Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day. No signposts and no paved roads lead here, and as we approach security guards shoo us away and tail us. When we finally break through the cordon and climb sand dunes to reach its brim, an apocalyptic sight greets us: a giant, secret toxic dump, made bigger by every wind turbine we build.
The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.
For hours after our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there for only one hour, but those who live in Mr Yan’s village of Dalahai, and other villages around, breathe in the same poison every day.
Retired farmer Su Bairen, 69, who led us to the lake, says it was initially a novelty – a multi-coloured pond set in farmland as early rare earth factories run by the state-owned Baogang group of companies began work in the Sixties.
‘At first it was just a hole in the ground,’ he says. ‘When it dried in the winter and summer, it turned into a black crust and children would play on it. Then one or two of them fell through and drowned in the sludge below. Since then, children have stayed away.’
As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.
‘It turned into a mountain that towered over us,’ says Mr Su. ‘Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.’
People too began to suffer. Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.
Official studies carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found.
Since then, maybe because of pressure from the companies operating around the lake, which pump out waste 24 hours a day, the results of ongoing radiation and toxicity tests carried out on the lake have been kept secret and officials have refused to publicly acknowledge health risks to nearby villages.
There are 17 ‘rare earth metals’ – the name doesn’t mean they are necessarily in short supply; it refers to the fact that the metals occur in scattered deposits of minerals, rather than concentrated ores. Rare earth metals usually occur together, and, once mined, have to be separated.