Kashgar’s mystery complex is not complex, and not a mystery

Yesterday, Wired’s usually reputable Danger Room blog posted an article on “China’s mystery complex”, titled “What Did Google Earth Spot in the Chinese Desert? Even an Ex-CIA Analyst Isn’t Sure”.

But even this old analyst is having trouble ID’ing the objects he found in the overhead images of Kashgar. “I haven’t the faintest clue what it might be — but it’s extensive, the structures are pretty big and funny-looking, and it went up in what I’d call an incredible hurry,” he emails.

So he’d like your help in solving this little mystery.

As a Google Earth user and blogger, and having traveled to Kashgar and written about the city and its surroundings, I was certainly intrigued, so I decided to take a look.

View Kashgar in a larger map, with explanations.

I had no trouble finding the location, and immediately surmised it is just another huge industrial park being constructed, one of many propelling China’s development at breakneck speed. Here’s what a little context can tell you:

  1. In May 2010, Kashgar was selected as a special economic zone by the Chinese government, which means that, just like Shenzhen and other places before it, it is in for a wild ride on a scale not often seen outside China. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t anything massive being built in Kashgar right now. Kashgar’s economy is growing at around 15-20% per year, and it is perfectly placed for cross-border trade with the central Asian republics.
  2. The complex in question is conveniently being built just to the northeast of the very modern Kashgar airport, very close to a reservoir which I drove by on an excursion to nearby ruins (also marked on the map). The railway from Urumuqi to Kashgar veers into Kashgar just south of the reservoir, and would be perfectly positioned for an offshoot into the industrial zone. This complex is not at the far edge of some small desert town; it is located on prime real estate near transportation hubs in a rapidly expanding trading and manufacturing center that was once a major waypoint on the Silk Road. It would be the absolutely worst place to build a secret base.
  3. Anybody with a visa for China can fly, drive or train it to Kashgar. There are no restrictions to travelers into the region, unlike in Tibet. In fact, landing at the airport, I had a wonderful view of the slopes on which this complex is now being built. Fly into Kashgar on one of many daily scheduled flights and you’d know right away how work is progressing.

In sum, I was disappointed. Not with the Chinese for failing to construct a mystery complex, but with the gullible reporter, who should at the very least have gotten a second opinion before letting loose on the Internet a retired analyst with an overactive imagination and no on-the-ground knowledge of the area. I left a comment to that effect.

That, of course, did not nip this meme in the bud. My RSS reader started filling up with rewrites, soon enough including from mainstream news outlets such as Salon, Australia’s Telegraph and even Sweden’s Nyheter24. The rewrite-industrial complex was going gangbusters. All that was missing was the Huffington Post version. [Update: Here it is.]

This story thus reveals more about us than about China. It is above all a story about technology racing ahead of our ability to put it into context. We are overawed by the notion that we can observe any place on Earth in high resolution, but we lack the tools to understand this power and the limits of this power. Into this cognitive vacuum we pile on conspiracy theories. Any absence of information suddenly requires a cover-up. Comments to the original Danger Room article betray an amazing appetite for conspiratorial beliefs that are incompatible with even a passing knowledge of how satellite imagery is collected.

And the story also reveals how many in the West continue to see China as an oriental mystery opaque to westerners, fair game for wild conjecture. But it’s not. Those days are long gone. Here be no more dragons. China is knowable. Just not from Google Earth alone.

13 thoughts on “Kashgar’s mystery complex is not complex, and not a mystery”

  1. Thank you for this. I looked at it myself and with no background knowledge of the area, assumed that it was a fairly benign industrial area. I actually half assumed that potash was playing a role, as I know there is some in the area.

  2. Thanks for the level-headed reply. I’m in agreement with you and have always respected your opinion on stuff like this. I posted this on my Facebook page asking if people had any guesses as to what it might be. The responses? 1) New houses for Chinese immigrants 2) a nuclear facility and 3) perhaps a mining operation.

    All in all nobody seemed to worked up about Wired’s proclaimed “mystery” (well, except the guy who wanted a nuclear facility, but I think he was trying to be funny.).

  3. Nice work. Its true what a difference on the ground experience makes. Too many experts on Xinjiang these days who have never been there, been there for a few days or never travelled outside of Urumqi. On the question of secret bases, google earth images, and speculation would you have any ideas about the complex south east of Korla that has also been making the rounds lately?

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