28 June 2020
It’s been only a bit over a year since I visited Bor, a Serbian town for the first time. However, the global outbreak of the virus for the past few months has redefined my perception of “time”. Sitting by my desk in the southern hemisphere as I try to write something down about my several short visits to Bor during last year, I feel like I’m describing a trip during which I’ve constantly moved in and out of the same dream.
My first visit to Bor was a 2 days trip occurred in February 2019, right after I have learned about several Chinese investments in the Balkans as parts of Belt and Road Initiative . The reason for choosing Bor issimply that I have never been to a mining field, and as a Chinese, I am very curious about the Belt and Road project, which has become one of the hottest topics globally, but at the same time so little information can be traced domestically. Therefore, I chose Bor as a study case, to follow the coming changes of the city and its surrounding area. Throughout the year 2019, I have made another two visits to the place, which I am going to write about in the coming texts, all together making a series of ongoing field notes published by the As you go… journal.
Infection (a drawing based on the map of Bor 2020), ink on paper, Hu Yun, 2020
Departing from Belgrade, it was a 3.5-hour journey towards the southeast by coach. The road was flat most of the time, and scenery along the way was dull enough to hypnotize people. But before we reached the border of Bor, the coach had to cross over several mountains, which shook up the few passengers on board.
My companion, K, is a Belgrade-based curator who is from Bor.
As it wasn’t completely dark when we got off the coach, K took me to a mining pit nearby. It was the first open-air copper mine extracted on a large scale in Bor at the beginning of the 20th century . As mine extraction gradually expanded towards surrounding areas and went underground, the pit is no longer in use, and has been gradually backfilled by tailings from surrounding mining areas. Adjacent to the south side of the pit, there were arrays of houses, most of which were built while the mine was first extracted. The houses, together with whole mining area, as well as the town of Bor that took shape afterwards, were all planned and constructed by a French mining company back in 1904. The matchmaker who facilitated all these to happen was George Weifert , whose portrait is on the banknote of 1,000 Serbian dinars (and the main road connecting the mining area and the downtown is also named after him). The term of the lease signed with the French lasted 99 years.
Known as “Tilva Roš” (In Vlachian  it means The Red Hill) by the locals, the area was home to red hills rich in minerals, which could still be seen in colour photos taken in the 1940s. However, after one hundred years of extraction, not only were the red hills removed but also a negative form of the hills was created out of thin air. The city of Bor, taking the mining area as a starting point, gradually expands southwards.
K took me for a walk through the abandoned houses around the pit, so deftly as if she had a map of the place in mind. Looking around, there was no fence whatsoever around the vast pit. As long as you are bold enough, you can do as Stefan did at the beginning of the movie Tilva Roš : to ride a skateboard all the way down to the bottom of the pit. K told me anyone who was born and raised in Bor, more or less would have some memory related to the pit. The north side of the pit was close to RTB mining area and there was even a sightseeing platform there. K didn’t quite remember in which year it was built. But the location used to be a major “gathering point”. Especially in summer, as long as there was no wind (sandstones blown up by the wind around the pit were formidable), people liked to go there to have some fun. Seen from the platform, the man-made landscape was indeed spectacular under the setting sun. What laid in between me and the town on the other side was the vast pit, or say, void.
Whether scenes of the performing band at the abandoned house around the pit (which remained the same) in Good Luck  (Ben Russell, 2017) or those of the workers’ chorus shot beside it (where now the sightseeing platform is located) in Beli Beli Svet  (White White World, 2010), the city was always shown as if it was surrounded by a vast black hole, drawing people inside. If every modern city must have a public square, for Bor, that would be the pit – the void that connects everyone who lives here.
The next day K’s father took the role of a guide. He worked at the cable factory (like almost all the other factories in the city, the cable factory was affiliated to RTB Group , which after being taken over by Zijin Mining Group  was temporarily shut down, waiting for further arrangements from Zijin ). And he was also a hunter. He tried to explain to me how things went on in the factory, and even brought me there. However, “hunter” seemed to me a more suitable description of him after the short time we spent together.
Standing at a commanding height of the city early in the morning, one could take an overview over the entire Zeleni Bulevar (which is one of the few main streets running through north and south). The pit was still an overwhelming presence in the background. But what shocked me more this time was the massive clouds of white smoke that appeared from different parts of the city from time to time.
“The mining areas run 24/7 and become the clock for Bor.
No matter where you are, you’d hear the bell indicating (day/night) shifting of duty of the miners. As to these chimneys, the processing of ores  could be roughly deduced from the gases emitted from them at different locations. The whole process is quite a routine. On windy days, you can tell time by the smell of smoke without even looking up.” While he was talking, the hunter pointed to the different chimneys to explain to me the smelting process of copper.  He seemed extremely calm during the whole conversation. It was me, a visitor from one of the most polluted countries, who secretly regretted that I hadn’t brought a N95 mask  with me. I learned from Deana Jovanović’s article that “Borski dim” (Bor’s smoke) was a specialty of Bor . Local friends of hers suggested that “one should light a cigarette to ‘wash off the lungs’ with the cigarette smoke, which she usually did if she encountered the smoke in the streets.” Like K’s family, all those who live in Bor have some kind connection with the mining area. RTB and its peripheral industries function as the only source of livelihood for most people there. Hence, the implications of “smog”  to this place are more complicated. Environmental issues have emerged in people’s conversations more frequently than before. But when Bor was initially established, and even today, “smog” remains an intuitive image of production / life ongoing.
The hunter suggested bringing me to take a look at the Bor River. Along the way we passed by the house of K’s grandma, which was located at a serene village no different from other Serbian villages I have visited, with a church in the center, surrounded by a school, a post and a Chinese cheap goods store. A brook beside the church merged into the Bor River not far away.
We parked by the brook, and the hunter brought out a thermo jug from the trunk, pouring me a cup of herbal tea he brewed in the morning. It was high noon with the warm sunshine of early spring, the fragrance of the hot tea effectively drove my doziness away. Walking alongside the brook, apart from the herbal fragrance, I also smelt bursts of unnatural sourness. I took a closer look: a weird touch of peacock blue could be perceived from within the gurgling brook.
As we approached the Bor River, we witnessed more unusual scenes. The hunter took me to a mire, where used to be his “pond” to catch wild ducks. There was indeed a pool of water here, but in unusually gorgeous color. By the side of it there were several branches continuously merging into the pond, which were in bright orange color. The middle part of the pond was in pure royal blue. And there were a few barren slopes nearby. It’s one of the disposal points of the tailings. As I’d guessed, it appeared in many sci-fi movies in the past few years. No single filter effect in my phone could create such a gorgeous palette. Appearing side by side with these “spectacles” were farmlands and village houses.
We kept walking southward, and climbed up a hill. At this point, we were far far away from the pit at the north. The forests around were the hunting area for K’s father. Since about twenty years ago, mining and exploration companies from Canada and the Netherlands came to detect the area, certainly not only for copper. “They found several points of extraction in the forests, for gold.” The hunter pointed into the distance and said.
Is this why Zijin took over RTB Mining Group? Will they further expand the extraction area in Bor? Will the forests disappear?
Perhaps it was because of the heavy wind on top of the hill, neither of us talked anymore.