Old and New China Meet Along the Yellow River

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He doesn't feel comfortable about having to open a dark chapter in China's history to foreign visitors. But since he holds Yang, the author, in high regard, he shows us the graves the prisoners dug and the trees they planted. "More than 1,000 people formed a chain here to transport stones," he says.

Then Chen mentions the "necessary sacrifices" that a country like China has to make in order to enable progress. He also finds a comparison that helps him clear his conscience. The construction of the Great Wall also claimed many lives, he says, "but it united the country."

In the teahouse in Lanzhou, the old teacher gazes across the Yellow River and a sea of buildings. "I don't believe in anything anymore," he says. Although the tea garden is large and almost empty, three men sit down at the next table and listen attentively. Author Yang speaks demonstratively and with a loud voice as he tells the story of Jiabiangou. "These young Stasi guys should hear what happened back then," he says, referring to the dreaded secret police of the former East Germany. An Underground Inferno

The Chinese have yet another name for the great river. They call it "China's Sorrow," because of all the tragedies that have unfolded on its banks. Another 600 kilometers downstream from Lanzhou, China's troubled river seems to flow directly into hell.

There, on the path to Wuda, in Inner Mongolia, the Yellow River winds sluggishly past oases, through steppes and deserts and into a gray, moonlike landscape of dust and debris. There is not a blade of grass growing or an insect crawling here; even the birds have disappeared. The earth is boiling-hot beneath the surface -- so hot, in fact, that it can melt the soles of people's shoes if they stand still for too long. Sometimes the ground opens up and pulls people down into its fiery depths.

An environmental inferno covers an area of several square kilometers. Underground coal deposits have been burning here for more than 50 years. The fire ignited itself, and it keeps flaring up when oxygen enters abandoned mine shafts.

It is difficult to breathe the highly polluted air, and the rain is acidic. Many millions of tons of coal have already been burned at the site, where firefighters are slowly gaining control over the fire with the help of German experts. They are isolating sources of the fire with underground walls and shifting large volumes of earth in an effort to deprive the flames of oxygen.

An Industrial Giant in a Desert

On the edge of the Wuda inferno, workers have just paved a new road with concrete, as if to prove that nature will not get the better of them. New coalmines have already sprung up on the other side of the road, only a few meters from the existing coal fires. "It isn't dangerous here anymore," says Chen Zengfu, manager of the Second Huaying coalmine. "We go down to depths of up to 700 meters (2,300 feet)."

In the 1960s, Mao moved parts of his heavy and arms industry to this wasteland, hoping to protect it from a Soviet attack. The project was called "Third Line." Later on, farmers came to the area -- not always voluntarily -- to cultivate the desert along the Yellow River.

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