(China’s Coal: Part 4)

We decide to give the village a break and give ourselves a day to digest what we have seen, so our crew heads out early one morning for Pingyao, an ancient town-turned-tourist trap. We bring our still cameras, but my larger video camera is left tucked in the trunk. A mistake.

Halfway to our vacation retreat, the horizon turns fuzzy. A coking plant — where coal is baked before being used in smelting iron — is spewing a sulfur dioxide cloud three stories high that snakes its way a mile downwind. As we cruise closer to the giant cloud, the air cuts through my nostrils like rotten eggs from the wrong side of the river Styx. Speechless, I fire my still camera as quickly as I can while digging out a tiny hand-sized digital video camera. Driving through the cloud, only the occasional “my god” breaks the silence. Born in the early 70s (with SO2 caps already in place in the U.S.), I had never seen pollution being pumped out so blatantly.

This ancient walled town allows us the indulgences of being tourist for a day: American coffee, countless baubles and fake antiques, museums with spiked weapons and statues of calm buddahs, and a few fellow Western faces. I imagine most of these happy tourists never see pollution as blatant as we witnessed that day.

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Duane Moles is a freelance journalist and a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.