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There's Actually A Whole Civilization Of 'Mole People' Living Beneath Las Vegas

The term "Mole People" conjures up a lot of urban legend style ideas — but it shouldn’t! Underneath the brightly lit Las Vegas Strip, there’s a not so secret society that’s existed for decades. And according to journalist Matthew O’Brien, who researched the area for 12 years, the tunnels “can be quiet and almost boring for 90 percent of the time then the other 10 percent is chaos.”

Taking To The Tunnels

It all started back in the 1990s when a series of flood tunnels were built beneath the city of Las Vegas. No one knows for sure when people first began to move in, though. Like New York City's subway system, they provided an accessible shelter from the elements.

Las Vegas Review Journal / @Left_Eye_Images

The Entrance

Tunnel entrances look like any regular overpass. Take a few steps inside, however, and you’ll find a massive network of tunnels that, according to the Clark County Regional Flood Control District, stretches 300 miles underground. This network attracts people for a number of reasons.

Business Insider / Jacob Kepler/Bild am Sonntag

Who's Down There?

For many, the reality of living in the tunnels is that there isn’t another option. Homelessness affects many for all sorts of reasons, from lack of access to mental health resources, poverty, job loss, addiction, and beyond. But in the tunnels, there’s shelter —and a lot more.

Business Insider / Jacob Kepler/Bild am Sonntag

Be Prepared

There are also those who choose to live house-less lives, travelers who stop and stay in the tunnel briefly. To go inside, you need to be prepared for a society that functions differently. As some residents say, sometimes you can't even tell whether it's night or day.

Vice / Harmon Leon

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

"Sometimes, when our clock says six o'clock, you don't know whether it's...morning or in the evening," said Shay, a 53-year-old woman who calls the tunnels home. "If some light comes in at the end of the tunnel, we know: It's daytime." It's no wonder some view their lives underground as exile.

via The Travel

Life Of Exile

As Anthony, who took to the tunnels after getting released from prison, said to Business Insider, "This is how society treats us: They want us to be invisible — but we are here, we want to be seen. Our story must be heard." So how does it look inside?

Vice / Harmon Leon

More Permanent Setups

Some manage to set up rather comfortable spaces in tunnels, with full-size furniture, usually a mark of a person who's settled there for years. Having so many permanent fixtures does pose a major complication, though, in the event of a sudden rainstorm.

via The Sun

Worst Fear

The tunnels were built after a 1975 flood devastated Las Vegas, and while rainfall isn’t very common, it’s understandably the biggest fear for the people who live underground. Their homes are literally flood tunnels, so on the rare instance of heavy desert rain, they must flee.

Las Vegas Review Journal / Clark County

Flood Deaths

That fear is justified. On more than one occasion, people have died as a result of tunnel floods. As recently as 2017, several people drowned within minutes when water poured into their homes and swept them away in the current. Of course, there are more common threats to livelihoods in the tunnels.

via Business Insider

Emergency Situations

Overdoses aren’t uncommon in the tunnels, which poses a real logistical problem. It can take Emergency Service personnel a while to locate endangered people within. Another grim reality is that sometimes tunnel residents delay calling the authorities out of fear for their own arrest.

Las Vegas Review Journal / @Left_Eye_Images

Crime Hub

Owing to their isolated nature, the underground tunnels are a hotbed for illegal activity. As one resident named Angell explained, “There are no cameras here and I've even heard of murders.” This has unintended consequences.

Business Insider / Jacob Kepler / Bild am Sonntag

Abrupt Displacement

Due to concerns about crime in neighbors near tunnel entrances, police presence has increased in the tunnel, which can dramatically disrupt the lives of its residents. The homeless are forced to leave all their possessions behind and vacate immediately.

Las Vegas Review Journal / Jason Bean

No Plumbing

There’s no plumbing in the tunnels, which Angell claimed was the most difficult part of her underground home. Still, some residents have gotten creative. A woman named Rusty and her husband use a whirlpool as a standing bath.

via ABC News

Home To Thousands

It’s estimated that some 2,000 people currently live in the underground flood tunnel system. As a man name Craig told The Sun, “I wouldn’t want to be homeless anywhere else. We’re out of sight out of mind here in Vegas.”

YouTube / Wade Patterson

Covered In Art

Given its size, the system has attracted much attention from television shows to news crews, as well as hundreds of graffiti artists who leave mesmerizing murals. However, it's not recommended to visit as any sort of attraction. The tunnels are considered one of the most dangerous spots in Las Vegas.

via Place Hacking Blog

Casino Neighbors

Conveniently located right by some of the best casinos in the world, some tunnel residents have worked out ways to benefit from that proximity. A man named Stephen explained how he cruises the casinos for abandoned chips which, on his best day, resulted in a $997 haul.

