The Soot Road: Trekking along one of the most polluted energy corridors on Earth

Excerpt from Chapter 17 of The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 29, 2010

In 2006, I celebrated the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan’s inauguration as Mongol ruler at a Mongolian restaurant in Hohhot, the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

It was a bittersweet affair. Once the base of Genghis Khan’s empire, Inner Mongolia seemed hardly Mongolian at all. Only four million people, about 17 per cent of the region’s population, are ethnic Mongols. In Hohhot, it’s even less, about 10 per cent. The rest, by and large, are Han Chinese. The dramatic influx of Chinese began a century ago, the final conquest of a settled, agrarian civilization over pastoral nomads.

“Genghis Khan didn’t like to drink so much,” said Buhchulu, a Mongolian folklore researcher at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences, pouring me another glass of “Great Wall” brand red wine. “He said a man should drink only three times a month.”

“How do you know he said that?” I asked.

“Folklore. We have a lot of oral stories. If you travel in the Inner Mongolia countryside you can hear a lot of stories of Genghis Khan,” Buhchulu said. “Mongols remember very clearly about Genghis Khan just like it was yesterday. It was 800 years ago, though. The tales aren’t necessarily true, but they are oral stories.” A book titled Genghis Khan’s Word, he said, was still wildly popular among Mongols. It is a compendium of sayings that have been passed down from generation to generation.

“For example,” Buhchulu said. “ ‘Don’t wash clothes in rivers and lakes.’ That’s a rule of Genghis Khan.”

The folklorist then paused and leaned back pensively.

“ ‘Don’t cut the trees freely. It’s not good.’ That’s another saying of Genghis Khan.”

“He sounds like an environmentalist,” I said.

That prompted Buhchulu to quote yet another saying of this medieval eco-crusader: “ ‘Don’t freely dig up the earth!’ ”

Freely digging up the earth is exactly what I saw during a long, numbingly cold bus ride the next day to Genghis Khan’s mausoleum in the heart of the Ordos prefecture.

From Hohhot, the bus drove along the southern foot of the Daqing mountain range. Fallow farmland and fields of broken corn stocks lined the highway. After an hour, the cornfields gave way to rammed-earth greenhouses with coal-burning stoves and retractable reed roofs to keep crops from freezing during the bone-chilling nights. In the steely morning light, I saw Chinese farmers rolling back the reed mats as the sun climbed into the sooty sky.

Despite water shortages, poor soil and a severe climate, Han Chinese farmers had already begun to dig up this Mongol pastureland a century ago. By 1908, Chinese colonists had settled all the way to the modern city of Baotou, where the highway now swings south across the Yellow River into Ordos. As we drove south along Route 210, farmland became scarcer, replaced by sand and prickly shrubs. After 125 kilometres, the bus arrived in Dongsheng, the capital of Ordos prefecture.

Ordos covers some 87,000 square kilometres. It is bounded on three sides by the Yellow River, which makes a dramatic elbow-shaped detour into Inner Mongolia from Central China. Almost 50 per cent of the prefecture is desert, which deposits 100 million tons of yellow sand into the river each year. The rest of Ordos is a wilderness of mangy pasture. These lands had once been home to powerful Mongol clans, but by 1908 up to 30,000 Chinese had colonized the area.

The prefecture, with a population of 1.5 million, is now 88 per cent Han Chinese. So many Chinese farmers dig up so much of Inner Mongolia that most sandstorms in Beijing, some 600s kilometres to the east, occur during March and April, when farmers till their chalky fields for the spring planting. Vicious windstorms blow away the topsoil, leading to horrendous erosion and gritty squalls throughout Northern China. In Ordos, deserts have been growing at an alarming rate. Excessive cultivation, over-grazing and drought have degraded the natural grassland. As a result, the Chinese government has relocated 400,000 farmers from the margins of Ordos’s two deserts into the city and surrounding townships.

Despite its declining agricultural land base, the prefecture was experiencing phenomenal growth: GDP had skyrocketed 40 per cent this year, the sixth-fastest-growing city in China. As it turns out, the Chinese have found an even more lucrative way to dig up the earth than tilling the soil.

The previous year, Ordos had overtaken Datong as the country’s coal capital, producing 150 million tons. The prefecture’s proven coal reserves of 168 billion tons account for one-sixth of China’s total.

Leaving Dongsheng the next day aboard another bus, I watched hundreds and hundreds of coal trucks streaming north. The convoy of orange, green and purple trucks — and even three-wheeled motorized carts heaped with coal — stretched almost a hundred kilometres. It ended at the Shulinzhao power plant just south of Baotou. Dozens of cranes were completing what looked like a massive expansion. Clouds of steam rose from a half-dozen cooling towers. New smokestacks painted with red and white stripes looked like gigantic candy canes.

