Adventure|Infrastructure Development

China’s Ghost Cities

Every summer during our 21 days of volunteer work in China’s homes for disabled orphans, we take an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an. The 4-day getaway acts as a much needed time to reflect on the often heart-wrenching situations we face working with this vulnerable population. Xi’an is home to many of China’s most iconic sights and pristine cultural artifacts so students and staff welcome the opportunity to take a break from humanitarian work and play tourist for the weekend. More than the destination, the commute in the overnight train is an experience novel enough to excite the most worldly of travelers.

This year during our volunteer work in China, I noticed something odd when the sun rose through the moving train’s window and woke me on the top bunk. I had always thought of China as a few very large cities separated by vast amounts of rural farmland. When I woke up that morning, supposedly in the middle of nowhere, I saw a seemingly endless network of very large and very modern looking apartment towers. Like rows of crops in a passing field, these identical and lifeless marvels flew by as the train moved along the tracks. Before I could sit up to get a clear look, it disappeared and we were back in the limitless haze of rural China’s landscape.

“What city was that?” One of the students asked from two bunks below me.

I wasn’t sure it was a city at all. Since the 1980s, China has urbanized on a massive scale with over 600 cities appearing that simply weren’t there before. While there’s no shortage of people in China (nearly a quarter of the human population lives within its borders), cities take a long time to mature and inhabit. So Chinese developers, with encouragement from the state, have decided to put the horse before the wagon and build entire metropolitan areas – complete with shops, restaurants, and plazas. There’s only one thing missing: people. This fact lead to the developments being referred to as “China’s ghost cities.”

As we moved away I explained what I thought we had just seen and we all wondered if we had coincidentally woken up at the right moment or if we had passed through others in the night?

I had heard of China’s “ghost cities” from what I thought were sensationalist reports but seeing it for myself gave me a very different feeling. Publications send lone journalists or camera crews to explore the empty streets of a replica Paris (Tianducheng) or Manhattan (Yujiapu) with a prepared quip on the post-apocalyptic nature of the empty streets and buildings. While the idea of an empty metropolis inspires goosebumps, maybe the name “ghost city” is a misnomer. They haven’t been abandoned or failed economically – in some ways they’re a glimpse into the future. Whether or not these places have a future, remains uncertain and will rely on the sustainability of China’s booming economic growth.

Ordos, ChinaWe passed through a couple more of China’s ghost cities that morning – you could see some signs of life but not nearly enough to fill the myriad of buildings. Despite the overwhelming desire to get out and explore the empty streets, the train kept moving forward. We had an amazing weekend in Xi’an and eventually left after our volunteer work China was complete, but the sight of those lifeless places is something all of us brought with us.

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