This photo taken on December 11, 2012 shows farmer Liu Qiyuan looking out from a survival pod that he built and also dubbed 'Noah's Arc', in the village of Qiantun, Hebei province, south of Beijing.
AFP Photo/Ed Jones

by Tom Hancock

In China, every apocalypse is a business opportunity.

About an hour's drive southeast from Beijing, there is a sleepy cluster of villages known as Qiantun. Most visitors head to a factory where Qiantun's villagers make wooden tables for export to Europe and the United States. But I went to Qiantun see some less pedestrian products. 

A trickle of local newspaper reports said that a farmer named Liu Qiyuan had built several "Noah's Arks," which would allow humanity to survive an apocalypse, which some in China say is due for the 21 of December.

I spoke to Liu down a crackly phone line, and with two weeks to go before the world's end, he sounded busy. "Come tomorrow morning, early as you can," he'd told me, and so I arrived at Liu's farm with two colleagues the next day, unsure what to expect.

The first indication that this self-styled Noah was serious came when we turned a corner onto Liu's farm cum workshop, and came face to face with a huge sand-colored ball several meters wide. But little prepared us for the visual feast to follow. Arriving at the center of Liu's workshop, four more spherical pods loomed into view, one painted in camouflage with the words "Noah's ark," written in proud Chinese characters on the side. Around the pods, a team of assistants hammered, drilled and sanded under Liu's instructions.

Our driver had barely pulled up next to one of the spherical monoliths before the middle-aged Liu darted forward to greet us, decked out in a jacket the same camouflage pattern as his flagship ark, wearing a broad grin.

As electric saws buzzed in the background, Liu – like the accomplished furniture salesman he once was – pointed out the key selling points of the arks, which have dominated his waking hours for the past eight months. His pitch came with a heavy emphasis on numerals. Thirty people could survive in the pods one or two months, Liu assured us, so long as they took on board two tons of water and one pound of food per person per day.

Less prominent in Liu's pitch was the Mayan apocalypse.

This photo taken on December 11, 2012 shows farmer Liu Qiyuan looking out from a survival pod that he built and also dubbed 'Noah's Arc', in the village of Qiantun, Hebei province, south of Beijing.
AFP Photo/Ed Jones

“When I started the design, I wasn't thinking about the apocalypse, I was thinking about sea accidents,” he insisted.

It turned out that Liu's apocalyptic imaginings were more fuelled by his memories of watching the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on television than any Mayan-prophecies, although the Hollywood film 2012 – critically panned abroad but a surprise hit in China – was an influence.

Liu has a reputation as one of the hottest furniture makers (and salesmen) in Qiantun, with locals saying he had a "Midas touch" for business.

But not content with selling tables and desks to middle class Beijingers and foreign furniture dealers, Liu has set his sights on the ultimate prestige client: the Chinese government. "If only the Maritime department took notice and started moving the pods into the sea, then they might never have sea disasters again. They would make history." 

Just then one ark came loose from its moorings, rolling threateningly close as we scrambled to get out of the way before Liu's assistants bought the orb under control. But the frisson of terror was soon forgotten as Liu invited us inside one of the pods, which he had decorated with flowery wallpaper.

His daughter, fresh from high school and wearing a puffy, black sports coat, fingerless gloves which decorated with teddy bears, had been quietly filming our interview on a digital camera, clambered inside as well, while Liu strapped himself onto a bench and maneuvered a sliding table into view.

Hungry to see the apocalypse-proof pods in action, we secured ourselves inside another, more sparsely decorated model, which his assistants tried unsuccessfully to roll from the outside, producing some fairly underwhelming shaking. 

An unperturbed Liu showed off his air-tight pod's sealed double doors before announcing a more audacious test: he would ask one of his assistants to bash a pod with a truck while he strapped himself inside. Like a Chinese astronaut before lift off, Liu waved solemnly to the assembled crowd before disappearing inside a hatch, calling his assistant on a mobile phone from inside the pod to announce that he was ready. 

The ensuing pick-up truck bump barely registered inside the pod, he said later.

Traipsing back to his warehouse, where assistants hammered steel frames of yet-to-be completed pods into place, Liu confessed that he was worried about paying back the loans he'd taken from neighbors. So far, he had failed to register a single sale.

While Liu posed for some pod portraits, his daughter talked glowingly about the role she played at the workshop, supervising pod construction along with her father. "My dad promised to build me a spherical house since I was small, and I support him by giving suggestions," she said.

As we waved goodbye to Liu, it occurred to me that his pods were less a product of doomsday predictions than an expression of humanitarian idealism, business acumen, deluded grandiosity and a father's relationship with his daughter. 

But worries about the Mayan apocalypse have already brought Liu international attention. And if they end up boosting business, Liu, and his creditors in Qiantun, are unlikely to complain.