People who don’t get as enough sun are at a higher risk for all sorts of illnesses, disorders, and mental health problems. So imagine you lived in a place that was blanketed in darkness year-round. What would you do?
Sure, you can wish all you want, but if your house is bordering the Arctic Circle, there’s not a whole lot you can do to get some much needed sunlight. But one especially dark town in Norway decided to make a bold decision to fix it.
Rjukan is a small town in southern Norway that is, by most accounts, a lovely place to live. It’s got the picturesque Scandinavian architecture that tourists flock to — but the town is also hiding something.
The town is also famous for its waterfalls and the natural beauty surrounding it. You can imagine why tourists are so keen to visit! But Rjukan also has a dark secret — literally.
See, because of how far north the town is, it receives less sunlight than most places. It can’t be easy spending that much time in darkness, but the problem is even worse for Rjukan.
Because it lies between two tall mountains, Rjukan is left in complete darkness for six months out of the entire year. If that sounds like a bummer to you, you’re not alone.
The New York Times
Residents of the Norwegian town were discouraged by the lack of direct sunlight for decades. Many took the simple step of moving somewhere with more sun, but others schemed up more elaborate plans for brightening things up.
The first attempt came from a man named Sam Eyde. Sam was a pioneer in engineering and came to Rjukan for the falls in the early 1900s before there was even a town there. But he wasn’t just there to see the sights. Sam had a plan.
He wanted to harness the energy the waterfall was producing and decided to find a way to do just that. What he ended up building was an enormous hydro-electric facility — the largest power plant in the world at the time.
Sam went on to become a pioneer in industrial technologies, and for him, everything seemed to be going right. But back in Rjukan, he faced another problem.
See, now that he had these factories, he had nowhere to house his workers. So he did what any industry magnate would do and built an entire town in the valley below where they could live. He probably received a lot of “World’s Best Boss” mugs that year!
But the town quickly realized there was something wrong: for half the year, it was always dark. Sam, being the stellar boss he was, decided to find a way to bring some sunlight to the town so that his workers didn’t lose their minds.
After a number of different ideas, Sam settled on building a cable car system that would take residents to the top of the mountains where they could view the sunlight whenever they wanted. It was the best Rjukan could hope for — that is, until 2013.
Martin Andersen moved to Rjukan in 2002 to get away from the big city, but he couldn’t help noticing how dark it was all the time. Sure there was a cable car he could use to get some much-needed sun, but Martin wanted more.
So, instead of being satisfied with something that brought the townspeople to the sunlight, he began designing something that would bring the sunlight to the townspeople. And in 2005, he finally unveiled his big idea…
Mirrors. Martin wanted to install giant mirrors on the top of the mountain, which would reflect the sunlight into the town square, even in the darkest months. Most people thought he was crazy, and with good reason.
Though the project seemed daunting, the government eventually signed off on the idea and, in 2013, the Solspeilet (Norwegian for “sun mirror”) was finally built. But it wasn’t an easy road.
The giant structure cost over 5 million kroner (about $778,000), a sizable investment for what seemed to amount to a couple of enormous mirrors. But they’re not as simple as they seem…
The Solspeilet is completely computer-controlled and actually follows the sun as it drifts across the sky. This means there is a constant beam of sunlight directed toward the town square whenever the sun is shining. Critics were still not convinced.
To many, it seemed like a bizarre gimmick. Sure, it provided some much-needed sun, but was a small amount of sun really worth the millions and millions that was required to get it built?
Critics eventually came around to the Solspeilet when they realized its only benefit wasn’t just sunlight; it was also bringing something else to Rjukan: tourists. Who wouldn’t want to see giant mirrors pretending to be the sun, after all?
The New York Times
“This is so warming,” said one resident. “Not just physically, but mentally. It’s mentally warming.” Mentally warming as it may be, it doesn’t actually keep anyone warm. However, people from a city in North Alaska figured out how to solve that problem, too.
