By Vivian Ji and Li Linhai
TAIYUAN, China, Aug. 15 (Xinhua) -- On August 10, the football competition of the 2nd China Youth Games was held at Xishan Aoshen Sports City in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. Comprised of four standard football pitches and three five-a-side pitches, the modern complex, complete with red seats, green turf and colorful runways, is a symbol of rebirth for a region that had previously been little more than a disposal site for toxic chemicals and other harmful substances.
"Beforehand, there was nothing here but an abandoned storehouse," said Wang Chunkai, a cleaner who has lived in the area formerly known as Shangyeyu village for decades. Some 400 meters away from the football pitches lie the remains of the caves and brick houses that villagers lived in. Before the new facility was built, there was a long and narrow gully mixed with soil and fly ash, an unpleasant legacy of the region's previous reliance on coal mining. On sunny days, villagers would walk through clouds of dust, and on rainy days their clothes would be caked in mud.
In 2000, the whole village of Shangyeyu was relocated, but nothing was done about the gully. Later, a powerplant selected this depopulated zone and turned it a fly ash storehouse. Before the plant was shut down in 2017, it burned three millions tons of coal annually, which produced up to 6,000 tons of fly ash.
"Years ago, during spring and fall, the strong winds up on the hills blew the fly ash into the village and into our homes," said Zhang Xiujuan, a former Shangyeyu resident. "Every time I came in from outside, I had ash all over my face and inside my mouth. I couldn't even wear any light-colored clothing!"
But despite the gloomy outlook, a rainbow soon appeared on the Shangyeyu horizon. In August 2017, the site now known as Xishan Aoshen Sports City was selected to host the football tournament at the 2nd China Youth Games. Through pollution control, ecological restoration, site construction and comprehensive administration, the fly ash storehouse was transformed into a sports park.
Now, 20-year-old Zhang works as an official volunteer at the China Youth Games. With the ash and mud of the past a distant memory, today she happily wears a white t-shirt and a pair of clean white sneakers.
The construction of the football complex has also benefitted local villagers financially, with many obtaining employment as cleaners and maintenance workers.
Environmental improvement and a guaranteed income is attracting many former villagers to return. "In the past, many of us left due to the bad conditions," said local resident Zhao Jinfen. "But now, our hometown is much cleaner and more beautiful than before. The ones who left must want to come back now. Everyone would love to see their hometown become a better place!"
According to Wang Linrong, design department chief at Xishan Aoshen Corporation, the construction and operation of the venues are just the first steps on the road to a bigger plan. It is hoped that this region will one day become a sports town encompassing many square kilometers, emblematic of the transitional development of Shanxi Province.
Sitting on a seat in the stadium complex, 61-year-old villager Meng Yue watches the game avidly. "I never dreamed that I would be able to see a great football game here, a place I hated before!" he said. On the opposite side of the stadium, the slogan of "Youth Games makes a healthy, beautiful and new Xishan" stands out.