Tips for dealing with extreme pollution in Beijing
NO ONE would ever accuse Beijing, China of being a clean city. Spit, urine, fecal matter and trash are not uncommon to see blobbed on sidewalks and the smell of sewage pervades pockets of the city. More disconcerting than any of that, however, is the air pollution, which has lately made the city look downright apocalyptic. A smog blankets the city, clinging so close to the ground that it’s difficult to see past more than a few blocks away. As this author writes, Beijing’s air quality index, or AQI, stands at a filthy 262, or “Very Unhealthy (at 24-hour exposure levels).” Beijing’s air pollution is made up of dust and harmful chemicals from factories and engines that can cause health problems after sustained exposure.
While staying inside with a high-powered air purifier may seem the only logical course of action on one of these extremely polluted days, for most people that’s unrealistic. For those who live in Beijing, there’s work, social engagements, errands to be run. And for travelers, well — who wants to say they spent their entire summer trip to Beijing hanging out at the hostel bar due to the air pollution?
There are steps you can take to limit your exposure while still seeing the sites and getting to know the city.
Invest in a face mask. Companies such as Vogmask and Respro offer masks that filter the pollution, dramatically decreasing how much filth and chemicals make it into your lungs. Respro’s city mask, designed for urban commuters, has a certain Darth Vader-esque look to it that may appear intimidating at first but does the job well with an activated charcoal filter and exhaust filter. Respro also offers free shipping anywhere on the planet. Vogmask’s options have a slightly friendlier look to them and are made of microfiber and organic cotton. While spring and autumn tend to see beautiful blue skies over Beijing and generally better air quality, having a mask during a summer visit is a wise investment.
Plan excursions carefully. Get up early to visit tourist attractions or wait until the sun goes down to do your souvenir shopping or go for a city stroll. Sunshine exacerbates the problem on highly polluted days and being outside when the sun is strongest increases your risk of being affected by the dirty air. Bear in mind that Beijing summers are quite hot and humid, so spending afternoons indoors feasting on a traditional lunch or visiting a museum will also spare you hours in the extreme heat.
Keep your exercise regimen indoors. If you’re the type of person who likes to maintain your fitness schedule while traveling, consider seeking out a hotel that has a gym inside. Or consider dropping in for pay-as-you-go fitness classes around the city, such as yoga or Heyrobics, which will allow you to stay healthy without filling your lungs with pollutants at every turn.
Get outside the city. When making plans to visit the Great Wall, opt for one such as Jiankou, which is less touristy than, say, Badaling and will afford you a nice break from the crowds and pollution of the city. Or plan a day-trip to the Fragrant Hills, a lovely park that will, if nothing else, give you a chance to appreciate a lovelier, greener side of China (there are no guarantees that you’ll find exceptionally cleaner air there, but it will be a good change from the traffic and claustrophobia of downtown areas).
Casey Hynes is a writer, editor and photographer living in Beijing, China. A 2008 graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York City, she has been published in Roll Call, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous publications in China. You can see samples of her work and photography at caseyhynes.com.