Airpocalypse

Smog over Tiananmen Square
Smog over Tiananmen Square

Since we returned from our trip to Beijing a few weeks ago, lots of friends have reached out to ask about our experiences with the air pollution there. It turns out that our visit to China’s capital coincided with international headlines about the record-breaking levels of smog (as well as, coincidentally, the climate change conference in Paris). I’ve been asked to share my own impressions of the region’s infamously toxic air. And while I generally do my best to keep this blog upbeat and even entertaining, I have to be honest. The conditions in Beijing scared the shit out of us.

It’s hard to find words for what we witnessed there. It’s no exaggeration to call it “apocalyptic;” the only reference point I can come up with is a dystopian SciFi film. Before flying north, we’d been cautioned about the pollution this time of year, and advised to bring masks along. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed the warnings. To believe it, you first have to see it, smell it, taste it, and feel it. For Westerners like us, to whom Los Angeles represents the pinnacle of smog, it’s just impossible to wrap your head around. I’ve got news for you, LA: you ain’t got diddly squat on Beijing.

Waking up in the morning and looking out the window of our hotel room, the view of the Forbidden City – just blocks away – was obscured by what looked like fog. It kind of looks like San Francisco, you can’t help but think. How picturesque. Then you step outside, and it’s your nose that first makes the connection. This “fog” smells like a cloud of smoke from cheap cigarettes. It burns your nose and the back of your throat. You walk for a bit, and it’s hard to catch your breath.

Perhaps the scariest part is that the locals seem to take it in stride. It’s just another part of the weather system. They dress for the day with coat, scarf, hat, air mask. On a bad day, like the one on which when we visited the Forbidden City, you literally can’t see more past the end of the block. This isn’t rolling in off of the ocean; it’s coming from factories. And it sure as hell isn’t natural. We humans are responsible for this, and I can’t help but believe that it affects the whole planet.

Apparently, when the factories are switched off, the air cleans up in no time. Some quick reading about the pollution in Bejing turns up the phrase “APEC blue,” which describes the clear skies that appeared just in time for the 2014 APEC conference. For sure we’ll be hearing about “Olympic blue” as we get closer to 2022. Recently, however, the city has issued its first-ever “red alerts,” closing schools and warning citizens to stay indoors.

Here in Shenzhen, the situation isn’t nearly as dire. But I’ve taken to religiously tracking the air quality index with an iPhone app, and in preparation for particularly bad days I’ve ordered high-style air masks from Vogmask for all three of us. I only wish I’d had them in hand for our weekend visit to the airpocalypse.

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