Article by John McGovern
When we imagine ghost cities, it’s easy to conjure up images of urban decay, from the extreme example of Pripyat in the Chernobyl wasteland to the old holiday town of Avaza in Turkmenistan.
In China, we are almost used to the idea of new, towering, empty, haunted residential complexes as a staple of China’s development. However, few people know that if you take a quick one hour flight to the north you’ll arrive at Ordos, where the KangbashiNew District stands as a totally new city, capable of accommodating 1.2 million people but has a population of only about 100,000.
“The people will come eventually,” says Mr. Liu, in line with the opinion of most residents. I would say there is more chance of a residential block somewhere near a major eastern city filling up, or in Xi’an, eventually, but Ordos is in the part of China where the Mongolian grasslands that stretch down from the northeast hit the part of the Gobi desert that goes out towards Xinjiang. It’s not a great place for attracting outsiders.
My mate Mr. Yang is less positive, though he doesn’t see it as a bad thing. “The problem in Ordos is the opposite of the rest of China. Most of China has a lack of land and a large population. Here we have lots of land and a small population. The government could have built us nice two floor or three floor houses, like you all live in back home, but they chose not to. For the sake of the leaders face, they needed big skyscrapers. So of course they’re empty.”
But it’s not just the skyscrapers here; there are whole mansion complexes half built, which we explore at sundown, giving off a strong “Walking Dead” feel about the place. Are there really no ghosts here?
Ordos grew rich from its coal reserves; in one generation families transformed from peasants or workers, or even nomadic farmers, to join China’s super-rich. One of my associates here picked us up in his Hummer and took us for a slap-up Mongolian feast of mutton and beef before taking us to a bar where they brought out whole steaks for us to sample. I asked him if he enjoyed the food in Kazakhstan and Russia on his recent overland trip to Moscow, taking part in an overland car rally. “No, I brought my cook with me so I didn’t even try the local food.”
The mansion complexes stand testament to Ordos’s discovered wealth, but without a steady population stand incomplete. As the investors begin with their dreams of the future, they fail to sell the buildings and lack the funds to complete the projects.
Mr. Yang sees the bright side though, “why would I want lots of people to come here? It’s clean, there’s not many people on the roads, we’ve got great food and beautiful scenery, it’s everything most Chinese cities aren’t!”And he’s not wrong. Just outside KangbashiNew District stand a stadium, a gymnasium and an Olympic size swimming pool – where the Chinese Olympic swimming team train! The stadium rivals the Birds Nest in Beijing, and was built specifically to host the Chinese Ethnic Sports Games held in 2015, and now holds the best quality football pitch I’ve seen in China. It’s just that nobody uses it. The gymnasium and swimming pool are open to the public though, and essentially free. Looking at the clean and uncrowded waters it was difficult not to feel a pang of jealousy when comparing it to the ordeal of finding a swimming pool in Xi’an.
To the north stand the government buildings, in front of which huge monolithic statues of Mongolian ethnic scenes stand in Genghis Khan Square. Two giant horses stand in battle. We’re on the plinth in the Chess Square, two-metre tall Mongolian chess pieces set out in formation around us. On the side there’s a library constructed to resemble three books on a shelf and a museum built like a traditional Mongolian headdress. To the south lay six skyscrapers, where the main banks and commercial offices are, stoodlike six incense sticks in a temple, the two tallest in the middle. Before them are the lake and the giant golden Buddha. Everything is built according to fengshui.
This is urban exploration at its most exciting. We roam through a hospital that looks brand new, except for the fact there’s no doctors or patients. We climb to the top of the residential blocks and get a bird’s eye view of the city. We walk past the camels as we ascend to the top of the huge dune that stands as a relic of the deserted past. And we climb our way through the mansion complex, thinking of what it would have been like to live in a three-floor building, complete with private underground car park and rooftop veranda.
Mr. Yang yells from the car, “the ghosts come out at night John, it’s time for a beer!”
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