Earlier spring, we were in Lanzhou, out West, Gansu province, upper reaches of the Yellow River–China’s second longest, after the Yangtze. It is, I read, China’s river of sorrow, for its history of horrific floods, some of history’s deadliest natural disasters.
In a 50-year period between 1887 and 1931, Yellow River floods killed an estimated seven million people, including in epidemics that followed.
Notoriously, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists created a man-made Yellow River flood (not here but to the east) to halt the enemy advance, killing perhaps a million Chinese people and no one knows how many Japanese soldiers.
The floods’ cause (in part) is in the name: the “yellow” is silt, from a fine, easily eroding rock (loess) that collects and raises the river till it spills over. (Loess is finer than sand, carried by wind, mostly quartz, highly subject to erosion.) We called that beige stuff “Gobi sand” and it got in our eyes, packed into our ears, and had to be dumped out of pockets and bags for days. OK, it was sandstorm season. But never have I seen a dustier place than Lanzhou. Not inches of dust, but piles a foot high in the dustpan after people swept. Mounds collecting indoors in room corners, outdoors against buildings, streets.
The river’s not so “yellow”– more brown. Industrial waste has rendered it (source: UN) unfit for drinking and also for agricultural and even for industrial use.
This blog has attracted a VERY nice American follower who lives in Langzhou and I apologize, Dave, but in spite of the cool provincial museum (home to the famous, iconic bronze horse, one of the best archaeological treasures, almost thrown into a smelter during the Cultural Revolution), the awesome hand-uplled beef noodles(flavored with cinnamon & star anise as well as ginger and cilantro) and several active temples & mosques, I do not hope to return to Lanzhou.
And the Yellow River, past and present, made me sad.