An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
13 February 2014
Built for over a million people, the city of Ordos was designed to be the crowning glory of Inner Mongolia. Doomed to incompletion however, this futuristic metropolis now rises empty out of the deserts of northern China. Only 2% of its buildings were ever filled; the rest has largely been left to decay, abandoned mid-construction, earning Ordos the title of China’s Ghost City.
Last year I travelled to Inner Mongolia for myself, to get a closer look at the bizarre, ghost metropolis of Ordos… and the experience, as I would discover, was far stranger than anything I could have prepared for.
The Ghost Town of Inner Mongolia
China’s property market is in a strange place.
With a population reckoned at 1,351,000,000 and rising fast, the resultant boom in property development has led to scores of new-made millionaires and a rapidly growing elite class; at the same time however, analysts fear that this property bubble is set to burst. The country itself owes coming on for a trillion dollars in debt.
Meanwhile, a billion people are waking up to the possibilities of fast cars, smartphones, broadband Internet and credit cards.
Some of China’s most rapidly developing cities are virtually unheard of in the West; but for every overnight economic success story, there seems to be a hidden swathe of near misses, dead ends and bankruptcies. Out of all these phantoms however, nothing compares to the strangeness of China’s ‘Ghost City’: Ordos.
The city of Ordos is a heavily stylised population centre located close to the Ordos Desert, and it’s one of the main cities of Inner Mongolia. This area is famed for its rapidly expanding population and developing urban areas – the region of Inner Mongolia boasting a higher GDP than even Beijing itself.
Inner Mongolia is an interesting place. Once the birthplace of Genghis Khan, only 79% of the population belong to China’s predominant Han ethnicity, while 17% are of Mongol origin. It was once a part of Greater Mongolia, though consecutive Chinese empires and the latter-day rise of the Communist Party saw Inner Mongolia moulded and cast, time and time again, as a subservient province of China.
Interestingly however, Inner Mongolia is one of the only places in the world that still uses traditional Mongolian script. While Mongolia itself adopted Cyrillic during the communist years, perhaps the Mongols of China felt they had more to prove; clinging fiercely on to their heritage, and with it, the ancient characters that still now appear on street signs across Ordos and Kangbashi.
When a conglomeration of property developers began planning a new urban centre just outside the existing city of Ordos in 2003, the Kangbashi New Area, Ordos seemed set to become the futuristic jewel in China’s crown of city states.
However, nobody quite anticipated how quickly this new development would fall flat on its face. Deadlines weren’t met, loans went unpaid, and investors pulled out before projects could be completed – leaving entire streets of unfinished buildings. The ridiculous cost of accommodation in this dream city put off many would-be inhabitants, so that even fully completed apartments became difficult to sell.
According to one local taxi driver I spoke to, many of those who did make the move to Kangbashi were already abandoning their homes – and breaking out of the ghost town.
While some developers still labour on with their thankless construction projects, others are busy slashing prices. Typical housing prices in Kangbashi have fallen from $1,100 to $470 per square foot, over the last five years alone.
Nowadays the Kangbashi district, planned to accommodate a population in excess of one million, is home to a lonely 20,000 people – leaving 98% of this 355-square kilometre site either under construction or abandoned altogether.
A November 2009 report on AlJazeera exposed the city of Ordos to a worldwide audience, and the story was run the next year by Time Magazine. Pretty soon, Ordos had earned the accolade of ‘China’s Ghost City’.
Journalists and photographers representing a number of world-renowned publications have since been to capture Kangbashi’s empty streets, its row upon row of apartment blocks abandoned mid-construction.
But for all that, none of these reports seemed to venture far from the city centre and its adjoining streets; resulting in broad, post-apocalyptic cityscapes that left much to the imagination. The more I read about Ordos, the more I wanted to know what lay beyond these hastily fitted doors and windows; to actually see inside, and under the skin of a city that never came to be.
Last year, my dream became a reality. I teamed up with Gareth from Young Pioneer Tours – a man just about crazy enough to share my fascination for this otherworldly ghost metropolis – and together we started planning our journey into Inner Mongolia.
Arrival in Ordos
The city of Ordos is served by the newly-built Eerduosi Airport. From the moment we got off our plane, it was apparent that someone, sometime, had made grand plans for this city.
The futuristically sculpted terminal building is decked out with fountains and hanging baskets, chic coffee shops and sub-lit escalators glowing in shades of green and blue.