Alaska is still considered to be one of the last unexplored American frontiers. With nearly all of the state’s population clustered along its southeastern coast, many wonder what lies beyond its boundaries.
In recent years, the remote communities of the Alaskan wilderness have become a subject of interest. Many have sought to brave the Alaskan Bush. Luckily, adventurers need only look a few miles south of Anchorage.
Anchorage Daily News
After driving some 60 miles from the Alaskan capital, you’ll come to a string of flashing yellow lights. The road beyond travels only one way, and you may find yourself waiting up to an hour for the traffic to shift directions.
But shift it will, and after driving a bit further down the road a large tunnel blocks your path. The train tracks leading out will make you wary of entering, but rest assured, this really is the only way to go.
Alaska Native News
Unfortunately, the tunnel will do little to calm your nerves, and for the next 2.5 miles, you’ll wonder if this was the right choice. Don’t be surprised if you start thinking about earthquakes and drive a bit faster.
Anchorage Daily News
Finally, you’ll reach Whittier, a small port community on the shore of Prince William Sound. Chances are your eye will immediately be drawn to one building in particular…
Edward Smith / YouTube
A former residence for military officers during the U.S. Army’s occupation of the town, Begich Towers is now an apartment complex. But the building isn’t just home to a few individuals — all 200 residents live there!
With sub-zero temperatures and 60 mph winds plaguing the town, the people of Whittier decided to stay safe by living under one roof. And not just that: they made sure that they’d never need to go outside again.
Anchorage Daily News
Rather than face the cold, the people of Whittier built everything they needed inside Begich Towers. There’s a laundromat, med center, church, and convenience store, among many other services.
Whittier even has its own school, located in a building behind Begich Towers. And though most of her students are also her neighbors, teacher Erika Thompson (right) has more or less adjusted to the unusual lifestyle.
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 / YouTube
“For me it’s just home,” she says. “For the most part, you know everybody. It’s a community under one roof.”
Alaska Public Media
Like their parents, the children of Whittier also aren’t fans of the freezing weather, especially when it comes to playing outside. That’s why the town’s only playground is located indoors as well.
Yet despite all the fuss over the cold, there are a few brave souls in Whittier that do make a life outside. Unsurprisingly, these folks are busiest in the summer months, when the quiet port becomes a tourist hotspot.
The Journey is My Destination
Every year 700,000 tourists flood Whittier to get a taste of Alaskan life. But there’s only so much to see and do in the small town, and most vacationers are back on their cruise ships by the afternoon.
For those that do stay, June Miller is the woman to see. June’s bed & breakfast on the top of Begich Towers is the premier accommodation spot — just don’t be too startled when she hands you a pair of binoculars.
Anchorage Daily News
“A lot of people keep them there to watch whales breaching and mountain goats grazing and things like that,” photographer Reed Young remarked of his experience at the B&B. “But June always told us that these are basically for finding out if your husband’s at the bar.”
There’s no doubt that it takes a special kind of person to visit a place like this, let alone live there. But according to Erika Thompson, Whittier is the perfect place for everyone, regardless of the lifestyle you prefer.
“Some people love it because it can be really social,” she says. “And some people love it because it can be reclusive.” The appeal of Whittier comes from the fact that the residents here are free to be themselves.
But this may not be the case for long. Despite heavy seasonal tourism and a foothold in the commercial freight and fishing industries, economic growth is nonexistent here. With more people leaving the town each year, Whittier’s future appears uncertain.
“I don’t know where Whittier is going,” the city manager told Young. “Because I don’t know where it wants to go.”
But having direction doesn’t always guarantee success, and plans for the future have a funny way of changing on a dime. Whittier may not know what its next step is, but maybe that’s better than taking one too many — something China experienced firsthand.
The Japan Times
During the height of the Cold War, the world’s preeminent communist powers – the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union – were also at odds over differing political ideologies. With a willingness on both sides to escalate their conflict to war, the threat of nuclear catastrophe loomed larger than ever.
