Longer than the Great Wall of China. Stretches to five cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Tianjin and Nanjing. Room to house 300,000 people. Contains a cinema, two hospitals, a silk factory, a school, a library, vehicular access and cell phone access 80m below the surface. Secret, underground access to key sites around Beijing: Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and Beijing Capital International Airport. An advanced ventilation system to protect against chemical attack, and allows for fresh air for seniors suffering from rheumatism and asthma. Large metal doors are also part of the protection against floods or attacks from the enemy.
Yes, all this and more! Although you, a card-carrying member of democracy will never see all of the Beijing Underground City. In 1969, Chairman Mao was faced with the military threat resulting from the Sino-Soviet Split. He enlisted thousands of workers to build a labyrinth of tunnels to be used as bomb shelters under the city of Beijing. It was completed in 1979 (3 years after Mao’s death), and opened only to the public in 2000. The portion open to tourists is minuscule compared to the network that spreads through out China, my guide Mr. Yee tells me.
“If you have enough biscuits, you can walk to Tianjin through this tunnel. It’ll take two days. No traffic! No fee! Let’s go!” jokes Mr. Yee. And yes, there is a sign with a handy arrow pointing down the one of three halls leading through this labyrinth. Mr. Yee, my guide in the Underground City is excellent, nothing like the other guides I’ve encountered in China. His English is clear and descriptive, and his tour guide chatter is full of facts and stories about the City and his personal life. I find out that he teaches Mandarin in the same language school where his wife teaches English. She’s from Los Angeles and apparently doesn’t speak very good Mandarin.
“What Mandarin do you know?” Mr. Yee asks as we wander past propaganda posters featuring Mao.
“Thank you, good morning, hello and excuse me,” I reply, proud of the last one, though I never heard it once during my week in Beijing. Walking through the concrete tunnels, our voices echo as he tries to teach me the correct intonation.
“Xie xie,” he repeats, the first xie combined with a quick slap on his hand, and the second accompanied by the hand saluting upward. This is great! Free Chinese lessons and a look at the greatest Communist secret to be published in a certain well-known travel guide.
At 20 yuan it’s pretty cheap (like everything in China) for the great level of service and a chance to look at the power Communism once had. Located on Xidamo-Chang Jie, a hutong off of Qianmen Dajie, its a 15 minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. A small doorway decorated in camouflage, with both an English and Chinese sign, its fairly easy to locate despite the ambiguous placing between numbers 62 and 64. It’s a relatively unknown tourist destination, and I think they like it that way.
“How did you know about this place?” Mr. Yee grilled me, his army training doing him proud.
“In a book,” I reply, holding my Lonely Planet in front of me like a shield. Mr. Yee grimaces, and despite his seemingly gentle nature, I can picture him planning ways to exact revenge against the travel publishers.
Another sign they aren’t keen about visitors is the lack of photos allowed underground. When asked if I could take a picture of 4 tunnels branching off, with rounded roofs, army fatigue cloth covering up to shoulder height of all the walls, and original Cultural Revolution posters, Mr. Yee looks into my eyes menacingly and says “No, it’s a secret. Do you understand?” Yes, sir! I wanted to reply. Despite these momentary lapses into Communist secret keeper mode, Mr. Yee is an enjoyable companion through these hallways.
What I’m struck by most is what I can’t, or am not allowed, to see. Mr. Yee is a tour guide and is preventing me from getting lost – but I feel there is so much more hiding just around each corner, like the Communists are planning a world takeover on the other side of that wall. My thoughts are proved correct, not about Communist world domination but about something hidden around each corner. We open a door labeled as the Meeting Room, but are met with a silk factory and shop, complete with no less than five shop ladies, eyeing me hungrily.
It’s a large room, with ceilings at around 18 feet high, and very wide, with four or five smaller rooms off the side. Filled with rows on rows of colourful silk shirts, dresses, ties, bags and pillowcases. There’s even a bed covered in a beautiful silk comforter. Its shocking, both the size and the colours after the nearly claustrophobic tunnels. Having been molested by shop keepers on the street all day, I point towards the large door at the end, and we leave the shop, much to the chagrin of the shop ladies. The door is large enough for a car to fit through, Mao’s secret exit. The road (it’s impossible to think of it as just a tunnel) tilts upwards and the tour is coming to an end.
“What do you think of our Underground City?” Mr. Yee asks, eager for my response. My mind is overloaded, not with information, just astounded by the magnitude of it.
“It’s so … interesting,” I say, knowing my lack of a worthy adjective is disappointing Mr. Yee.
“Most visitors say amazing,” he offers.
“Yes!” I grasp on to the word. “Amazing! I can’t believe it, and yet, here it is.” Mr. Yee grunts with satisfaction at my now suitable awe at the Communist accomplishment. As we near the exit, I receive a curt dismissal, but manage to get one picture of Mr. Yee in his army fatigues and me with my scarf, doing the peace sign in front of a place designed to protect against nuclear war.