Pit of Dreams

Can China's rust belt reinvent itself as a tourist destination?

For scenes from China's rust-belt, click here.

FUXIN, China — To understand this industrial Chinese city's past, begin with the smoldering crater on the south side of town, an open-pit coal mine as wide as Manhattan and deeper than the height of the Chrysler Building. Known as Haizhou, or "Sea State," it is probably the largest open-pit coal mine in Asia. Wisps of white smoke emerge from its depths, casting a chemical haze over the city's stark concrete mid-rises and dilapidated worker dorms.

To understand Fuxin's future, look for Fan Chunming, a pinstripe-suited official tasked with turning the mine into an international tourist destination. "We want to make Fuxin a green city, an improved city," said Fan, a middle-aged Fuxin native with slicked-back hair and a strong command over the dense, formal language used by many Chinese officials. Within a decade, he explained, the pit will be traversed by flowing rivers and forest paths. Visitors will be able to enjoy a motor raceway, a hunting ground, and a golf course on the far side of the pit. They'll be able to circle the mine in a steam locomotive. "By transforming the mine," he said on a smoggy April day, "we can transform all of Fuxin."

The extravagant plans for Fuxin embody the pride, uncertainty, and quixotic ambition of China's three northeast provinces. Known as Dongbei, and formerly Manchuria, it's a 560,000-square-mile swath of dusty plains and low-lying mountains bordering Russia and North Korea with a population of more than 100 million people. The Russians and Japanese colonized it in the early 20th century, giving it a strong industrial economy before Mao Zedong turned it into a center of heavy industry in the early 1950s. When China transitioned to a market economy in the 1980s and 1990s, its clunky state-owned enterprises lost their competitive edge. Most were restructured or shuttered completely. Millions of workers lost their jobs, turning once-affluent cities into ghost towns. Like their counterparts in the United States, cities in Dongbei found themselves left behind as the economy developed and passed them by.

Mining cities like Fuxin -- which, with a population of 700,000, punches at roughly the same level as Scranton, Pennsylvania -- were hit the hardest, their troubles compounded by environmental degradation and dwindling resources. One cold afternoon in February 2005, workers in Fuxin's Sunjiawan colliery heard a loud click, followed by a tremor. Moments later a gas explosion tore through the mine, killing 213 workers. Families of the dead were quietly coerced into accepting meager compensation packages, and Beijing deployed security forces to quash any threat of unrest. Three months later, the Haizhou open-pit mine -- which employed 30,000 people at its peak -- was declared bankrupt, its coal deposits nearly exhausted.

When nature gives you an obsolete and dangerous mine, turn it into the "Haizhou Open-Pit Mine National Mine Park," complete with a promenade, a viewing platform, and a slew of ambitious plans. The mine's northern ridge has been refashioned into a vast public square, which opened in 2009. It is decorated with Soviet-era mining machinery -- a pile driver, an excavator -- that would look more at home on Tatooine than in contemporary China. Its walkways are lined with energy-efficient street lamps that are outfitted with solar panels and dinky wind turbines above their bulbs.

One side of the square is flanked by the postmodern-looking "Mining Museum," its roof angled to the ground like a skateboard ramp. The museum was closed during my visit, but its promotional materials tell of the comprehensive exhibitions inside: rare minerals, old mining tools, fossils of birds and fish found in the mine. One picture shows a diorama of a miner drilling through a wall. In another, a Tyrannosaurus rex stands beneath an artificial palm tree. Another, inexplicably, shows an outer space-themed room featuring a dinner table-sized flying saucer.

Since 2003, the central government's "Revitalize the Northeast" strategy has pumped billions of dollars into the region's local economies. Beijing's top economic planning body designated Fuxin one of China's 44 "resource-depleted cities" and, later, a pilot zone for the region's economic transformation. Each designation came with a substantial influx of cash.

Fuxin's government began building its public square in 2005 with $15 million in central government subsidies. This soon became the core of a larger, more ambitious project. Construction on the Sunjiawan Tourism Special Area, a 17-acre resort just south of the mine, began last summer, with an investment of $475 million from Macanese real estate tycoons. A promotional video depicts a computer-animated landscape of burbling canals and European-style villas. This cuts to images of white-haired Western tourists, a Häagen-Dazs outlet, and lithe Chinese women swiping credit cards in upscale supermarkets.

