Crossing the Line: Luang Namtha to Jinghong
Jinghong, Yunnan, China
Crossing the Laos/China border, I come face to face with this centuries' most audacious political project: Beijing's 'Belt and Road'
The Windy Road To China
I woke early in Luang Namtha on my last day in Laos. It was a cold, wet morning. My bed - a thin, mildewy mattress placed on the ground - provided no buffer from the chill seeping through the unsealed 2nd story floorboards, leaving me with a restless sleep. It was the first time I'd shivered since leaving home. I was relieved when morning came.
I laboured through a lukewarm, dribbly shower, and stepped downstairs to grab a lift to Luang Namtha’s bus terminal. I'd be catching the local bus to Jinghong, across the Chinese border in Xingshuanbanna province.
The open-air motorbike taxi exacerbated the cold, and soon I arrived at a bleak, minimalist bus station - just an open asphalt square with a small tin-shed entrance. It was empty, save for the few shop keeps who unenthusiastically sold their wares - Oreos, Chinese sweets, red bull cans and bottled water - near the departure gates. The sky had sunk low that morning, with a thick and stodgy greyness stubbornly keeping visibility to a minimum.
The leather-jacketed, military-fatigue-panted driver finished his cigarette, discarded it onto the ashphalt, and the dozen or so passengers and I followed him on board for departure. It was about 150 ks to the border, but the gravitational pull of China was felt well before that. The further north you travel in South East Asia, the more the towns, villages and cities begin to resemble the hegemon to the north. The sinofication of South East Asia unveils itself slowly, on a gradient that becomes more pronounced the closer to China’s southern frontier you travel. Here, just a stones throw from Yunnan, the Laotian language is sits side by side with Mandarin, people of both nationalities live, buildings have adopted distinct Chinese architecture. Two nations and two cultures blur. It's hard to tell where one truly cedes to the other.
The bus traveled onward through windy mountain paths and sleepy villages selling root-vegetables by the roadside. Soon, Boten - the final Laotian town before the border - emerged. The beneficiary of a phenomenal Chinese construction boom, Boten has the feel of a gold-rush town. Dozens of new hotels are half built, and there is dust in the air kicked up by the work boots of an energetic and growing citizenry. It was lunch time when we passed through. Hundreds of high vis-vested, hard hat wearing workers from north of the border hunched over noodle soup in front of the dozens of restaurants that line Boten’s Main Street.
Soon after Boten, the monumental effort of those hungry Chinese labourers came into full view: this is the front line of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” project - an audacious, multi-trillion dollar gambit aimed at opening new trade routes and assuring China becomes the beating heart of the global economy.
Beijing sees the opening of superhighways through its southern littoral states - Laos, Myanmar and Pakistan in particular - as a vital component of its ‘belt and road’ initiative, arguably the most ambitious infrastructure project in history.
Despite China’s enormity, it's access to global markets is somewhat constrained. A majority of Chinese trade flows through its eastern seaports. But these routes are vulnerable to international crises. The waters to China’s east are contested by rival powers. And despite China’s might, it remains decades away from rivalling the world’s preeminent naval power, the US.
To mitigate its reliance trade routes that straddle contested sea lanes, Beijing is relentlessly opening new overland routes through South Asia, connecting ports in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea with highways aiming directly for southern and western China. Doing so will ensure its access to global markets, no matter what geopolitcal calamity might grip the world in future decades.
The project not only secures China’s economic future. It also creates an orbit of dependent states, like Laos, that have come to rely so heavily on the unprecedented influx of Chinese investment. So long as the money keeps flowing, Laos and other neighbours of China will continue to bend to Beijing’s will.
On the Laotian border, the extent of the effort is clear. Entire mountains have been stripped naked, their jungle coats mercilessly skinned. Some have been levelled entirely to make way for new roads, rail lines and bridges. Hundreds of bobcats, earth movers and other heavy machines lay patiently and uniformly in wait, ready to play their role in this cross-border exercise in human ambition and geopolitics.
The last kilometers before the border resemble the Sahara more than the lush jungle-scapes of South East Asia, so profound is the destruction of the natural environment. Mounds of gravel and earth sit stories high, ready to be absorbed into hotels and highways. People look microbial amidst the scale of the freshly devastated landscape. It's a filthy, dusty, ugly, colourless blight on an otherwise healthy and vibrant environment.
This is the Belt and Road.
Crossing the Border
I was one of three from overseas on the bus: there was a Canadian guy, Jim, and a Hungarian, Robert. We marvelled at the scale of the construction as we disembarked the bus to make the border crossing. Leaving Laos through a triumphant golden arch, it was a short drive through no man’s land to the Chinese border.
My hair always stands on end during border crossings: there’s something about the overwhelming presence of hardline authority that projects a sense of guilt onto all those passing through, irrespective of their innocence. But this border crossing was surprisingly pleasant. The Chinese soldiers who rummaged through my bags were more interested in the other stamps in my passport than any of my possessions.
Robert, Jim and I were whisked to the front of a second foreigners queue, and rushed through into China. Our bags were x-rayed, but the attendants were too busy gossiping and laughing to pay any attention to the black and white rendering of the contents of my pack that lay before them. I was in China, the 40th country I'd visited.
The bus continued past endless construction and karst mountains to Jinghong, a utilitarian city nestled on the upper Mekong that reminded me of Pyongyang or some soulless post-Soviet city.
Robert and I planned to stay in Jinghong that night to get our bearings, so we teamed up. In the pouring rain, we frustratingly navigated the back streets of the downtown area, finally finding the city's cheapest hostel. We settled in for a night of Chinese vodka and noodles with our fellow guests. Chatting through Google Translate, I struggled to keep up as I rapidly became inebriated. I'd barely been drinking this trip, and the drinking games, mixed with the impossibility of communicating, made my head spin.
My first day in China was spent navigating my way through the back streets of Jinghong. My second would be navigating a breathtaking hangover.