YouTube / Invisible People

Shine A Light

Meanwhile, Matthew O’Brien, the journalist who spent 12 years visiting and conducting interviews inside the flood tunnels to write his book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, founded the Shine a Light Foundation that offers a variety of services its residents.

Las Vegas Review Journal / @Left_Eye_Images

Will Remain Open

While the city continues to work on housing and other solutions to help the homeless, the tunnels will continue to remain a shelter for those who have lived there for decades. There’s no shortage of space and won’t be in the foreseeable future.

via Las Vegas Journal Review

Under Construction

Just like pretty much every single city infrastructure project in history, the tunnel construction is still ongoing! Yep, the Las Vegas Flood Control District is still working to expand its massively wide tunnel system, built to carry millions of gallons of rushing rainwater to Lake Mead.

via Heavy Equipment Rentals

Beneath The Desert

The Mole People of Las Vegas draw frequent comparisons to the residents of Coober Pedy, Australia. Sleeping next to worms and surviving off artificial lights, these underground dwellers live out their lives in a situation that would be nightmarish to most people—but the even stranger part is why.

Business Insider / Jacob Kepler/Bild am Sonntag

A Trove Of Jewels

This small Australian village is known for its abundance of opals, a beautiful (not to mention quite valuable) iridescent gemstone said to signify love and passion. Coober Pedy is so chocked full of them it's even been dubbed the "Opal Capital of the World."

YouTube - Austin Moore

Life Before The Caves

In a land lush with precious stones, the Aboriginal people lived off native crops, built thriving communities, and, quite notably, were not living underground. The 20th century brought changes.

Adventure Tours

The First Discovery

The town’s name wasn’t even officially established until the first outsiders arrived. It was only when Willie Hutchinson first discovered an opal there that other miners began moving to the area in droves.


Opening The Floodgates

After that, the floodgates opened. By 1916, foreign miners were flocking to the area, hoping to get their hands on some money-making stones. And pretty soon, these outsiders started to get some pretty sick ideas in their heads.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Finding Ways To Adapt

The European venturists, unused to the harsh conditions (read: constant heat) of the village, soon realized that if they wanted to make their opal money, they'd need to find a way to survive in the town without dying of a heat stroke. That’s when they hatched their plan.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Leaving Their Mark

First, as colonizers often do, they had to give the area a name they could actually pronounce. They settled on Coober Pedy, after the aboriginal term kupa-piti, which roughly translates to "boy's waterhole." There was a second name the miners didn't like so much.

Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Only The Beginning

A local joke is that Coober Pedy sounds similar to white man in a hole. Because what did these settlers do when they realized their fragile temperaments couldn't take the heat? They dug underground tunnels, of course. But this was only the beginning.

The Tunnels Expand

After several miners began this undertaking, scores of others followed suit. Over the course of a few years, more and more "buildings" were constructed underground, until there was more infrastructure hidden below the surface than was visible from on land.

Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

An Underground City

So far, there are an astounding three churches, an art gallery, a bar, and even hotels hiding below the surface of what from atop may look to outsiders simply like a desert wasteland. And it’s not just single men who live there, either. ..

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Childhood Below The Surface

Here, 12-year-old James Tappin is casually resting in his subterranean bedroom. You almost wouldn't notice something was off about the space if it weren't for the rock walls. Outside his bedroom, the town offered plenty to do.

Photo by James Pozarik/Getty Images

Getting Crafty

Even people who live their lives underground have to find creative ways to have fun, and the residents of Coober Pedy have come up with a particularly interesting pastime...

Atlas Obscura

Golf With A Twist

Of course, it's too hot during the day to do much outside (hence the caves) and so most extracurriculars take place under the shade of night. This includes golf, but with a special twist: all the balls glow in the dark.

YouTube - Slinging Birdies

The Resourcefulness Continues

As you may imagine, the extreme temperatures aren’t very conducive to plant life, so they’ve also had to find out-of-the-box ways to add some greenery to things. Honestly, their resourcefulness is impressive.


A Tree...Kind Of

Instead of your typical shrubbery, the people who live in this village have constructed a tree made entirely out of metal. It's quite the sight. Even so, while they’ve done their best to make the area their home, there are still some serious dangers to watch out for.

Sarah Healy - Medium

A Hazardous Landscape

All around the area are scores of random holes dug into the ground by would-be prospectors hoping to get their hands on a valuable opal. These can be serious tripping hazards for those who visit — especially if you plan on partaking in a friendly game of glow-in-the-dark golf.

