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  • Beijing.

  • One of the ten largest cities in the world, and a hub of business and culture.

  • Home to most of China's largest companies and with more billionaires living there than

  • any city in the world, it's one of Earth's greatest metropolitan centers.

  • But below the city, there's another city- one with over a million people living in conditions

  • that couldn't be further from the surface.

  • Welcome to the underground bunker metropolis of Beijing.

  • It all started in the Cold War - as many things did.

  • China was a powerful, nuclear-armed nation in the 1960s, but its role in the geopolitical

  • conflict was dwarfed by that of the rival superpowers - the United States and the Soviet

  • Union.

  • Many in China were worried that the tensions between these two powerhouses would boil over

  • into nuclear war - as it almost did during the Cuban Missile Crisis - and Chinese leader

  • Mao Zedong was determined to do something about it.

  • He ordered major Chinese cities to begin the process of building bomb shelters that could

  • withstand a nuclear bomb.

  • Beijing in particular went to work.

  • After all, how many bomb shelters is too many for a city?

  • How about ten thousand?

  • The city was ready for the inevitable - but the inevitable never came.

  • Nuclear war never happened, and tensions rose and fell as the Cold War eventually ended

  • with a whimper rather than a bang in the 1980s.

  • But as the Soviet Union faded and eventually collapsed, China's economy was growing,

  • and more people from the outside world were starting to look at the country as the next

  • big world power.

  • All of a sudden, China's vast network of underground bunkers started to look less like

  • a necessity.

  • And for some enterprising businessmen, they looked like an opportunity.

  • Today, Beijing is a thriving city of over twenty-one million people.

  • During the day, they all mill around the surface, going about their day for work, school, and

  • recreation.

  • But the city's housing market is highly competitive and rates are high, and many people

  • can't afford even the smallest apartment.

  • So as night falls, roughly five percent of the city's population simply disappears

  • from the city surface, going to find their home in a very unconventional place.

  • They're about to enter Beijing's secret underground city.

  • In the 1980s, as tensions ebbed and China's leadership turned their eyes to their economy,

  • many of these underground bunkers were leased by the defense department to private landlords,

  • who converted them into low-cost apartments.

  • They're mostly used by migrant workers and students who are far from home, seeking a

  • low-cost place to live.

  • There's just one problem - housing laws in China are strict, and living underground

  • has been illegal since 2008.

  • That hasn't stopped many people from seeking refuge underground, as the government is rarely

  • able to police the massive network of underground bunkers.

  • So what is it actually like to live in a Cold War bunker?

  • The bunkers are far from view and kept very secretive, so it's not easy to find out.

  • In fact, it may be hard to even see where one is located.

  • They can be found through unobtrusive entrances in standard buildings, and it's common for

  • them to be guarded by security.

  • But stories of this vast network of underground residents spread around the world, and one

  • Italian photographer was determined to uncover the truth.

  • His name was Antonio Faccilongo, and he was ready to enter China to find the truth.

  • It wouldn't be easy.

  • The bunkers were everywhere in the city - but entirely out of reach to an outsider.

  • Faccilongo searched the city, but everywhere he went, they seemed to be blocked off by

  • security guards who sent him away brusquely.

  • It was clear he wouldn't be able to get in by asking, so he submitted a formal request

  • with the government - which was promptly denied.

  • Breaking into government facilities in China can be a risky move, but he had come too far.

  • So he cased one bunker and waited for the guards to take a lunch break.

  • He was in.

  • And what he found inside was a whole other world.

  • While laws in Beijing require a minimum living space of 43 square feet per tenant, the underground

  • living spaces are often shockingly small.

  • The bunkers were built with the basic amenities needed for extended survival - including electricity,

  • plumbing, and a waste disposal system.

  • But livable doesn't mean comfortable, and living deep underground doesn't lend itself

  • to great air.

  • The underground city is poorly ventilated, and the air can be filled with mold spores

  • - which can lead to health issues for residents.

  • So it's basically a small apartment, but underground?

  • Not exactly - most apartments at least have their own bathroom.

  • The bunkers were designed to get as many people into a small space for emergency living after

  • a nuclear strike, so comfort wasn't a forefront concern.

  • Shared bathrooms and kitchens can often have long waits, but it's better than living

  • on the streets.

  • But what about the private living quarters?

  • As Faccilongo explored the underground bunkers of Beijing, he found that many of the residents

  • were secretive.

  • Many refused to speak to him or let him into their quarters, and those who did were hesitant

  • to be photographed.

  • Of course, this made sense as these apartments were illegal - although the laws are poorly

  • enforced.

  • But many more didn't want their faces to become public because they were embarrassed

  • of where they lived.

  • Many had told their families that they had full apartments on the surface.

  • Faccilongo found an apartment that contained a man, his mother, and the man's two small

  • children under four years old.

  • The floor space was so small that the bed - for all four residents - nearly covered

  • the entire surface.

  • And it wasn't a place for quiet contemplation, either - the larger space next door was used

  • as a parking space for motorcycles, with people coming and going frequently.

  • But there was one thing going for these apartments - cost.

  • Small living space means small rent, and these tiny units could be had for as little as forty

  • dollars a month for a family living space, while larger rooms that could house communal

  • groups of ten could only cost twenty.

