China | Beijing’s Underground City

China a journey into the vast subterranean system of tunnels meant to protect millions during a Soviet nuclear attack

01 July 2011

SILENCE ENVELOPED OUR SMALL GROUP as we descended from a bustling street into the cold, dark, flooded tunnels beneath the heart of the city. Peeling paint and mould flashed before the solitary torch beam, along with rusty bicycles and broken furniture—all housed in a crumbling remnant of China’s isolationist past. "There used to be lights down here but, now, because it is flooded, all the lights are gone, ' our informal guide explained, as he pointed with his torch and led us down the cracked steps into a warren of nominally off-limits tunnels beneath Beijing—the vast nuclear bomb shelter, built in the 1970s, called Dixia Cheng, the Underground City.

Anyway, it would be too dangerous for us to use the lights—if one of the wires came down we would all die, ' he said, as the icy water reached to our knees and the darkness swallowed everything but the torch’s steady beam.

As the beam flicked from side to side, we caught glimpses of tunnels stretching off into the distance and claustrophobic rooms left empty except for unusable light bulbs dangling from thin wires. Here and there, messages were scrawled on the walls pointing to emergency exits or extolling those below to dig deep and to not spread secrets to the enemy.

Kit Gillet is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Beijing. His work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Forbes, Foreign Policy and CNN.

Keywords: Kit Gillet nuclear attack china Cold War Cultural Revolution Beijing