The New Celestial Empire:
Author’s note: China’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative is an audacious plan to cover half the earth in Chinese-built infrastructure: railways, highways, shipping lanes, and energy corridors. One of the initiative’s marquee projects is a railway that China would like to build from its southern city of Kunming all the way through Southeast Asia to Singapore. Construction has just gotten started, particularly in Laos, the first Southeast Asian country the railway would run through. A poor and extremely undeveloped place, Laos has seen China’s presence grow quickly in recent years. I traveled to Laos in March 2017 while researching a book about the railway to see for myself how the project was coming along. What I found was surreal.
In the remote Laos-China border region, China is turning highland villages into teeming industrial hubs. Engineers have sliced modern highways — the kind you rarely see in Laos — through the jungle. And in one case, Chinese city-builders are resurrecting Boten, a former casino town that had been abandoned years prior, retrofitting it to serve as the railway’s entry point into Laos. This chapter-length excerpt is a snapshot of this isolated region and its dramatic transformation, as China begins its inexorable march with steam shovels, blueprints and big plans for the future.