This paper explores creative engagement with the materiality of environmental degradation through the photography of China-based ‘urban exploration’ (also known as UrbEx or UE, and 城市探 险 [chengshi tanxian] in Mandarin). A thriving global subculture, urban exploration was defined by the late practitioner Jeff Chapman (aka Ninjalicious) in his 2005 book Access All Areas as ‘a sort of interior tourism that allows the curious-minded to discover a world of behind-the-scenes sights’. Explorers are typically drawn towards abandoned and derelict manmade structures (for example, a deserted theatre or a half-built shopping plaza). Many present themselves as gatekeepers to a hidden city, and often provide digital documentation of their expeditions by posting written reports, photographs, and video footage online. These spatial transgressions and their representations, as I go on to show, beget urban fictions and imaginaries of their own. UE has been enthusiastically pitched as an authentic means of alleviating urban alienation and everyday boredom; in this paper, I explore how using ruined space as a site for adventure and play enables the practitioner to craft and project an alter-ego via the ludic act of image-making, thereby creating a restorative sense of autonomy and counterbalancing the perceived harmful external forces of the city.