Tong Ling, a professor at Northeast Normal University in Changchun who researches resource-depleted areas, said that officials in many of these cities are keen on tourism development because it attracts outside investment and bolsters short-term GDP growth. Yet "Fuxin has no reason to develop a tourism industry," he said. About 1,500 people still toil in the Haizhou mine, chipping away at its dwindling coal deposits. Nearby, the air tastes like a 9-volt battery. While the city boasts a McDonald's and a KFC, the closest thing it has to a mid-range international chain is a counterfeit Apple store.

According to Tong, Fuxin's land subsidence alone could thwart the city's plans. An area of the city home to 78,000 people was once at risk of caving in, its foundations undermined by decades of overextraction. It's still unstable. "Even if it rains, that would be dangerous," he said. "You can't build hotels and tall buildings on these kinds of foundations."

Another stumbling block is old-fashioned bureaucratic red tape. The museum was opened in 2009, but then closed because of an administrative snafu that nobody on-site was able or willing to explain. Electricity to the building was cut, and its doors were padlocked. "Nobody is in charge there now," an official from the local land and resources bureau told me. Fuxin's city government, tourism bureau, and foreign investment bureau ignored my interview requests. Fan, the Fuxin official, told me that the park has made little progress over the past two years. "Because there's still coal in the mine, we're not allowed to continue building there," he said.


If Fuxin's mining park fails to take flight, it won't be China's only resource-depleted city with growing pains. According to a 2010 article in China Daily, more than a century of iron and coal extraction in Zaozhuang, a mining city in Shandong province, had contaminated the city's water supply and decimated its farmland. Land subsidence was also rife, and residents reported seeing one newly built office building sink 200 feet into the ground the night before it was slated to open.

Zaozhuang earned its "resource-depleted" title (and the corresponding influx of cash) in 2003, and within six years, the city's official GDP had tripled. But the money didn't exactly trickle down. The government built a brand-new city center 20 miles from the old one, an empty 12-lane road, and a vast new government office complex around a man-made lake. "We're at a point where we have exhausted our resource advantages and failed to foster new advantages in the process," a former city official told China Daily.

To keep from falling into the same trap, Fuxin's government plans to transform the city into a center of light manufacturing and renewable energy. Its factories now manufacture microchips, silk clothing, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. They export shucked sunflower seeds to Europe. On clear days, a smattering of wind turbines is visible from a viewing platform above the Haizhou mine, spinning on a distant hillside.

But coal still looms large over the city's long-term plans. Wildcat mines still ring the city; they produce roughly 20 million tons of coal each year -- almost as much as Beijing consumed in 2011. State-owned energy giant Datang is building a $3.72 billion chemical plant in the city that will convert coal into natural gas.

A few years ago, the Soviet-built coal-fired power plant towering over Fuxin was outfitted with a sulfur scrubber, dulling the hard chemical edge in the city's air. "A few years ago, you'd hang your clothes up to dry and they'd come down covered in soot," said Chen Daguo, a taxi driver in Fuxin. "Now that doesn't happen anymore." Yet blue-sky days are still rare.

Plans to build cultural megaprojects like Fuxin's are common in China, and many seem to carry a bold disregard for long-term commercial viability. A small city in Hebei province announced plans in May to spend almost $200 million on a "Yellow Emperor" theme park based on an ancient Chinese legend. Another city in Anhui province is building a hotel shaped like a ping-pong paddle. In the winter of last year, a Beijing official showed me the future site of a $2.3 billion "international music base" on the city's ramshackle outskirts. From a nearby hillside, he explained that the vista of crumbling homes and cornfields would soon be filled with high-end recording studios and a performance arena in the shape of a peach.

Although words like "glorious" and "harmonious" litter the Haizhou park's promotional materials, many Fuxin residents seem ambivalent about their government's long-term plans. A shop owner who gave her name as Mrs. Yang explained she had never visited the mine because "We don't care much for politics," which also happens to be a common response to questions from foreign journalists. Retired Haizhou miner Sun Yuming, 55, said he didn't care what the government did as long as it did not cut off his $300-a-month pension.

My visit to Fuxin coincided with a small-scale auto show in the square abutting the Haizhou mine. Fuxin's budding white-collar population wandered through the exhibition in leather jackets and faux designer scarves, pausing to fawn over lines of Range Rovers, Mini Coopers, and Peugeots. A young woman on a low stage played strains from The Barber of Seville on a white electric violin. A few blocks away, advertisements for luxury condominiums adorned the barriers surrounding vast, empty construction sites.

