“Better safe than sorry” has been the motto of preparedness advocates for centuries, and despite the hysteria and paranoia that typically follows this kind of advocacy, it’s usually never a bad thing to think ahead. Even if the catastrophe you fear never comes to pass, you may actually wind up saving a life in the process.

That’s exactly what’s happened in Beijing over the last fifty years, for during the days of the Cold War communist leaders invested in one particular project that’s come to aid their people in the present. After seeing the strange city that lies below the streets of Beijing, you’ll wonder what kind of secrets may be hiding just beneath your feet…

During the height of the Cold War, the world’s preeminent communist powers – the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union – were also at odds over differing political ideologies. With a willingness on both sides to escalate their conflict to war, the threat of nuclear catastrophe loomed larger than ever.

Tensions between the two nations soon reached a breaking point, and in 1969 the Chinese government was forced to take drastic measures in order to protect the country. At the behest of Chairman Mao Zedong, the people of China began work on a massive underground tunnel system.

CBS News

Over 300,000 men, women, and children were put to work on the project, constructing 10,000 bomb shelters connected by nearly 20 miles of tunnel. Ancient structures and cultural landmarks were toppled for the sake of Mao’s vision, with nearly all of China’s resources being poured into the endeavor.

The Beijinger

By the end of the decade, 75 of China’s largest cities had been outfitted with enormous underground bunkers. With the shelters capable of housing roughly 60% of each city’s population, the survival of the Chinese people amidst the imminent nuclear war was all but guaranteed.

But the bombs never fell, and Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 quelled the fears of annihilation at the hands of the Russians. With new leader Deng Xiaoping ushering in a “golden age” of socialism in China, it appeared that Mao’s massive undertaking had all been for naught.

Daily Maverick

Being the economic mind that he was, however, Deng refused to let such a significant – and costly – project simply crumble into obscurity beneath the streets of China. Through the Office of Civil Defense, the country began an initiative to commercialize the abandoned bunkers.

Sim Chi Yin

Over the next two decades, laborers transformed Mao’s defunct tunnel system into a network of underground cities, the largest of which formed beneath the sprawling Chinese capital of Beijing. Complete with supermarkets, schools, clinics, and even karate dojos, this project represented another leap forward for China’s expanding economy.

Foreign Affairs

But even after these spaces were repurposed, the Chinese government continued to push forward with their subterranean efforts by mandating that all new buildings have underground defense shelters that could double as a source of income. And so, in addition to stores and clinics, these bunkers became homes.

Al Jazeera

Today, over 1 million people live below the streets of Beijing, clustered in small communities that range from a few dozen to over a hundred individuals strong. Residents of this underground city are known as the shuzu, or, more commonly, “the rat tribe”.

Scott Sherrill-Mix / Flickr

This peculiar society is mostly made up of young migrants from the countryside who arrived in search of affordable housing in Beijing. And with an average rent of 400 yuan a month – roughly $58 – for one of these rooms, they’re sure getting what they’re paying for.

Lara Visual

Each windowless room is typically between 40 to 100 square feet, just big enough to fit a small bed and a dresser or two. Some aren’t so lucky, as there are those that can only afford to stay in rooms that are shared by up to a dozen other people.

Singapore Home Decor

As far as amenities go, a single communal bathroom serves as a dumping point for personal bedpans, and at 50 cents a pop, one can help themselves to a lukewarm, five-minute shower. But despite the poor living conditions, some residents see their situation as motivation.


“Many of my colleagues live above ground, but I think it’s too comfortable,” said Wei Kun, an insurance salesman who shares his 300-square-foot apartment with nine other men. “This place forces me to work harder.”

But even so, a tremendous amount of stigma still surrounds those that call themselves members of “the rat tribe.” Some individuals won’t even tell their families where they’re living out of fear of judgment.

