If You Build It, They Will Come: The Story of Kangbashi, Ordos

Alone in the World’s Largest Ghost Town

Known as China’s “Ghost City”, Ordos is a sprawling metropolis located in the deserts of Inner Mongolia. It’s a ghost town, but not in the usual sense. Unlike famous abandoned towns such as the lost mining community of Centralia in the United States, or cities such as Pripyat in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ordos was never abandoned… it just hasn’t been inhabited yet.

For the past decade, some of China’s largest property firms have been developing high-rise apartment blocks, modern skyscrapers and revolutionary facilities at the vast construction sites that surround Ordos. Plans to extend the city further into the desert have met with little interest from investors, however. As a result the Kangbashi New Area, as it has been named, stands to this day almost completely uninhabited.

Designed to accommodate more than one million people, the vast scale of the uninhabited zone makes this the world’s largest “ghost town”.

I’ve always been fascinated by ghost towns, so as soon as I heard about Ordos – and Kangbashi – I knew I’d have to see it for myself. I teamed up with Young Pioneer Tours’ Gareth — a man equally crazy for the desolate and obscure corners of this world — and together we started planning our journey to Inner Mongolia.

We were standing on a rooftop looking out over a half-formed residential district that was disappearing fast under a sea of wind-blown sand.

We flew from Beijing to Ordos, arriving in the futuristic terminal at Dongsheng after dark. The place was bizarre… for those who’ve ever flown through Singapore, imagine the same luxury with an absence of people. Spacious concourses, flower gardens, waterfalls, escalators lit from all angles and in a variety of glowing, pulsating colours; and yet we had it all – more or less – to ourselves.

This airport was obviously built with the intention of handling a huge volume of air traffic, but here we were getting our first indications of a drastically under populated city. There were also clear signs of a proud Mongolian heritage on display – the main terminal, for example, was decorated with a frieze depicting various scenes from the life of Genghis Khan.

The Lights are On, but No One’s Home

From the airport we took a shuttle bus to the old centre of Ordos. Unsurprisingly, the coach was nearly empty… and as we travelled along the freeway under the cover of night, we’d get out first vague sightings of colossal, unfinished hulks of buildings, rising out of the night around us.

At this point, neither Gareth nor myself knew what to expect. If we’d imagined stepping off the coach into a wasteland, we’d have been wrong – old Ordos certainly has something of a street culture, although it features, perhaps, the population of a small town spread across a towering forest of urban spires. There were restaurants, casinos, hotels at every turn, and while the lights were on we found most these venues lacking both in staff and patrons.

We checked into a simple motel close to the city centre, deciding to get some rest before hitting the main attraction – the Kangbashi New Area – the next day.

Unfinished Skyscrapers Have Already Begun to Decay

After a quick breakfast, we headed out to find a cab. While this part of the city had appeared relatively normal by night, it was under the light of day that we began noticing the strangeness of it all. We passed an empty, unfinished mosque, its doors still wrapped in plastic; skyscrapers around the centre of Ordos had already began to decay, their metallic veneer falling away before the buildings had even been furnished inside; meanwhile, around us in every direction, row upon row of cranes and concrete shells spread out as far as the eye could see.

The taxi took us straight to Kangbashi, where we alighted at Genghis Khan Square: a vast, open plaza at the heart of this new development.

While Kangbashi was planned for more than a million residents, we saw no more than a handful of people scattered around the city centre… and most of these, as we looked closer, were busy sweeping streets or painting pavements. Above us rose proud statues of the khans, towering icons of Mongolian history; while ahead of us, at the centre of the plaza two horses reared up onto their hind legs to form an arch the size of a building.

This central square is also host to some of Kangbashi’s most notably bizarre architecture. As we explored the quiet streets and footpaths, we passed by the national theatre, formed into the shape of a traditional Mongolian hat. On our right, the library was formed from a series of giant, leaning books, while the Ordos Museum looked as though it had just crash-landed from another planet.

Here and there, speakers rose on stands out of the sand and undergrowth that surrounded the paths. They played traditional Mongolian folk music, a cultural accompaniment that was pumped into the air to be heard by virtually no one.

After a quick look around the city centre, we decided it was time to go exploring. There have been plenty of reports on Ordos in the world’s press, photo-essays showing the wide, empty streets of Kangbashi and its endless construction sites. Gareth and myself had wanted to see more than that, though – to get to the bottom of the riddle, to see what Kangbashi looked like up close and under the covers.

To do that, we were going to need to dig a little deeper.

We picked a direction at random, heading off into the suburbs of Kangbashi. It was interesting to see just how much thought had gone into the planning of this city – in these residential zones, traffic was redirected around the block to create pedestrianised spaces between the buildings. We found an access shaft, and followed a staircase down into the bowels of Kangbashi… to a vast subterranean parking area, fully lit and still waiting for the residents’ vehicles to arrive.

