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"A Tale of Coal Mine Village" part 1

Between the sea of green covering the slopes of Mt. Fufeng and the rice fields stretching towards the rocky side of the Elephant lay a narrow mountain path. It led to one of the Nine Gates of a City, that had been known by many names throughout the ages.


Old soldiers of the millennium past would know it as Juzhou. The rare stones being all that’s left of the old city walls heard a different call: Shunyuan. For me it is but Guiyang, but for those country folks that came trudging through the karst of the Black Land in early decades of the 20th century in hope of finding better fortunes it had but one name: opportunity.


To say it was auspicious to discover coal so close to the bustling city was to say nothing at all! How much it’d improve the lives of the people of these god-forsaken lands only time could tell. Coal pits were dug. Soon, provisional mining hovels dotted the land east of the City, within the watchful eye of the great East Mountain Temple. It had become the promised land for hundreds dreading the everlasting perils of living upcountry.


And so they dug deep into the rocks; all those people of unusual tribes and customs coming from hamlets so remote, that it seemed hardly possible for them to exist at all, not named on any maps and omitted in the imperial annals. It is said that in the past long gone the Han soldiers were to take local women as brides, thus incorporating the frontier into the grand scheme of things - in this way, possibly, the rich and unique tradition of this multi-cultural land was born. Tradition that is now giving way to what some would call modernity, characterised by sterile identically of places, food, clothes… Yet every time I still catch a glimpse of a countryside grandma wearing the beautiful batik of her people, I am reminded of the ancient connection, one that I’d hate to see severed.


I imagine all the peoples dressed so strangely, speaking their own dialects gather up around small fires scatter across the Coal Mine slopes. What songs did they sing? What stories were woven, after the excruciating hours of work in the pits of hell? Maybe it is in dreams only, that such things can be seen, and such riddles solved. But while they sang, they dug deeper and deeper, the tunnels drilling towards the heart of the Old City.


Then came the time of strife and war - coal became the new black gold in the sanguine struggle against the great enemy that consumed almost the entire Mainland. No fond memories of those days were passed onto younger generations; thanks to the coal, however, and the location along the Burma Road leading from the Land South of Clouds, the City could survive. For the first time in centuries luck has smiled upon the Black Land, as it didn’t get to see much fighting within its borders.


It is the most devastated lands that rise from the ashes most vigorously, trying to make up for the time stolen from them by the invaders. There is grace in their resurrections that is perhaps best pictured in the story of the Phoenix. For it is not without meaning that its colour is crimson, and its element is blaze - it must be the burning passions of people that push them forward even after the greatest of calamities. In this way, with its furnaces fueled by such emotions, the City grew bigger each day, sprawling towards whatever land there was, not taken yet. Ironically, it was in that time of growing industry that the decision was made - the mine was to be closed down, its location being too close to the City itself, posing a threat of swallowing some of the buildings just above the tunnels. And so, the Coal Mine was no more, but the Village remained.


By that time the entire area was already densely populated with workers and their families. Due to the land limitations, their self-built dwellings grew fatter with scrape metal or wood, or whatever there was at hand, undergoing chaotic mutations to meet the demand for the living space. It must have been hard for all those people to be left without work all of the sudden, but there were new factories in the City that needed any available working hands. The Coal Mine Village become a quarter of migrants, most often farmers, looking for any work that could keep their bellies full. Around them, the City evolved as years went by, but the hovels inside the Village only became more entangled and bloated. Soon, the entire slope would be covered with a thick cobweb of gutter-like alleys and strange staircases leading into the maze of no sunlight.


With the City having undergone such a rapid reconstruction for the last decade, it appears that only few decrepit areas are now left unchanged; after the Flower Orchard slum was demolished (only to create another slum - one that came in a slightly nicer package), the Coal Mine Village could finally sport its position as the City’s biggest and most infamous shanty town. Lost in time, unaffected by the changes that gave birth to new housing communities in the surrounding areas, it became landlocked - with so many ways in, yet no way out.



***


Here I should probably anticipate your questions - how did I learn about the Coal Mine in the first place? And why would I even bother visiting a slum?

The answer is very simple: it is locations like this that still hold a strong connection to the past, so I had to go. Our fates became intertwined on more than one occasion, and made for a handful of amazing adventures. I shall, Dear Reader, write about all this in detail quite soon.

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