Monday, November 07, 2005

Underground Beijing

Eighteen metres below the bustling streets of Beijing is a vast network of tunnels. Today they are nothing more than an amusing place to spend a half hour but they used to be serious business. In 1969 China was getting nervous about a possible nuclear war with Russia and Mao ordered the construction of this warren of bombproof tunnels. They took ten years to build, and included an arsenal, a hospital and a cinema. But had the Chinese government ever had cause to go underground, the level of comfort may have fallen short of expectations. For one thing, the complex is extremely damp, with a thin sludge lining the walls. And what's more, the level of protection provided by the tunnels was questionable - they were built far too shallow to be effective against a nuclear strike. The Ministry of Defence still owns the tunnels, and it provides an enthusiastic guide to show tourists around the tunnels, pointing out the underground routes to such above ground attractions as the Forbidden City and Summer Palace. He told us that there are tunnels under most major Chinese cities, and that their total combined length is greater than that of the Great Wall (which also falls into the category of ambitious, but ultimately useless, Chinese military projects). And every inch of it was dug by hand.

But there is more to the Beijing underground than tunnels. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing a visitor to Beijing is to legally purchase a DVD. The odds are against you - 90% of movies in China are pirated, and both the legitimate shops and the not-so-legitimate street sellers deal strictly in pirated movies. You might pay 20RMB (A$3.50) for a DVD in the shops, but this is extortionate. More reasonable prices can be obtained from vendors who spend their days shuffling down sidewalks and targeting tourists with conspiratorial whispers of 'DVD? DVD moo-fie?' These are the messenger boys, and if you take them up on their offer they will charge off at great pace across the street, up an alleyway, through a vegetable garden and across a river until they have led you to the main hub of business. One such business that I visited was run out of the back room of a restaurant. E and I were invited to sit down at a table and a huge spread of DVDs was laid in front of us - boxes of them, numbering in the hundreds. The range was startling, from the complete collection of Best Picture winners, to recent releases like 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', to a horror flick about necrophilia which did, admittedly, seem a little out of place. The going rate here was about 6RMB (A$1) a DVD. Business seemed solid - while we were there another Westerner also sorted through piles of discs, inserting his selections into his portable DVD player to check for quality. Overseeing all of this was a towering, broad-shouldered man in his thirties. He exuded the natural authority of Tony Soprano and would have had no trouble getting his preferred price out of snotty-nosed foreigners. And I'm sure that business is good amongst locals as well. I have read that Warner Bros is about to release a range of legitimate DVDs in China for 20RMB a pop. But they will be lucky if shops even stock them. The Chinese government has monthly crackdowns on pirated DVD sellers, but the backrooms simply close for a couple of days before reopening. This underground institution is already proving to be far more successful than Mao's tunnels.

And what of the underground subway? Well, it is perhaps the best way for the foreign visitor to get a full-body sense of what it is like to be in the most populous nation in the world. The figure '1.3 billion' is branded on your face, hips and buttocks as you alight from a train to the city centre. Put simply, the trains do not run frequently enough and, consistent with what might be called the new mantra of Western tourists in Beijing, "they had better fix it or 2008 will be a shambles". But only a fool would think Beijing won't be ready. The soundtrack of Beijing 2005 is the clang of the hammer and the scream of the power drill - construction work is proceeding at a frenetic pace all over the city, day and night. There are plans for new roads, new malls and, importantly, two new subway lines. On the marketing side, the Games are advertised everywhere, and official tshirts (of both the genuine and not-so-genuine variety) are widely available. China, it is clear, is gearing up for the Olympics in a big way, and will do whatever it takes to bring them in on time. And the Chinese, who once built hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels by hand, may even do it early and without breaking a sweat.

Photos of Beijing and the Great Wall


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