A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
18 February 2014
Built for a population in excess of a million – yet largely uninhabited to this day – it’s little surprise that Ordos has earned itself the nickname of China’s Ghost City.
In this report I’ll be looking up-close at the Kangbashi New Area, the most recent addition to the city of Ordos; and by far its least populous district. Rather than photograph these buildings from afar though, when I visited Ordos in 2013 my plan was to get under the skin of this bizarre metropolis, examining it from inside, above and below.
In my recent post titled “Welcome to Ordos“, I gave something of an introduction to the Ghost City – the region and its culture, China’s swelling property market and the stillborn future metropolis of Ordos. I documented the old centre of Ordos (a run-down mess of unfinished apartments, office blocks, casinos, car parks and brothels), the most densely populated district of the city. I also introduced the Kangbashi New Area: taking a walk around the stylish, modern and utterly deserted Genghis Khan Square, right in the heart of Kangbashi.
By this point though, the walking tour was over, and it was time to see the real Ordos – to see what the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Times et al., had, in my opinion, failed to show. It was time to get off the approved footpaths, to start opening some doors and ignoring no entry signs, as we attempted to infiltrate the world’s largest ghost town.
The Rooftops of Ordos
From Genghis Khan Square we turned east, crossing a patch of scrubland that I can only guess had been intended to some day burst into green grass. Soon a long, square building rose up to our right, decorated with complex ridges and textured beams along its hull. We figured it for a supermarket – though from the outside there were few clues as to what the building might contain… if it even contained anything.
Along this main road, a steady trickle of vehicles passed us on their way towards Dongsheng and its airport in the east. We needed to get away from the cars though, get out into the forest of unfinished towers, the shells of apartment buildings that rose out of the sand like dead trees in a drought.
Turning away from the road, weaving this way and that onto the smaller, narrower backstreets, we found our way into a residential estate. The buildings were linked here by a series of winding footpaths, the roads diverted around the block to leave a pedestrianised space at its heart. Paving stones formed a track through the shifting sand, looping from one building to the next amidst towering stacks of plastic-wrapped outdoor furniture; unassembled amenities piled in every corner, as if freshly tipped from the back of a lorry.
Turning the corner into a courtyard between tall, concrete towers, we passed a capsized statue: a modern, stylised figure of a mother and child, lain forgotten behind a stack of building materials.
It was clear how the small square had been envisaged, as comfortable, high-rise apartments facing in towards a communal garden area. Perhaps it would have featured flowers, fountains and benches when complete – perhaps it still will, some day. Impossible to tell.
Here and there between the buildings, the occasional glass-panelled box rose up out of the ground; each one of them featuring an elevator shaft or a flight of stairs heading downwards. Soon enough we found a lift shaft with a broken glass panel at the rear, and, squeezing through the gap we made our way swiftly down into the bowels of Kangbashi.
Beneath the street plan, a whole lower level of the city seemed to have been set aside for parking. It made sense, keeping the cars away from these residential zones by redirecting traffic underground instead. More and more we’d see just how much thought and planning had gone into the Kangbashi New Area.
The lights came on as we entered, and the long, wide tunnel ahead shone in shades of silver and green. There were two, maybe three parked cars in sight – and expensive looking ones at that. Despite these few lonely residents however, the whole place still had that freshly varnished look about it: not a footprint nor a tyre mark in sight.
Here and there along the tunnels, between the series of subterranean parking halls that fed one into another through a network of identical bulkhead doors, we’d see elevators leading back up towards the surface. I tried one – the lights fired up immediately, and we rode a lift right up into the building above.
If you’re imagining a carpeted, stainless steel elevator, perhaps even fitted with a mirror, then you’d be wrong. This lift was little more than a plywood cage, a terrifying, creaking box that seemed to wobble as it rose… as if hoisted up by a rope slung over the branch of a tree.
First we had a look around the ground floor of the building; bare concrete for the most part, though all the lights came on at a touch. In the corner of a corridor, a massive fuse box was set into one raw, unplastered wall. I popped it open, the creaking cover unlocked, to reveal a vast array of crude solder joins and trailing, loose wires. I quickly snapped the lid closed again with the back of my hand.
Then, plucking up the courage, I knocked on the door of an apartment. No answer. I waited a while, knocked again, then slowly turned the handle. The door opened freely, and we took a look inside – at the dusty unfinished floors, the bare gypsum walls that formed the basic foundations of what had the potential to be a spacious family flat. In the largest room, beneath the window, a children’s table and chairs had been arranged, set with plastic cups and bowls and chopsticks.
