Saturday, August 30, 2008

Façade: The Air

Some of Beijing's more drastic pollution control measures include pulling half the city's more than three million cars off the roads and halting most construction. Authorities also have shut polluting factories in and around the city. Despite these restrictions, the Beijing air continues to be a soupy mix of harmful chemicals, particulate matter and water vapor.

Air Pollution Still Troubles China Ahead of Olympics
By Stephanie Ho, Beijing, 04 August 2008

All the reports about the bad air in Beijing are true. What you may not have heard about is the impact the air quality has on a visitor's state of mind.

When Margot arrived, the pilot announced that everyone should prepare for landing. Naturally, she and her team mates were trying to look out the window to get a first glimpse of China. They began to descend through the clouds and then, abruptly, they landed with no change in the view.

The air was so gray and polluted they couldn't see the ground when they landed.

She warned me "Mom, be prepared. It's a real shock to live in this type of pollution. For the first couple of days, I was really depressed."

Two weeks later—4 PM on Friday, August 8—so two additional weeks with Beijing factories shut down and the odd and even car thing going on, there was a slight improvement. As we began to descend we passed through clouds with white tops and yellow-brown undersides. The yellow-brown color didn't dissipate so when we landed, around us, everything was tinged with this dustiness. We could see buildings close by, but no mountains, no detail, nothing other than the immediate vicinity.

Our hotel was about 45 minutes north of the city. We picked up a cab and drove through this dismal fog that narrows your attention to just a small space around you. We could see the road and lines of newly planted trees on both sides of the road. We could see people riding bikes or pedaling carts, sometimes carts with other people in them, in the bicycle lanes. When we arrived at our hotel we could see the large courtyard between its buildings, but everything was still shrouded in the stagnant mist.

The heaviness of the atmosphere caused almost immediate depression. It was more oppressive than the heat and humidity that knocked into us when we first stepped outside. You can't escape its clammy tendrils. It crowds around you and makes you long to take great gulps of invisible air from your backdoor at home. It's like Los Angeles smog times 10.

Beijing has thrown a damp atmospheric blanket over you, and everywhere you go you this blanket weighs your spirit down. It is a prison within which you gasp and strain. The first picture was taken on Sunday, August 10 as Margot and her boat mates were rowing down the river in back of the course to get to the starting line before their preliminary heat. She told us that, with her cap on, she felt like they were rowing on a dark night.

On days when the air was clear (and we did have a few gorgeous days that followed days of torrential downpours), you rediscovered the subtle joy of discerning a cloud, outlined crisply in the sky; whether the sky itself was gray or blue, dawn or dusk or a clear azure outlined with the sharp yellow of noon on a sunny day. That clearness we take for granted is a balm to the soul. It frees your spirit – to look up and imagine you are seeing an endless pathway to the limits of the universe. The second picture was taken on Friday, August 15 at the Summer Palace.

Can you imagine the sacrifice it was for people in and around Beijing to miss work (and probably wages), not be able to drive, and endure other inconveniences we can only guess about? Hopefully they also enjoyed the improvement in the air, the delight of seeing those majestic mountains encircling them. And hopefully, the government there will find a way to make this miracle happen on a regular basis.

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