09/25/2014 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Coal, Drugs & Tourism

It was 3:00 am and we were driving on a highway in the east of Shaanxi. The headlights of each car coming towards us illuminated the thick smog that engulfed the car, the product of countless factories and power plants burning coal dug out of the region's mountains. We were tired, full of impressions from the last three days, and talking about the fear. Each one of the trio had experienced one particular moment on the trip, a time when out in the field they wanted nothing more than to be in the comfort of one of the spas that we retreated to at the end of every particularly hard the day.

This was the trip where Matjaz (me) Matt and Tina went to discover how coal towns are coping while coal prices plunge to record lows and coal mines are shutting down. One solution, no matter how strange it sounds, is developing tourism. "Red tourism" (focused on communist party history), health tourism and old fashioned luxury getaways are all being developed as mining villages are demolished. With air still as thick as London fog, golf courses are springing up amidst factory chimneys best suited for a Mad Max movie.

For Tina, her moment of terror came when she received a phone call from a friend of a friend who told us the local police were on the lookout for this crew of foreigners who had interviewed retired coal bosses.
Matjaz and Matt brushed that fear off, sure that she was exaggerating the danger. We ended up spending the night in a spa 150 kilometers away.

I have felt the fear rise up when Matt snuck through the gate of a shut-down mine, with a barking dog and two security guys following after. Luckily the security guys were less persistent than the dog and quickly returned to watch TV. Our search led us to drive another 250 kilometers east to a God-forsaken city in search of closed mines amidst the factories, speeding trucks and half-demolished houses.
I was starting to feel really unpleasant, but Tina and Matt were sure that I was exaggerating.

The search for that mine continued. We followed empty trucks up a steep and narrow mountain road that was full of cracks and partly covered by rocks from some landslides. The only people we encountered along the way were two older guys biking around and one shepherd with a flock of white goats. I'll never forget the view the view that awaited us when we rounded the mountain's far side and looked down on the valley below. It looked like the worst of the worst that you will ever experience in Beijing winter, the kind of days when visibility is under 50 meters. I really didn't want to spend the night in this kind of place, and luckily, in the end, I wouldn't have to.

There are no words to describe the city that we wound our way down towards. The setting sun only added to demonic feel and the pervasive dread. Shadows ran across the road in the distance and a brown stream almost chocked dry by garbage ran down the middle. Each passing truck was speeding and obscuring the view by lifting up big clouds of dust behind them. We drove down some dark streets before deciding we just had to go into a restaurant, order some food, and try to find some interesting people to talk to. We did just that.

Soon after sitting down I noticed three younger guys that looked a bit different from the other locals. They looked different, drank different and just didn't seem as sad and worn down as that city. The guys were sipping baijiu (48% sorghum liquor), wearing nice clothes and they topped it off with modern haircuts that assured me they'd be easy to talk to. It wasn't five minutes before we were sitting in a private room with them, the kind whose blue-white walls are adorned with a photo showing grapes, apples, flowers, cognac and red wine.

Between the second and third bottles of baijiu the stories and the laughs really started to flow. Tall tales of gambling, prostitutes, fleeing the city after stabbing another person in a fight... They talked about the good old days when coal was at its peak, and they bragged that they knew everyone needed to get us into the miners' canteen, dorms, showers and even the mine itself. We decided we should try to get this all done before the baijiu wears off, and so headed straight to the mine area. Following their new white Audi, we soon arrived at the miners' dorm. The miners we passed didn't even try to hide their surprise at seeing two tall white guys and a beautiful Chinese girl strolling around their dorm, all of this in a town that you'd have a hard time finding on a map.

The dorm building smelled of piss and we walked into a room on the second floor that seemed to be a sort of social club for the guys we'd just met. Instead of the standard two or three small beds, the room was outfitted with a queen-sized bed topped of with electric sheets. An electric mahjong table occupied the center of the room. They first laughed and told me not to take pictures of the table (gambling is illegal in China), but after a couple of beers nobody really cared anymore. The dried poppy that everyone was free-basing of tinfoil couldn't have hurt either.
Maybe you've got to get high before you go down, and we followed one of the guys as he prepared for his midnight shift. Old guys with black faces came down the long corridors staring at us like we were from another planet. Naked guys strutted down the hallways, making it very clear we were more uncomfortable than they were.

As we approached the entry into the mine the real problem became clear. The guard who was writing down the names of miners catapulted out of his chair and started to yell, demanding to know what we were doing and repeating over and over again that we must be reporters. Then he took out his cell phone and put his shaky fingers to work calling someone. And that was the point at which Matt freaked out. .....

The headlights of each car coming towards us illuminated the thick smog that engulfed the car, the product of countless factories and power plants burning coal....

Matjaz and Tina brushed that fear off, sure that he was exaggerating the danger... We ended up spending the night in a spa 250 kilometers away.

























To read Matts point of view follow the following links: