August 7 — Jiayuguan City, Gansu Province
We have bowed before The Dolphin and looked upon his heavenly kingdom.
Like Buddhist pilgrims, we twisted through Jiayuguan’s broad, empty avenues with no sure destination, assured in the knowledge that we’d know what we were looking for when we found it.
A sign: Above the tree tops floated a white globe, gleaming in the sun and impossible to interpret.
Like the three magi, we followed the shine in the sky and found our Lord.
In the middle of a leafy park in the middle of one of the world’s driest and furthest-from-the-ocean cities, The Dolphin rose out of a shallow fountain, perched on its tail fins, looming over all.
The only words we could find were: “What the hell?”
We approached it with trepidation. Beneath its cracked skin of interlocking white metal beams floated a gut-like atrium and an esophageal elevator.
We made an offering of ourselves.
As it turned out, The Dolphin was actually a gussied-up atmospheric monitoring station. Inside it was a small museum about China’s weather patterns and some exhibits on climate change, plus a collection of photos of the rest of China’s weather stations. Pretty normal stuff.
Atop the elevator, things got weird.
The Dolphin’s head is a 360-degree viewing deck, complete with heavy-duty binoculars. From the top, we could see why we’d had an unshakable feeling that something was amiss in Jiayuguan City.
Jiayuguan has a population of just more than 230,000 people, making it tiny by Chinese standards. But with a Dolphin’s-eye view, we saw the city sprawled out in every direction. Even stranger, it looked like the North Korean utopia realized.
Everywhere apartment blocks of disconcerting suburban sameness rose out of the desert, each red roof capped with its own solar-heated water heater. Tens of thousands of apartments, broken up only by huge, centrally located, hour-glass shaped nuclear cooling towers. Golden, decorative streetlights lining sweeping avenues.
Surrounding The Dolphin – again, in the middle of a desert waste – was a leafy and lush park that must have equaled New York City’s Central Park. It was practically drowning in streams, fountains, and lakes and overgrown in greenery.
And all of it was empty. No people in the apartment clones, no cars on the streets, no commerce anywhere. The infrastructure for perhaps millions, and all of it unused. The only thing that seemed to move at all was the steam drifting out of the nuclear plants. A heaven on earth, desolate.
We found the priests locked in ritualistic competition for their deity’s divine favor.
In the square below two groups danced, one next to the other, a narrow lane in between. Those in one group wore blue polo shirts, the other red. They stood in two blocks made of parallel lines of worshipers. In unison, they shuffled their feet and raised their hands and heads to the sky, keeping pace with the rhythmic, modern tunes that blared from speakers set up among them.
Each group whirled to a different tune, and as we watched, the music spilling forth from each amped up decibel by decibel in an attempt to out-loud the other. They pretended not to notice each other, even as they shot furtive glances scanning for any slip in synchronicity that could signal final victory. On and on it went as we slunk along in gap.
A man, not of that bizarre priesthood, approached me and asked where we were from. After a brief exchange in pleasantries, I told him the huge city looked empty.
“Does anyone actually live here?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But someday they will come.”
Above, the dolphin reigned — still and omnipresent.