Moving Mountains© Jonathan Browning
The bold plan to build an entirely new city in the arid and dusty province of Gansu was given the green light in 2012 as part of the Chinese governments “Go West” initiative. One of many projects with the aim of bringing wealth and prosperity to the people in China’s often neglected remote West.
Lanzhou New Area
I visited the site the same year the project launched and witnessed some of the estimated 700 mountains being flattened to make the flat 500 square mile site. Seven years and massive infrastructure projects later, including up to 400 miles of new road, water diversions from the Yellow river, schools, countless housing blocks, and powerplants being erected; The ‘diamond’ of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is open and hungry for people to move in. I returned to photograph what was promoted as a city of lakes and green trees, however I found it to be more a sea of grey concrete and yellow earth.
Unlike most cities in China where the taxi from the airport is met with grinding traffic and red lights we were only met by the latter but that didn’t stop the driver; “No people here” he replied when questioned his driving. With roads from six to eight lanes across there is no better place to drive, unless you need fares. In a bid to increase tourism the Lanzhou Silk Road Cultural Relics Park was built, complete with a full-sized Sphinx, Parthenon and that cultural relic of a Transformer head. The 50rmb charge gave me near-exclusive entry to the park, apart from a couple and a family of three that were also wondering the oversized park and regretted not paying for the 10 RMB shuttle service.
The local authorities say there are around 150 thousand inhabitants in Lanzhou New Area, that optimistic number is still far from their target of 0.6 million inhabitants by 2020, and 1 million by 2030. The heart of the city seemed to be by Rainbow Town Estate, who’s residents are those that lived in the small villages which were dotted around the mountainous landscape before all were bulldozed. The International Ruiling Hotel, sits across the compound and an eight-lane road, another massive building which accommodated myself and a handful of guests, including flight crew of the nearby airport almost exclusively shuttles travellers to the old Lanzhou, a city of some 3. 7 million, so 50 km away. The original industrial city of Lanzhou straddles either side of the Yellow River in a deep valley, known for its terrible air quality and overcrowding the New Area was an answer to further improve air quality, an overcrowded city and increase the local GDP.
Despite the lack of people in Lanzhou new area, the city continues to expand. On the periphery there are countless highways heading out which make the M25 look primitive. Alongside are plastic wrapped trees, 30-storey apartment blocks and luxury villa compounds still under construction. Only the migrant workers making it happen are a sign of life. Keep driving though and all roads must end and in Lanzhou New Area most are with a mountain yet to be moved.
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