“Four years ago, all mountains,” my local driver Li Wang said as we putted slowly forward in his diminutive, beaten and battered old Japanese car through the newly built-up downtown of Lanzhou New Area (LNA). This is a place where hundreds of mountain tops have been removed to make flat land for development — an initiative which surely ranks among the most extreme undertakings in the history of urbanization.
Lanzhou, the 3.6 million person provincial capital of western China’s Gansu province, was once a big market town on the ancient Silk Road, and there is now a major movement underway to revive this historic relevance. Strategically located on the geographic and cultural cusps between the Chinese heartland and Central Asia, Lanzhou is again being utilized as a gateway to the west, and is being primed to be a major hub of the Silk Road Economic Belt.
The Silk Road Economic Belt is the land-based half of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative that will facilitate the creation of a colossal network of new highways, rail lines, logistics and industrial zones, pipelines, power plants, sea ports, administrative centers, and new cities that will stretch from East Asia to Western Europe, spanning 60 countries and over half of the world’s GDP.
I was on my way out to see where some of this New Silk Road infrastructure was going to be built, riding along the new six lane highway that extended over an expanse of perfectly flat land through the center of LNA. On both sides of the road were arrays of nearly identical 30-story high-rises packed neatly within their respective 500X500 meter plots. Dozens of these complexes were lined up in bunches, amounting to hundreds of towers and tens of thousands of new apartments. This was a planned city, a giant grid branded onto the parched desert silt, devised by urban designers who seemed to deify the right angle, and built in a singular blast of development.
Most of the buildings of this new city were still empty, but it was evident that life here was starting to simmer. Some of the apartment complexes had opened and residents had already moved in; there were people walking on the sidewalks and cars in the streets. Shops were beginning to open. Li Wang took great pride in pointing out the almost ridiculous amount of banks that lined the main drag. Sprinklers showered the bare desert in hopes that something would grow. An excessive amount of gigantic jumbotrons — mainstays in new Chinese cities — were switched on, blasting promotional videos from the development companies and the local government about the great things they were building here. Just a few years ago none of this existed; it was all mountains.
Like most other cities in China, Lanzhou found a need to expand and create new areas for development. Urban construction land is one of the most valuable commodities in modern China, and the building of new cities, districts, hi-tech zone, logistics centers, and infrastructure is what keeps the fiscal wheels of this country’s local municipalities spinning. In this climate, running out of new development land can be akin to a financial travesty, but this is exactly what once happened in Lanzhou — a city that’s built on a 50 kilometer strip of land that’s wedged down into the Yellow River Valley, hemmed in by mountains.
So what was Lanzhou to do? The answer was evident: the city would simply remove the barriers to its expansion. If it was the mountains that prevented the city from achieving its full economic potential then the mountains would need to go.
Getting rid of these mountains has been an obsession of local government officials and developers in Lanzhou since the early 90s. In 1997, the Daqingshan Project aimed to remove a 1,689-meter-high peak that rose above the city to create a little extra land that could be sold to developers. This plan was touted to the public as a way of improving the city’s horrid air quality. The removal of Daqingshan, they posited, would allow outside winds to blow through the city and clear away the smog “like opening a window to let in the breeze,” as a local official once put it. Half of the mountain was removed before the project was discontinued. No measurable impact on air quality was ever detected.
In 2012 Lanzhou tried its hand at mountain slaying once more, and set out to clear room for the 800 square kilometer Lanzhou New Area. This was a joint undertaking of the Gansu provincial government in tandem with Beijing as part of its ‘Go West’ Campaign — a policy that began in 2000 to develop the cities of inland China. LNA was declared as China’s fifth state-level new area, which put it in a league with Shanghai’s Pudong, Tianjin’s Binhai, Chongqing’s Liangjiang, and Zhejiang’s Zhoushan — which is to say, in the upper tier of development zones in the country. Located 30 kilometers from the grimy historic core of Lanzhou, the new city would include an international airport, a new high-speed rail station, industrial and logistics zones, a business district, residential areas for half a million people, and a large, 220 square kilometer area set aside for devising new ways to farm the desert.
To pave the way for LNA, an army of 6,000 workers and over three thousand excavators and dump trucks were unleashed upon hundreds of mountain tops with the directive to flatten them for development. “Vitalizing wasteland resources ” is how this mountain culling is often lovingly referred to in government literature. At the helm of this project was China Pacific Construction Group, China’s largest private development company, which is headed by Yan Jiehe, a man who is sometimes positioned in the West as China’s equivalent of Donald Trump. Under Yan’s innovative “Build to Transfer” strategy, the company would put up the cash for the development to be paid back later by the government.
