The smoke from these fossils of industry darkens the sky, while heavy trucks wheeze along potholed roads. Prostitutes wait for truckdrivers in bleak, tile-covered buildings. The Zhurong steel mill smolders on the bank of the Yellow River. A few hundred meters down the road, on a square in a village called Red Star, Second Unit, residents are preserving cabbage for the winter. "We can't breathe," they say. "We all have lung problems."
The mill pays the village 80,000 yuan (about €10,000) a year as compensation for the poor air quality. The farmers use the money to buy water from the Yellow River to irrigate their fields.
Modern industrial zones built in recent years, which are even more gigantic than those from the Mao era, line the horizon. Flights landing at the airport in the city of Wuhai pass over countless factories, smokestacks and cooling towers set against the backdrop of the Yellow River glittering in the afternoon sun.
Six-, eight- and 10-lane roads cut through the sand dunes. This is where China casts the concrete for prefabricated buildings in Beijing and Shanghai, molds the plastic for radios and TV sets, and hardens the steel for skyscrapers, bridges, cars and high-speed trains.
The city administration has just built a giant government building, two futuristic-looking stadiums, a university and an opulent party academy. Now it wants to tear down some recently finished apartment buildings because newer, more ambitious plans have replaced the older ones.
On the highest peak of the nearby mountains, workers have begun chiseling a bust of the legendary Mongol ruler Genghis Khan into the rock, just as the Americans did with several of their presidents in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The great conqueror will gaze out across the Yellow River and into the vast regions beyond. China 's Dubai
Party officials in Wuhai are not alone. Their counterparts all along the Yellow River dream of elevating their cities into the ranks of important international metropolises.
Hardly anyone has bigger plans than the party leaders in Ordos, about 80 kilometers south of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. Ordos is viewed as China's Dubai. Experts estimate that government-run and privately owned mines have generated more than $35 billion in revenues since 2010. At times, economic growth in the region has been twice as high as in the rest of the country.
And this trend is expected to continue. Engineers have discovered one-sixth of China's coal reserves and a third of its natural gas reserves in Ordos. Each of the city's 1.5 million residents already generates about $20,000 a year in revenue, more than in any other part of China.
The party has built a brand-new district near Ordos, complete with an army headquarters and a university for 8,000 students. The new district, called Kangbashi, is expected to house up to 300,000 people one day, although only a few thousand have moved there so far. Kangbashi is still a ghost town -- and a monument to megalomania on the steppes.
The Coal Barons
A few kilometers south of Kangbashi lies the main source of the region's wealth: coal. The area is dotted with blue-and-white shaft towers and silos. On video screens in a control tower, engineers monitor what happens underground in the state-of-the-art mine.