Sunday, February 26, 2012

Coal Country by Eric Enno Tamm

The smog was thick and blue like cotton candy. I could barely see the aerated sewage ponds along the south bank of the Yellow River. It was early morning. I was on the T58 train crossing a steel bridge over the murky “mother river” on my way from Zhenzhou to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province.

I was traveling on the historic Peking-Hankow Railway, the first major trunk line in China, connecting Peking with the populous Central Plains and Hankow in the southern Yangtze River basis. Built in 1905, it is 12,212 kilometers long. A three-kilometer steel bridge traversed the Yellow River and, according to Baron Mannerheim, in 1907, was the “most remarkable part” of an otherwise monotonous journey. He mentioned that the scenery was “slightly enlivened” by a rugged granite range running “at a considerable distance” to the west, but these mountains never materialized during my morning ride. I could barely see beyond a half-kilometer of cotton and wheat fields. The sooty haze was just too thick. I was heading into coal country.

The Taihang mountains are the Great Smokies of China, separating the loess plateau of Shanxi from the delta region of the coast. Whereas the name of America’s famed massif is taken from the natural haze rising from lush forests, Taihang gets its smokiness from burning coal.

Our train passed numerous rail wagons heaped with coal. I sat in a compartment with two Chinese businessmen and stared out at the bleak landscape. The autumn foliage had disappeared. Dark granite peaks loomed over barren farm plots and soot-stained villages trapped in deep gorges. Everything looked blackened. The train creaked and groaned as it rumbled along a serpentine line. Winter was nearing – in was October 30 – the Shanxi’s coal would soon be stoking furnaces across China. It was the largest coal-producing province in the country, with 270 billion tons in proven reserves. As a result Shanxi has the ignominy of having sixteen cities on the State Environmental Protection Administrations “black list” for air quality below grade 3, meaning they suffer serious pollution.

I arrived in Taiyuan at 10PM and stayed at a business hotel across from the train station. I went for a stroll the next morning. Taiyuan is the most blighted city that I have ever visited. South of the train station, I came across a temple complex with twin soaring pagodas, then wandered along a river the color of bile. Garbage was everywhere. Heaps smouldered on the streets. So many torn bits of plastic hung in trees that they looked like fall foliage. The roads were horrendously dusty, potholed and cracked. I saw a teenage boy crawling on the sidewalk, dragging his deformed legs behind him and begging for change. A sooty film covered everything.

By day three I was ill with a sore throat and plugged nose. I felt so lethargic I could barely get out of bed. I lay wheezing the entire morning and only mustered enough energy to call the State Key Lab of Coal; Conversion, the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Company and the Institute of Coal Chemistry to arrange interviews. Of course, everyone refused to talk to me…

Taiyuan hasn’t always been a blighted industrial town. When he traveled there at the beginning of the 20th century Mannerheimm was charmed by its old temples, medieval city wall, macadamized streets, public garden and pond, and shops decorated with beautiful, brightly colored designs. Taiyuan, he wrote, had “an unusually attractive appearance” and “looked pretty in its verdant surroundings against a grey background of mountains. The town sparkled in the sunshine then but has since fallen on hard times.

“In the spring, there are rolling clouds of dust that pick up junk and that move at thirty or forty miles and an hour,” said my American guide. “Big, gigantic dust storms roll over the city.” He pointed to fine yellow dust caking a parked car. During his first two-year stay in the 1990s, the city was so dirty and polluted that after a day outside his blond hair turned black. He came down with asthma. “I couldn’t hack it – the dirt and all,” he said. Now, a decade later, he always wore a hat and carried wraparound sunglasses that, like goggles, kept airborne grit out of his eyes.

“Here it is”, Stern said, slipping on his sunglasses and putting a hoodie over his son’s head. He pointed down the street. I turned and saw a massive yellow dustball rolling over the rooftops. It started barreling down the narrow street towards us. Stern quickly hailed a taxi. We dove into the car just as the dustball descended on us. I got some grit in my mouth and had difficulty breathing. On the street, people frantically dashed about searching for shelter as a fierce wind blasted a barrage of dirt, twigs, newspapers and garbage down the street.

Taiyuan felt like purgatory. After four days in the city, a gloom overcame me. I fell ill with the flu: aching bones, sinus problems, sore throat, fatigue, a nagging cough. My spirits lifted only when I stepped aboard a bus to leave.

The bus was old and filthy, its windows smeared with dirt. I sat one row from the very back - a safe seat, I figured- in case of a head-on collision with a coal truck, a common occurrence in Shanxi. A peasant sat across the row and spat on the floor. Three other swarthy nongmin (country folk) sat behind me and began smoking non-stop. I waved my arms angrily to clear the smoke and cracked opened the window. I had hoped the bus ride would be a reprieve from Taiyuan’s horrendous air quality but the bus quickly filled with a blue haze as the smokers fell into nicotine bliss. No matter where I went in Shanxi, coal dust, grit and cigarette smoke followed but I knew that salvation lay just ahead. I was leaving polluted Taiyuan for one of Buddhism’s holiest mountains. I imagined dramatic vistas, whimsical golden temples and invigorating alpine air. Paradise. I could almost smell it.

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds by Eric Enno Tamm

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