Xianghe, China - Apocalypse now? For many Chinese and other doomsayers, the end of the world is indeed nigh.
Global armageddon could be caused when a mysterious planet called Nibiru slams into Earth, or by a massive barrage of solar flares, they say. Some fear an extraterrestrial invasion will spell the end on December 21.
Whatever the cause, thanks to thousands of doomsday websites and an ancient Mayan calendar, many people around the world believe human existence comes screeching to a halt this Friday.
In China, this theory is held by about 20 per cent of the population, according to an Ipsos poll, only behind the United States and Turkey, both at 22 per cent.
While amusing to many, the belief and rumours about our impending demise are not necessarily a laughing matter. A knife-wielding attacker who slashed 23 Chinese children last week told police he did so after hearing end-of-the-world rumours.
"I feel like something is going to happen and it would give a heavy blow to the world. You may think it is a joke, but for me it's better to be prepared."
- Chen Hao, doomsayer
China's government also has taken the issue seriously. Authorities have arrested more than 450 people for spreading rumours about the imminent apocalypse, according to China Central Television's website.
The American space agency NASA, meanwhile, has also taken the apocalyptic rumours serious enough to launch a webpage to refute them.
Building tsunami survival pods
Like other countries around the world, the imminent apocalypse is heavily trending online in China. The widely popular micro-blogging website Sina Weibo has more than 12 million comments containing the phrase "2012 End of the World".
Chinese around the country have been wiping store shelves clean of candles and other supplies, amid widespread rumours that three days of total darkness will commence on December 21.
Liu Qiyuan from Xianghe in central Hebei province never thought he'd receive the attention he has at the moment. The 45-year-old former furniture-maker now builds "survival pods" - each with the capacity to hold 14 people - that can safely navigate tsunami waves 1,000-metres high, Liu says.
For each of the six pods completed, Liu has spent 300,000 yuan (US$48,000) in materials and labour. He and his team put fibreglass casing over a steel frame, while inside the pods are supplied with oxygen, food and water - enough to last several days.
"It's like a ping pong ball. Its skin may be thin, but it can withstand a lot of pressure," says Liu in an interview with Al Jazeera.
It is for people such as 65-year-old Zhao Lanying that Liu is working feverishly.
|Liu Qiyuan in his survival pod [Rita Alvarez Tudela/Al Jazeera]
"I heard everybody was talking about it, so I just decided to buy 10 boxes of matches to be prepared for when the end of the world comes on Friday," Zhao tells Al Jazeera from Shanghai.
Chen Hao, a 34 year-old computer technician, has been preparing for doomsday for years. He's gone so far as to prepare a cave in northeast China for when the time comes.
"I feel like something is going to happen and it would give a heavy blow to the world," says Chen. "You may think it is a joke, but for me it's better to be prepared."
Not everybody in China is getting ready for catastrophe. Master Yancan, a popular abbot at the Buddhist Shuiyue Temple in Cangzhou, told the China Daily he doesn't see "any sign of doomsday approaching".
"I suggest we nominate December 21 as World Humour Day to commemorate the humour of the Mayans," Yancan says. "Why bother to believe rumours such as this? Just enjoy your life."
Liu Hongchen is a Beijing-based astrologer who has more than 210,000 followers on Sina Weibo. He said he didn't believe the world would end, but added : "The year 2012 has witnessed some astrological positions that only happen once every 100 years, such as annular eclipses and the transits of Mercury and Venus. It rarely happens that they all occur in the same year, and this is an indication that that human society will experience big changes."
What were they thinking?
For many doomsayers, their belief is tied to the ancient Mayans, whose empire stretched from Mexico to Guatemala from 200-700 AD. Experts in math and science, the Mayans developed a 5,000-year time measurement known as the "long count", which predicted future events. The last one ends December 21, 2012, and many people have taken this as a signal that a cataclysmic event will end the world as we know it.
A survey of more than 16,000 people in 20 countries in May found 10 per cent believe the Maya have correctly predicted the world's end on Friday. One in 10 questioned also said they were experiencing fear and anxiety about it.
Americans and Turks were the biggest doomsayers, with 22 per cent in both countries saying they believe the end of days is here.
But others argue the Mayan calendar has been misinterpreted. Just like our calendars expire at the end of the year, so too does the Maya's long clock, they say. It doesn't mean the end of time, it simply means the beginning of a new time cycle.
"It's important to understand that the ancient Maya predicted the world would continue."
- William Saturno, archeologist
Believers of this theory suggest the end of the Mayan calendar will usher in a planetary shift towards universal compassion and world peace.
An ancient mural was found in Guatemala earlier this year that disputes the theory that the Mayans foresaw Armageddon on Friday.
"It's important to understand that the ancient Maya predicted the world would continue," lead excavator William Saturno said. "They didn't predict the end of the world. There would be cycles, new beginnings - but never endings … We keep looking for endings. It's an entirely different mind-set."
The US space agency has also joined the debate with a webpage titled "Beyond 2012: Why the World Won't End". NASA scientists involved said they were concerned young people were taking the doomsday prediction seriously, causing stress and anxiety and the potential for suicides.
"The world will not end in 2012," NASA states. "Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012."