Where once stood a city polluted by coal mining, a big green lung stands in its place.
IT is a city slightly smaller than Terengganu, about two hours from Beijing via high speed train.
What strikes first-time visitors to this city is the green parks, beautiful lakes and artistic villages.
Handan – is one of the very few Chinese cities with an ancient name that has been used for more than 3,000 years.
It covers an area of 12,000sq km with a population of 10.58 million.
This is the birth place of Qin Shi Huang – the first Emperor of a unified China after defeating six other kingdoms.
For decades, Handan has been known as the City of Coal and the City of Steel due to its abundant mineral resources and the rapid development of heavy industries, including steel mills and pottery kilns.
It has more than 40 types of mineral resources, including 5.4 billion tonnes of coal reserve and 470 million tonnes of iron ore reserve.
The city is the main producing area for coking coal and high-grade iron ore.
Over the years, these heavy industries have boosted the economy of Handan and raised the standard of living of the local community.
But industrialisation comes with a price.
The land was greatly damaged and the local folk breathed polluted air, travelled on dusty potholed roads and lost a suitable place to spend their leisure time.
Blue skies and clean water had become a luxury.
More than a decade ago, Handan was among the top five Chinese cities with the worst air pollution.
Today, Handan has been declared a city of National Garden, a title awarded to cities that boasts green landscapes, beautiful sceneries and comfortable living environments by the Housing and Urban-Rural Development Ministry.
It has also been named the country’s National Excellent City.
“We have successfully transformed from a city that relied on heavy industries such as steel, coal and construction materials production to manufacturing, food, cultural tourism as well as other sustainable and high-tech industries.
“Over the past years, we put in a lot of effort to beautify the city and plant trees, ” said secretary of Handan CPC (Communist Party of China) committee Gao Hongzhi.
The green areas increased from 23.2% in 2012 to 32.2% last year while the air quality index is now moderate from unhealthy.
“Our people can enjoy the blue sky, green landscape and cleaner environment, ” he pointed out.
Handan vice-mayor Zhang Xuejun explained that thousands of factories had to be closed down in exchange for a better living environment.
“We are striving to build a prosperous and beautiful city ideal for living, business and tourism, ” she told a group of foreign diplomats and journalists.
About 40km from Handan, a mining district named Fengfeng was one of the most affected by the polluting industries.
Being the second biggest coking coal producing area, the devastated area was left with nothing but bald hills and potholes.
Since 2010, efforts were carried out to revive the livelihood of Fengfeng. And the district was indeed revived and transformed into a green scenic zone.
“Fengfeng may not be the most beautiful city in China, but I can proudly said that it is definitely one that has undergone the biggest facelift, ” said secretary of the district’s CPC committee Niu Yingjian.
By looking at its current landscape, those who are new to this place, like me, could never imagine how it was without looking at old photographs.
Niu said protective face masks and hats were must-have items in Fengfeng.
“We re-aligned the district planning, built 12 leisure parks and squares, gazetted the wetlands and forest parks, repaired over 100km of roads, beautified the riverbanks, refilled the soil and planted trees at bald hills.
“Experts were brought in to revive the rivers, deal with pollution and rubbish problems, ” he said.He pointed out that so far, the local authorities had revived 74 mining hills, equivalent to about 82% of the total number.
“We have created an additional 10,000ha of green areas in the past three years, and the days with healthy API Index have increased from 68 days in 2015 to 158 days in 2018, ” he said.
He proudly announced that Fengfeng received nearly 29 million tourists and raked in 26.6 billion yuan (RM15.81bil) since 2017, when the district hosted the 2nd Handan Tourism Industry Development Conference.
The local authorities have also turned abandoned villages into artistic villages by inviting independent artists to operate their workshops at refurbished buildings.
“It is the desire of the people to live in a beautiful and healthy environment, ” said Niu.