Last week a few friends and I cycled out to Wonderland, an abandoned amusement park on the way to the Badaling Great Wall. Planned by the Thai property developers The Reignwood Group, this Disney World clone usurped farm land from the locals of Chenzhuang Village in Nankou Town, the Changping District of Beijing. Based on original plans this 120 acre doppelgänger of Disney Land, now aptly nicknamed the Creepiest Place on Earth, was never completed. Construction ground to a halt in 1998 when disputes between the Thai company, local officials, and farmers erupted over the value of the land. Attempts to restart the cacophony of construction again failed in 2008, in the building revelry of the Olympic Games. After that the site as grown into a static reminder, a ruined beast, of failed and rapid development in China.
In 2006, when I first visited china, I remember passing this ersatz Disney Land on my way to the overly touristic Badaling Great Wall. And I have passed it several times since, on my way out of Beijing through the Changping or Yanqing districts. The complex is an easy 32 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown Beijing on the Badaling Expressway but we decided to avoid this congested highway and made our way first due north through less serviced country roads and highways that took on a material and spiritual resemblance to a distant moon. At times sand storms roared past us as we cycled. Our circuitous route there and back added up; by the end of the day we clocked in at around 120 kilometers (75 miles). Was the journey worth the sweat and the grime? Wonderland, although it has been photographed and featured in the Atlantic, The Washington Post, and various other places, is still an attraction and an eerie oddity out toward the hills.
In the last few years farmers have returned to the soil that was once marked to house colorful rides and innocent saturnalia. As they have reclaimed the property they are at times brisk with explorers, finding it less a destination of ruinous explorers and photographers perhaps than the source of livelihood. As we wandered around several minders followed us closely and barked commands not to enter certain doors and structures. Despite the isolation, the abandonment, there is a kind of spirit still floating through the walls and earth, a spirit enlivened by the brusque and weathered farmers in black. Although at the time of our visit the planting had yet to resume fully from winter, there was activity buzzing in mall pockets of tillage and I can only envision the changed character of the site once the husks are removed and the land glows with production. We were never chased off by any angry farmers but others have reported such a treatment. Still, in the haze of pollution and the gusts of sand swept down from the Gobi, the ruins produce the feeling of post-apocalyptic agriculture.