We tried a couple more homes – all of them the same – before making our way up to the highest level. Stepping out of the lift onto the 12th floor corridor, I found myself instinctively tiptoeing… as if sneaking past the occupants of a normal, busy building. Of course, the chances of anyone being home were next to zero; but then, the cars parked down below had presumably belonged to someone.
At the end of the corridor, around the corner, a flight of steps went upwards to a simple wooden door. It seemed too large to fit its frame, and so rather than being locked the exit was fastened tight with wire; a long tangle of stiff cable had been twisted around the door handle, looped about a stair rail and then tied up into a sharp and prickly mess. It took a few minutes of bending, twisting and bloody fingers before we were finally stepping out onto the roof of the apartment building.
Up until this point we’d been sheltered; contemplating only one empty street after another. From this height though, we finally started to get a sense of scale. Row after row after row of towers spread out around us, many of them no more than skeletons attended by rusty cranes. I began to realise for the first time quite how large this city was supposed to have been.
As good as the view was though, we were still shielded on all sides by taller builders. What we saw of the cityscape – the desert beyond – came to us in glimpses between the looming concrete shapes pressed in on all sides. I wanted to get higher still, to escape above the horizon and look down on the ghost city as a whole.
But for that, we were going to need a bigger building.
The Mean Streets of Kangbashi
Heading back down to street level, we wandered for a while through the estates. Residential towers rose up around a series of consecutive dirt bowls, each one of them sown with the seeds of utopia, each one of them a doomed and withered crop. Reaching the end of the zone we hopped a fence and crossed the road; I guess by now we were heading northeast.
We walked along a main street, hemmed in on all sides by shops, apartment blocks, colourful school buildings and the vast bulk of Kangbashi Hospital. The occasional car or bike hummed past, but the pavements around us were empty save for the occasional crew of street sweepers. Even now, it was hard to get one’s head around the idea that all of this was uninhabited.
On our right, we passed a police station. It met the typical Chinese design: a square, officious building set back behind a courtyard, a sentry box watching over the folding fence out front. It seemed hard to believe that even this station was unoccupied.
I didn’t know which way to turn next, so consumed as I was with a desire to explore everything. Marching headlong into the police station seemed a leap too far, however… so we tried the hospital instead.
It was impossible to tell whether the building had seen use, or whether, like so much of the city, it had so far only welcomed the boots of construction crews. We decided to put it to the test.
Approaching the side of the hospital building we tried a small door, found it open, and ducked beneath the curtain that hung across within. Before us a narrow, grotty staircase led down several levels under the ground. We strolled on in, beneath electric lights that burned for no one, onwards and downwards to who knew what.
We never did find out. A babble of shouted words tumbled down the staircase behind us, hot from the mouth of an angry security guard. We tried reasoning with him – “just a few photos, yeah?” – but it clearly wasn’t going to happen.
After being frogmarched back to the street by a man who could have passed as a Triad tough-guy in any Hollywood thriller, we crossed over the road, and made a beeline for our next target.
One of the signs on the building opposite said something about solicitors, though this concrete shell fell a long way short of a functioning office. The ground level was boarded up, but there was a small hole punched through the thin wooden veneer – so I ducked on through and slipped inside the building.
It was silent inside, a still, dusty space that could well have grown into a shopping centre in time. This first room fed through a doorway into a larger space beyond, and I swung around the corner almost headlong into a work crew. In true Chinese style, two men operated heavy tools while another five smoked and watched them. One of them looked up, caught my eye: I smiled back warmly, then backed out fast the way I had come.
By now we’d walked a fair distance from our last rooftop, and the towers now surrounding us rose significantly higher than the last batch – a good 20-or-so storeys. We decided to give it another go and so we nipped across the forecourt of a bare, plastic-fronted kindergarten, and into another residential estate.
There were roads between the buildings this time, a couple of cars parked on corners and even one in motion; its occupants eyeing us warily as they cruised on by. We made for one of the closest towers before trying the door, finding it open, and letting ourselves in.
This building was in a much better state than the last apartment block. The walls were finished, and several doors were decorated with the Chinese symbols for luck and fortune. We made straight for the lift and rode it to the top.
Upstairs, an open door led into a lavish apartment hung with chandeliers and textured wallpaper; an opulent penthouse suite. There were sounds of activity inside and so we crept past quickly, before taking the last flight of steps up to the roof. The door opened at a push, and we stepped out into the sky.
