Friday, July 25, 2008

"Asked a gas station employee if he ever had trouble breathing and he said, 'It varies from season to season.'"

Some musings on Beijing's famous smog...

When you tell people you're preparing for a trip, you generally get warnings based on where you're going.

"Watch out for pickpockets!"

"Get a malaria shot!"

"Bring Amodium!"

All that good stuff. When I was getting ready to come to Beijing, the one comment I received that far outweighed all the others was, "The pollution is terrible there! You can't even breathe! You won't be able to see your hand in front of your face! You'll die of asphyxiation as soon as you step off the plane!"

Turns out, those helpful tidbits were exaggerated... but only slightly. For a kid used to the clean, crisp air of New Hampshire's seacoast, the smog is freaking bad. I could see it the first night I arrived - a yellow haze that settled over the city and showed up like halos of cigarette smoke ringed around streetlights. That worried me.

But like anything else that makes travel difficult (exchange rates, language barriers, entry visas, ticket touts and overbearing Americans in fanny packs), you just learn to deal with it.

I, for one, turn it into a game. I call it "Where's Burns Manor?" Each morning, my alarm goes off and I throw it into the wall. 90 minutes later, I get up and walk across the 3 1/2 feet of tiled floor to my window and gaze out, trying to judge the smog levels for that day. One mile from here, there's a nuclear powerplant, that looks just like the one in Springfield (hence, Burns Manor). If I can see it clearly, it's a great day and the smog has disappeared overnight with no explanation or note - almost like a one-night stand sneaking out before breakfast and regret. If I can make out a shadowy outline, it's a typical day in Beijing; the smog is there when you wake up, like a good friend. On the days where I can't see Burns Manor at all (which is more often than not), it's a crappy, smoggy, hacking day and the clouds of pollution are like a suffocating relationship that you just want to get out of, but can't because you're trapped and smothered under a blanket of pain, tears and lost dreams.

Either way, you're in a relationship with the smog, whether you like it or not.

(Pictures 1&2 are from the fifth day of the trip, which was the clearest we've had. Incidentally, it's also the first day we figured out that a powerplant actually existed. The third shot is from yesterday, which was by far the worst day. Burns Manor should be where that giant cloud is on the right. Walking around the city yesterday felt like simultaneious onset of an asthma attack and a claustrophobic freakout. I need my inhaler.)

Since I'm here, I just have to deal with it. I did come somewhat prepared - stocked up on allergy meds (Claritin and Zyrtec), way-cool nose spray that goes perfectly with my headgear (Zycam), an over-the-counter inhaler and Chinese Airborne (Now, with 15% more lead!). All that's been working well with me and when the smog ups the ante to a higher thickness level, I just check-raise that sucker with more pills. Boo-yah.

There are other ways of coping, too. One is to just not go outdoors, which is a method some have taken - only the air conditioning here is just as bad for you and sitting in a dorm room is now way to travel. Others have taken to bringing face-masks (although, I haven't seen anyone in my group wear one). There are also more than a few PODs (Portable Oxygen Device) going around, too. These little cans of oxygen give you 40 breaths of clean, smog-free air per tube. I have one and I've been using it off-and-on. Have I seen a difference? Um, probably not... but it does give a psychological edge in the battle against smogification. And there are those that swear by them and trade them on the ex-pat black market like they were packs of cigs in federal prison.

I've been told that, eventually, you just get used to the air. The lack of sunlight stops bothering you and your lungs adjust. I hope so, because I've developed a sore throat for the past four days and sort of a dry hack of a cough on occasion. But at least I haven't resorted to the face mask. I'm just living for the next clear view of Burns Manor.

Maybe it'll be tomorrow.

(Image of the sun, over cypress trees at the Temple of Heaven, peeking through the smog at 4pm yesterday).


Liz Williams said...

Does the canned oxygen remind anyone else of Spaceballs?

Michelle said...

Hey cuz..... I remember a similar dry hacking cough when I was in Quito. Makes you appreciate the lesser-of-two-smogs you get in Boston!