Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Beijing Rant

Though I have trouble sometimes warming up to this enormous concrete monstrosity, Beijing does have its good sides. There are a whole lot of really interesting, engaging, bright young people to play with, and there are always plenty of good eats and fun things to do. But living in a place like this, no matter how fun and interesting, extracts a heavy toll on mind and body. The ridiculous traffic (there are six beltways out here), the masses of people (well over ten million of them) are bad enough, but what really gets to me is the weather.

Maybe I'm a bit spoiled from living in Yunnan for so long. With its clean air and year-round, springlike weather, I have a right to complain anywhere I go. But Beijing is especially horrible in this respect. In the spring, the east wind begins to blow. This is basically the jet stream coming out of the vast western expanse. It's a lovely idea and has made for wonderful Chinese poems through the centuries. But now there's a problem: the west is now a giant, fast-growing desert, and this romantic east wind picks up millions of tons of fine sand on its way here, dumping it all over this already filthy city. Walking down the street, you can feel the grit in your teeth, and a gentle breeze is enough sometimes to temporarily blind you and drive you to tears.
The dust is so fine that once it's blown in, it just kind of stays and floats around, slowly creeping through the tiniest cracks, into every gadget, and deep into the pores of your skin. I'm no longer surprised these days to wake up and see a thick layer of the stuff that has been so unceremoniously dropped off over night. It is like a diabolical snow. "Look mommy, It's dusting!" Blast.
Then you have another phenomenon that really does look like snow. In an effort to greenify the city and try to create a filter against the dust, Beijing authorities a decade ago undertook a massive "campaign" to plant trees. Problem is, biodiversity wasn't a buzzword back then, and authorities almost exclusively planted clones of the cottonwood tree. I read somewhere that they make up for nearly two thirds of all plant life in Beijing. These trees release seeds that are surrounded by what looks like tufts of cotton which evolved to maximise their time floating in the air so they could find a farther place to take root. When they go into bloom, it really does look like snow. "Look mommy, it's cottoning!" Being from sterile clones, these tufts have no seed and can float around much longer and farther, though they prefer to stay in Beijing and deposit themselves in my eyes as I walk to my bus. They keep floating around getting slightly greyer as they accumulate the dust, until they are finally too heavy to fly anymore and just clump on the ground in a filthy mess. This is the modern megacity's answer to yellow snow.
But one morning I was really surprised by what I saw. I looked outside and I could see clearly across the street. In fact, from an office tower I was able to see clearly all the way to the summer palace and the western hills behind it. Everything glowed with a soft gold color. I really couldn't believe my eyes. The air here is so bad at times that you can look directly at the sun without burning your retina. What happened was that we got a good rain that washed all of the dust and coal particles right out of the sky. The city had been miraculously transformed. It made me miss Yunnan so much, where the sky looks like this every day. Of course it only took us a few days to foul everything up again. I swear in 2008, the olympians are going to be huffing down cigarrettes just to get a taste of clean air.
Now we get to my favorite weather phenomenon: mudding. It doesn't just rain or snow here, it also muds. Seriously. I just explained how the rain washed all of the dust out of the sky. The aftereffect is spectacular, but you do not, under any circumstances, want to be caught in a spring rain here, especially during the first few hours. As the rain falls through the sky, it picks up all of the dust that's been floating around, and by the time it reaches street level, there are literally drops of mud coming down at you. That, my friends, is pure torture.

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