Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
The city of Qingdao is a strange place – even by Chinese standards.
Located on the east coast between Beijing and Shanghai, this was once a stronghold of the German Empire in Asia. They gave it up after their military forces were called back home for WWI; but the German influence remained even after that, giving Qingdao a uniquely European flavour amongst the other major cities of the Chinese eastern seaboard.
From the Bavarian Quarter in the Old Town, to the annual Qingdao International Beer Festival: many of the cultural highlights of Qingdao evolved from this peculiar German-Chinese mix. For me though, the highlight of visiting Qingdao was when I discovered that the Germans also left behind a vast network of subterranean tunnels.
I wrote an article, years ago, about the German military bunkers dug into a mountain overlooking the city – hollowed out to form a warren of ammo dumps, mess halls and lookout points that could keep watch over the bay. Later I wrote another article, about the random sections of tunnels in Zhongshan Park; a mixture of foxholes, bunkers and dead-ends, long-since demolished when the Germans evacuated the city.
While I’ve only written about ruined or abandoned tunnels so far though, they’re not all that way. In fact, Qingdao’s best preserved tunnel network has been converted now into a museum: the ‘Mount Qingdao Fort Museum,’ which sits in a park overlooking the sea.
During my visit to Qingdao, we headed down there one day to take a look around.
The area itself was ordinary, nothing in particular to set it apart from any other urban park… until we got closer to the water’s edge. We knew we must be approaching the museum entrance, when the surface of the park broke out in a series of rusted ventilation pipes – reddish-brown pipes rising like tree stumps from the grass. Beyond that, on a stone plaza with a clear view over the bay below, rotating gun turrets emerged from tunnels below while a massive cannon faced out towards the sea.
The entrance to the museum was around the other side of the hill – where a small plaza opened in front of a gloomy fissure in the stone wall. It didn’t seem like much, looking at it from here. Having just walked the length of the park however, and having noted the wide spread of pipes and gun turrets that rose from all corners, I had a feeling that the tunnels connecting them would be extensive.
Inside the entrance, two figurines stood guard on either side of a wrought iron gate. Cast in some bronze-coloured material they depicted Westerners, German soldiers in early twentieth century uniforms complete with rifles and spiked helmets. Above them a ventilation shaft and industrial-style light fittings seemed like much later additions – imperial troops stood in a communist bunker – making for a strange juxtaposition of styles, that would set the tone nicely for the weirdness to come.
To be fair, the first few rooms of the museum were relatively standard. Well-lit and modern(ish), the corridor led us directly into a map room. The walls here were painted up with battle scenes, while in the centre of the floor a table contained a detailed 3D map of the landscape around Qingdao. Nearby, a collection of statues acted out scenes of brutal conflict between a pair of artillery cannons. The wall behind them was painted in a wash of flame.
It wasn’t until we left this area behind though, that the museum began to get truly strange.
The tunnel network that forms the Mount Qingdao Fort Museum is ridiculously huge. There was little in the way of maps or signposts – just a corridor leading off from the entrance area that forked into more corridors, then more, into halls and chambers, and to staircases leading down to deeper levels. It wasn’t long, wandering around these unsigned and barely-lit passages, before I began to feel somewhat lost.
At one end of the network I came across a chamber lit from above by thin shards of daylight. A metal cylinder ahead of me contained a chair, the gunner’s position for operating the turret up above. I sat inside, and tried turning the metal wheel – the cylinder slowly rotated, and through a narrow viewport I was able to peer out across the park from my armoured turret. In the park above, two young girls had been taking selfies in front of the bay; they jumped with surprise as the antique war machine set into the concrete at their feet suddenly came to life.
For the next few hours we simply wandered in the semi-darkness of the tunnels. There were three levels, extending far beneath the park to form an extensive subterranean maze. We found more of the bronze figures, too – set in life-like positions as they cleaned their rifles, operated radio equipment or simply sat drinking surrounded by metal-cast wine bottles. The drunken mannequins seemed to say a lot about how the Chinese viewed their former German overlords.
It was surreal. We’d walk for perhaps five minutes without seeing anything – no signs, no information panels, sometimes no lights – just featureless, unmarked corridors. At times we wondered if we’d left the museum behind and entered abandoned sections of the network. It didn’t feel particularly safe down there, and I found it hard to believe that tourists were permitted to explore the dark tunnels this freely.
Then, suddenly, we’d turn a corner and wander into a mess hall where bronze figures sat around as if in conference. Other rooms were lit in unnatural shades of red or green, further adding to the alien atmosphere. Outside of the map room, we didn’t see another visitor in all the time we were down there.
Somehow though, even these bizarre effigies of German troops were not the most remarkable thing about the Mount Qingdao Fort Museum…
Did I not mention the spiders?
Down in those tunnels I had been seeing them everywhere – on walls, behind pipes, tucked away in the far corners of vaulted stone bunkers with only their eyes sparkling dimly in the darkness. I’ve seen a few spiders in my time, but these were the largest I’ve ever come across in the wild. They were larger than Cuban tarantulas; more terrifying than anything I saw in Australia.
And in this context, I don’t use the word ‘terrifying’ lightly. I’m not normally bothered by spiders. I rather like them, actually; I even had a pet tarantula of my own for a while. But the size and sheer number of huntsman spiders I found in the tunnels of the Mount Qingdao Fort was enough to make me decidedly uncomfortable.
The worst area was a small, moist corridor we found behind a ‘Keep Out’ sign. It was a part of the tunnels that hadn’t been cleaned up and turned into museum space yet – just some crusty storerooms and passages hidden away down one side of the complex. I wandered in with my flashlight, and it wasn’t until I reached the end chamber that I took a closer look at the walls around me.
Every surface was crawling with spiders, great big bulky things, some of them with a leg-span wider than my outstretched hand. They clung from the walls all around, twitching and swaying slightly as if reading the air. I backed up without thinking, until I hit the wall behind me – then immediately realised my mistake and jumped clear of it. These things were everywhere, all around me, and they seemed to be waking up, growing agitated by my intrusion. The largest spider in that room had only five legs – a veteran of past battles, I guess – while in some corners I saw pairs of spiders apparently fighting to the death.
I could only conclude that something about these tunnels provided the perfect breeding ground for large, predatory spiders: the darkness, the moisture, and of course, the locusts. Some parts of the tunnels seemed to be alive with insects, crispy little bugs that scuttled about in the shadows. These spiders had obviously found the perfect breeding ground, and were getting fat on a never-ending supply of free-range locusts.
Anyway, here are the photos – and if there are any arachnophobes reading this, then consider yourselves warned…