Known, if at all, as the most notorious of China’s modern ghost towns, Kangbashi (formally Kangbashi New Area of Inner Mongolia’s Ordos city) is something of a peculiar place and somewhat difficult to describe. But that’s not to say that the young district is still deserving of the infamous status that has stuck with it since being named and shamed five years ago by Aljazeera and subsequently all major international media outlets.
Nearly 50,000 people now call Kangbashi home, according to the official count released earlier this year. Though the population comprises just 5 percent of the 1 million people Kangbashi was originally said to be planned for, residents here contribute to a regular hub of activity in the centre of town as they go about their daily lives, defying the definition of a true ghost town.
Perhaps best likened to where a nondescript Chinese city meets Ashgabat, the notably strange capital of Turkmenistan, Kangbashi shares a few oddities with the little-known Central Asian city, including public buildings infused with monumentalist vision and a smattering of statues that are both kitschy and representative of local traditions.
Guarded by giant fighting horse sculptures, the Ordos government’s new home is not far from Kangbashi’s “high street” made up of a cluster of projects offering mass market-oriented brands. Largely ignoring the low-end fashion on offer here, locals mostly come to eat, not shop. Shopping is generally reserved for Ordos’ more developed Dongsheng district some 25 kilometres away, or increasingly, like elsewhere in China, online.
Anchored by a McDonald’s that serves as the only obvious international chain around town, Kangbashi Food Plaza offers a surprising amount of F&B options, including Chinese fast-food chain Dicos; it competes with the Golden Arches near the building’s main entrance. Inside, a food court offers tasty cuisines and sugary fruit drinks. It is calm, but happening here. Affordable meals do well to bring modest crowds out, particularly on weekends. The nearby Jin Chen International Shopping Center also draws customers with a Suning store, simple electronics market, and small nail salon.
Still, relative to the progress of new towns across China, Kangbashi is not extraordinary and continues to exude qualities unmistakably associated with a city in the early stages of development: the (perhaps unsurprisingly) misspelt Ordos Huneng Shoping Mall has very high vacancy; and unlike the curious daytime, night-time in Kangbashi can be rather haunting. Endless rows of visibly vacant apartment towers are disturbingly easy to spot in the town’s would-be flourishing residential neighbourhoods, where a limited number of vehicles sit in unfilled car parks beside massive housing blocks showing few lit windows after dark.
Widely criticized for the hubristic scale of its development, Kangbashi is often mocked for its master plan which has led to the town’s oversized roads and a ubiquity of barely occupied residential projects. Yet at the core of this so-called ghost town, there is life – and enough to support a viable, if weak, commercial centre. Considering it all, even Kangbashi’s remarkably bizarre existence, it is no longer fair or accurate to call Kangbashi a ghost town.
About the author
Based in Beijing, Linda Yu is a Senior Analyst with JLL’s China research team.