As for the cost of this mountain culling and new city building: around US$3.9 billion. Although Lanzhou governor Liu Weiping says that it is a worthwhile investment, claiming that the new district will generate an annual output US$45 billion by 2030, when it is scheduled for completion.
In terms of New Silk Road integration in Lanzhou New Area, there is a five point plan:
- Build up the new city and provision it with businesses, turning it into a “vital channel on the economic belt.”
- Facilitate trade along the routes of the New Silk Road.
- Become a regional epicenter of the petrochemical industry and improve connectivity with the energy sectors of Central Asia and beyond.
- Build a platform for Silk Road tourism “to display the charm of the city.”
- Create a forum for “cultural and people-to-people exchanges” for the Silk Road countries by setting up consulates, cultural centers, and educational institutes.
The Silk Road West International Business Tourism Culture Comprehensive Eco Industrial Zone (yes, it’s really called that) is a 20 square kilometer, US$1.52 billion section of LNA that contains a conglomeration of One Belt One Road related projects.
Currently, the most prominent of these projects is the Lanzhou Free Trade Park. This is a massive logistics zone covering nearly three square kilometers which had been wrested from the loess hills. The main part of this park is its comprehensive bonded area, which provides its main function: customs clearance for trucks and trains shipping cargo out of the country. They just began processing their first loads of cargo last month with much fanfare. As one of the main directives of the New Silk Road is the cheaper and more efficient transport of goods across borders, a network of bonded areas have been created across China. Beyond that, the broader ambition for this zone is for it to become a manufacturing center for electronics, high-end machinery, bio-medicine, as well as a hub for cross-border e-commerce. The idea is that products can be manufactured, warehoused, cleared by customs, and shipped abroad from the same place.
Another big project is the Silk Road Cultural Heritage Expo City (Chinese), which is a US$500 to US$750 million public exhibition and tourism development project which commenced in October of 2015. Musicians and dancers and government officials paraded out to the construction site and did their thing upon a stretch of recently flattened earth which, fittingly, had a bisected hillside as a backdrop. This is a project that’s led by the Great Wall Television Corporation, one of China’s largest media agencies, and is set to include a film making studio, a game animation center, and a tourist park, where things like shooting “Western-China-style” movies are slated to be done.
Many other New Silk Road projects are set to be built in LNA, including a shopping area called “All Nations Customs Commercial Street,” a warehouse zone, and, of course, Ice Water World and dinosaur theme parks. How much of this ambition is actually ever manifested upon the newly flattened desert is a matter of context. Part of the marketing of new areas in China often consists of making them seem like the next big boomtown, and a proper reality-to-hype ratio is a good thing to exercise. But just because the reality is usually scaled down a few ticks doesn’t mean that these projects are still not huge.
We soon sputtered to a halt at the site of the Expo City as Li Wang pointed off to the side of the road. In the mid-distance, down an embankment and along a defacto construction road was a billowing cloud of yellow dust. From within its hearth emerged a steady stream of roaring dump trucks with full loads of mountain; returning into the inferno was a corresponding stream of empty trucks.
I descended down from the roadside and walked along the dirt road, which was really just the tracks left by hundreds of passes of heavy machinery. I rounded a bend and a range of half-excavated hills rose up before me. A contingent of backhoes had launched an offensive on their western side, chewing them up a bucket-full at a time. Bite by bite the towering terrain was deposited into the back of dump trucks, as the hills grew noticeably smaller as I watched. In a matter of hours, ages of deposition and erosion would be gone without a trace.
These dump trucks were taking their loads to fill in nearby valleys and ravines to make even more flat land for construction. Out here, mountains are toppled and ravines are raised up; it all seemed too pragmatic to be real.
Lanzhou New Area is the first major central government backed development zone on the old Silk Road. The Lanzhou-Xinjiang high-speed rail line is now open and there is also a rail route up to Lanzhou from Chongqing. Direct trains from China to Europe are now passing through, and once the container port is fully built Lanzhou plans to have one of its own. As the Silk Road Economic Belt evolves and grows, so too will Lanzhou New Area. Although evolved into what is the question. Right now, the New Silk Road projects of LNA are so new they are hardly more than dust and a dream.
Li Wang, at least, seemed positive. As we rode away from the new city he turned to me and stated proudly, “Before, no people could live here. Now people can live here.”