Tensions between the two nations soon reached a breaking point, and in 1969 the Chinese government was forced to take drastic measures in order to protect the country. At the behest of Chairman Mao Zedong, the people of China began work on a massive underground tunnel system.
Over 300,000 men, women, and children were put to work on the project, constructing 10,000 bomb shelters connected by nearly 20 miles of tunnel. Ancient structures and cultural landmarks were toppled for the sake of Mao’s vision, with nearly all of China’s resources being poured into the endeavor.
By the end of the decade, 75 of China’s largest cities had been outfitted with enormous underground bunkers. With the shelters capable of housing roughly 60% of each city’s population, the survival of the Chinese people amidst the imminent nuclear war was all but guaranteed.
But the bombs never fell, and Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 quelled the fears of annihilation at the hands of the Russians. With new leader Deng Xiaoping ushering in a “golden age” of socialism in China, it appeared that Mao’s massive undertaking had all been for naught.
Being the economic mind that he was, however, Deng refused to let such a significant – and costly – project simply crumble into obscurity beneath the streets of China. Through the Office of Civil Defense, the country began an initiative to commercialize the abandoned bunkers.
Sim Chi Yin
Over the next two decades, laborers transformed Mao’s defunct tunnel system into a network of underground cities, the largest of which formed beneath the sprawling Chinese capital of Beijing. Complete with supermarkets, schools, clinics, and even karate dojos, this project represented another leap forward for China’s expanding economy.
But even after these spaces were repurposed, the Chinese government continued to push forward with their subterranean efforts by mandating that all new buildings have underground defense shelters that could double as a source of income. And so, in addition to stores and clinics, these bunkers became homes.
Today, over 1 million people live below the streets of Beijing, clustered in small communities that range from a few dozen to over a hundred individuals strong. Residents of this underground city are known as the shuzu, or, more commonly, “the rat tribe”.
Scott Sherrill-Mix / Flickr
This peculiar society is mostly made up of young migrants from the countryside who arrived in search of affordable housing in Beijing. And with an average rent of 400 yuan a month – roughly $58 – for one of these rooms, they’re sure getting what they’re paying for.
Each windowless room is typically between 40 to 100 square feet, just big enough to fit a small bed and a dresser or two. Some aren’t so lucky, as there are those that can only afford to stay in rooms that are shared by up to a dozen other people.
Singapore Home Decor
As far as amenities go, a single communal bathroom serves as a dumping point for personal bedpans, and at 50 cents a pop, one can help themselves to a lukewarm, five-minute shower. But despite the poor living conditions, some residents see their situation as motivation.
“Many of my colleagues live above ground, but I think it’s too comfortable,” said Wei Kun, an insurance salesman who shares his 300-square-foot apartment with nine other men. “This place forces me to work harder.”
But even so, a tremendous amount of stigma still surrounds those that call themselves members of “the rat tribe.” Some individuals won’t even tell their families where they’re living out of fear of judgment.
“When my father came to visit me he cried when he saw where I lived,” aspiring actor Zhang Xi recalled. “He said, ‘Son, this won’t do.'” Unfortunately, the Chinese government’s stance on the issue has only grown increasingly mixed as the years have gone on…
Though city officials have expressed concern over the safety risks involved with underground living, most have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice. With overcrowding becoming a growing problem in Beijing, there’s really no other place for these individuals to go.
“We never allowed residential use of air-raid shelters,” said Xu Jinbao, office director of the Beijing Municipal Civil Defense Office. “But as time went by Beijing became so populous that people started to cram in underground.”
Despite the hardship and controversy surrounding “the rat tribe,” it appears that they’re making the most of the situation while keeping their eyes set on what lies ahead. For these individuals, life underground is not a product of hard times, but rather a calculated sacrifice for the future.
“I found a lot of people still hope one day to buy a house, or at least to live above ground,” sociologist Li Junfu observed while studying underground housing at the Beijing University of Technology. “They have a positive spirit.”
Check out the video below to learn more about “the rat tribe” and their remarkable lives beneath the streets of Beijing.