16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China and nearby Linfen is widely known as the world’s most polluted city.
Following worldwide publicity and condemnation, the Chinese government has made efforts to clean up Linfen’s tarnished atmosphere and reputation.
Lesser known is Lishi, just 200km down the road, also deep within the Shanxi coal belt. This area provides two-thirds of China’s coal resources, used to power the countries rapid industrial growth.
The city is in a natural basin formed by surrounding mountains, so the mining and constant stream of road and rail trucks taking coal around the country have created a huge pall of smog, exacerbated by the heavy industries that have set up in the area.
Seen from above the whole area is lined with factories and appears as a black scar on the map.
Breathing the air for a day is renowned for being as bad as smoking three packs of cigarettes.
It’s not just the air that is toxic – run off from the factories has polluted the water to the extent that these are now called ‘Cancer Towns’, and a wide variety of serious illnesses are common among the inhabitants.
The day we drove through it wasn’t actually that smoggy, but everything was covered in a fine layer of yellow dust.
The number of trucks on the road is overwhelming, and being trapped between the overtired drivers looking down on the car through bloodshot eyes is a nerve-wracking experience.
Vice Guide to Linfen
I recognised the name Linfen from an old episode of the Vice Guide, but like so many of their reports they over sensationalise every aspect of the trip.
Their Linfen video suggests that you need to film undercover to get any images of the pollution, and that angry officials are trying to stop you at every turn. We simply spoke to a local family who’d decided to go for a picnic in the dying grass by the side of the busy road.
The North Korean episode is worse, with the presenter doing his best to insult and entrap his guides, quite possibly getting them into serious trouble, without even exposing anything new or revelatory.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend going there, but it’s on the way between Beijing and our hopefully cleaner destinations in Shanxi Province.