6 Strangest underground societies

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.

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