Airpocalypse Now


“When you grinned back your mouth was filled with iron filings.”

–  Iain Sinclair

For the last few days Beijing has looked so much like a dystopian shithole that I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting Harrison Ford to burst out of the smog and ‘retire’ me. The Air Quality Index today measures well over 400*. Even indoors, behind glass and concrete, the air is a not-so-balmy 200 or so.

Many Beijingers (and denizens of other Northern industrial Chinese cities) have already fled the coughing and spluttering masses for fresher climbs, some even retreating into the mountains. The Guardian newspaper has reported on a ski resort in Chongli crammed to the gills “like a refugee camp”. Other people, including stubborn foreigners, have stayed put in the Jing, stuffing their head into a mask or an air purifier, and tweeting gripes from behind a VPN.

The writer Iain Sinclair, when asked what his former hometown of Port Talbot meant to him, said “easily available cancer… you took a knife and fork with you just to cut the air.” Here, he’d need a fucking chainsaw.

Rumours abound that the government is actually going to do something about this. Certain motor vehicles are already temporarily banned and, believe it or not, there are even whispers of planned scaling backs on factory production. For now, though, we have to make do with a Red Alert warning, the closure of several schools and kindergartens, and helpful suggestions about staying indoors, drinking hot water or holding your breath for awhile.

Questions that non-Jingers have rightly been asking are things like “why?” “wtf?” and other dumbfounded queries as to our motivation for actually being here. Why trade the Rockies or the English countryside for an industrial wasteland that looks like a nocturnal emission from Terry Gilliam’s set designer? I can’t speak for every foreigner in Beijing, but I think I do speak for a rather large cross-section of local talent when I say that, often,  I haven’t actually got the foggiest.

*Anything above 100 is considered ‘unhealthy’. 300 is ‘dangerous’.