I wasn’t sure what to expect when a Chinese cab dropped me off at a Soviet aircraft carrier. What I got was a weird reflection on the fears of a past life.
Let’s back up a bit and set the scene properly. It’s early April in Shenzhen, a Chinese city famous for manufacturing various kinds of computers and discount electronics. Your iPhone was probably made here. Well, not “here” exactly. I don’t think the Shangri-La Hotel has a factory. However, if you end up staying here, I highly recommend the breakfast buffet.
Anyway, it’s the Friday after a very hectic trade show. I kept today open in case I needed to meet with my customers or coworkers. The customers need to catch up on work, and my co-workers ran for the airport … so here I am. I’m scheduled to fly out of Hong Kong Saturday afternoon, so I can take my time getting across the border. I have a few hours to kill, but I don’t want to spend it my hotel room or the electronics market. I’d love to explore the local markets, but not today. That feels too much like work. I need to see another part of Shenzhen. There has to be more to this city than comfortable hotels, conference rooms, electronics markets and expat beer gardens.
This lead to a few web searches, which lead to a pantomime with a cab driver, which lead to Minsk World. Yes, Minsk World … a Chinese owned tourist attraction, built around the rusting contents of a Soviet-era aircraft carrier. Some of the online reviews made me doubt my 130 RMB (~$20) would be well spent on decaying military surplus, but it seemed like an opportunity to fill a memory card with photos. Also, if the comments on rust were true, I need to see this odd Shenzhen attraction before it sinks.
Spoiler Alert: I got more than I bargained for. Exploring Russia’s past was an odd way to reflect on my own.
Flash back, if you can, to the 1980’s in North Carolina. I’m riding in the first class car of the nerd train. Star Wars: check. G.I. Joe: check. NASA Fan: check and mate. I live within 15 minutes of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, chock full of the jets astronauts fly on their way to becoming astronauts. My dad was in the Marine Air Command Squadron in Vietnam. My grandfather was career Navy, where some of their best pilots went on to become some of the best astronauts … plus he went to the Naval Academy with Seymour Johnson.
I didn’t go into the military, or pursue a path to space, but it was the constant background noise of my childhood. So was the Cold War.
Seymour Johnson AFB was SAC base back in the day. Goldsboro was home to the 68th Bomb Wing, a large number of B-52’s focused on “strategic deterrence and nuclear alert roles” … tl;dr: they had nukes. This made my hometown a prime target if the evening news started to look a bit too much like The Day After or Red Dawn (the Swayze one, not that Chris Hemsworth nonsense). No point hiding under 1950’s school desks, we lived at ground zero.
Flash forward to April 2015. I’m standing in front of the military hardware from my childhood’s atomic fears, eating an ice cream bar. When did the sum of all fears get a gift shop?
My day on the Minsk wasn’t traumatic, it was surreal. Here lies the military might a decaying empire couldn’t afford to maintain, auctioned off, sold off again in bankruptcy and parked off the coast of one of China’s fastest growing cities as an oddly commercial tribute to a communist empire. Minsk World feels like urban exploration, full of disused control panels and poorly maintained aircraft … the $20 ticket price just adds patriotic muzak, gift shops, carnival games and an entertainment complex. I didn’t stick around for the stage show.
Minsk World is definitely an odd attraction, but I found it utterly fascinating. It’s everything I love about urban exploration, combined with a world that few people from the West ever get to see. Everyone will have a different perspective, based on their opinions and biases of the Soviet Union.
For me it’s a reflection of past empires, watching one rust away while another is built in the background. Communism isn’t dead, but it definitely doesn’t look healthy while you’re standing in the gift shop.