While the population of Ordos is now just 10% Mongolian to 90% Chinese, nevertheless the airport was resplendent with proud icons of a Mongolian heritage; effigies of horses and minstrels gaze down across the central concourse, while the departure hall features a vast mural, a ring of painted scenes depicting the life of Genghis Khan.
For all this opulence though, the airport was close to empty.
We took the second of two daily flights from Beijing to Eerduosi; departing from the smaller, former military airfield in the suburbs of the capital. It brought us to Inner Mongolia after dark, and we hopped onto the transfer coach headed towards Ordos city centre.
We were on this luxurious coach for around half an hour, enthroned in soft reclining seats replete with cup holders, leg rests and a movie channel… all the while, half-seen hulks of concrete and metal sped past our windows, distant, shadowy shapes appearing and disappearing out of the gloom.
I felt hemmed in on all sides by invisible construction sites. It was hard to make out much of our surroundings, given the bright interior lighting on the coach. On the final stretch into Ordos however, we passed by the shell of a stadium-to-be; the vast, skeletal seating areas rose up in a ring around a central playing field, lit by industrial spotlights and the regular, telltale flares of several hundred welding guns.
Never in my life have I seen anything so closely resembling the second Death Star.
We arrived in Ordos sometime in the early hours of the morning, checked our bags into a hotel, and grabbed a beer for the road. The city centre is not a long way off completion: it has shops and apartments, cafés, bars and restaurants. For all this seeming normality however, downtown Ordos is presided over by a series of doom-struck towers, grey office buildings, flats and shopping malls – and most of them are completely empty.
We walked for a few hours, past restaurants, bars, casinos and sex shops. The lights were shining bright in every establishment, but the people were nowhere to be seen. Cutting through one backstreet, we passed the pink lights of a brothel. The shop front was lined in wide, glass windows, to expose a troupe of young girls stood as if on parade in a wardrobe of matching lingerie. These dozen-or-so prostitutes numbered more than any pedestrians we’d managed to count all evening.
Everywhere, there seemed to be a show of readiness; of establishments with their doors thrown wide open, not just to welcome guests but also, perhaps, to prove a point. To show this city for the functional, hospitable destination that it so desperately wants to be.
We tried to get something to eat at a backstreet restaurant, approaching the doorway where local kids were fighting with a water hose.
“Do you have food?” we asked.
“Come in, come in,” they said, gesturing at a dimly lit booth within, at the fridge beside it stocked with cold noodles and soft drinks. There was no sign of an adult on the premises, no sight nor smell of a chef at work. As with so much else in Ordos, the lights were on but nobody was home.
By the time we got back to our hotel, to its luxuriously oversized beds and in-room bars that featured whisky, peanuts and gas masks, we were still struggling to get to grips with this place, to make sense of the city.
Through and through it felt like a construction site: a builders’ canteen stretched to accommodate a full city. For working men, there were primal comforts aplenty – bars, snacks and brothels – but while the fine restaurants and casinos made a show of being ready for tourists, delegates, or better still, investors, most of them were no more than empty fronts and meaningless displays.
By the light of the following morning, we got our first impression of the sheer scale of abandonment. We stopped off for a fast-food breakfast, the restaurant cowering in the shadow of the city’s CBD. In place of industrious office buildings however, a series of hollow fingers rose up to the sky; the shells of would-be towers, one after another, row after row, vanishing off into the distance.
Immediately above us towered what could have been the headquarters of a bank – forty floors of office space, wrapped in a shell of mirrored panels. In its un-maintained state however, these reflective scales were falling away in great swathes, to expose the bare concrete beneath. Not even finished yet, and already it needed a makeover.
We found a mosque near the city centre, a modern, cubist structure formed out of clean, white blocks. On closer inspection, it appeared as though the temple had never yet been used; peering through the glass doors we saw nothing inside but open space, while the doors themselves were still wrapped in plastic – as though fresh out of a warehouse somewhere, and hastily assembled.
Before proceeding to our main destination, we decided to get a better look around this, the older, more densely populated centre of Ordos.
We found an amiable taxi driver, who was more than happy to take us past some of the city’s main sights. He drove us down a long boulevard, lined with ornate lamps crafted into 1930s-style art deco figurines; past an overgrown park, and row upon row of concrete shells. Eventually we came to a halt, before a grand statue of a horse set into the middle of a roundabout.