Active Dark

The Strange Appeal

The village does its best to appeal to visitors, if only as a fun attraction to see once in a lifetime. There are even opals engraved into the walls of hotel rooms, highlighting the fact that the town offers the majority of the planet’s supply.

Atlas Obscura

Oddities Abound

Other oddities to check out if you ever step foot in Coober Pedy include Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest, or the Coober Pedy Drive-In. Sounds cool right? But it’s not so easy to make the trip...

Trip Bucket

Not So Simple Directions

There are several options if you want to make your way to the Australian town. You can either fly into a small airstrip, go via bus on a coach tour, drive in a private car, or, finally, by the Ghan railway line.

Travel Online

'A Location Scout's Dream'

Because of its bizarre, pseudo-dystopian nature, it’s no wonder that Coober Pedy is a Hollywood location scouts dream. The town has been featured in multiple blockbusters including "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," "Pitch Black," and "Red Planet."

George Miller- Mad Max: The Wasteland

The Second City

Most Cooper Pedy tourists are surprised to learn about another town that's completely underground, though this one can't be found in Australia and opals weren't the cause of these peoples' flight.

Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Cold War

During the height of the Cold War, the world's preeminent communist powers – the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union – were 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.

CBS News

Down Below

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.

The Beijinger

Great Potential

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.

For Nothing?

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.

Daily Maverick

No Waste

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.

Foreign Affairs


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.

Al Jazeera

Growing Populations

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

The Rat Tribe

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.

Lara Visual


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

Communcal Bathrooms

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.


Its Own Comfort

"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.

"He Cried"

"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...

Al Jazeera

Possible Safety Risks

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."


Making the Most

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.

Foreign Affairs

"Positive Spirit"

"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.”

Al Jazeera

Unconventional Living

As unconventional as living underground is, it is not the only unusual home to have. The place people choose to settle down is very personal, and because everyone is different, so too are the homes. And some folks are definitely more eclectic than others...

1. Live in the clouds with this airplane house: This house, located in Abuja, Nigeria, was built by Said Jammal as a gift for his wife, Liza, to commemorate their love of travel.

2. The Heliodome is a bio-climatic solar house located in Strasbourg, France. It takes advantage of the Earth's journey around the Sun by utilizing the seasons: In the summer the house provides shade that keeps the house cool, while in the winter, the sun peers in the windows to provide natural warmth.

3. Through the use of bamboo, plastic bags and bed sheets, Liu Lingchao, 38, constructed this 5' wide, 6.5' high mobile domicile. The 132-pound structure was designed by Lingchao in order to be transported with him as he walked nearly 462 miles back to his hometown.

4. Good thing that ring buoy is there! This house can be found on a lone rock on the Drina River, close to the Serbian town of Bajina Basta. It was built in 1968 as a tiny shelter.

5. The Ewok Village: This treehouse is available for rent through the Natura Cobana in southwestern France.

6. The Pot People: These cylindrical homes are located in Socuellamos, Spain, and are "made from old wine vats." The residents are mostly ethnic Turks who have come to the central Spanish area to pick grapes.

7. Rooftop Rocks! This rooftop villa, found in Beijing, was constructed with fake rocks on top of an apartment building - but the structure was illegal and was demolished in 15 days.

8. Transformer House: Back to China, this house was built on top of a factory in the Dongguan province. Word has it that the government has also deemed it to be illegal.

9. Entrance to Goron Mountain: Benito Hernandez is the owner of this house in northern Mexico. The house has been the home of Hernandez's family for over 30 years.

10. Crocodile Rock: Theirry Atta built this home in Ivory Coast's capital. Atta was the apprentice of an artist, Moussa Kalo, with whom he began designing the house before Kalo's death.

11. Let me just squeeeeze in here. This house was installed as an art piece in Warsaw, Poland by Israeli writer, Edgar Keret. The home - that is only 36 inches wide at it's narrowest point - was designed as a memorial to Keret's family, who died in the Holocaust.

12. That's a lot of books. Gary Chang is an architect in Hong Kong who redesigned this 330-square-foot apartment into a custom home after 3 decades of living inside it's boxy walls.

13. I don't want to know how you go to the bathroom in this thing. This upside-down house was built in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk as a local attraction. The home's rooms are also upside down.

14. Gernonimo! The "Rock" is the home of 15 fundamentalist Mormons. It was founded 35 years ago in a formation near Canyonlands National Park.

15. That's a cold shower. This house was built entirely of ice as a promotion for a German Bank. Every part of the house is either ice or encased in ice.

16. Dome-iciles: These domes were built by US-based 'Domes for the World' for villagers who lost their homes in an earthquake in Yogyakartam, Indonesia.



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