Life in Beijing: Airpocalypse Now

One night while living in Beijing I coughed and hacked and spluttered all night long, with an itching and burning in my throat that nothing would alleviate.

I didn’t sleep much that night, and when I finally did wake up in the morning, shattered, I awoke to the horrifying sight of blood flecks across my pillow.

Had I been at home, or in Japan, or New Zealand or Canada, I would’ve gone straight to the doctor, terrified; but I was in Beijing, and I knew exactly what the cause was and exactly how to fix it.

The cause was PM2.5, and the solution was simply to leave China.

Check out these three pics taken from the exact same spot (a rail bridge near my old apartment, looking along Chaoyang Lu towards the CBD):

Beijing on a clear pollution day

Good day

Beijing on a moderate pollution day

Normal day

Beijing on a day with severe PM2.5 air pollution

Scary day!

PM2.5, if you’re not familiar, means particulate matter (i.e. tiny particles) measuring just 2.5 micrometres in diameter.

2.5 micrometres is the size of many bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, and small enough to penetrate the alveoli of the lung; PM2.5 is therefore the most harmful constituent part of air pollution (though far from the only harmful part).

Much has been written about how China’s phenomenal economic boom of the last few decades has come at terrible cost to the environment; the factories turning out the cheap trinkets and electronics parts for export around the world, the power stations belching out their fumes, and the huge quantities of coal burned every winter to heat the northern cities while the temperatures plunge below zero, all combine to put huge amounts of PM2.5 in the air. On some days it can be so bad you can’t even see the tops of the buildings around you, earning the epithet Airpocalypse Now.

The problem affects cities throughout China, with the worst-hit being Beijing and surrounding cities in Hebei Province, the northeastern cities of Shenyang and Harbin, and the western cities of Xi’an, Chengdu, and Chongqing.

Severe air pollution in Xi'an

This one was taken in Xi’an

Chengdu on a day with high PM2.5 levels

…and this is Chengdu

It’s not like that every day though, far from it in fact. If you catch Beijing on a sunny day in spring or autumn with a clear blue sky it can be quite lovely; summer is hot & sweaty, but the heavy downpours of summer rain are welcome as they scrub the air of pollution. Winter is the worst, as the above-mentioned burning of coal for heating greatly increases the PM2.5 levels; thankfully many days in winter see a fierce wind ripping across Beijing which blows away the pollution (sorry, Korea!) but makes it brutally cold. Cold though they may be, the windy days are far preferable to the smoggy days.

You can check the present level and weekly forecast on the excellent aqicn.org; see this page for an explanation of the scale.

The Great Wall of China snaking away into the smog

The Great Wall snaking away into the smog (this wasn’t a particularly bad day)

So, you’re travelling to Beijing and you’re wondering what to do about the pollution. My best advice would be to try and have enough time to flexible with your plans – there really is absolutely no point going to the Great Wall, for example, when the PM2.5’s hitting 200; you won’t see the views, and it’ll be a pretty unpleasant experience. Check the forecast, and try to do any shopping, museum visits, or hitting specific restaurants you want to try, on the bad pollution days; and of course, aim to make outdoor excursions when the pollution’s less bad.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get clear blue skies every day, but don’t count on it!

The other thing you should definitely do is take a good mask with you – and that means a good, properly fitting mask, with a fine particle filter. See here for a guide to choosing an effective mask; aqicn also has a list of recommended masks.

Another grimly fascinating thing is hiking up a mountain in China to the point where you’re above the smog, and can actually see the dividing line in the air like this:

Above the smog on Taishan

From the top of Taishan

Smoggy view of Beijing from Xiangshan

Looking over Beijing from the top of Xiangshan

Scary stuff! Fact is though, that severe air pollution is part of life in early-21st Century China; if you’re like me in wanting to travel partly to see what life is really like in different parts of the world, then perhaps you can simply consider dealing with the air pollution as part & parcel of that. It’s horrible when it’s bad, but you have the luxury of leaving at your ease, so try to take it in stride as part of the China travel experience.

As for those who call the place home, it’s something they’re going to be dealing with for a long time – but (hopefully!) not forever. A couple of recent events – the 2008 Olympics and the 2015 military parade for the 70th anniversary of WWII – have demonstrated that the air in Beijing can actually be drastically improved in a short time by enacting a few pollution-reduction policies. I was there for 2 days just before the parade in 2015, and the weather was lovely – deep blue skies and fresh, clean air. When it’s like that, Beijing really does have its moments.

These pollution-reduction policies include halving the traffic by only allowing odd- and even- numbered registration plates on the road on alternating days, and closing down all the factories in Beijing & Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei for a fixed period. Of course this latter policy is pretty radical from an economic perspective, so there’s no chance of it being a regular thing – it’s only for when the eyes of the world are on Beijing. But the fact it does work, and quickly, does give hope for the future i.e. if & when the majority of power is generated from renewables.

View through the train window of Guangdong on a smoggy day

View through the train window of Guangdong on a smoggy day

View through the train window of Guangdong on a clear day

…and how the same area looks on a clear day!

The more difficult long-term problem is going to be the waterways; the River Aire in my hometown of Leeds was so thoroughly dumped full of shit during the Industrial Revolution that it was devoid of life for over a century (though the fish have finally returned in recent decades), and China’s poisoned rivers are likely in an even worse state. It’s unlikely to affect you as a traveller (beyond how wretched it looks should you take a boat on the Yangtze), so I won’t go into more depth but if you’re interested have a look at the crazy photos here.

Hopefully one day in the not too distant future the denizens of Beijing will be breathing clean air and looking back at the late-20th / early-21st Centuries the way Brits look back at Dickensian London; until then, try to avoid visiting in winter, pay attention to the forecasts on aqicn, pack a good mask, have alternative plans for bad-air days, and hope for the best!

For more China posts, click here. Also check out my China overland travel guide

Have you experienced the Airpocalypse? Leave me a comment below!

Posted in Beijing, China

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