Opulence goes low: China opens luxury hotel in quarry

The swanky 336-room InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland – part of a $288 million development that also includes a theme park – was built in a disused quarry. (AFP)
Updated 15 November 2018
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Opulence goes low: China opens luxury hotel in quarry

  • The subterranean 17-floor hotel is about an hour’s drive from the center of Shanghai,
  • ‘It’s a project that’s completely new, a project we have never encountered before’

SHANGHAI: A hotel development sunk into a disused quarry in China opened its doors Thursday to deep-pocketed clientele.
Preventing the 88-meter-deep (290 feet) pit from flooding was among the chief challenges for engineers working on the swanky 336-room InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland — part of a $288 million development that also includes a theme park.
The hotel, which is one of a growing number of bold architectural designs springing up in China, hugs one side of the pit wall, with a waterfall cascading down the opposite face.
The subterranean 17-floor hotel is about an hour’s drive from the center of Shanghai, with room charges starting at 3,394 yuan ($490) a night.
There is a floor of suites below the water level, but don’t expect to gaze directly into the depths of Shenkeng Quarry — the windows are instead buffered by large fish tanks.
“Why do we say there is nothing in the world that compares to the quarry hotel project?” Chen Xiaoxiang, chief engineer with the real estate giant, Shimao Property, said.
“It’s a project that’s completely new, a project we have never encountered before.
“There were no references, cases or experience we could learn from to solve all the difficulties,” he said.
That meant engineers were met with unexpected problems.
Before construction started in 2013, for example, heavy rainfall caused a nearby river to overflow into the quarry, filling half of it.
“If something like that had happened after construction was complete, it would have been a devastating blow,” Chen said.
Designers built an embankment around the edge of the pit to prevent that happening in future, when hundreds of well-heeled guests are sipping cocktails on the deck far below.
A pump house is used to help regulate water levels.
The waterfall is one of the development’s most eye-catching features. Adventurous guests can also indulge in rock climbing.
The project’s masterminds talk up its environmental bona fides, saying abandoned quarries often become landfills.
“This was a totally unique idea, to really do something special with a site that was forgotten and nobody knew what to do with, and to give it new life,” said Martin Jochman, a British architect with the project since it started 12 years ago.
“I never lost my belief that it would be done one day, but it is here now, and I am really excited and amazed by the whole thing,” he said.
China’s rapid economic growth has been accompanied by a construction boom that often throws up outlandish designs.
The Beijing headquarters of state broadcaster China Central Television has been nicknamed “The Big Underpants” because it resembles a giant pelvis.
A skyscraper built this year in southwestern China features a 108-meter waterfall tumbling down one side.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.