We broke into an abandoned film lot with an urban explorer

Beijing's stealthiest explorer shows us the urbexing tricks of the trade

On paper, breaking and entering into dark, deserted asbestos-ridden buildings doesn’t sound like the most attractive way to spend an afternoon. If the reliable lessons of Hollywood have taught us anything, it’s that there’s probably some sort of villain lying in wait in the dingy depths of dereliction.

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and for the urban explorers of the world – or urbexers, for short – every abandoned manmade structure is an opportunity for adventure. And boy, does China have a few of them lying around.

Since first coming to China in the early 2000s – around the same time urbex really began to take off around the world – Brin C has slinked his way into abandoned malls and hospitals, disused steel plants, haunted houses and more, and began documenting his stealthy exploits on the website Burbex.org in 2013.

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Keen to learn about the method in the mischief, we went with Brin to the Beijing Film Academy, the disused studios and backlot of the China Film Group Corporation, which called it a wrap in 2012 after nearly half a century in action.

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We wouldn’t usually be taken to trusting someone with such a talent for break-ins, but Brin had us convinced within minutes. Ignoring the curious glare of an elderly woman, all it took was a persuasive push on the door – a ten-foot replica of an imperial gate – and we slid our way into the studios with ease.

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The main strip of the lot is a mishmash parade of Chinese architectural styles, though its years of neglect have given it more of a John Wayne Western frontier town vibe. Avoiding the watchful gaze of the security cowboys, we wade through chest-high growth, ending up in a graveyard for fibreglass warriors and polystyrene buddhas.

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Fantasies of taking one to guard our front door pop up, but Brin is quick to fill us in on the urbexer’s code: ‘There’s an unwritten rule about not pinching anything from sites – “Take nothing but photos”,’ he says. ‘But, you know, it’s unwritten.’ Such urges are really put to the test when we get to the studio’s make-up department, a dusty corridor strewn with weathered prosthetics, wigs, gimp masks and mannequins.

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It’s good to know that an activity that finds itself firmly on the wrong side of the law sets a few ground rules, and Brin is keen to respect them: ‘You’re not really meant to tell anyone where a site is, but you can take them round. And, generally, try not to leave any trace.’ We tiptoe on.

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In a potentially damning reflection of the city’s security, Brin’s had more run-ins with stray dogs than guards, though he’s found stiff opposition when trying to bust his way into Beijing’s infamous underground tunnels, the elusive holy grail for the city’s urbexers. ‘One time, I made it right up to one of the entrances, but some guard snuck up and started t**tting me with a big red baton,’ he recalls. Fortunately, we encounter no such t**tting at the Film Academy.

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Brin saves the best till last. Grand red doors sprawled with communist artwork have been jammed open, revealing a cavernous disused studio. It’s at least 60 foot tall and the length and width of a football pitch. You could park a jumbo jet or two in there. Several inches of Beijing dust has collected on the ground, and heaps of assorted rubble are scattered all around, so it’s hard to imagine a time when it was the set for many classics of Chinese cinema, including Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine.

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In terms of spaces to kick back and chill out in, its rough-around-the-edges decor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we’re really starting to see why Brin enjoys his escapes so much: in a city as crowded and boisterous as Beijing, the soundproofed hangar is easily the quietest place we’ve been in the city. Brin’s mind, however, wanders to slightly noisier pursuits: ‘If you cleared up the floor a little, you could have a f**king banging warehouse rave in here,’ he says.

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Pointing his torch towards the eight flights of metal stairs that limply hug the damp-looking walls, Brin seems to be indicating our next destination. Other than an absolute savaging by a mosquito in the humid overgrowth of the backlot, we’ve done a good job of dodging injury so far, but the stairway to the heavens looks more like our highway to hell. Brin knows what he’s doing, but surely he’s seen a few serious injuries in his time? ‘I ruined a pair of trainers,’ he laments. ‘Nike Airs. Rusty nail went right through them. I was gutted.’

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Besides the odd scrape, bruise and sole-destroying experience, his only life-changing injury to date is a smashed iPhone screen. Some would call it a charmed life – nine lives even – but the more time we spend with him, the more we realise Brin is essentially a human cat: stealthy and light-footed. Good hearing. Creeps around in the dark undetected.

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‘I’m safe,’ Brin reassures us. ‘I take it slow and don’t do anything crazy.’ Of course, we’re inclined to disagree when he recalls his first visit here, when he ran across rickety old lighting rigs suspended 60 feet up in the heavens of the studio (pictured above). ‘The rusty old metal was creaking below my feet. I thought I was gonna have to pull off some kind of Indiana Jones falling bridge stunt.’ It’s the only off-limits section of our tour.

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We finish up on the roof of the studios, taking in a panorama of the whole site and the smoggy Beijing skyline beyond. The overgrown lot and rickety buildings seem just a little out of place among the crowds of high-rise apartment blocks and modern developments, but it’s these slices of dwindling history tucked away in the urban jungle that keep Brin searching for more: ‘It’s a city of contradictions,’ he reflects. 'That’s what I love about it, and it’s what makes urbex in Beijing so exciting.’

There are obvious risks associated with urban exploration; Time Out and Burbex take no responsibility for any of your injuries, infractions or idiocy. If you're looking to get your dereliction fix, but don't fancy busting your way in, sneaking past security or having to avoid packs of rabid dogs, check out these risk-free, look-but-don't-touch sites.

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Modelled on the picture-postcard Swiss town of Interlaken, this garish parade of Alpine buildings sticks out like a sore thumb on a riverside just south of the CBD. Building began back in 2007 with grand ambitions of becoming a bar and restaurant street to rival the city’s most sinful, but the site never opened to the public.

‘This has to be one of the most eccentric urbex locations in the city,’ Brin says. This shunned slice of Europe is now cordoned off by an easily penetrable green fence, but the law-abiding citizen can still get up close for a gander without having to bust in.

Subway Dawanglu (lines 1 & 14)

Shuangquanbaocun

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Signs bearing the ominous 拆 (chai, to demolish) are pasted throughout this Haidian neighbourhood, which was vacated and razed to the ground last year to make way for new developments. Its near 100 acres have yet to be cleared though, and skeletons of deserted kindergartens, shops and medical centres still stand among rubble piles that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Subway Beishatan (Line 15)

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