  • That made these underground cities a less-than-ideal, but effective choice for people in need of

  • somewhere to live.

  • And it's certainly appealing when looking at the rents on the surface - with the average

  • apartment going for at least $1,500 a month in US dollars.

  • And for those living in the underground, a strange new life becomes normal.

  • While living spaces are close, the residents don't keep to themselves.

  • It's common to see members of dozens of different families mixing in the common area

  • of the bunker.

  • The smells of cooking fill the air, conversations and televisions can be heard in the background.

  • For those who venture outside their apartments, they can find a second family among the many

  • people in similar situations in the underground.

  • And while the living quarters aren't comfortable, they're usually safe and kept clean by the

  • residents.

  • But what brings people to this underground?

  • The vast majority of residents of the underground cities, often called Beijing's “Rat Tribe

  • after an article by Chinese photographer Sim Chi Yin, are young.

  • A mix of students and workers who have come to Beijing to try to make their fortune, they

  • view the underground city as a transition stage in their lives, hoping to get a higher-paying

  • job and save money while living there.

  • They plan to be out of their current situations and into a high-rise Beijing apartment within

  • a few years, and many have well-paying jobs while living there.

  • But for others, the reality is very different.

  • As the cost of living in Beijing increased, the salaries didn't always increase with

  • them.

  • Many people with stable jobs, ranging from waitresses to tech workers, found themselves

  • slowly priced out of their surface-level apartments as the real estate market skyrocketed.

  • Unable to pay their rent and facing homelessness, they were forced to downsize to a bunker apartment,

  • living alongside the many short-term residents.

  • But even in underground cities, there are often two worlds - many of these more stable,

  • older residents can afford slightly larger living spaces, and it's not unusual to find

  • their bunkers neatly decorated and looking more like a studio apartment.

  • And the increase of residents from all classes has led to a surprising transformation.

  • The underground bunkers often have unused rooms, and some bunkers don't have residents

  • at all.

  • These spaces often get converted by residents or outside groups into community centers - with

  • Faccilongo traveling the network of bunkers and finding entertainment facilities hosting

  • billiard tables and karaoke machines, along with dining rooms, and even schools where

  • people learn the ancient art of calligraphy.

  • And that has led to people in Beijing and elsewhere realizing something about their

  • cities.

  • There is a LOT of space underground.

  • While not all cities have the massive underground network of bomb shelters that Beijing and

  • other Chinese cities do, many have significant tunnel networks used for other purposes.

  • The most common underground networks are used for subways.

  • While most people just pass through quickly to get on their train, many cities are outfitting

  • their most popular subway stations with a collection of stores and restaurants, hoping

  • to get people to stick around a little before or after their commute.

  • And while underground areas may not be the most colorful, they do have another major

  • appeal.

  • In many cities, it can get very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.

  • That can put a major damper on tourism - if people have to be outside.

  • Chicago, notorious for its bitterly cold winters, created the Chicago Pedway, a network of four

  • underground tunnel systems covering more than ten blocks.

  • These not only connect the most popular tourist attractions in the city without people having

  • to walk the streets, but they're full of businesses that make them into something like

  • a massive underground mall.

  • There are tunnels everywhere - even in the happiest place on Earth.

  • If you've ever gone to Disney World, did you wonder why you never see anything unusual

  • that doesn't fit in with the theme of the park?

  • You never see staff out of costume or character, you never see any first-aid stands or security

  • guards.

  • That's because Disney's theme parks have a network of tunnels underneath them, allowing

  • the cast members to come in without being seen by guests, and allows the park's massive

  • security network to operate in complete secrecy.

  • All in the name of preserving the magic for guests.

  • Of course, it's not a surprise that one of the most secure places on Earth would have

  • an underground system to match.

  • The United States Capitol Complex, holding the House of Representatives, the Senate,

  • and the Library of Congress, is at the heart of Washington DC.

  • Holding hundreds of the most important people in the country, the building is open to the

  • public - but the massive network of tunnels and underground walkways underneath are not.

  • They allow the representatives and staffers to head between buildings easily, as well

  • as providing an easy escape route in an emergency.

  • And for those representatives who may have held their seat for a VERY long time, the

  • underground network even has several small trains that can transport them to their destination.

  • For many cities, as urban development gets more hard to fit into crowded cities, the

  • future involves looking down.

  • But for the residents of the underground cities of Beijing, things are still uncertain.

  • Hukou, the Chinese housing system that has been in effect since the Cultural Revolution,

  • is considered outdated and ties the support the person gets from the government to their

  • living situation.

  • That means that China's fast-growing economy means many new arrivals - and even long-term

  • workers - need to find unconventional living opportunities.

  • And the legacy of the Cold War, buried deep below the urban center, is always welcoming

  • new arrivals to its unusual city beneath a city.

  • For more on the mysteries of China, check outChina's Mysterious Islands Will Keep

  • You Up At Night”, or watchWhat's Hiding In The Vatican Secret Archivesfor more

  • of the world's hidden locations.

Beijing.

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Why Millions of People are Living in Underground Nuclear Bunkers

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    Summer posted on 2021/05/15
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