Behind The Bamboo Curtain

Not 10 paces away, a miner named Liu listens. He once worked for the government gold mine. Then, in 1995, he decided to mine for himself. "There is more freedom if I work for myself," he says.

Private business has spurred growth in the town. Liu bought a television set made by Changhong, an Olympic sponsor. He bought a Volkswagen Santana, which he doesn't really know how to drive. He built a new house, with a big courtyard for animals and some vegetables. His family isn't rich, but they aren't just subsisting anymore.

"The road condition is better," he says. "The houses are better. In general, life is better. Ten years ago, people still lived in the yellow-earth mud houses."

Right now, he says, there's a ban on private gold mines. But national bans don't mean much out in the provinces, where the whim of local power brokers carries more weight than any edict handed down from Beijing. "If I'm caught, I'm not afraid," Liu says. "I'm well-connected, and I know everybody in the village."

From afar, Liu has been following the Beijing 2008 campaign. He isn't that interested, but, as a businessman, he has respect. "The Olympics have nothing to do with my life," he says. "What they are doing is just to make some money."

Squatting a few feet away, Yan, the old man, says the Olympics are Beijing's business, though he does hope to have one connection, which is one more than the peasants of San Lou. Maybe, he says, they will use the gold he helps blast out of the Earth to make the medals. He knows the highest honor an athlete can receive is a gold medal, and his gold, he wants you to know, is 100 percent pure.

Soon, it's time to go. Behind the dormitory, workers push tons of rock. Above the mine face — where darkness is broken only by a swaying, naked bulb — five red flags hang limp, twisted around their poles, all of them turned pinkish-white by the sun and the rain and the smoke. They are flags of warning.

Yan continues sipping his tea, lighting another cheap cigarette. He has 20 days off after six straight months in the mine; he'd lost so much weight the bosses were worried. He looks ancient, with the hard years underground wrapped around him like a bundle of yesterday's news.

Before leaving, we ask how old he is.

"Fifty-three," he says.

Road Diary, entry 3: DESCENT INTO HELL Driving between Xin Zhou and Linfen

There is a tunnel ahead.

Coal dust and smog block out the sun. It's morning but it feels like dusk. Kilometer by kilometer, we close on Linfen, the most polluted city in the world. Smokestacks line the road like telephone poles. The white road markers are stained black. The red bricks are stained black. The faces of the people we pass are stained black.

The tunnel gets closer.

We pass a cement factory. Then a brick factory, one of many we've seen in the past hour, some of them known to be manned by children kidnapped and forced into grueling labor. Every so often, an impromptu Delta Force of angry fathers rescue their children. The hours are long and hellish here in the place hope forgot. Austin, the interpreter, calls her husband in Beijing. "It's horrible," she tells him. "It's a disaster zone. Everything is black. I don't want to get out of the car. It's shocking."

We pass a wedding procession, a train of black Audis covered in red ribbons and balloons. This should be a joyous day. But the air is black and the future is bleak. "I feel sorry for those newlyweds," Austin says.

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