had to get out there for myself.

      By the way, I’ve just posted Part 2: Urban Exploration in Kangbashi

See all 43 comments on “Welcome to Ordos: The World’s Largest “Ghost City””

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