Cao Ying, 57, a retired accountant at the mine, was intent on buying a Chevy. She told me she was proud of the landmark for its long history and its enormous size. "Everybody in the world knows about our Haizhou mine," she said, shouting above the violin. "It has brought nothing but happiness to the people of Fuxin."

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Cold War

Why are India and Pakistan sacrificing hundreds of soldiers' lives over an uninhabitable icy wasteland?

"They look like animals when they come down, unshaven, dirty, and thin as rods," said an Indian officer in September 2003, describing troops returning from a three-month stint on Siachen, where India and Pakistan had fought a war over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice on their border since 1984. In November 2003, the two sides agreed on a cease-fire; since then neither has fired a shot. Yet thousands of men remain, still dying from the brutal conditions -- in April, an avalanche buried 140 Pakistani troops and their civilian staff alive. This week, senior civil servants from India's and Pakistan's defense ministries are meeting in Pakistan, but expectations are low. It is a measure of the peculiar intransigence of India-Pakistan relations that despite repeated calls for a negotiated settlement -- renewed by Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, after the avalanche -- neither country can find a way to bring their men down from the mountains.

This is a war that has thrived on superlatives -- the world's coldest, highest battlefield, fought many days' drive from the nearest city. Men posted to Siachen huddle in isolated posts along a jagged 68-mile-long front line, believe in ghosts, go half-mad from the unbroken white, and struggle to eat at altitudes where even walking is a strain. Far more have died from the effects of the weather and the terrain than from enemy fire. They have endured the physical scars of amputated, frostbitten limbs and the mental scars of premature aging, memory loss, and, some say quietly, impotence. "It is madness to be up there," said the officer, who declined to be named, speaking of the suffering, rather than the glory, of the Siachen War.

The blood feud between India and Pakistan, which began at independence in 1947, was initially based on ideology, the former secular and the latter Muslim. Yet Siachen was a single-minded battle for territory. Soldiers in both countries told me that "not 1 inch of land" could be ceded to the other side. And the result has been a fight with many casualties and little gain, employing World War I-style trench warfare at 18,000 feet.

Siachen is the largest of a number of glaciers -- giant, rubble-strewn, potholed, cracked open by crevasses -- that slide down from the jagged peaks of the Karakoram Mountains into the snow-filled valleys below. Nothing grows there; no animals can live there. The region lies on the outermost rim of the old kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the times of the maharajah, it has been a place of myth. Only the bravest of explorers dared to go there, and those who did traveled in awe of the mountains. It's hard to imagine how anyone could try to own them.

And in the beginning, nobody did. After their first war, when India and Pakistan agreed on a cease-fire line dividing Jammu and Kashmir in 1949, they demarcated their positions as far as map-grid reference point NJ9842, from which the border was to be extended "thence north to the glaciers." At the time, there seemed to be no reason to demarcate the Siachen region. No one was ever expected to live there; it was literally a no man's land.

Then came the maps. They appeared in the 1970s, brought to India by tourists and travelers and showing the unclaimed Siachen glacier as Pakistani territory. India accused Pakistan of "cartographic aggression."

At the time, India had little to fear from Pakistan. India had just crushed it in the 1971 war when East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. But it feared China. After defeating India in a humiliating border war in 1962, China built close ties with Pakistan. And Siachen lay at the point where India, Pakistan, and China met. In the summer of 1978, a team of Indian military mountaineers explored Siachen to make sure that Pakistan could not connect with China to the north. That first expedition found little to justify this fear -- the terrain was so wild that it took hours to cover a distance that in the plains would take minutes. The Indian team stayed for more than three months in Siachen, not so much to stake a claim, but to explore. "It was not a war," the leader of that first mission, Narendra "Bull" Kumar, told me in an interview in 2004. "It was a mountaineering expedition." There would be several others, enough to spook Pakistan into sending its own men.

In 1983, alarmed that the other side was going to occupy the passes into the Siachen glacier, both India and Pakistan decided to send troops the following summer. On April 13, 1984, a small group of Indian troops gathered at the snout of the Siachen glacier, where it disgorges the debris of its 43-mile journey into a chaotic mass of scree, black rock, and ice. They prayed at a makeshift temple where the Nubra River emerges as a luminous and dainty waterfall from the entrails of the glacier. Then, they boarded helicopters that dropped them higher up, and they climbed up to the passes across the mountains. Within days, a Pakistani helicopter spotted them, and Pakistani troops were hurriedly sent up to block any further Indian advance. Soon both countries were scrambling to consolidate their positions, grabbing whatever high points they could reach. The Siachen War had begun.

