Hidden in the mountains of Baitao town, in an outlying district of the Chongqing Municipality called Fuling, the 816 Nuclear Military Plant (816地下核工程) stands as a reminder of an era gone by. The plant, which was once shrouded in secrecy, opened to domestic tourists in April 2010.
Work on the project began in 1966, with approval of then-premier Zhou Enlai. Ground was broken with the labor of an initial 8,000 soldiers, and construction on the plant continued as tension between China and the Soviet Union grew over the following decades.
By some accounts the largest manmade cave in the world, the plant holds 18 main caverns, the largest of which is nearly 80 meters high, and some 21 kilometers of passageways, some of which are wide enough for two large trucks to pass through. The entirely self-contained plant was built to withstand up to 8.0-magnitude earthquakes and major explosions. Psychiatric treatment had to be provided on-site to help those who worked there deal with the difficult, isolated conditions.
But it was never finished—after an investment of RMB740 million (RMB10 billion after adjusting for inflation), and the work—and in hundreds of cases, lives—of 60,000 engineers over nearly 20 years, work on the project stopped in 1984. Another 18 years passed before the project was declared declassified.
Despite the massive scale of the project, today, given its remote location, visitors hardly stream in, and in any case, traffic flow is restricted to 30 visitors at any given time. Only about 10 percent of the total space is open for viewing, including the central computer room, built in 1978, the soccer-stadium-sized nuclear reactor hall, and some of the main thoroughfares. Various control rooms look like they inspired a legion of '70s sci-fi flicks; layers upon layers of staircases plunge into the depths below until they disappear from sight.
Visitors tend to arrive by car as going by bus is complicated and slow. Access to the plant is restricted to domestic visitors only; foreign nationals are not allowed in. Entrance: RMB40 with an additional RMB10 fee for the driving tour.
One part of 816 near the entrance allows for playing laser tag or "live CS" (counterstrike) for RMB50.