Behind The Bamboo Curtain

The scene is something out of "Mad Max"; this must be what America was like 150 years ago. I have a front row seat to an industrial revolution. The highway is torn beyond repair by the overloaded 18-wheelers. In some places, Highway 108 is nothing but a mudhole. There isn't a road, per se, just a space with no buildings. Where there is road, clouds of coal dust float and dance a foot above it. The grime sticks to everything. Trucks stretch for 20 kilometers, then 40. Then 60 kilometers of trucks, lined up, two wide in some places, bumper-to-bumper.

The drivers pull into oncoming traffic without hesitation; this stretch of highway isn't notorious as one of the most dangerous roads in the world for nothing. Soon the traffic grinds to a halt in both directions. With the headlights blinding us, Singing Songs tries to slip past two parked trucks blocking the road. There is barely enough room for our Jeep. We are in the mountains, on a curve, with no guardrail. He climbs out to look at the sheer cliff, then back in the Jeep to make his way forward. Half the right-side tires are hanging off the road. Somehow, we make it. That dance repeats itself a half-dozen times. We move kilometer by slow kilometer into the belly of the beast.

Black-smeared faces poke out into the glare of headlights, then disappear back into the shadows. Men sleep beneath parked trucks. Others squat in the swirling clouds of coal dust to slurp down noodles, to nurse a warm beer. Their eyes are wide in the halogen glow. They are thin, with hollow cheeks and hacking coughs. Finally, worn out, we sleep for a few hours in a ragged roadside motel. The next morning, we wake to find the trucks still backed up, stretched in both directions as far as we can see.

Xin Zhou gold mine, 529 kilometers from Beijing

This area is off-limits to the public and, especially, to foreigners. Only a local contact and some luck can get you past the guards. It's a Chinese government gold mine, and narrow-gauge railroad tracks take men down and bring rocks up. A decrepit dormitory is home to many miners and their families, some for longer than a decade. They congregate in the fly-infested courtyard, washing clothes with powdered soap, drinking tea.

An old man named Yan, with thin fingers and a thinner physique, speaks for the group. They are all excited about the start of the Olympics. The government is shutting down this mine for three weeks during the Games. The miners will get a vacation.

So you can watch on television?

The old man and the other miners laugh.

No, he explains, shaking his head. This is such dangerous work, the state doesn't want to risk a catastrophic accident resulting in bad press. Mining in China — for gold, coal, iron and anything else that can be forcibly extracted from the Earth — can be fatal. A miner a day dies in these parts.

Payouts to the families of killed miners are factored into budgets, and those payments keep the salaries of the workers low. Competition for jobs — a dangerous job is better than no job — drives those salaries even lower. When Yan first came here 15 years ago, he made about $1,300 a month. Now, it takes him three months to earn that much, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He is being left behind. And not just left behind by the far-off fantasy world of Beijing. Left behind in this courtyard.

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