Back up above ground, we tried the door to a building – and found it unlocked.

The Elevator was a Fairly Terrifying Experience

The interior was little more than a construction site. Plain concrete walls, the cement flooring barely set. We tried the door to an apartment, and it swung open at a push. The large interior space held the potential to form a spacious, comfortable apartment; but it looked as though construction had been halted, leaving no more than a plain, grey box.

The electricity was working however, and we rode the lift up to the top level – a fairly terrifying experience, as it turned out. This elevator was little more than a plywood box, which rattled and shook on the end of a chain as it hauled us up to the twelfth level. Here an exit opened on to the rooftop: the door was too large for its frame, so, unable to close, it had been tied shut using a length of stiff and brittle wire.

It took a bit of twisting and unravelling to get the door open, but soon enough we were standing on the rooftop of this unfinished hulk – and looking out over a half-formed residential district that was disappearing fast under a sea of wind-blown sand.

Our view was still blocked by some of the taller buildings that rose up around us, and so we tried another building, not far off. This time the lift took us eighteen floors up, and again we walked (more-or-less) unhindered out onto the rooftops of Kangbashi. From this height, finally we were treated to a spectacular view of the whole city.

The view also gave us a chance to ponder our next direction. From our perch we saw bridges, schools, factories, towers, monuments, parks and pools. I was lost, truly spoilt for choice, so it was Gareth that ventured a suggestion – pointing out a football pitch nearby, and what appeared to be a half-formed stadium.

Kangbashi being as large as it is, the walk to the stadium took us a while. Along the way we passed a kindergarten, shops, offices and homes, each building apparently as empty as the last. While Kangbashi – and Ordos, certainly – features a condensed population centre fitted with shops and well-trafficked restaurants, this far out in the suburbs, we passed no one… save for the occasional maintenance team at work.

When we passed by Kangbashi Hospital, we decided to take a look inside. We slipped in through a side door to the building, unnoticed, we guessed, but we were only halfway down a basement stair when a voice called out behind us – and soon enough a security guard was marching us back to the surface.

“Make yourselves at home”, he said. “Explore everything!”

Next we passed what appeared to be a police station, though it was just as devoid of life as the concrete shells that surrounded it. Not far from the gate, we were stopped by a local worker. We braced ourselves for a telling-off, but instead this man simply seemed fascinated at the appearance of foreigners in Kangbashi. He offered to give us a tour – walking us around the forecourt of the police station, through the neighbouring school, as he gleefully quoted the price of each decorative installation we passed.

A large pot etched with traditional Mongolian script was valued at 4,000 Yuan – that’s about £400. A series of decorative apples, great metal fruits the size of a man, had cost 10,000 Yuan. Our guide clearly saw Kangbashi as a folly – his tone was one of derision, as he shouted out prices then laughed, waving his hands around at the empty streets.

He had led us all the way to the sports ground, before we parted paths. “Make yourselves at home”, he had told us. “Explore everything!”

Beneath the raised seating at the sports field, a passage led through to a pair of glass-panelled doors. A sign above read “Young Pioneers Activity Room,” and Gareth cackled with joy. We tried the doors… and just like everything else in Kangbashi, they were unlocked.

We had been expecting showers, changing rooms perhaps – but instead, we walked into a ballet studio. The room next door was lined with trophies on shelves, while another was well stocked with sporting equipment. We found a whole case of brand-new basketballs, a music room complete with a computer, microphones, trumpets.

It was bizarre to think that so much money had been invested into this place; that it should be so well prepared for use and then simply left. Some regions of the city were no more than an overgrown construction site, while others, like the sports centre, were literally ready to go to use at just a moment’s notice.

Stranger, still, was the fact that nothing in the whole city seemed to be locked. The logic behind this was clear, however – there was simply nobody here to loot the place. There was no graffiti. There was hardly a soul in Kangbashi, in fact, save for those staff employed here by the construction firms.

We ended our trip with a visit to a restaurant. We followed the signs inside, through automatic doors to an empty dining area. The lights were on and the tables were set for dinner… but the bar was unstaffed, and there wasn’t a waiter in sight. After a few minutes it became clear that we wouldn’t be finding food here so we tried another floor.

On the next level up, we stepped out of the lift and into an office. Desks were arranged with computers, mouse mats, they even had a water cooler set up in one corner – but no staff.

Back to the lift, another floor up… and this time the doors popped open to reveal a full staff of waiters and waitresses, stood as if to attention around the elevator doors.

And that, I suppose, is Kangbashi in a nutshell: a construction site masquerading as a city of the future, balancing on the brink between luxury and ruin. While some developers are already pulling out, others are steaming on ahead with their construction projects… confident, as our taxi driver had insisted, that “if you build it, they will come”.

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