Do you know what’s going on in the earth
beneath your feet? The world we know barely scratches the surface—and far below, strange
societies thrive in the deepest and darkest of places. These are the tales of the modern-day
societies that live below the Earth’s surface. Buried under the streets of regal Paris lies
a most macabre underworld known as the Catacombs. This dusty ossuary holds the bones of over
six million people secure within the twisting array of tunnels and caves. Its passages cover
nearly three hundred and twenty one kilometers of sprawling subterranean real estate. One
wrong turn, and you might find yourself wandering among the dead for eternity.
Originally, the Catacombs were a network of tunnels dating back to the 13th century, the
remnants of the limestone mines, which caused Paris to grow into the city we know today.
By the 17th century, the burgeoning city had filled all of its cemeteries to capacity,
flooding the streets with the delightful aroma of decaying flesh. Eau de corpse, anyone?
Towards the end of the 18th century, the situation continued to deteriorate. King Louis the Fifteenth
decided that enough was enough—he decreed that no more burials would be allowed within
the city limits, though due to resistance from the clergy the cemeteries remained undisturbed.
It wasn’t until the reign of Louis the Fifteenth’s successor, Louis the Sixteenth, that the crusade
against the body odor made any progress. Louis the Sixteenth flexed his royal muscle and
declared that all cemeteries were to be relocated outside of the city, but still the clergy
refused to budge. In 1780 torrential rains saturated the soil, causing the bodies contained
in one cemetery to surface and spill onto the adjacent land. Thankfully, after this
unfortunate event the rest of the city agreed that something must be done. It’s all fun
and games until there’s a body on your lawn. By 1798, the occupants of every cemetery in
the city had been moved by hand from their former homes into their final resting places
within the catacombs—a job that certainly no one would envy. The Catacombs saw use throughout
the French Revolution, and in 1860 the government finally decided they had filled the tunnels
sufficiently. Since then, the tunnels have been a haven
for urban explorers and others who wish to haunt the gloom with the dead. Despite one
of the entrances to the Catacombs bearing a sign, which reads “Stop! This is the empire
of death!” you can find many signs of life down there today.
In 2004, the Parisian Police stumbled upon a bizarre complex within the Catacombs, complete
with electrical power, a cinema, a restaurant, phone lines, and a closed circuit surveillance
system. If that isn’t the lair of a supervillain, I don’t know what is.
The place had seemingly been abandoned by the time police discovered it, though there
were clear signs of recent occupation. When they returned three days later with city infrastructure
experts, they found that the phone lines and power had been cut, and an ominous note was
left for them which read “Do not try to find us”.
Only a very small section of the catacombs are open to the public, via guided tours only.
The other mass expanse of sprawling tunnels are strictly off limits, many explorers and
budding residents however use secret entrances to access the Catacombs. Found in peculiar
places such as in the basements of bars and small gaps in the walls of the metro tunnels,
the locations of these secret entrances are told to others only in strict confidence to
avoid the authorities finding them and sealing them permanently. This secret network of illegal
catacomb adventurers are known as “Cataphiles”. They have to be secretive because accessing
the non-tourist area of the Catacombs is strictly illegal and there’s a hefty fine if caught.
If you do plan on plunging into the Catacombs on an exploration of your own, be sure to
use the buddy system; this is one place you do not want to get lost, because if you do
your chances of ever finding your way out are virtually non-existent. Sequestered from the heat and sand of the
Mojave Desert, the Tunnel People of Las Vegas carve out a living in the miles of flood tunnels
beneath the city. They live in a world of perpetual twilight, eternally wary of the
dangerous creatures indigenous to the region, and the looming threat of rain rushing in
to wash away their few possessions. The tunnels flood often and the Tunnel People call the
flood after a powerful rainstorm “flushing the toilet”—they have to be ever vigilant,
ready to relocate at a moment’s notice. Not exactly a sedentary lifestyle.
