Every time I head to the airport some 40 miles north of Lanzhou, in the final minutes of my ride I always pass a giant replica Sphinx and Acropolis rising out of the desert dust, and an endless expanse of construction in the background. This week I finally took an hour long bus ride to visit these structures and find out more about “Lanzhou New Area”!
Great Wall Cinema Park
At the edge of Lanzhou New Area sits “the Great Wall Cinema Park” where the Sphinx and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven are casually hanging out. A ticket costs 50 RMB, and another 10 RMB gets you access to a sight-seeing cart, which I took because I wasn’t in the mood to walk across this large but sparsely decorated park/ movie set.
The Cinema Park is mish-mosh of cultural heritage sites- Forbidden City to your right, a scaled down Tang Dynasty DaMing Palace to the left…
…and then suddenly, a massive Transformer’s head the size of a small hill greets you around the corner.
I suppose it’s fitting that something Transformers related shows up at this park; the franchise has been hugely popular in China, and several films had extra scenes spliced in with Chinese stars for the mainland market.
I should recommend they add a monument of Kim Kardashian’s ass here too, as she is equally influential around the world, the perfect role model for a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who will give up anything to make it big and #haveitall! #womenwhowork #bosslady
Anyway, I reach the southern end of the park where the Sphinx is resting. It’s not at all out of place here in the desert, neglected and alone in the sand and dust. I can’t comment on the artistic integrity of the structure (my only planned trip to Cairo was cancelled in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring). I hate it when citizens fighting for democracy disrupt my well-deserved vacations to authoritarian countries a swing set in front of the Sphinx ruins my perfect selfie!
Next up is the Parthenon, which I have been fortunate enough to see in 2009 (also near the height of the Greek debt crisis- bad timing all around) It’s likely a 1:1 replica, replete with missing portions of the façade, due to looting by the British asshole Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin from 1801 onward.
And then there was this structure a few steps east of the Parthenon, a large cerulean-blue tiled pavilion. Worldly Harrison was so, so certain it came from Shiraz or Isfahan in Iran.
How romantic 浪漫, the idea that two architectural structures from millennia old rival civilizations – both ravaged beyond recognition by the neoliberalism (first Iran in 1953, when a secular and democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown by the British government and CIA to protect the revenue streams of the oil and gas company known today as BP, and now Greece held hostage by the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank for failing to pay back risky, artificially cheap loans originated by private German and French banks [why are ordinary citizens responsible for failed investments made by private financial services groups?!?]) – now sit side by side in an empty movie park, next to Lanzhou airport.
But no, the lady driving my sight-seeing cart tells me it was just a random pavilion built for the Hui people in Lanzhou. My inner historian and faux-economist are crestfallen.
Lanzhou New Area
China is infamous for ghost cities; Ordos in Inner Mongolia is probably the most notorious, a $160 billion USD gleaming modern city meant to be home to one million occupants but is mostly empty a decade after completion. (a photo of Ordos from GettyImages below)
Municipal governments across China build these mega cities in the middle of nowhere – complete with museums, soccer stadiums, artificial lakes, parks, etc.) to reach public spending/ economic growth quotas, only to find there was never a real demand for these “new development areas” to begin with.
I have faith that Lanzhou New Area is different- tens of thousands of Chinese outsiders (外地人) from more provincial parts of Gansu and the west move to Lanzhou each year. There is genuine demand for housing (Lanzhou is sandwiched between mountains on the north and south side- the city cannot physically expand beyond its current borders),
By 2030 one million people are expected to move in as full time residents. There is a promotional video for the new city, stylistically similar to propaganda clips from the Trump and Kim Jong-Un administrations, for interested investors.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanzhou New Area’s 5 hospitals and 75 public schools are up and running near capacity by the end of the next decade. For now, it’s still a surreal experience to take a bus through the Lanzhou New Area.
In New York you see the occasional skyscraper built; in Chengdu you might see dozens of residential complex apartments rising simultaneously in the outer city rings. But here, the entire city is still under construction- hundreds of commercial and residential towers are half finished, stretching for miles on end. I wish I had a drone to capture a bird’s eye view of the construction frenzy.
Vast roads meant for six lanes of traffic are mostly unused. Interestingly, it seems all of the vegetation has already been planted, giving the trees and parks a decade to mature before they are put to daily use- pretty good planning!
Most of the finished apartments sit empty, but there are pockets of residential life where some people have permanently moved in. I ate a bowl of tomato and egg noodles and asked the guys at the shop about the cost of the apartments- currently under 5,000 RMB per square meter (half of the price in Lanzhou proper, less than 1/15 the price in Tier 1 cities). I should invest in an apartment here, instead of a master’s degree…
I quietly relished in the experience of riding the new cross-town bus (with new car smell!) as the only passenger; Probably the only time in my life living in China that this will ever happen!