China’s Black Heart

The Age (travel section)

UNTIL I visited Linfen, a coalmining town in central China, I never considered black to be a colour. But in Linfen, where the sky is bluish black, the trees are greenish black, and the dirt is brownish black, black is more than just a colour. It’s an entire palette.

I arrived on an overnight train – an eight-hour journey. There were no spare seats, so I stood the whole way. The carriage floor was littered with the only things I have ever seen Chinese poor people consume: two-minute noodles, sunflower seeds, cigarettes and green tea. At the end of the journey the debris is all swept up and tossed out the window. The rubbish coalesces into a gooey glacier and slides down from the raised tracks.

Spending four days in Linfen, a city with the worst air pollution in the world, is an eye opening, indeed, eye irritating experience. My first impression is appropriate – a wheezing station attendant. He welcomes me to a town where the water is contaminated with arsenic and the air is polluted with fly ash, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead. Locals have a life expectancy 10 years below that in Beijing.

During my stay, Linfen is filled with day-trippers from Beijing and Shanghai. Believe it or not, the world’s most polluted city is a tourist hot spot. Originally known as “Pingyang”, Linfen is (according to the local government) China’s first capital. Every year, tens of thousands of Chinese visit the city’s crumbling temples and towers. Ironically, one of the biggest drawcards is Guangyun pavilion, which the plaque outside translates as meaning “great sky”. Not anymore.

Away from the main sights are ghettos. Shanties sit in the shadows of skyscrapers, mounds of coal stockpiled outside every home. Peasants in blue Mao suits push wheelbarrows full of coal along mucky paths. The people have harried faces.

But in all the time I spend in Linfen, the most distressing thing I see is a black Chinese lantern. Originally red, it has been completely covered in soot. It swings in the nuclear breeze, like the last human artefact after an apocalypse.

The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote that to see black is to “receive a kind of blow”. That’s what looking at that lantern felt like: a slap in the face. What are we doing to the world?

It isn’t an image of Linfen that haunts me so much, but a colour. It’s the colour of night and nothingness, of caves, hollows and the abyss, of smoke plumes, factory funnels and lung cancer.

It’s the colour of a mining town in central China that I can’t get out of my head.

The colour black.