“How is it everywhere I look, everything’s always under construction all the time?” I ask. “I’ve literally seen ongoing construction everywhere I’ve been in the two days that I’ve been in the country.”
“Chinese construction crews work three eight-hour shifts, around the clock,” says Erin pointing out the window at one of the construction cranes. Beside it, a giant pneumatic piledriver is noisily hammering giant steel stakes of enormous, unimaginable girth into the ground. “It’s nonstop, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Erin says. “You’ve seen it everywhere, all the time, because it is literally everywhere. No breaks, ever, even on holidays. When you have 1.4 billion people in your country and 9.6 million square kilometers of land, there’s no reason not to always be building. How do you think Chinese GDP’s been growing by double-digits year over year for the past, I dunno, decade or so?”
I nod, already knowing much of what Erin is telling me. I’d rehearsed and memorized my lines on the plane on the flight over, in preparation for what ended up being my informal interview with Charlotte that’d just happened that morning. And I’d said all the right things. But seeing the insane growth and all of the construction activity up close, first-hand in person was an entirely different matter altogether. As they always say: You don’t know until you know.
This construction pace was ludicrous. Back home, in New York, it’d taken three years for the inept Cuomo administration to finally rebuild the aging and anciently dangerous Tappan Zee Bridge. Three years! In comparison, I know from my interview prep that China lays down 33,000 kilometers of expressway every five years. Comparatively, the entire US interstate system, built during the Eisenhower era, spans only 78,000 kilometers and took three decades to build.
Shortly after passing by the interchange, our bus reaches a giant walled compound that spans something like a hundred football fields in length. In the middle of literally nowhere off the narrow, two-lane dirt road suddenly sprouts what appears to be a ginormous, 14th century medieval stronghold that rises high into the sky like some mirage in the desert. It’s as if some prepubescent tween who was playing a city simulator videogame like Skylines or Civilization decided to just plop Alexandria, circa 331 BC, into the middle of rolling Chinese farmland in the eastern plains. It’s literally the most random thing I’ve ever seen.
Jesus, once we get up close I see that the walls must be twenty stories tall! The entire complex must’ve been what Constantinople looked like in 740 AC! (When Emperor Leo III rebuilt the Theodosian walls that guarded the capital of the Byzantine Empire.)
“This is an office park?” I ask Erin in disbelief as our bus rolls up to the wrought iron gates of the giant stone fortress. “What kind of lunacy is this?”
Erin just chuckles. “Wait until you see what’s on the other side.”
Our bus halts at the gated entrance (I’m honestly half-surprised there isn’t a moat and drawbridge) and a helmeted, body-armor-wearing security officer clad in black does a round around our vehicle with a Deutsch Hound apparently sniffing for bombs. After several minutes of inspection and a conversation between our driver and one of the officers, the red-striped crossbar eventually lifts and two other stern-looking, helmeted and goggled security guards with automatic rifles strapped across their chests wave us through. As we drive past I can’t help but notice the sizable cache of automatic weapons that’s locked in metal cages in the back of the stone guard tower behind the officers and their closed circuit monitors. It’s only a fleeting glance but I count at least three rows of small firearms and munitions. It’s clear that whatever happens inside of Jinshui is apparently important enough to properly secure with violent force.
But in a moment, we’re past. And what I see next beyond the gate totally stuns my brain.