Have you seen these pictures of crazy crap in China's desert? Last week someone trying to avoid doing real work by noodling around Google Maps all afternoon stumbled upon what appear to be enormous structures built in the deserts of Western China.
This has sparked all sorts of speculation from
Theories have ranged from "something crazy" all the way to "something really crazy."
One thing I found noteworthy in all this chatter and speculation was the total lack of facts on the ground. "You lazy fancy-dans!" I yelled, spitting on the ground in disgust at my colleagues in the Internet pontification industry. "You wouldn't know how your own dicks worked if you couldn't Google it!" Knowing that the hard work wasn't going to do itself, I put on my best "going-out" sweatpants, and went to China myself to find out what was what.
After landing in downtown China City's airport, I flagged a cab to the Gobi Desert. Arriving at one of the massive sites, I got out of the cab and slowly surveyed the scene. Across the plateau in front of me was a massive distorted grid of lines etched into the ground. There wasn't anything terribly unusual about them, aside from their perfect straightness and color and general existence. Up close I could see they were composed of a lightish gravel/sand mixture, really clean dirt essentially, like if a truck hauling bleach and a truck hauling stencils had had an extremely unusual accident.
A short distance away was a cluster of tents and temporary sheds, from which a group of Chinese soldiers appeared. They ran up to me, shouting something in Chinese, presumably about acknowledging my rights as a journalist. The group came to a stop in a semi-circle around me, rifles pointed at my chest. This not being my first time threatened by the Chinese military (I used to freelance for
An officer, a lieutenant judging by his uniform, recognize my gesture, and barked an order to his colleagues, who lowered their weapons. The officer -- his name tag read Chengdu -- broke off from the group and walked cautiously over. Stopping in front of me, Chengdu waved his hands in front of me and said something in Chinese.
"That's not going to work at all," I said. "Do you speak English?"
Chengdu nodded. "Of course."
"Excellent, although that does seems unlikely."
"China is a land of many mysteries," he observed.
This is Chengdu here on the right. It was only when I had these pictures developed that I noticed the ghostly image of Mao floating over his shoulder. A land of mysteries indeed.
I shook his hand and introduced myself. "I'm here as a representative of the filthy, moralless Western press. You may have heard of us." Seeing him stare at me blankly, I continued. "We are the bane of tyrants, the clarion voice of the free, tireless in our mission to spread truth, unless there's something on TV or the Internet, in which case we mostly write about that." Chengdu considered that for a moment before making an
Chengdu hesitated. "I really can't say."
"Oh well, I guess I'll go home then and write about something on the Internet then." I waited a beat for Chengdu to relax before springing the trap. "Too late! This is already on the Internet! I write about you! Ha ha ha!"
"Please don't," Chengdu said. "I could get in serious trouble."
I bit my lip, considering the awkward position I was putting the young officer in. "That's OK then. You don't have to tell me anything. Using the power of my brain ..." I tapped my head in case he was unfamiliar with the word, "... I've already brainstormed several possibilities for what's going on here."
"You should be impressed," I said, having come up with that response long before hearing what he'd said. "I'm just going to run these theories by you, and when I get close to the truth, give me a subtle signal. Like say 'No,' and then wink at me. I'll know what that means." I stared at him to see if he was getting it. "OK, that's just a blank look. You're already doing a lot of that, so it's not a very good signal."
"I can't send you a signal. I can't do anything like that," Chengdu pleaded. "You have to go."
"And I definitely will, just as soon as you wink at me or touch your nose or something." I pulled out my notepad. "Now then, on to the first possibility. As we both know, the Chinese space program has made rapid advances in the past decade. You've got Chinese astronauts up in space, having adventures, wearing David Bowie makeup and discovering that heavily sauce-based cuisines don't translate well to micro-gravity."
"Mission Control, we have rooster sauce in our eyes again. Yes, both of us."
I continued, "And to communicate with these astronauts, you need a method of creating very large Chinese characters on the earth's surface, because radios cannot communicate Chinese characters."
Chengdu gave me his blankest look yet. "That's not correct at all. We can transmit Chinese characters over radios without any problems. We can also ... speak ... over radios."
"Speak? Like we're doing right now?"
"I don't think anyone has spoken to anyone like we're doing right now."
"Agreed, hard-hitting journalism is pretty exciting when you're right down in the trenches," I replied, again not really listening to what he'd said. I looked down at my notepad. "OK, next possibility. Do ... the Chinese worship aliens?"
"Because this looks a lot like a message to aliens. "
"Again, this isn't a Chinese character, and again, we don't worship aliens."
"How about God?"
Chengdu stared at me. "You don't really get China, do you?"
