Postcards from (smoggy) Beijing

Pollution levels reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labled Beijing as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality in the city.

Air pollution reached “hazardous” levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labeled the city as “unlivable” because of the poor air quality.

Pollution masks have become a necessity in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years, after I noticed that I was getting sore throat and coughs more frequently.

Pollution masks have become a part of everyday life in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years ago, after I bought a bike and began using it to commute around the city.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. Some scientists have labeled the city as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. An Australian soccer player who spent a year in China told the magazine FourFourTwo that playing in the smog “was like closing your garage door, turning your car exhaust on and running around in the enclosed space.”

 

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Fly the smoggy skies

This is your Captain speaking. It’s 4:30 p.m. local time, March 6, 2024, and we’re beginning our descent into Beijing, although you could never tell by looking out the window. Visibility is at 5 feet and shrinking. The weather forecast calls for cancer-causing smog, followed overnight by acid rain.

Masks will be dropping from the ceiling in the next couple of minutes, but don’t be alarmed. If your final destination is Beijing, you must put on a World Health Organization-approved pollution mask before leaving the airport. If you’re traveling with a small child, please make sure their mask is properly secured before putting yours on.

Smog.

Beijing, from 20,000 feet.

Our cabin crew will be going around in a few minutes to hand out anti-acid tablets. Unlike the masks, these aren’t required, but I highly advise taking a few just in case that lamb meat you order for lunch turns out to be diseased rat. That actually happened to me once, and I got so bloated that I looked like a woman pregnant with twins in her third trimester.

Pollution masks fall from the ceiling. A few people who were asleep during the announcement scream, but quickly calm down after they realize the plane hasn’t lost cabin pressure; they’re just landing in Beijing.

A few more things to tell you while we prepare for landing. Recently, there have been scandals involving baby formula, bottled water, fruit and vegetables containing high levels of pesticide, recycled cooking oil … (turns to co-pilot, voice barely audible: Bob, I know I’m forgetting something) … oh, and fresh air in a can. If, like me, you have a pulse, then you’re probably concerned about at least one of these things. However, all of these items are for sale in our duty-free catalog and can be purchased using Mastercard or Visa.

One more reminder: if you’re outside and your mask gets undone, don’t run. Just lie on the ground and dial 120. Medical personnel with oxygen tanks will respond within minutes to assist you.

It’s been a pleasure having you on board, and we hope you enjoy your stay in Beijing.

Kunming confessions

I’ve been traveling alone in Yunnan province in southwestern China for the past couple of days, which has forced me to speak Chinese pretty much wherever I go.

I’ve made big strides after two years of Chinese lessons, and I’m slowly trying to come out of my shell and be more chatty. This morning, the cab driver who picked me up from the airport in the city of Dali was quite a character. Continue reading

Oh, what an ominous morning

I really wanted to go running outside this morning.

I’ve got a Chinese lesson in two hours, and my brain seems to function better after a long, hard run. I’m also making progress in losing weight, down more than 15 pounds from a year ago.

But when I peeled back the curtain to check the weather, my hopes for a quick workout were dashed. After a couple of blue-sky days last week, the pollution is back. Buildings a couple of blocks away from my apartment are barely visible from my ninth-floor window. The air is a grayish white.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The latest message from the US embassy, which monitors air pollution and releases readings hourly through its Twitter feed, said the air today is hazardous. The embassy rates air quality based on the amount of PM2.5 in the air – fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller. Common sources are power plants, industries and automobiles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I’m used to this by now: this process of getting up, looking out the window and checking the US embassy’s Twitter feed – all so I can make an informed decision about whether I can run outside without damaging my health. Continue reading

One man’s paradise is another kid’s backyard

My trip to the Philippines couldn’t have come at a better time. Beijing is currently experiencing its coldest winter in 30 years. The chill has been made even worse by a stretch of “crazy bad” air pollution.

On mornings when the smog blocked the sun and pulled a curtain on the horizon, I’d close my eyes and imagine a paradise of blue: blue skies, blue water, a blue frozen drink with sliced mango hanging off the rim. Continue reading

Translations gone wild

When I visit the United States on Friday, there will be a lot of things I won’t miss about Beijing: the air pollution, traffic jams and kids taking a dump on the sidewalk, just to name a few.

But one thing I will certainly miss are the Chinglish signs. There have been days when – after failing to accomplish the simplest of tasks because of my limited Chinese – I’ve felt like swearing off chopsticks, grabbing my passport and catching the first plane out of town.

But when I look up and see a sign for dried fruit that says “fuck fruit,” suddenly the clouds part, birds chirp and all is well. (“Dry” and a colloquialism for “sex” share the same Chinese character.) Continue reading

The hunt for red November

One of the first parks I visited in Beijing was Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan). The park is best known for its smoke trees, which turn the hillside red in autumn.

I went in November, hoping to make a few nice pictures to send to family and friends back home. The climb to the top of the park took about two hours. Along the way I saw plenty of yellow and golden leaves, but no red ones. To make matters worse, when I reached the peak the view of Beijing was obstructed by pollution.

But the hike wasn’t a total loss. On the way down, I found a trail that led to a pond. The surface was covered with leaves and water lilies. I took several pictures, and then climbed to a higher spot so I could get the people walking around the water in the frame. From there I captured one of my favorite images of my first few months in China.

Vanishing into thick air

My biggest complaint about Beijing is the pollution. Nothing saps the energy out of me first thing in the morning quite like looking out the window and not being able to see a building that I could probably hit with a baseball. It’s depressing and bad for my health.

But I put up with it because I live near the heart of a booming metropolis. Public transportation is great. The food is cheap. And, when I need a respite from the congested streets and noisy shopping markets, there are plenty of art museums and well-maintained parks to get lost in.

I recently traveled to Tai’an, in the eastern province of Shandong, to climb one of China’s holiest Buddhist mountains with a friend from college. We left in the morning, on a high-speed train from Beijing’s South Railway Station. A light haze hung over the city. Continue reading

Beijing’s indefinite particles

The skies were brilliant blue the day I arrived in Beijing. From the street, you could see the tops of skyscrapers. And from the tops of skyscrapers, you could see the outline of jagged mountains on the horizon.

This kind of visibility wasn’t normal, and sure enough within a few days, a haze began to set over the city. The tops of tall buildings disappeared in the smog. The air became heavier, and I found it harder to breathe, especially when I exercised outside, which I like to do. Cars in my neighborhood that hadn’t been moved for days became coated in residue of some kind. If you left a window open at your home, the dust seeped in and settled on the floor.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a clear day.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a polluted day.

You get used to the pollution after a while, at least the sight of it. I treat it as a trade-off for living in a rapidly developing land of opportunity, where jobs for college-educated expats are in high demand.

Continue reading