“When my father came to visit me he cried when he saw where I lived,” aspiring actor Zhang Xi recalled. “He said, ‘Son, this won’t do.'” Unfortunately, the Chinese government’s stance on the issue has only grown increasingly mixed as the years have gone on…

Al Jazeera

Though city officials have expressed concern over the safety risks involved with underground living, most have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice. With overcrowding becoming a growing problem in Beijing, there’s really no other place for these individuals to go.

“We never allowed residential use of air-raid shelters,” said Xu Jinbao, office director of the Beijing Municipal Civil Defense Office. “But as time went by Beijing became so populous that people started to cram in underground.”


Despite the hardship and controversy surrounding “the rat tribe,” it appears that they’re making the most of the situation while keeping their eyes set on what lies ahead. For these individuals, life underground is not a product of hard times, but rather a calculated sacrifice for the future.

Foreign Affairs

“I found a lot of people still hope one day to buy a house, or at least to live above ground,” sociologist Li Junfu observed while studying underground housing at the Beijing University of Technology. “They have a positive spirit.”

Al Jazeera

As unconventional as living underground is, it is not the only unusual home to have. The place people choose to settle down is very personal, and because everyone is different, so too are the homes. And some folks are definitely more eclectic than others…

1. Live in the clouds with this airplane house: This house, located in Abuja, Nigeria, was built by Said Jammal as a gift for his wife, Liza, to commemorate their love of travel.


2. The Heliodome is a bio-climatic solar house located in Strasbourg, France. It takes advantage of the Earth’s journey around the Sun by utilizing the seasons: In the summer the house provides shade that keeps the house cool, while in the winter, the sun peers in the windows to provide natural warmth.


3. Through the use of bamboo, plastic bags and bed sheets, Liu Lingchao, 38, constructed this 5′ wide, 6.5′ high mobile domicile. The 132-pound structure was designed by Lingchao in order to be transported with him as he walked nearly 462 miles back to his hometown.


4. Good thing that ring buoy is there! This house can be found on a lone rock on the Drina River, close to the Serbian town of Bajina Basta. It was built in 1968 as a tiny shelter.


5. The Ewok Village: This treehouse is available for rent through the Natura Cobana in southwestern France.


6. The Pot People: These cylindrical homes are located in Socuellamos, Spain, and are “made from old wine vats.” The residents are mostly ethnic Turks who have come to the central Spanish area to pick grapes.


7. Rooftop Rocks! This rooftop villa, found in Beijing, was constructed with fake rocks on top of an apartment building – but the structure was illegal and was demolished in 15 days.


8. Transformer House: Back to China, this house was built on top of a factory in the Dongguan province. Word has it that the government has also deemed it to be illegal.


9. Entrance to Goron Mountain: Benito Hernandez is the owner of this house in northern Mexico. The house has been the home of Hernandez’s family for over 30 years.


10. Crocodile Rock: Theirry Atta built this home in Ivory Coast’s capital. Atta was the apprentice of an artist, Moussa Kalo, with whom he began designing the house before Kalo’s death.


11. Let me just squeeeeze in here. This house was installed as an art piece in Warsaw, Poland by Israeli writer, Edgar Keret. The home – that is only 36 inches wide at it’s narrowest point – was designed as a memorial to Keret’s family, who died in the Holocaust.


12. That’s a lot of books. Gary Chang is an architect in Hong Kong who redesigned this 330-square-foot apartment into a custom home after 3 decades of living inside it’s boxy walls.


13. I don’t want to know how you go to the bathroom in this thing. This upside-down house was built in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk as a local attraction. The home’s rooms are also upside down.


14. Gernonimo! The “Rock” is the home of 15 fundamentalist Mormons. It was founded 35 years ago in a formation near Canyonlands National Park.


15. That’s a cold shower. This house was built entirely of ice as a promotion for a German Bank. Every part of the house is either ice or encased in ice.


16. Dome-iciles: These domes were built by US-based ‘Domes for the World’ for villagers who lost their homes in an earthquake in Yogyakartam, Indonesia.