The black treasure has transformed this once-isolated crossroads nestled in the sand-sculpted ravines of Inner Mongolia into a bleak boomtown of nearly 300,000 people. Day and night, long and dusty trains haul out coal to electric power plants and factories in the east, fuelling Chinas explosive growth.
Coal is big, and getting bigger. As oil and natural gas prices soar, the world is relying ever more on the cheap, black-burning mainstay of the industrial revolution. Mining companies are racing into Africa. Workers are laying miles of new railroad track to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in the US states of Wyoming and Montana.
And nowhere is coal bigger than in China.
But the explosion of coal comes amid rising alarm over its dire consequences for workers and the environment. An average of 13 Chinese miners die every day in explosions, floods, fires and cave-ins. Toxic clouds of mercury and other chemicals from mining are poisoning the air and water far beyond Chinas borders and polluting the food chain.
So far, attempts to clean up coal have largely not worked. Technology to reduce or cut out carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and years away from widespread commercial use. Not very many people are talking about what do we do to live with the consequences of whats happening, said James Brock, a longtime industry consultant in the Beijing office of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. The polar bears are doomed - theyre going to museums. At the end of this century the Arctic ice cap will be gone. That means a lot of water rising, not by inches but metres.
Burned since ancient times, coal dramatically increased in use during the Industrial Revolution, when it became fuel for the new steam engines, gas lamps and electrical generators. Worldwide demand for coal dipped at the end of the 20th century, but is now back up and projected to rise 60% by 2030 to 6.9 billion tonnes a year, according to the International Energy Agency.