Tibetan horsemen drive their sheep among rusting rail lines and overgrown bunkers in this arid part of China where, during the Cold War, determined scientists developed Asia's first nuclear bomb.
\nWhen China shocked the world with the appearance of a mushroom cloud over the Lop Nur salt lake on Oct. 16, 1964 -- 40 years ago yesterday -- it was the fruit of arduous work at "Nuclear City" in northwestern Qinghai Province.
\n"No ordinary people were allowed anywhere near this place," said Zhou Hongying, a woman who settled down among the vacated laboratories and dormitory buildings in Haibei prefecture after the researchers left a decade ago.
\n"It was a restricted zone where only people with military authorization had access," she said.
\nOnce a bustling community of 30,000 scientists, soldiers and, initially, Soviet advisers, all that is now left of State Plant No. 221 -- the facility's official name -- is empty factory buildings and decrepit apartment blocks.
\nBut four decades ago its capacity for arming China with weapons of mass destruction was considered such a threat that successive US administrations contemplated targeting it in pre-emptive strikes even if it meant starting World War III.
\nIt was Communist strongman Mao Zedong (
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