I HAVE A RULE with underground tours: if I’m visiting a place that offers one, I do it. I don’t care if it’s popular or obscure – the story behind what led to tunnels, tombs, even chapels beneath the surface of the earth is bound to be fascinating.
A fortunate fire
Country: United States (Washington)
I’ve got to start with Seattle, seeing as I’m a resident and have taken this tour three times in the last year. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is kind of a double-whammy history lesson: first, the history of the fire that destroyed downtown Seattle in 1889 and how the city was essentially rebuilt eight feet above the remains, effectively establishing it as the premiere city in the Pacific Northwest (rubbing Tacoma’s nose in it all the while).
Second, the history of how those historic remains were nearly lost, until the mid-50s, when Bill Speidel convinced the local government that preserving the old city could bring in some tourism cash.
The Underground Tour is campy but educational; you’ll see old bank vaults, toilets, and storefront entrances, while listening to many a tale of the nightmarish plumbing that plagued the city and the role “seamstresses” (whose services, shall we say, did not involve needles and thread) played in the saga.
City: Beijing / Dixia Cheng
Technically, you can probably still visit Beijing’s Underground City, although it’s getting increasingly difficult and doing so would be dangerous. The city used to offer tours, but closed in 2008 for renovations, and it seems unlikely this “attraction” will be opened again.
But I couldn’t leave Dixia Cheng, also known as the “Underground Great Wall,” off a list of underground cities; the story behind this one is incredible. Fearing nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Chairman Mao gave citizens an order in 1968 that can be translated as “dig tunnels, store food, and prepare for war.”
Around 300,000 Beijing residents did exactly that, using shovels, baskets, and whatever tools they had to build an incredible network of tunnels covering about 85 square kilometers beneath their city — at its completion, these tunnels could have housed 40% of the population.
Of course, this was never necessary, and eventually the tunnels were closed off one by one (and rightfully so; many are flooded and/or pitch-black). But at one point there were nearly 100 entrances to Dixia Cheng, and some locals still know of a few that aren’t sealed up.
Not that I’m advising you to try it.
Long term lease
City: Barry Troglodyte Village
Country: France (Vaucluse)
The most astonishing thing isn’t that the Barry Troglodyte Village in the Vaucluse of France was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Age (6,000 B.C. to 3,000 B.C.); it’s that it remained inhabited until the early 20th century.
Built into a hill that overlooks the Rhône Valley, these caves and stone dwellings lasted until the 19th century, when a series of collapses killed many residents. The final residents, a widow and her servant, finally left near the start of the following century for safety reasons.
If you want to visit, the village is located about 2 km heading north on the D26 from Bolléne.
Dead royalty (and no Harrison Ford)
The majority (85%) of this city is still underground, untouched, and unvisitable. But at Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, the historical and archaeological city of Petra, you can step inside hundreds of carved cubbies — such as the famous Treasury — to check out what centuries ago were used as royal tombs.
Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, as of 2007, was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the Word. If you visit, don’t try to be Indiana Jones and have yourself a last crusade. Chances are there’s no Holy Grail in there.
Hiding the hooch
City: Moose Jaw
The tunnels of Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan have a dual history, and you can actually take two separate tours, one for each story.
They were created by engineers who had to work with the steam-powered heating systems in the basements of the buildings of Moose Jaw. Understandably, they wanted an easier way to move their equipment around without facing the freezing temperatures outside.
Many of the workers were Chinese immigrants, who were underpaid. Consequently, they began turning the tunnel system into living quarters – something that also served to hide them from the Ku Klux Klan, which had a heavy presence in Moose Jaw in the late 1920s.
The second tour deals with the tunnels’ involvement in prohibition. The town was a hub for illegal booze distribution in both Canada and the US, and speakeasies, brothels, and the like started popping up in the tunnels. Some claim Al Capone had a subterranean office here, though this is based on speculation and rumor.
Hiding the horses
Country: Turkey (Cappadocia)
Cappadocia is arguably the best place in the world to visit if you’re interested in underground cities – there are tons. The deepest is the Derinkuyu Underground City, which has multiple floors that extend to a depth of 85 meters.
This is no mere tunnel system. Derinkuyu has amenities – wine and oil presses, chapels, schoolrooms, even stables – as well as living quarters that could accommodate tens of thousands of people when it was built in the 7th century. Only a fraction of it is available for tourists to explore, and tour packages are available.
This is why we have Evian
The remains of around 6 million bodies have been at rest in the Catacombs of Paris since the end of the 18th century; prior, this series of tunnels was actually stone mines. But the conditions at Saints Innocents church were getting out of control thanks to its mass burial ground – among the more obvious problems that come with too many dead bodies in one place, residue in the ground from the decayed matter meant the well water, which the city relied on, was about as sanitary as Soylent Green.
After years of debate and ineffective decrees, the mines were chosen as a substitute and the years-long exhumation process, which involved processions of chanting priests and parades of horses pulling wagons laden with bones, began. The piles of skulls and femurs in the Catacombs are extremely organized and fascinate visitors to this day, making it one of the most macabre tourist attractions in the world.
Can’t pay for your drink?
Country: United States (Oregon)
The tunnels exist, but it’s hard to say whether the story behind Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels is fact or fiction. The passages run under the city’s Chinatown to downtown, connecting to the basements of many bars and hotels, and ending at the Willamette River; the original intent was to move goods from ships to these facilities without adding to street traffic.
On my last visit to Portland, a tour guide informed us that back in the late 1800s, an unsuspecting man might be having a drink or two at one of those bars, then be drugged and whisked unconscious through a trapdoor, into the tunnels, and to the waterfront, where he’d become a slave for ship captains desperate for crewman — a process which became known as “Shanghaiing.”
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