This rooftop was smaller than the last – just a square, open space, and a second door that opened onto the whirring, rusted mechanism that powered the lift. If the view from the top of the other block had been impressive though, this one was spectacular.
Ordos fell away beneath us: a wide, sweeping wasteland of empty towers and silent, disused streets. I tried looking out for signs of motion, clues to life in the metropolis. The odd car moved slowly along the main road, where it looped around the centre of Kangbashi to cross the Ordos bridge, and out towards Dongsheng – but for the most part, from this height, Kangbashi looked like a model city; its radical architecture reduced to novelty ornaments, its unfinished towers scattered like broken bricks across a sandpit.
Perhaps the biggest problem that presented itself now, was deciding on our next destination. We looked about us, turning in 360 degrees to take in the bridge, the high-rises, the city centre at Genghis Khan Square, the futuristic exhibition centre, the would-be residential estates fading off row after row into the desert… and then our eyes fell across the newly-built Kangbashi sports centre.
The green pitch seemed to glow through the heat haze, the brightly coloured seating unfolding around it like the petals of a strange desert orchid. We made a mental note of the direction, of the landmarks that would lead us – street by street – to the city’s sports ground; and then we made our way back down to the street.
The Sports Hall
Coming out of the estate and back onto the main road, at first we retraced our footsteps; back past the hospital, the building sites and the police station, back in the direction of the colourful sports grounds.
When we’d passed the police station earlier, we had still been courting disbelief – trying in vain to process the desolation, the utter emptiness of Kangbashi. It simply hadn’t seemed possible. Besides, a lifetime’s worth of social programming had told me not to attempt to trespass on what might turn out to be a live police station.
By now though, we’d passed through the stage of tentative disbelief, and into one of absolute freedom – the slow-dawning realisation that virtually everything in Kangbashi was open to be explored. So, crossing the road to the open gates, we checked the empty street around us before stepping over the threshold into the police station’s forecourt. It was just as empty as we’d expected, not a car nor an officer in sight.
We were just ambling across to the main building, when a voice behind us called out something in Chinese. At first, we instinctively guessed we’d been caught… but as it turned out the voice belonged to a caretaker. More than anything else, the man was simply surprised to see foreign faces here in Ordos.
My companion spoke reasonable Chinese, and so we were able to have a conversation with the man. He told us he was part of the maintenance crew, and offered to give us a tour of the place. It seemed like the novelty of showing visitors around his little corner of the Ghost City was just too exciting an experience to pass up. We walked, and our new friend took great pleasure in pointing out the elaborate features around us – while explaining how much each one had cost to install.
“Four thousand Quai!” he said, laughing at a large ceramic pot inlaid with traditional Mongolian figures. That’s about £400.
It was clear that this man saw Kangbashi as one colossal folly. He would quote prices, then wave his arms about at the empty streets, his gestures doing much to communicate the madness of such grandiose investment in a ghost town. We followed him through the station compound, past glass panes that opened onto empty offices; between the virgin buildings and through to the rear, where the police station backed onto a school.
A series of colourful sculptures had been placed in one corner of the yard, apparently united by the theme of apples. Isaac Newton’s face appeared engraved on one giant, metal fruit – another installation bore the familiar profile of Steve Jobs.
“Ten thousand Quai!” laughed our guide. He seemed to find the concept of Kangbashi hilarious; although judging from his clean-cut appearance, his smart and comfortable clothes, the ghost town nevertheless kept its workers in decent money.
The man led us through a courtyard, around the back of the school buildings, and suddenly there it was: the yard opened up into a wide, grassy playing field, flanked on one side by raised seating.
On the edge of the grass pitch – regularly mowed, yet never used – we were pointed towards a series of bronze statues. The figures showed children in traditional Chinese dress, frozen in play as the pink silk scarves tied about their necks flapped noisily in the wind.
“Fifty thousand Quai!” the man giggled, ecstatic, before explaining to us that the silk scarves were washed and replaced on a weekly basis.
At this point our guide suddenly bid us farewell, explaining that he had other duties to attend to. He told us to feel welcome though, and invited us to explore the rest of the facilities. We assured him we would, before making our way towards the raised seating and the building underneath.
It was a strange feeling to walk past those rows of plastic seats and know that none of them had ever been sat on; past the green grass so neatly marked with white boundary lines and penalty zones, a well-kept pitch which had never yet known a ball.
