Age of Empires – Road in the Sky

Not to be redundant, but the development of modern China is at once unprecidented and difficult to fully comprehend. While much of what the country is experiencing is unprecedented, the expansion of the country’s influence and relationships, domestically, regionally, and internationally, is harnessing methods proven effective by empires through the ages.
Yunnan, the SouthWestern province bordering Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar, is one of the most powerful examples. At the foothills of the great Himalayas, the rugged terrain has prevented the development of transportation systems and has nurtured the most ethnically and culturally diverse regions in China. However, the past years have seen some of the most incredible expansion of infrastructure the world has ever seen.

Highest Bridge in the World Heading South, away from the provincial capitol city of Kunming, it is not long before one finds themselves peering three hundred some meters straight down, from atop the world’s highest bridge (at least according to the many signs along the side of the road). This bridge is part of the massive Southern Yunnan highway project that cuts straight south from Kunming.


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Driving the Southern Yunnan highway, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that one is overcoming nature itself. The scale of the project is alone remarkable, but even more so because it is but one of many examples of gargantuan efforts to reshape the region. At one moment you find yourself flying above the mountains, in the next you plunge straight through a wall of rock, diving through one of the seemingly countless tunnels. The mountains that have defined relations for thousands of years suddenly seem impotent, hardly the impassible barriers that have prevented travel and communications in the past.

New China-Vietnam highway bridge to open in Dec. (Xinhua News Agency)
This highway is part of a larger plan to connect the Yunnan Province with the rest of South East Asia, with the promise that soon people and goods will be able to travel by land from Singapore all the way to Kunming. This Southern Chinese capitol is establishing itself as the center of the entire Mekong region. The Mekong Group, a subset of ASEAN (South East Asia’s regional multi-national political and economic block), ties together a number of these countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, that are experiencing incredible growth and whose global importance seems to be steadily increasing. China’s physical connection is one of many efforts that is strengthening China’s political and economic relationships and influence in the region.

ASEAN recently formalized its Free Trade Area (ASEAN Free Trade, “Yunnan boosts links”) its, an agreement China is preparing itself to take full advantage of.

Yunnan Highway Tunnel

Perhaps it is this very willingness to ignore the logical assumption of impassibility, to pay no attention to the enormity of these projects and simply plunge head on into them, that is rocketing China so quickly toward its ever-emerging new self. This mentality, reminiscent of Manifest Destiny, is producing amazing changes in almost every corner of the Yunnan Province. According to one report, there is hardly any place in Yunnan that is today not accessible by road. This is saying an aweful lot, considering that there are many places, small villages and rice farming communities, that have had little contact with the outside world. One of the most important issues in China today is the division that exists, and is rapidly expanding, between the booming economies of the urban centers and the rural areas that are missing out on these rapid developments. However, the current efforts to build infrastructure is beginning to produce change that has previously been known only by those in the economic centers.

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cha yuan atop simao The famous tea plantations of Yunnan stretch rhythmically over rapidly expanding cities like Si Mao, in between Kunming and Jing Hong in the South, nearing the Burmese border.

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