“Ordos,” the statue’s inscription proclaimed, to nobody in particular, “The Outstanding Tourism City of China.”
It was almost too much to process… but as it would turn out, so far we had only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. Nothing could have quite prepared us for the unadulterated strangeness of the Kangbashi district.
The Kangbashi New Area
The new residential zone of Kangbashi was built on the north bank of the Wulan Mulun River, where its spacious layout, innovative monuments and striking, sculpted skyscrapers look every part the 21st century metropolis; or they would have, that is, if anybody had been living in them.
“They will come,” our taxi driver kept insisting, on the drive over from the old heart of Ordos. “You don’t think our city is beautiful? You’ll see. The people will come.”
His confidence was to be paraphrased by almost every local that we spoke to on that trip; a blind assurance that these beautiful buildings couldn’t stay empty forever. It was inconceivable that all of this hard work might have been for nothing.
We drove back along the freeway, which links old Ordos to Kangbashi, before continuing northeast towards the airport at Dongsheng. On the way we passed by the stadium again, less dramatic by the light of day, while beyond that a forest of dusty, unfinished towers fanned out from either side of the road. Cranes stood sentry over some of these construction sites, many of them rising as much as forty, fifty stories high above the desert. In contrast, the road itself was smooth and well maintained; its shoulders and central reservation decorated with well-watered shrubs, and artistic horse motifs.
The taxi dropped us off at the top end of Genghis Khan Square, from where we gazed out across the desolation of Kangbashi. Around us rose the figures of khans and their royal advisors, of men, women and horses dressed in traditional Mongolian finery.
Roughly 600 feet to the south, at the heart of a wide, open courtyard reared up two colossal horses, perhaps the most iconic of Kangbashi’s monuments. Beyond the horses, this vast central plaza fed into a park, dusty sand in place of grass and with paths that fanned out to form the shape of a sunburst.
Residential and corporate towers rose up in all directions – a satisfyingly symmetrical alignment of blocks and skyscrapers – while before that, hemming us in, Kangbashi’s most notable works of architecture lined the paths of Genghis Khan Square. Along the left hand side, past the two rearing horses sat the Kangbashi Theatre: a curious building, its shape supposedly inspired by a traditional form of Mongolian headwear.
To our right, the library building resembled a cluster of leaning books while beside it, the Ordos Museum sat like… well, it’s hard to say exactly. Mad Architects, the aptly-named firm behind the project, have suggested that the design reflects, “the crossroads faced by the surrounding community which is striving to interpret their local traditions within the newly constructed urban context.”
Make of that what you will.
The square around us was not completely empty. A man watched nearby, as his son flew a kite; the bright sail drifting high above the heads of the noble khans. There was very little traffic about, but the occasional car or bike would cruise past us now and again, none of them seeming to be in any particular hurry.
There was a steady trickle of people moving in and out of the Ordos Museum, and we spied a few more stood around the horses’ hooves; though as we drew closer, we’d notice these were dressed in the drab uniforms of street sweepers. Over the course of the day, we’d find that maintenance teams in Kangbashi outnumbered pedestrians tenfold.
Ambling around the paths that lined the city centre, we passed small speakers mounted on stems, which blasted out Mongolian folk music to no one in particular.
Further down the plaza, past the horses and the theatre, printed signs advertised a café and we decided to have a look inside. We took the elevator up to the top floor, where the doors opened to reveal a gaggle of giggling, school-age girls stood in a line to greet us. It looked much the same as the brothel we’d passed the night before, save that this time the girls were fully dressed.
A wave of surprise and curiosity rippled through the staff when two foreigners stepped out of the lift. We were shown to a window seat, from where we looked down across the vast expanse of Genghis Khan Square. Kangbashi, without a doubt, was the strangest city I’d ever seen.
We had a coffee, then a beer, as we chatted excitedly about the empty streets, the bizarre monuments beneath us. This was everything we’d seen from the photographs, a surreal, desolate metropolis; ancient Mongolia spliced with scenes from the distant future, set against the swirling sands of the Mu Us Desert. Up until this point though, we’d only seen the city from the streets, from its roads and pedestrian paths… it was time to go deeper. We finished our drinks, and set off to do some proper exploring.
Read Part Two: Urban Exploration in Kangbashi