China Montage

— text and images by Shankar Saanthakumar —

The northern Chinese winter brings crisp snow, dry winds, and temperatures as low as -35C. This year’s was one of the coldest in recent history, which made daily tasks – not to mention spitting and urinating outdoors – extremely challenging. In January 2016, I decided to make a trip to the frozen north, where the pristine white scenery was conciliation against the biting winds.

1 – Fog and Smog – Dandong, China
The factories rarely stop in Dandong; the port city handling the majority of Chinese trade with neighbouring Sinuiju, North Korea.

2 – Sino–Korean Friendship Bridges – Dandong, China
The structure on the right is what remains of the original 1911 bridge, which was bombed by the Americans during the Korean War. The structure on the left is the newer Friendship Bridge, which sees $468 million dollars of goods pass from Sinuiju to Dandong every year.

3. Yalu River – Chinese/North Korean Border
Ice and smog are not enough to distract from the distinct divide in the urban landscapes of Dandong, China (right) and Sinuiju, North Korea (left). Sinuiju has an elevated economic status within North Korea as a “Special Administrative Region”. However, if using urban development as a metric for wealth, Sinuiju is clearly no match for the more “free” Dandong.

4. Shanhaiguan – Qinhuangdao, China
Looking out to a frozen Bohai Sea from the Shanhai Pass, also known as the Yu Pass, of the Ming Dynasty great wall. It was once a defensive area against Manchurian invaders but it now welcomes trade and tourism for China’s continued economic growth.

5. Mutianyu section of the great wall – Beijing, China
Freezing temperatures clear away the tourists to reveal an eerily empty wall snaking through the mountains.

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Ordos, inner Mongolia, is commonly described as the quintessential Chinese “ghost town”. But outside the (reasonably well inhabited) main city of Ordos, there is the Ordos 100 Project in Kangbashi New Area that was commissioned – and abandoned – by Ai Wei Wei. Shankar Saanthakumar visited in 2016 and here are some of his images:

6. The Ordos area is rich in natural resources as geographical luck has blessed it with 1/6th of China’s coal, which lead to the rise of Ordos City from desert land to having the highest GDP per capita in all of mainland China in 2014. This monumental wealth is reflected in the monumental government architecture of the Kangbashi New Area with its high rise towers and ultra-clean ultra-wide streets.
However today much of it is still uninhabited. Kangbashi can accommodate 1 million people, however only 30,000 have found it economically feasible to make it their home.

7. With such a low population it was difficult to find anyone to speak to. However, thanks to modern technology in the form of Couchsurfing, we met Raymond (pictured above). As a local resident of Ordos he has witnessed its rise first hand and was a wealth of knowledge while showing us around. He explained that as a young boy growing up, in what was then rural Ordos, he had no perception of “city”, but as the Gobi desert around him became urban so did he. However there are few others who share the Kangbashi New Area with him and he says that at times it feels like he lives in a “private city”.

8. Similar to areas such as Dubai, much of Ordos was desert before urban development, and sustaining these developments requires significant financial power to fight against the force of nature. In Kangbashi this seems to be a loosing battle.

9. “Dead”. Is this a comment on Ai Weiwei, Kangbashi, or Ordos as a whole? The Ordos 100 project is certainly “dead”. It was never alive to begin with. However the few residents of Ordos are very much alive, and even if just a fraction of them are as enthusiastic, warm hearted, and positive minded as Raymond then Ordos city is set to become a beautifully alive place to call home if China’s economy can grow and balance to make it financially sustainable.

All photos by Shankar. For high resolution reproductions, please contact the photographer on: shankar.saanthakumar@gmail.com
Also: @shank_8 (Instagram)