404: An isolated town

By Jason Lee
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, November 28, 2016
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My name is Li Yang. I was born in 404. It is the name of my hometown in the deep Gobi desert in western China, where China started making its first nuclear bomb in the late 1950s. You will never find the town on any map.

My name is Li Yang (C). I am the third generation of 404. My parents and i took a family photo in front of the statue of Chairman Mao Zedong.[File photo]

My name is Li Yang (C). I am the third generation of 404. My parents and i took a family photo in front of the statue of Chairman Mao Zedong when i was young.[File photo]

Covering an area of four square kilometers, 404 has a court, government, media, school, theater, park and anything else you want from a city.

It also used to have the first military nuclear reactor of China. Today, it is basically deserted. It is said that there is an underground nuclear base. But I have never seen it.

But the air-raid shelter in 404 is like a large labyrinth. In the 1980s, the underground project was deserted and become a children's secret amusement park.

The first generation of 404's residents was also its builders. They are the best of every walk of life, chosen by the government from across the country to work together for China's first atomic bomb, an important weapon for a country desperate to ensure its security from the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The 404 people made almost everything they need, from vinegar to ice-cream. They built a zoo, which consisted of five cages for bears, birds, monkeys, peacocks and sika deer. The government moved new animals to replace the old ones constantly. There is also a retired fighter jet exhibited in the zoo.

My grandfather and father worked in 404. Local residents called it hecheng, or nuclear city. A popular slogan is "After offering your youth, offer your life; after offering your life, offer your children and grandchildren." I am the third generation of 404.

When I went back to 404, now almost a deserted city, to take photos in September 2014, I found a plutonium manual outside of the public bathing room's gate. The handbook was universal in 404 residents' homes.

The most solid building in 404 is a hospital designed by Soviet architects. They knew this place well. That became a big concern after bilateral relations soured in early 1960s, as local residents were always worried that the Soviet Union would attack the place. All 404 children were familiar with air strike sirens and used to the air defense maneuver.

404 is an extremely dry and windy place. The days are glaringly sunny. We are happy when it is cloudy. All families know each other in at least three generations. Children in the same age are like siblings.

To outsiders, 404 residents' life was dull. Roasting potatoes and watching stars were the main way to kill time for children, in addition to doing sports. 404 had a dry skating arena, where boys fought for beautiful girls. Some people are still in the 404 prison because of gang fighting.

Many of my neighbors are expert technicians. A neighbor is a bench worker, who can copy keys with only a file. The other lathe worker can cut metal parts precisely. Many parts of China's first nuclear bomb were from him.

Almost all of the first generation of master technicians died in 404 and were buried in the Gobi desert.

The richest man in 404 today is a former ragman, who seems the only natural businessman in the town filled with State-owned factory technicians and workers. He runs several restaurants and shops. 404 people are simple-minded and warm-hearted.

I went to a college in Beijing later. That was the first time I left for 404 for a long time, and I was afraid of meeting strange persons at first. Although I live and work in Beijing now, I will never forget my unique childhood in that remote place. I clearly remember every detail of that place.

Today, only some old people live in that town, and they have decided to die there. I am afraid my hometown will disappear forever together with its last senior residents.

The article was firstly published on China's social media in early 2015 in Chinese. It was translated and edited by Jason Lee for China.org.cn.


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