Wednesday, November 16, 2011


It's true, in Beijing we occasionally face the odd bit of pollution.

The scene on a badly polluted day last week, after
Beijing's environmental authorities decided to erect
a giant fan on the right hand side of the city.

But at the risk of sounding like the proverbial old Yorkshireman, you should have seen it in the '90s, when I first lived here. For months on end it looked like the left-hand side above. In my two-and-a-half years here, I can't remember seeing one star. And there were daily thrashings.
Before that it was worse. A friend who studied here in the '80s says she'd turn a page of her book, and by the time she was ready to turn another she first had to blow away black grit which had settled on the paper. And that was indoors.
Beijing has cleaned up its act, mostly in order to host the Olympics in 2008. Many coal-burning factories have been moved away. There are many more days with blue skiesand, yes, you can see stars at night.
But still quite often, more often than you'd like to consider as you celebrate your 15th chest cold of the year, the pollution flares again. Because of Beijing's unusual situation as a cauldron rimmed on three sides by mountains, when conditions conspire and an air-trap is created the smog can descend in ugly fashion, and stick around for several days just to remind you who's boss.
The authorities have developed ways to deal with it. In the '90s, if an Olympic bid delegation or some other VIPs were about to visit, Beijing simply shut most of its factories down for a few days so the air would clear.
These days there are a couple of other, more advanced tricks. If heavy smog stays for a few days you can start betting on rain. Officials have become big fans of seeding clouds - spraying tiny pellets of silver iodide and frozen carbon dioxide into them to bring precipitation. Once, in Novemeber 2009, temperatures dropped suddenly and the seeding brought Beijing's heaviest snow in decades, shutting down the airport, where my family and I were waiting to board our flight to sunny Australia. Of course we were.

A seeded cloud.

Sorry ... at no stage did I ask for a seedy clown.

Despite the government's efforts to take on nature and make it rain, there are still those days when you emerge and smell the pollution. That's emerge from your bedroom I mean, not your building. Visibility is often down to the other end of the kitchen.
It is at such times we Beijingers like to refer to the US Embassy's pollution index, just to give ourselves some context with some numbers to confirm just how bad it is. Then we still go outside.
But for the record, the guide to the index reads like this:

0-50 Good
51-100 Moderate (Unusually sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion).
101-150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion).
151-200 Unhealthy (People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion).
201-300 Very Unhealthy (People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors. Everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion).

The other day it was 430.
And I've seen 540.
Yeah but what do you do?

Sometimes it can be quite nice, such as a two-week period in
autumn. If you look closely you can tell the motorscooter
rider at left is wearing a smog mask. But ignore him.
Big soft foreigner he is.
Blue sky day: The view from The Tiger Father's 17th floor
eyrie. The Workers' Gymnasium is the white building in
 the centre and is about 400 metres away.
On other days it's less lovely.
And on others ... oh forget about it.

Worried about an apparent worsening in the situation, the Tiger Father has once again taken the lead and set the agenda. To this end we’ve drawn up a new index to better reflect those situations when the needle stops merely wobbling angrily in the red and starts pointing directly to the airport. Beijingers are urged to cut it out and keep it in their wallet.

0-50 Good: Perhaps there’s even puffy white clouds. People start thinking about going out to pick wild flowers or ride a horse along a beach. Even those with suspect hearts and breathing problems can throw caution to the wind, venture outdoors and frolic. Rating usually coincides with the appearance of a blue sky. And a blue moon.
51-100 Moderate: Throats start to feel dry. Unusually sensitive people should consider not going outside. They probably shouldn't talk to anyone either. The brutally insensitive can do what they want, perhaps go outside and work on their inter-personal skills.
101-150 Getting bad: People shouldn’t go out if they’ve got heart or lung disease. Others start strapping surgical masks to their faces. And small pot plants. Disorientation may occur. People can’t remember when exactly their snot became black, when it became safe to stare at the sun for long periods of time, or where they put their keys. They also can't recall drinking that bottle of Tabasco.
151-200 Normal: Beijing's most common bandwidth. Suddenly, it seems perfectly normal to eat sea slug. And fish eyes and dog penis. And to spit and litter a lot. And to drive a car all over the road. And park it wherever the hell you want.
201-250 Look out: Friends stop recognising each other. Wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Children denounce parents. Kenny G starts to sound good.
251-300 Armageddon: People shouldn’t go out if they’ve got hearts or lungs. Old healed-up wounds reopen, fillings fall out of teeth, long-healed bone fractures come apart again. Canaries start flying into mines for the air. People stop fleeing Peking Opera shows halfway through and stay inside til the end.
301-350 Outta here: All order breaks down. Birds fall from the sky. Cockroaches gather in large groups, discuss survival chances. Looting begins, at air purifier retailers. British royals start sounding profound. Snoop Dogg starts sounding vaguely coherent. Oscars finish on time. Cubs win World Series.


  1. I thought there was nothing as scary as a clown. Then I saw the seedy clown.

    As for the air quality, I will now stop complaining about the pollen count in Melbourne, at least for a little while.

  2. Gosh, maybe you could do a pie chart showing how many days of the year it is in each band of the index? Real or perceived ...