The sky above Beijing was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel
I have waited 30 years for an excuse to rip off Gibson. China provided that excuse.
When I went to the flea market at Panjiayuan, I had a rather pleasant conversation with one of the vendors, mostly about the weather which was quite frankly lovely at the time. His response was that the air was going to be terrible later on, and I wrote this off with a hint of smugness – after all, I used to live in Los Angeles, and I’ve seen a lot of smog.
At any rate, my conversation with this vendor was in the morning and I more-or-less put it out of my mind until deciding to leave the hotel, a little after five PM, to look for dinner. There was a famous restaurant street that I wanted to go to, and it was only a few stops away on the metro.
It was still quite pleasant out, at least as far as temperature. I’d say low 70s.
It was also nearly pitch black out. Well, not really pitch black. It was dark out, but there was light somewhere above – it just wasn’t reaching the ground. Likewise, the neon signs on buildings were diffused, fuzzy around the edges. The effect was very much like trying to see the world through static.
There were very few people on the streets, and most of then were wearing filter masks. I’d bought some in Shanghai as a precaution, so I congratulated myself on my foresight, put one on as well, and kept going.
I made it very nearly to the subway station before I realized that I was being an idiot and turned around to find food closer to the hotel.
It turned out that the lovely high temperatures and sunny morning had been the start of an inversion that had pumped Beijing’s AQI up from its typical levels in the 50-100 range to an off-the-charts 465, and also that the cheap filter masks I’d bought were just not rated to handle particulate on that scale. I had a sore throat for a couple of days afterwards.
For point of reference: The mainland China air quality scale tops out at “300+”, at which level it is recommended simply to not be outside if you can help it, as it can cause breathing difficulties even in normally healthy adults. There aren’t levels above that, but I’m going to classify this one as “The air is actively trying to kill you, please avoid breathing”
In addition to my crash course in air quality standards, I learned a valuable lesson about trusting the locals when they talk about weather. So it was really a very educational day.