China: The Glowing Mountains


Inferno in the underworld

Shipment: World Journal - ORF

Report: Hartmut Idzko

Camera: Joachim Szogalla

Editor: Martin Tiefensee

Length: 08:15

Atmo Music


Hell's Kitchen it could be called.  Searingly hot stinking sulphurous gas rises from the bowels of the earth.


A seemingly endless pall of smoke hangs over the horizon.


We are on the edge of the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia, China's northern province.


It is burning coal, far below the surface which contaminates the air, has eroded the landscape and created misery for the region's inhabitants.


The sulphurous smoke is highly toxic, it is created by fires burning 100 feet down, at 1000 degrees of heat.


These geologists are travelling with the German industrial group Evonik. They are investigating the extent of these devastating coal fires in China's mining regions.

Voice (subtitle)

280 here in front


They carry a thermometer, both for their research, and for safety. Even at the surface, temperatures can be dangerously hot, the geologists need tread very carefully.

18.50 O-Ton Geologist Dr. Hartwig Gielisch speaks

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Incredibly, Dr Gielisch explains to us that the CO2 output of this fire is the same as the output of all the cars in Germany.  And there is a village right next to it.


We find two coal thieves making a quick get away.  The majority of China's coal can be found very close to the surface.  Thieves dig illegally into the mountain, excavating small tunnels, and carrying away the coal.  This excavation process allows oxidation to take place, and so much heat is generated that the coal ignites and the mountain begins to burn.


Over 200 million tons of coal is destroyed in this way every year, releasing vast amounts of CO2.

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The town of Wuda is celebrating the opening of a new department store. 

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Crowds have gathered, drawn by the festivities.  For a few moments, Wuda has come to life.  The first houses here were built when coal was discovered in 1958, the settlement has grown rapidly, it's population now numbering 80,000 people.

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This is a quiet town.  There are few attractions - most people are pre-occupied with survival.  The climate is harsh - with the Yellow River on one side of the town and the Gobi Desert on the other, the summer temparatures soar, while in winter they can plummet to -40 degrees.  With the bright city lights of Beijing far away, the people of Wuda remain attached to traditional customs.  We talk to some locals to find out what they think of the fires.

O-Ton woman

"Yes, the pollution here is really bad. The smell is terrible. But nobody cares. You have to keep away from the Fire zones. Especially at night.

O-Ton Man

"I am thinking of leaving. The air here is too dirty. "

O-tone Women 2

"I wear a facemask because of sandstorms not because of the poor air.  The sandstorms can be very violent. "

O-Ton Man 2

"The impact on our lives is great. Especially the air quality, and the loss of resources. I already have many friends who suffer from respiratory diseases because of the filthy air. You're healthy then you come here and straight away your nose is inflamed."


We are inside the region's flagship mine. It is almost fully operated by technology designed in Europe.  Even so, serious accidents occur almost daily here.  China's mines are considered the most unstable worldwide. The mining companies are under extreme pressure from the government to produce more and more coal.  China relies almost solely on the mineral to feed her enormous industrial economy. With this demand for speed, safety is neglected.  But the real problem is that reserves are shrinking, and the fires do not help.


This is one method being used to fight the fires.  Mr Jia and his two assistants use water tankers to try to douse the fire. The job is a thankless one, they can rarely compete against the furnace like heat. 10,000 litres of precious water is poured over the flames.

23.13 Geologist

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10,000 litres of precious water poured over the flames, and all that is to be seen is a cloud of steam.  So far, all fighting attempts have failed.  Another similarly hopeless operation is underway at this mine.  Hundreds of trucks, bulldozers and excavators are moving an entire mountain in order to save it from the fire. Mountains as big as 100 square kilometers have been already moved. It takes a massive effort - almost 4000 People are involved. But if these operations aren't successful China's economy will suffer  - already China has been forced to stop exporting coal, and has begun to import. This has had global consequences: the price of coal has sky rocketed. As we watch these men and women salvage any usable pieces of coal to trade at the market in exchange for food, we are struck by the desperation of this situation.

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