When I talked to Indian soldiers who had been sent up in the early months, they spoke of their sense of adventure and a glorious spirit of improvisation. "When we moved in we were very enthusiastic, very happy," said one officer who went up in 1984. "We all thought we were heroes."

However, India's strategy had already gone awry. The original Indian intention was to put on a show of force, stake a claim, and withdraw before the winter. Nobody had ever spent the winter months in Siachen. But India had underestimated the Pakistani reaction. The very bizarreness of the Indian plan -- to march its men to the top of the hill and march them down again -- totally confused the Pakistan Army, or so its officers told me. To a military mind, the operation should have a clear objective, maybe to continue beyond the passes and occupy parts of Pakistani-held territory, or to reach the Karakoram Highway, the only road link between Pakistan and China. The simplest explanation -- that India occupied Siachen not because it needed to but because it did not want Pakistan to have it -- seemed too straightforward to be true. Yet in all the interviews I had with men involved on the Indian side, I found nothing to suggest there had ever been a bigger game plan.

The fighting in the early years was brutal. In one battle in the summer of 1987, Indian troops overran an enemy post at 21,000 feet. They had scaled vertical ice-walls in the dark and then over several days under fire crawled forward toward the post in small groups -- in such terrain it was impossible to assemble a large assault team. The end, as described to me by Bana Singh, the Indian soldier who led the final assault, sounded like trench warfare at high altitude. Two Pakistanis wounded by grenades were finished off with bayonets. The remaining six Pakistanis retreated and were killed by the Indian side. There was no question of taking prisoners at these heights.

By the late 1980s, the futility of the war was obvious to senior officers on both sides. "The Indians have been stupid in coming into this area; we have been sentimental idiots in trying to grab the remaining peaks and thereafter throw them out," wrote one Pakistani commander in his personal diaries in 1989. But after the two countries narrowly failed to reach an agreement on a withdrawal, men continued to volunteer for Siachen, driven by peer pressure, curiosity, military discipline, and special Siachen allowances that would allow them to return with a tale of adventure and enough extra money to get married. They continued to suffer the kind of appalling conditions that no Western army would willingly endure. "You don't have a bath for months. You don't shave," said Vikram Singh, an Indian soldier posted to Siachen in 1999. "You become lethargic, and your skin is sunburned, turning black, the skin peeling off. There is nothing but snow. You get bored. You count the days. You never take off your clothes. Every problem you can think of is there."

By 1999, a year after the two countries tested nuclear bombs, Pakistan trained artillery fire on the main road leading from Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, prompting the brief but bitter Kargil War. Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan pulled back its troops, but India's political and security establishment would no longer trust Pakistan not to reoccupy Siachen if the two countries agreed to a withdrawal. Between 1999 and 2012, India and Pakistan moved through what has become a painfully familiar cycle of peacemaking interrupted by conflict. After a December 2001 Islamist militant attack on Parliament in New Delhi that India blamed on Pakistan, the two countries prepared for war, mobilizing close to a million men along the border. U.S. shuttle diplomacy helped defuse tensions, but the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, which killed 166 people, torpedoed the next round of peace talks. And in Siachen, more than eight years after the cease-fire and 28 years after the first Indian troops ascended, the armies of India and Pakistan remain stuck in the mountains.

The avalanche this April was a terrible blow for the Pakistan Army, both in human cost and because it buried its battalion headquarters. With India already in control of most of the high positions, Pakistan has never looked so weak. But instead of negotiating a withdrawal from a position of strength and building momentum for a deal on the broader Kashmir dispute, India has insisted that Pakistan officially acknowledge India's higher positions in Siachen and mark them on a map before any withdrawal. Pakistan, which believes India started the war and occupied its territory, finds these demands humiliating and almost impossible for it to accept. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony has even warned against any breakthrough during this week's talks. That could mean that the Siachen conflict, and with it the broader Kashmir dispute, will remain unresolved for many years to come, and the soldiers will stay in the mountains. "In a normal war you can move about, get water, have a bath," said Vikram Singh, the soldier. "In Siachen, we just sit."