Las Vegas has a reputation as the gleaming gem of the desert—a beacon of civilization
and extravagance, where “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. This also includes
the people who pulled up stakes and migrated their entire lives in a moment to the asphalt
oasis, only to discover that making a living amongst the glittering casinos and luxurious
hotels wasn’t as easy as they thought. Or perhaps a tragedy forced them out of a secure
lifestyle and on to the streets—either way, these nomads usually find their way to the
flood tunnels to join the Tunnel People, making a living doing whatever odds and ends they
can in the bustling city above. Referred to as “normal people of all ages
who’ve lost their way”, their numbers include children, men and women struggling
with addiction, and even war veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite
their dire circumstances, the resilience of the human spirit is evident in the culture
they’ve built for themselves, the tunnel walls painted with elaborate graffiti art
and pieces of furniture designating rudimentary “rooms” in the gloom.
Though the Tunnel People live far beneath the public eye and the glamour of the Vegas
Strip, they are not forgotten. The “Shine A Light” foundation, formed by a journalist
in partnership with the charity HELP of Southern Nevada, brings necessities like food and water
to the tunnels, along with blankets and other assistance. Bit by bit, the partnership works
to improve the lives of the impoverished Tunnel People—forming a flickering light of hope
in a very dark place. Like the Tunnel People of Las Vegas, the inhabitants
of the Bucharest Sewers in Romania live in a dimly lit underworld beneath the capital
city. They have access to a few more amenities than their American counterparts, with electricity
powering light bulbs, which dangle from the ceiling in certain areas as well as other
electronic luxuries. However, it’s not quite as cheery as it might seem.
Hidden away from the denizens of the capital above ground, the people of the Bucharest
Sewers are true societal castaways. Though the citizens of Bucharest are aware of the
growing community beneath their feet, few offer any kind of assistance. Nearly all of
the members of the underworld test HIV positive, with a large portion also suffering from Tuberculosis.
Despite the meager amount of light flooding the hollows they call home, darkness lurks
in every nook and cranny. The streets overhead can be a harsh place to make a living—the
sewers becoming somewhat of a refuge, as they offer a modicum of safety and warmth. And
yet, the brutal reality of their life continues to haunt the refugees within the sheer concrete
walls, many of them turning to drugs as a means of escape.
One man, who goes by the name “Bruce Lee”, serves as the self-appointed vanguard of the
sewers. He brings regular care packages of various drugs and distributes them to all
in need of a moment’s respite. Though it would be easy to consider him the villain
of this particular story, he has also taken it upon himself to protect the children down
there from others who would bring them harm, as well as paying local city gangs to stand
sentry over the sewers and protect them from antagonists.
Sadly, life has become a game of “maintain the status quo”, with little opportunity
for improvement. Aid organizations in Romania rely on funds from overseas to continue their
operations. Recently the monetary assistance has ceased flowing into the country, rendering
the relatively small aid organizations impotent. For the time being, life continues for Romania’s
Bucharest Sewer People as it has for years, fading into memory—with a steady stream
of drugs as a comping mechanism, and with only the barest of survival essentials.
But as long as Bruce Lee rules over his simple kingdom, perhaps they can take comfort in
having some small measure of security. Rather than being driven underground by circumstances,
the farmers of the Loess Plateau in Yan’an, China, choose to carve dwelling caves from
the earth out of convenience instead. Evoking images of Luke Skywalker’s subterranean
home on Tatooine in the sci-fi spectacular Star Wars, the farmers take advantage of the
plateau’s soft soil to dig traditional yaodong caves for themselves and their families.
The yaodong are seen as important family heirlooms to be passed from generation to generation.
Many of them are now so old that the exact number of generations who have occupied them
has been lost to the mists of time. Even if they can’t tell you who lived there centuries
ago, millions of people still call the caves homes to this day.
Archeologists have determined that the people of the Loess Plateau first began digging homes
during the Zhou Dynasty, between 1046 and 221 BC. Over the years, the cave dwellers
came to typify three varieties of yaodong: those dug into cliffs, others set down into
the soil, and the last type being structures built partially into or against a mound of
earth. Some of the cave dwellings came to incorporate brick and stone into their design,
and it’s these that proved to be the longest lasting, some having been upgraded with modern
amenities and comforts. No word on whether they have fiber optic Internet yet.
Each family generally has between three and five yaodong, with the one at the center serving
as the main residence for the older members of the family. Thanks to the insulative properties
of the earthen walls, the caves maintain a pleasant temperature all year round. No need
for air conditioning or central heating—perhaps the yaodong dwellers are on to something.
The breathtaking yellow terrain of the Loess Plateau and the many yaodong dotting the countryside
have become a popular tourist attraction in recent years. If you fancy a simple life of
peace and plenty whilst living in harmony with the earth, Yan’an is one of the last
places on earth where you could carve your own life from the very ground beneath you
with like-minded folks. Of course, you could try to dig a cave dwelling elsewhere, but
you might get some strange looks. In 1969, the Chinese people were beginning
to feel the heat from the Cold War. Chairman Mao Zedong, sensing the growing potential
for overt hostility, decreed that tunnels and air-raid bunkers were to be built beneath
major cities—leading to the construction of the areas now occupied by the “Rat Tribe”
of Beijing. Though the underground shelters were never meant for prolonged occupation,
they have become home to millions of citizens and migrant workers who simply can’t afford
to live in the city above. The “Rat Tribe” has since claimed many
of the city’s basements and other sublevels for rudimentary residences and hostels to
house the growing throng in need of cheap accommodation. Due to the cramped conditions,
members of the “Rat Tribe” often share bathrooms and kitchens, with thin walls separating
them from their neighbors. Not exactly the best place to practice your karaoke I imagine.
As a result of the construction projects and infrastructure development brought about by
the 2008 Beijing Olympics, thousands of migrants were brought in to perform the manual labor.
Left with no other options, many of them flocked to the underground, where they were distinguished
from the other inhabitants by the honorable title of the “Ant Tribe” due to their
industrious nature and the tiny spaces they came to call home.
In 2010, the government actually passed a measure, which declared the underground community
illegal, which is just lovely, considering government work, is why many of the migrants
are there in the first place. The government cited a desire to reclaim the old air-raid
shelters and refurbish them for public use. Over a hundred thousand people were evicted
from the underground in 2015, though previous efforts to close down the makeshift housing
and hostels of the “Rat Tribe” were met with unprecedented public protests.
For now, the long-term prospects for the community are in jeopardy. But as long as they aren’t
forcibly removed from the premises, the “Rat Tribe” will continue to make the most of
their simple, yet cosy accommodations. Deep within the untamed outback of Australia
lies the town of Coober Pedy. After the 1915 discovery of opal gemstones just waiting to
be plucked from the arid soil, the town sprang up almost overnight. The siren’s song of
precious gems brought people from all around the world to try their hand at mining—but
they soon realised just why the outback is so notorious. Sweltering temperatures assailed
the fresh-faced miners during the summer, while the winter saw temperatures plunge dramatically
in mockery of the former heat. Undaunted by the perilous environment, the miners put their
heads together to come up with a solution. That solution, of course, was to move the
mining town underground. Though nobody cares to admit it, I suspect some manner of venomous
creature also had a hand in prompting relocation efforts. It is Australia, after all.
Old mineshafts and new holes carved into the sandstone became homes for the inhabitants
of Coober Pedy. Especially in the early years most of the digging was done by hand, though
since then the task has been delegated to machinery better suited for the work. As the
20th century rolled on the homes grew more complex, some growing into hotels and inns
to manage the tourists coming to bear witness to the peculiar town. Modern Coober Pedy homes
include all of the expected amenities, like fully featured kitchens and walk-in closets.
Besides housing, some dugouts became stores, museums, and a church as well. Spending any
amount of time in the unrelenting heat of the Australian outback is bound to prompt
prayers of a cool summer from even the least religious person.
Today, tourism rivals the opal as the foundation upon which Coober Pedy’s economy lies. If
you happen to find yourself in the area, be sure to stop by the Underground Motel—a
rare opportunity to experience the wonders of living beneath the earth without committing
wholeheartedly to the lifestyle. If you like it, who knows, maybe there’s a dugout with
your name on it.