Space city in the desert not so secret

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


Dongfeng Space City sounds hi-tech but it looks plain.

If not for a few long-range missiles painted with Maoist slogans standing on roadside lawns, a visitor would hardly know that this little town in the heart of the Gobi desert was the birthplace of China's missile and space programmes, and still one of its most active launch pads. Most research buildings are characterless, small and look cheaply built, easily dwarfed and outshone by the average government headquarters in a poor county nowadays.

With an increasing number of spacecraft being launched recently, the 'city' has become more transparent than ever. Throughout the year, mainlanders can sign up for tours inside the facilities' living quarters and also in some strictly guarded facilities such as the command centre and launch towers, for about 400 yuan (HK$490) a person, meals included.

There is a museum telling the story of the base's secret past with photographs and films. There is even a tourist reception office at its entrance.

Foreigners, however, rarely have a chance to get in, with tour agencies always turning down tourists with foreign passports. During some special events, such as manned space flights, some overseas guests and journalists from non-mainland media outlets, such as the South China Morning Post, are allowed in but their activities are strictly limited.

Any attempt to venture out on your own is politely discouraged. If you insist, a security officer is sent to accompany you.

Even though they have heard of Dongfeng many times on television, hardly any mainlanders know where it is.

Most believe the facility is located in Jiuquan, Guansu, because the city is formally known as the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, but they are wrong.

Named Dongfeng Space City by then president Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, it is actually located in the former headquarters of Inner Mongolia's Ejin Banner. One resident said the government named the launch centre after Jiuquan to conceal its real location.

On a clear day it takes almost four hours to travel the straight road from Jiuquan to the space city. The vast Gobi desert separates the space city from the nearest village, but every few minutes on the drive there you can see mysterious looking military facilities with radars or antennas shooting up from buildings hidden behind trees.

Visitors have to pass military checkpoints to enter the city, and the military vehicles speeding in and out constantly remind visitors that this is still a place under tight watch.

The entire space city covers an area of 2,800 square kilometres, mostly uninhabitable desert, but also an oasis at the foot of Bayinbaogede Mountain that used to be home to more than 1,500 herdsmen before the People's Liberation Army moved in during the late 1950s.

The city gave birth to China's first large missiles. When Qian Xuesen , the father of China's space programme, arrived in 1958 to begin building and testing China's first missiles, he was not allowed to write a letter home for months, prompting his wife to suspect that he was dead.

Qian, armed with knowledge gained in the United States about America's missile programme, led tens of thousands of scientists, engineers and soldiers to give the nation its first long-range missile in 1960. The base also launched China's first satellite, Dongfanghong 1, in 1970 and Shenzhou-I, the precursor to later manned space missions, in 1999.

Now the base is mainly used as the only launch pad for the manned space programme. But even though much of its military testing and development functions have been moved elsewhere, it is still heavily guarded by the military.

Residents said living conditions had improved a lot in recent years. When the first settlers arrived, most had to live in foxholes and tents because there were hardly any buildings. Water fetched from a nearby river was salty and vegetables were a luxury that even top commanders rarely enjoyed.

Now the city has its own water purification plant and, using Israeli technology, has a vast vegetable garden that can supply more than 80 per cent of residents' needs. The base also has its own diary.

'Our vegetables and milk are totally safe,' one resident said. 'We never worry about pesticides or melamine.'

The biggest buildings in the city are its hotels, open to tourists on ordinary days but reserved for senior government officials during launch missions.

A graveyard for more than 500 martyrs, including Nie Rongzhen , the founder of China's missile programme, has become a tourist attraction. Most of those buried there are scientists, engineers or soldiers who were killed during rocket accidents.