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Earth Sense: China a country of crowds, distances, fertile silt
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In spite of the many differences between Western and Asian culture, my current residence in Anhui, China, reminds me of Germany.

Densely populated towns alternate with green agricultural fields. Streets are jammed full of cars and motor scooters, vehicles of all sizes parked on curbs, sidewalks and whatever space is available.

Hundreds of mom-and-pop stores in each town hold out successfully against the large supermarket chains. People politely avoid each other’s gaze when their paths cross in a street or lobby, but show friendly curiosity toward strangers.

Public transportation helps relieve some of the dense city traffic, but mimics it by keeping passengers together at breathing distance on buses filled to capacity.

A quickly learned lesson was that you can’t walk into a railroad station, purchase a ticket and get on a train shortly afterward. It takes advance planning and reservations, unless one is willing to travel at an exotic time of day, and possibly make the multihour journey as a standing-room passenger.  

Distances are huge, and many Chinese citizens think of “not far away” as a destination requiring a multihour trip.

My own ignorance of the importance of the May 1 holiday, a main travel time in China, prevented me from making an excursion to Zhengzhou (“just eight hours away”). Zhengzhou is a small dot on the national map, suggesting that it may be comparable to Macon or Americus. In fact, the city’s population is close to 10 million.

Its location on the Yellow River puts it next to one of the most important waterways in China’s history. The river got its name from the enormous amounts of sediment that it carries. That’s mostly silt, a soil fraction smaller than sand and larger than clay. It colors the water yellow to light brown.

Silt is a resource and a problem at the same time because it can pile up and cause floods in large areas adjoining the stream. Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River was built to control flooding, but silt accumulation on the upstream side presents a headache for engineers.

Closer to the headwaters of the river, windblown dust from the desert settled on the ground thousands of years ago, forming the original source for the silt. Where it has accumulated as topsoil, it’s called loess.
Along with similar areas in Iowa, Germany and Russia, loess provides the most fertile agricultural ground in the world.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at

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