Yes it’s official. The authorities have issued a ‘red warning’ to Beijing that pollution levels are going to reach dangerous levels. For once the kindergarten opposite is quiet. All schools are closed for at least two days and children advised to stay at home. With the issue of the warning many people are afraid to go out.
“I’m not going out” texted one of my students on WeChat.
“Staying home. Afraid to go out. Even national library books look good today!” starting a flurry of text messages on multiple group chats.
Outside resembles the start of a bad dream. There is a strong sense of foreboding as buildings are wrapped in the heavy dim-yellow-grey toxic blanket that envelops Beijing. At least yesterday the sun was visible (kinda); a yellow disc obscured by a barrier of particles preventing any sort of UV penetration. Today is worse. Today is a bad one. Beijing is the number one ‘top of the charts’ city in China for the worst pollution out of three hundred and eighty six that are monitored.
Locals seeing the bright side of it all.
After weeks of waiting in the cold and damp D-Day finally arrived. With the start of winter the ‘powers that be’ flipped the ‘on’ switch for the heating and hey presto, we instantly became engulfed. People have no control over this including temperature and usually it’s so hot that people leave their windows open. No chance of that at the moment though!
Yes, the heating for the whole country gets switched on at the same time. Amazing hey? Actually when I say ‘whole country’ this is totally wrong. I mean half the country as down south there is no heating at all. Instead they have to rely on air-con or various forms of store bought heating like gas burners or electric fan heaters.
Either way, that millions of tonnes of coal get burnt to produce the electricity to power this lap top feels totally insane. China has to burn almost as much coal as the rest of the world to support its ‘one point three billion plus’ population. Year by year its coal production steadily increases having enough to keep its power stations running for at least thirty years and stockpiles well over the one hundred billion tonne mark, phew!
In a great twist of bad luck, most of Northern China exists in a high pressure area which locks the bad air in. Last week it lasted for five painful days and after a few days of clean air its back with a vengeance. If you are thinking of coming to China then head south as even the big cities such as Shenzhen normally have good air.
I can’t stand it anymore nor can I defend it. In recent years I’ve always stubbornly told people back in the UK that “No it’s not that bad. It clears after a few days and then it’s ok for a couple of weeks”. I left Beijing in 2013 for two uninterrupted blissful years of clean air to return to this! Within days of being back my boss asked me if I had an air index monitor in my phone. That was a new one on me. Turns out that these days there are many variations of monitor apps to warn you of the toxic perils that lurk beyond your windows. You can also see what’s going on in all major cities across China and see your location ranked against others, yearly, monthly, daily or by the hour.
Another ‘must have’ is an air purifier which can be bought in many large supermarkets, department stores or ordered on line. Crank it up in the office or apartment. The school I work has one in each classroom. Even so, one can’t ignore the sluggish feeling of inertia that lingers throughout these times. Sometimes it’s like you just can’t wake up and after a week of constant drowsiness movement becomes somewhat of a chore.
When the air is between ‘excellent’ and ‘moderately polluted’ Beijingers don’t bother wearing masks. When it starts to get higher than that and the smog becomes visible maybe one person in thirty can be seen with one on. They are after all, a royal pain in the arse especially if you cycle everywhere. Yesterday after a long and painful three days on a ‘severely polluted’ warning we finally topped out at ‘Beyond Index’; the worst of the worst! Last night at least half the populace were wearing masks and I wondered what people was going through the minds of those who weren’t.
There are also the smokers who never wear masks. You can see immediately they just don’t give a shit!
‘The environment’ is one of those topics that is particularly relevant at the moment and it’s inevitable that the topic of bad air gets brought up. It’s also the one time that local Beijingers are at a disadvantage compared to outsiders.
“We have adapted to it!” snapped one of my students defensively.
Masks come in all shapes and sizes these days. From the utterly ineffectual to the practical and the stylish, there is a particle mask to suit everyone’s tastes and needs these days. Here are a few examples of the latest trends around the city:
We were told to go home early from work today and maybe again tomorrow; a city-wide message sent out to companies. I must admit I felt like a kid again just like that time when the school was snowed in and the bus couldn’t get though. And so we wait! Caged in and shut down in our apartments waiting patiently for the ‘Beijing Da Feng’ (big wind) to come and save us all.