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08.11.2006

Dirty Old Town

The best way I can describe the pollution in Beijing is to tell you that I have been here almost exactly three months and only saw the mountains yesterday. They are called the Fragrant Mountains; they stand right outside of town, in three beautiful sawtooth layers. People say they are a lovely place to visit in the autumn, when the colors turn, but I am skeptical. The notion that any kind of leafy plants could thrive here is hard to credit. What would they eat? The Fragrant Mountains butt up right against the city, the same way they do in Phoenix, Arizona, and yet it took three months and a freak windstorm for them to become visible.

This morning I woke up to a wall of dust so thick that I could barely distinguish the shape of the residential tower across the street from mine, about two hundred meters away, and I breathed a dusty sigh of relief. Everything was back to normal.

Summer in Beijing is like living in a Woody Guthrie song. The Gobi Desert is very aggressively trying to expand into Beijing's turf, and it rains out of the sky as a constant stream of dirt. Combine this with the bowl-like geography, a stew of other pollutants (100,000 new cars a year in Beijing!) and the general coal haze that covers China from border to border, and you have a unique respiratory experience for the long-term resident and Olympic endurance athlete alike.

The rare days when a Mongolian wind blows and flushes out the dirt cloud with normal, transparent air are almost too much for the eyes to endure. Distant objects leap into visibility, new colors appear where before there was only monochrome yellow, and the urban landscape stretches out to the horizon. Suddenly it's clear that you live in a city of fifteen million, rather than just a thick cloud of local high-rises and parking lots.

The most mysterious thing about the Beijing dustbowl is how it can coexist with the stifling level of humidity. This is the only place I know where you can be coated with sweat and have your skin chapped and cracked from dryness at the same time. The situation doesn't seem stable - I worry that one day the airborne wall of soil will find a nucleation center and the whole atmosphere above the city will liquefy into an ocean of yellow mud.

In light of the Satanic climate, Beijing has asked the Olympic Committee to postpone the Olympic Games by two weeks in 2008, into the middle of August. They will be starting right about a week from now. This seems like a wise but insufficient precaution; it might have been better to defer them until November. Olympians have had to deal with heat before, in Atlanta and Athens, but the signature Beijing blend of dust, humidity, and heat is going to make things especially interesting for endurance athletes.

The temperature has been hovering in the nineties for the last two months. Last night brought yet another thunderstorm, the most powerful one yet. Hot weather and abundant dust seem to be like candy for these thunderstorms, which make a terrific racket and demonstrate that the problem of drainage is still beyond the capacity of Chinese civil engineers.

I knew summer had started for good around the middle of June, when the parasols came out. The Chinese ideal of feminine beauty requires very fair skin, so many women walk under protective pastel parasols. This and the summer dresses give the city a nice retro feel. On the brightest days you can see especially beauty-obsessed women who have forgotten their parasols jogging along in their high heels, clutching a newspaper over their face in an expression of terror. Meanwhile, construction workers who would be proudly shirtless and tubby in the West here modestly content themselves with rolling up their t-shirts to just below nipple level.

In the back alleys merchants put out cots and sleep out in the street by their storefronts, scornful of the slow-flying and somewhat inept Chinese mosquito, whose numbers have been decimated by the thousands of newly-hatched dragonflies patrolling the city. These are impressive insects, the size of a child's finger, and their busy squadrons parody the thousands of uniformed people that also swarm around Beijing, mainly scrawny kids employed to stand on boxes in front of gates and public buildings and sweat.

(That last paragraph I wrote in June, when I was still cocky and elated about the lack of mosquitoes in my new life. In Argentina I had been locked in a nightly struggle with small, Maradona-like Argentine mosquitoes, as voracious as they were fast, who would wait until the lights were out to go on a blood-fueled bender. Chinese mosquitoes, by contrast, seemed fat, slow, and easy to smite. I also thought that living on the fifteenth floor was going to be unbeatable insurance against the beasties.

Little did I know. The summer honeymoon continued for a long time, but the torrential rains of July finally had their effect. Our office manager, a Beijing native, explained that this kind of summer drenching was highly unusual for the city, in a tone that suggested I was the one responsible for introducing it. The merchants stopped sleeping in the streets. And the mosquito purgatory began.

As I soon discovered, the point of entry into my room was not some kind of gap or hole in the window screens, but the very source of life itself - the air conditioner. Connected to a little hose and fan assembly outside the building, it would actively suction mosquitoes into the room and cool them to a comfortable 25 degrees. My nights soon became a choice between unbearable heat and unbearable itching. Lately I have settled on a compromise - 29 degrees and about seven mosquitoes to kill before being able to sleep, but it is not a happy one. When dawn breaks (it sometimes takes until dawn to find the last guy), I can see all the other mosquitoes pressing up against the window screen outside, drunk with carbon dioxide lust, waiting to take their turn. I torment them with a nice slow puff of Sichuan garlic breath through the screen and watch them go crazy. Then I collapse on the bed, mosquito netting wrapped around my head, and contemplate my sins.)

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