It is surprisingly that some foreigners to Beijing seem to know more about the Underground City than the local Beijing citizens. This subterranean complex is a relic of the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969 over the Zhenbao Island in the Amur River (Heilongjiang), a time when Mao Zedong ordered the construction of the underground bomb shelters complex in the event of a Soviet attack. The designers apparently installed special ventilation systems with hatches against chemical attack and it is claimed that the tunnels and rooms ten meters underground were constructed by 70,000 workers in the early 1970s. The paranoia of that period called for forty percent of the population in Beijing to stay in the underground city and the remainder to be moved to neighboring hills.

The complex is said to cover an area of 85 sq km with a thousand anti-air raid structures. It is now claimed to have ninety entrances to modified shops, theaters, roller skating rinks, hotels, restaurants, schools reading rooms, factories, warehouse (even mushroom cultivation units and barber shops). The temperature is said to be at a constant 27 degree Celcius. It is mentioned that Mao and other leaders had a separate passage way to take them out of the city in the event of an attack on Beijing. Old Chinese documentary films made in the late 1970s do show Beijing dwellers growing mushrooms and raising chickens in the dimly lit tunnels.

At the famous shopping street of Wangfujing, the underground air raid shelters are now used for reasonably priced youth hostel, shopping and business centre, at Chongwen and Xuanwu for theaters, and at Qianmen for silk and carpet outlets. At the Xicheng area, the bomb shelter has been converted to a wholesale market of about a thousand stalls. Despite the so many entrances, foreign visitors to see the original underground structure are only shown a small approved section through a small shop front in Qianmen south of Tiananmen. Apparently, locals are discouraged from entering the tourist approved site.

Our tourist guide took us to Qianmen where we entered a relatively quiet street with an ordinary shop carrying the signs "Underground City" in both Chinese and English. Through the small shop we immediately descended into a subterranean entrance with different passage-ways capable of taking three to four people abreast. There were quarters for soldiers, hospital, store rooms, conference rooms and other rooms. The air shaft was opened to show how the ventilation could be shut to protect against water and chemicals. Various tunnels had directions pointing to Nanjing and Tianjin. Interestingly, though somewhat unbelievable, the guide mentioned that the underground passage from Beijing can run all the way to Tianjin. The end point of the tour was a silk factory making quilts and a commentary on the double cocoon silk.

For those interested to see part of the Underground City, the address is 62 West Damochang Street, Qianmen, Tel. 6702-2657, 6701-1389. Apparently, another site is at Beijing Qianmen Carpet Factory at 44 Xingfu Dajie, Chongwen District, Tel. 6701-5079. One can also try a lesser known site at 18 Dazhalan Jie at Qianmen.