A passage opened beneath and between the rows, to lead deep within the seating block. We followed it through to a pair of glass doors, marked with a sign reading, ‘Young Pioneers Activity Room’. My friend Gareth, the owner of Young Pioneer Tours, burst into a childish grin as he posed for a photo beneath. Naturally the door was open (we were yet to find a single locked door in Ordos), and so we headed on inside.
The first room we entered, bizarrely, appeared to be a ballet studio. Light filtered in through pink, silken drapes, to cast the mirrored walls and polished floors in an almost supernatural aura of opulence. Next door, a trophy room – shelves lined one wall in miniature cast figurines, their bases left blank and ready for inscription.
We wandered from room to room, admiring the facilities. This was a fully fledged sports centre, ready to open its doors at any moment. One room held a case of basketballs, all brand new and with the smell of freshly formed rubber still clinging to them.
The next was a music studio – a computer sat in one corner was hooked up to a small indoor PA system, complete with microphones and an eight-track mixing desk. Scattered about the various tables lay an assortment of trumpets, drums and guitars.
As we explored, I tried to estimate the total value of the items that lay scattered about the centre: I got into the thousands before I gave up trying. It was simply baffling to think that anyone could have walked in from the street, tried any one of the unlocked doors, and wandered straight inside; exactly as we had done, in fact. The lack of security around the sports centre – around Kangbashi as a whole – was like nothing I had ever seen.
But then, there simply wasn’t anybody on the streets to wander straight inside. Kangbashi is so remote, so isolated, that there seemed to be an general assumption that nobody could be here without a very good reason. After all, why would thieves and vandals travel to an empty city in the Ordos Desert?
After the sports ground we headed north, past unfinished statues, their scaffold still attached, into a hidden courtyard where a vast monument reared up above us: a silver globe, adorned by a suspiciously Soviet-esque star. Eventually we emerged onto a main road, reaching the space-age silver domes of the Kangbashi Exhibition Centre.
Taking a quick look inside, we stumbled across locals engaged in fierce pingpong tournaments. I picked up a brochure which touted Ordos as the ‘Brave City of The Future’.
Our last stop was a restaurant: we’d been walking for a full day, and it was time to refuel. A sign near the exhibition centre pointed towards a fast food restaurant and we followed it to a seemingly unfinished building, whose automatic doors nevertheless sprung open at our approach.
We walked inside to be met by silence. The place was set up ready for service, tables laid and lights burning bright… but there was nobody to be seen. Gareth inspected the menu as I ducked behind the bar, checking out the wide range of beverages on offer. Amusing as it was to entertain the notion of a free bar, we were both painfully hungry – and so we resolved to try another floor.
The lift took us up one level, to an open-plan office: desks and computers, water coolers and potted plants, but not a sign of life. We had almost given up by the time we reached the third floor. The lift doors opened in silence, and then suddenly we were being welcomed in by a team of uniformed staff. I found myself wondering how long they had stood on ceremony, waiting like automatons for a customer to arrive.
Exploring A City of Ghosts
As we waited for our noodles – and after that, the flight back to Beijing – we reflected on our time in the Ghost City.
Over the course of our 24 hours in Ordos, we had tried every door within reach – and not one of them had been locked. We’d seen virtually no one out of uniform, and no sign whatsoever of the authorities. Even the few security guards we’d met had been so surprised at the appearance of foreigners, as to have more or less forgotten their duties. The homes and facilities, meanwhile, ranged from concrete shells to sheer luxury; and yet, in all that time we saw nothing with the appearance of having been lived in.
The thing that really got me thinking though, was the sheer size of the city. If the freedom we’d experienced was anything to go by, it would take weeks – months, even – to explore the whole metropolis. Our day had been spent on rooftops, in office buildings and sports halls… but had we simply picked another direction, it could just as easily have been factories, colleges or law courts; churches, mosques, prisons, pools, shopping centres or train depots.
I’ve been to ghost towns before, and large ones at that – just last September I took a tour of Pripyat, for example, in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Kangbashi is like nothing else, however. While perhaps this unfinished city is less elegant, less historical, less tragic, less decayed or moreover less photogenic than sites such as Pripyat, the sense of freedom it offers is unique.
While I’m interested in every aspect of urban exploration, for me, the emphasis has always been on the exploration part… and not only is Ordos 200 times larger than the infamous city of Pripyat, but it is virtually unknown to foreigners. For an urban explorer then, Ordos is a vast, alien playground that offers nothing but discovery.
Suffice to say, I can see myself visiting Ordos again.