"No, I understand that your government, as a rule, is not on very good terms with God. Not on any terms at all in fact." I gestured at the crazy symbol imprinted on the landscape. "But maybe this is like a swear word that you're aiming at God. "Hey God, Sit On It, XOXO, China." Something like that."
Chengdu rubbed his face, which I almost mistook for a signal that I was on the right track. I was halfway through writing
"A go-kart track? Surely with China's rapid march toward a market economy, your citizens have been demanding access to go-karts, a feature common to all advanced economies."
An avid karter himself, Adam Smith (inset) devoted three chapters of The Wealth of Nations to his theories on karting strategy.
Chengdu turned to examine the landscape behind him. "Isn't this much too big to be a go-kart track?"
"Well, it's just that there are lots of Chinese, correct?" I stretched my arms out to indicate how many Chinese there were. "You'd need larger go-kart tracks." I looked around. "Not many go-karts though, hey?" I squinted, suddenly realizing something. "You know. These do look a lot like roads. It's almost like ..."
Chengdu looked uncomfortable. "They're not roads."
"No, they are. It's almost like a map."
Chengdu looked really distraught now, and stepped close to me, speaking in a near-whisper. "I can assure you that that is merely a coincidence."
"No it's not. This is a map of a city. A full-scale model of a city's roads." The lightbulb went on. "Holy shit. I know what you're trying to do."
"We're not! I swear we're not! We would never target ..."
Chengdu looked stunned. Then for a fraction of a second he looked like he had won the Chinese lottery, which is probably fairly modest by our standards, but still pretty good for them. Finally he regained his composure. "That is correct. We are making illegal copies of your cities. We are greatly sorry."
"Chengdu, Chengdu. My friend." I patted him on the shoulder. "Chengdu. You can't keep doing this."
"We put a lot of work into creating those cities. You're stealing that work. Piracy was a lot of fun back when it was just Metallica getting hurt. But city planners are honest, hard working people."
"I understand and am sorry."
"And god man, at least pirate one of the good ones. What is this anyway?" I asked, squinting at the landscape. Barren. Featureless. Squat, dumpy-looking buildings, and no street life to speak of. "Omaha? Are you pirating Omaha?"
That lamp pole in the foreground is a major part of the Omaha skyline, visible from everywhere in the city.
Chengdu nodded excitedly. "We are pirating Omaha. We want to make many copies for our citizens to enjoy cheaply."
"And depriving the people of Omaha of valuable licensing revenue." I chewed on my thumb thoughtfully. "Although I guess you probably wouldn't be using Omaha if you couldn't get it for free. So it's not like a lost sale."
Behind us, one of Chengdu's soldiers held up a radio to his ear, while someone excitedly shouted orders in Chinese through it. He then jogged over to us, and said something to Chengdu. "We have to get out of here," Chengdu said, relaying the message to me.
"Oh, obviously. Omaha blows," I said. "You haven't even got buildings up yet. Although that might actually make it a bit better ..."
My ruminations on ways to improve Omaha were cut short when a streak of gray flashed across the sky, impacting the grid of streets in front of me, followed a split second later by an enormous fireball and thundering explosion. Chengdu lunged at me, knocking me to the ground as a spray of dust and dirt landed around us.
My ears ringing, I groaned and pushed the Chinese officer off of me, slowly stumbling to my feet. A massive crater scarred the landscape in front of me. "Holy fuck! Someone just blew up Fauxmiha!"
Chengdu took to his feet and stood beside me, staring wordlessly at the crater. "I don't know what to tell you," he said.
"You think this was the City of Omaha that did this?" I asked. "Because they're angry about the piracy?"
For 10 seconds Chengdu looked me in the eyes. "I do now."
I nodded. "Content creators are taking this piracy stuff really seriously now. I heard last month that EMI broke some kid's legs over a Coldplay torrent." I shook my head. Then, after dusting myself off a bit, I made a show of looking at my watch. "Well, I guess I'm done here."
"You're going now?" Chengdu asked. "Now? After what you just saw, you have no more questions?"
"Chengdu, my man, this story's a slam dunk," I said, pantomiming making a three-point shot. "Greedy city planners destroy small time urban-pirates? The rubes will eat that up. Pulitzer-city, especially if my editor remembers to remove all of my uses of the word 'rubes.' Thanks for your help buddy." I patted him on the shoulder, then turned and left him with the smoking ruins of his Fauxmiha.
As I stood on the curb of the Gobi Desert waiting for another cab to drive by, I considered what I'd learned. One, China is much easier to get to and navigate then most people think. Anyone who dares write about this magnificent country without bothering to visit isn't worth spit. Two, I found the Chinese military to be unflappably polite and helpful, something which also isn't talked about much in the lamestream media. For shame. Three, never cross the City of Omaha, as it, and especially its paramilitary arm, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, are some serious pipe-swinging motherfuckers who will wreck your entire day.
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