I had big plans this year for travelling around China. There were several places I was excited about seeing, I had eager dreams to explore and experience some remote and distant parts of this vast, strange country. With Corona virus that is difficult now, it will have to wait another year. But all is not lost; the true explorer doesn’t need to venture far; adventure can be found at home.
As China’s economy rapidly expands and wealth rises, the older, poor quality buildings are being traded up for modern high-rise apartments and businesses are relocating to efficient, cleaner premises, further out from the city. This leaves the suburbs teeming with forgotten factories, abandoned villages and industrial junk left behind in unlikely settings.
On first glance, you may think these unwanted relics are uninvitingly ugly. Shells of buildings run down for years before being finally abandoned. Their cosmetic thin facades falling away to reveal the breeze block or brutal concrete and steel structures beneath. They’re often dumping grounds for old furniture and plastics. It’s hard to imagine, among the rubble, rust, and dust, that their dead walls once housed lively businesses and proudly loved homes filled with plans and dreams. But search among the shattered and the scattered remnants and you can discover vestiges of lives passed. And among the weeds and wild dogs that remain, find inspiration for imagined tales that are moving, uplifting and profoundly beautiful,
The Mystery of the 9 Dragons
On the edge of a reservoir, nestled beneath the Yan mountains north of Beijing, is the 9 Dragon Theme Park. It’s an ideal location for water sports and for promises of fresh mountain air, to be enjoyed by excited families on a day out from the city. Instead, the grounds are long closed and silent. A rusting Ferris wheel and carousels of paint peeled rides sit empty, slowly choking under climbing twists of vines. The ticket desks wait for queues, the prices still displayed on weather faded boards. There’s a restaurant empty of tables and chairs, but with the last day’s menu still pinned to the wall. A fleet of boats have been pulled onto the shore near a shed of dodgems whose colours are barely visible beneath the thick grey dust. Why has this business folded? What caused it to be left, hurriedly abandoned, like the ghost ship Marie Celeste?
The broad empty space between each mouldering attraction emphasises the missing crowds with a haunting silence and an unnerving strangeness of solitude. At the water’s edge, I find the severed heads of some wooden dragons. The fallen symbols grin into my camera as though driven mad by the memories of a terrible accident. Perhaps each night this theme park returns to life and endlessly repeats its final fateful day.
In the same street where I work, an office block peeps anonymously above a blue steel fence. It has all the signs of being deserted; windows left wide open or dulled by dusty glass, unkempt grounds shaded by overgrown trees and walls ruined by tiles fallen away or streaked with red rust lines.
Despite hiding behind the fence and the big leafy trees, it is conspicuous among the cared for and more fashionable buildings that flank the road. It’s run to seed appearance contrasts against the better turned-out neighbours so that its status is as visible as a dowdy divorcee in a coterie of more glamourous wives.
The approach to her once grand entrance, now a gaping wide dark hole, is littered with the detritus of her weather worn face, chipped colonnades, and broken steps. Despite the ravishes of neglect there is still beauty in the bones of this strong modernist structure. The bold square cut corners and oblique angles contrasting with the odd sweeping curve.
Inside, anything of worth has been seized. Foil pipes dangle where extractor fans once hung, a carpet of glass fragments crunches underfoot. There’s little left from the destructive settlement of her last nameless partner, but among her denuded barren rooms I find a few mementos, a notice on a wall that reads ‘packing department’ a piano forgotten in the bike shed. Signs that hint of travel and dancing, of the era when she was modern and desired.
The light filters in through the grubby windows like the beams of movie projectors the colour dimmed to monochromes. I suspect I am the last visitor here. Soon the diggers and the wrecking ball will come, and this reclusive star of bygone age will fall unnoticed into dust.
Flowers in the Stones
Between the 5th ring road and a river popular with grey cranes and anglers, there’s a town slowly being pulled into the ground. A strip 500 meters wide has already been turned to rubble, flattened, and covered with green netting. Behind that there are buildings broken into bits reminiscent of a Syrian war scene.
As you continue through the embattled town the busted homes become fewer and the tracks between them slowly turn to normal streets, fringed by standard houses. Some are empty, their occupants recently fled the steady advance of destruction, their guts not yet picked clean. I find a small spa with a line of relaxing couches, a room with a kettle set on a stove’s hearth.
Remarkably, life flourishes among the wreckage. Small flowers bloom in the field of stones beneath the netting. In the margins, between the damaged and demolished dwellings, people still live. Sometimes their homes are not much different to the hollowed-out buildings that they neighbour, but often the debris has been scraped away to create patches of ground to grow vegetables. The borders of the little plots are fenced off with mattresses and doors salvaged from the remains.
Behind the town, modern high-rise apartments loom, the latest generation of growth spreading outward like the rings of a tree. At some point the pulling down will end and this land, a stone throw from the river, a Mobike mile from the subway, will be rebuilt. The past can be torn down, but life, plans and the dreams of people stubbornly go on.