China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Black Mask Valley
Date: Sun, 14 Jun 1998 09:21:51 -0700

07:47 Fuwuzhinan Hotel, Huo Zhou; Shanxi--China :: SU 14 JUN 98

Coal trucks blast past, angry klaxxons clearing a path. An endless stream of rumbling, and whining rubber. Their cargo, piled to overflowing, sifts and shimmies loose. Fine black dust escapes; ebony chunks tumble and bounce then are kicked up again by tires. In the wind eddies, coal dust swirls across the wrinkled asphalt like black snow. The residue gathers along the shoulder, is spread into the parking lots, stirred up by feet and vehicles to settle on walls, on tables and chairs, on trees and wheat stalks, on me. Charcoal film coats my arms, fingers black. Flags streaming in the wind, bright colours subdued as if in shadow. Blackness settles on the world.

The trucks shuttle their cargo from mine to factory. Coal-fired China. Dust compressed to round, honey-combed bricks to keep the home fires burning, to fuel the restaurants and roadside stalls. Blackness into the air. Factory smokestacks spew grey and sulphur clouds. The valley fills. Smothering smog. Even the water runs thick like ink. A black, grey, hopeless day obscures.

I wonder what to call this place. Black Dust Alley; Black River Valley; Suffocation Highway. Later in the hotel, Later, the hotel mirror reveals a coal miner's visage. Yes. Black Mask Valley.

Shanxi province produces a third of China's coal, and it seems to concentrate here, south of Pingyao where the valley narrows and narrows to a canyon as Fen He, the Fen river, cuts deeper and deeper into the valley floor.. The prevailing wind channels the airborne effluent upriver, upriver, thickening and thickening until atmosphere develops texture, dimension and fills the widening valley, obscuring its walls.

A side road offers some respite. For 30 kilometers traffic dwindles to a trickle, cultivated ground and narrow valley walls instead of smokestacks. I climb onto a rolling plain resting gently under the thin smog and then descend, descend again into Black Mask Valley.

Were it not for the oppressive, pervasive coal this would be a pretty place. Fen He cleaved a narrow winding path through the earth's crust and green clings to the steep valley walls. I pedal and pedal through the downtrodden landscape, stopping only to check maps, to replenish water. For six hours on six bananas and blackened handfuls of gorp, seeking a restful place. Nothing calls to me.

Late afternoon the valley begins to widen again. Smoke plumes rise in dwindling numbers. The sun slithers through, casting the day's first dim shadow. The town Huo Zhou. Enough. A hotel. Taps without hot water. No matter, a bucket will do. Hot soapy water turns inky black; I remove the mask.

And am left wondering what my lungs must look like.

~~~ Responses Most Welcome ~~~
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn't display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
"If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,"
they weren't using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 22.
trans. Stephen Mitchell