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404: China’s Abandoned Nuclear City

How a remote corner of Gansu province became China’s atom bomb base
<p>A railway line connects 404 city with Jiyaguan, Gansu province [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]</p>

A railway line connects 404 city with Jiyaguan, Gansu province [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]

With special arrangement with, and all rights reserved by, Sixth Tone.

In the early 1990s, nearly 100,000 people lived in a city that couldn’t be found on any map. It had no name, just a code: 404.

404 City is located on the sandy plains of Gansu province in China’s northwest, some 100 kilometers to the west of Jiayuguan City. Its name comes from 404 Co. Ltd., a company under the China National Nuclear Corporation. When the city was built in 1958, it served one purpose only: to host a nuclear bomb.

The country’s best nuclear scientists and experts were transferred to 404 — China’s first nuclear military base — along with mechanics, doctors, and other supporting staff. Six years later, in 1964, China recorded its first successful nuclear bomb detonation in the Gobi Desert in neighbouring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The city has an area of 4 square kilometres, with its own municipal government, police department, television station — even its own courthouse and prison. In fact, 404 is bigger than it looks, with a complete underground defence system in case of nuclear war.

Due to large-scale cave-ins, most people living in 404 were relocated to Jiayuguan in 2006. Now, only some 1,000 residents remain. Countless identical housing blocks stand empty, their doors sealed shut with walls of brick. The city park, once a nucleus of after-work entertainment, is deserted.

An aerial view of a deserted area of 404 City in Gansu province, abandoned in 1986 [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
An aerial view of a deserted area of 404 City in Gansu province, abandoned in 1986 [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Three storied buildings completely abandoned in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Three storied buildings completely abandoned in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Cooling towers in the Gobi desert near 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng]
Cooling towers in the Gobi desert near 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng]
A woman peers through the gate at the Nuclear City Park in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A woman peers through the gate at the Nuclear City Park in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A life-sized model of a fighter jet stands in the Nuclear City Park in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A life-sized model of a fighter jet stands in the Nuclear City Park in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A cage that once held animals in 404 City's Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A cage that once held animals in 404 City’s Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A swing in the playground at 404 City's Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A swing in the playground at 404 City’s Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A tip of a sunken boat pokes out of the water in 404 City's Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A tip of a sunken boat pokes out of the water in 404 City’s Nuclear City Park [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Three people standing in front of a residential building in 404 City. Only about a 1,000 residents remain [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Three people standing in front of a residential building in 404 City. Only about a 1,000 residents remain [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Inside a China National Nuclear Corporation-affiliated hotel in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Inside a China National Nuclear Corporation-affiliated hotel in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Visitors to 404 City explore a man-made hill the Nuclear Park. Past the hill the cooling towers from the nuclear plant can be seen [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
Visitors to 404 City explore a man-made hill the Nuclear Park. Past the hill the cooling towers from the nuclear plant can be seen [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A railway maintenance worker waits for a commuter train in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A railway maintenance worker waits for a commuter train in 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]

A statue of a police man with a cone on his head and a beer bottle in his hand on the road leading to 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
A statue of a police man with a cone on his head and a beer bottle in his hand on the road leading to 404 City [image by Xu Haifeng/Sixth Tone]
All pictures taken on 28-29 August 2016.