Oxygen mask, anyone?
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
We left Lanzhou, China, this morning and drove 375 miles to Wuhai. We being me, photographer Alex P, and my co-driver, the grande dame of automotive journalism, Denise McCluggage. The road out of Lanzhou is a brand-new freeway that cuts through miles and miles of desolate but beautiful barren hills of loess, the sandy yellow earth that gives the Yellow River its name. Terraces have been painstakingly carved onto many of the hillsides, and most of the hills that were sliced into for the freeway have been buttressed by huge stone retaining walls. Not poured concrete, but intricately detailed stonework. That’s what lots of cheap labor can do for a country. Large numbers of Chinese are also kept busy sweeping the freeway shoulders. I kid you not: about every kilometer or so, we’d find an orange-jacketed person at the side of the freeway, idly moving a big straw broom back and forth, barely glancing up as a trio of brightly decaled Mercedes-Benz sedans whooshed by.
All of the freeways we were on today were toll roads, every bit as modern as anything you’d find in America or Europe and with almost all signage in both Chinese characters and English. Oasis stops are just now being finished, and they’re both huge and frequent, with clean restrooms and lots of gas pumps under big China Petro canopies. They were all deserted, but one can imagine that in a few years the rising Chinese middle class will fill every oasis with cars. For now, we had vast sections of wide-open, glassy smooth concrete virtually to ourselves, so we hustled along at between 80 and 100 mph much of the time.
I mentioned Lanzhou’s pollution in yesterday’s blog. That city’s air seemed as fresh and healthful as an oxygen café’s compared with Baiyin, an industrial city that produces copper, aluminum, zinc, and lead. We drove by Baiyin on the freeway, but we couldn’t really see much of it, so thick was the layer of sulfurous haze that blanketed it. For a couple of miles, we could barely see in front of us on the freeway, and some cars had their hazard lights on. It was like driving through fog. We made the mistake of opening the window and could barely breathe. How people can live there is a sad mystery.
Venture off the toll roads, and things really get interesting. Our flotilla of Mercedes E-classes, not surprisingly, was the center of attention everywhere we went. When you’re driving in the Chinese countryside, you’re vying with bicyclists, overloaded trucks and wagons, other cars (VWs, Hyundais, Kias, and the occasional Buick), tricycles, three-wheel transport trucks, and pedestrians for road space. The E320 Bluetec’s prodigious storehouse of torque made passing easy, but you really have to watch out for oncoming traffic, which is likely to come barreling toward you in your own lane.
As we headed toward the city of Yinchuan in Inner Mongolia, the two-lane roads rose out of irrigated fields lined with tall, willowy trees, making for very pretty scenery that at times reminded us of northern Italy. But as we got closer to Wuhai, our stopover point for this evening, farmland gave way to huge industrial tracts of sooty factories, nuclear plants, and coal mines. Mistakenly relying on our printed guidebook rather than the trusty Garmin GPS unit installed in our test vehicle, we got lost in a Communist-style factory zone with long, straight, broad streets. It seemed depressing at first, but then we found ourselves in the midst of a coal mining village that made the factories look like Disneyland. Everything in this Dickensian village was coated with coal soot, and virtually nothing was growing in the lifeless black earth that lined the roadside.
So, we’re in Wuhai for the night, a town that was founded only 30 years ago and whose sole purpose appears to be to extract the riches of coal and minerals that lie beneath the ground here. Tomorrow, we’ll see more of this as we head to Hohhot along what our guidebook calls the “coal highway.” Oxygen mask, anyone?