A century ago, Peking reined in the corrupt military governor of Inner Mongolia for his greed and ambition in colonizing the grasslands. Inner Mongolia is again under the control of rogue officials. The construction of illegal coal-burning power plants was largely driving Inner Mongolia’s excessive growth. Unlicensed power plants worth some $5 billion U.S. were under construction, despite repeated orders from Beijing to stop. The previous year, six workers died and eight others were injured at one illegal construction site. The scandal provoked Beijing to send an investigative team to Inner Mongolia. The regional Party Chairman was forced to hand in a “self-criticism.” Seven other officials were disciplined, and two more faced prosecution.

China burns 42 per cent of the world’s coal and is adding the equivalent of nearly the entire U.K. power grid each year in new coal-fired plants. Northern China’s smokestacks spew a noxious cloud so gargantuan that satellites have tracked it floating over the Pacific. Mountaintop sensors in Washington, Oregon and California have detected sulphur compounds, carbon and other toxic byproducts from China’s smokestacks. The country’s coal plants have become the main cause of the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Coal will remain king in the foreseeable future too: it represents 60 per cent of the world’s remaining recoverable hydrocarbon reserves.

As I watched carbon streaming from the towering funnels, I realized that the route I had trekked was a veritable “Soot Road,” the newest iteration of that storied trade route of yore. A World Bank environmental report on China later confirmed my suspicion: my route retracing the journey of a Russian secret agent from a century ago traversed what are now the most polluted areas of China, perhaps even the world.

The Soot Road is the greatest energy corridor on Earth in terms of the production, distribution and consumption of fossil fuels. The region holds 33 per cent of the world’s proven gas reserves and 36 per cent of the world’s coal, plus almost nine per cent of the world’s oil. One hundred and eight thousand kilometres of pipeline in Central Asia and China now replace the old caravan routes.

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From the oil-soaked autocracy that is the New Russia, I flew to the boomtown of Baku and followed these new pipelines across the deserts and steppes of Inner Asia. In Xinjiang, China’s western region, I saw oil refineries on the edge of the Taklimakan, coal mines cut into the Tian Shan range, coal-fired power plants in every oasis and massive petrochemical plants on the outskirts of Urumqi.

I then shadowed the pipeline route to the steel mills of Jiayuguan and choked on the photochemical smog belching from Lanzhou’s vast oil refineries. Heading east to Central China and then north into Inner Mongolia, I soon found myself in coal country and in the most polluted cities in the world. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived in Ordos, China’s fledgling new coal capital, that I came to a brutal realization about the sooty trail that I had been trekking.

What happens on the Soot Road will likely determine the future of the world, especially as a rising China extends its influence in Central Asia through new energy and security alliances, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Yet this New Great Game is already nearing its endgame. China is depleting its mammoth coal reserves faster than any other country, and peak oil, according to some analysts, is already upon us. As the region’s hydrocarbon reserves are drained, the rivalry for their remaining riches may grow more intense.

At the same time, global warming is likely to produce severe environmental shifts that could prove deadly to this dusty region already suffering from drought, desertification and pollution. Energy conflicts, increased social and environmental stresses on an already vulnerable population and growing Islamic radicalization caused by ruthless regimes could further rock the region — and the world.

In this new rivalry, China is no hapless pawn. In 2009, for example, China completed its first direct oil pipeline (some 2,200 kilometres) to the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan and opened an 1,800-kilometre gas pipeline to Turkmenistan that undermined Russia’s long-standing dominance over Central Asia’s natural gas. Beijing is profoundly changing the rules of the game.

I was now dying — in more ways than one — to get to Beijing, the terminus of my journey. I had been travelling the Soot Road for nearly five months, covering more than 15,000 kilometres by train, plane, ferry, car, horse and camel. In that time, I had slept in 47 different hostels, hotels, inns, private homes, yurts, tents, train sleepers and even a converted tractor-trailer at the Irkeshtam Pass on the Kyrgyzstan-Chinese border. On Nov. 16 in Dongsheng, I woke late and wrote in my journal:

“I don’t feel well this morning — low energy and a sore throat from the dry climate and dust and pollution. I don’t even feel like getting out of bed. What is there to see? I’m in a provincial industrial town. I must have passed through a hundred just like it.”

Leaving Ordos by bus later that day, the weather bitterly cold, my mind became gripped by an apocalyptic vision from the past. Peering out at the endless caravan of coal trucks thundering down the highway in clouds of black dust, I was reminded how the world must have trembled at the sight of the dust storms kicked up by the hooves of advancing Mongol armies. Eight hundred years later, we still have much to fear from the land of Genghis Khan.

Excerpted and adapted from Chapter 17 of The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China by Eric Enno Tamm. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Enno Tamm. Published by arrangement with Douglas & McIntyre.