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Yesterday over two hundred flights were cancelled at Beijing’s airport due to smoggy skies from China air pollution. The air was so bad it wasn’t safe to fly. Like many things in China the truth behind the shutdown remains elusive. One news agency said it was caused by air pollution or smog; but then the government-run newspaper chimed in blaming the opaque skies on melting snow that made the sky wet and created fog. Seriously? Based on our trip to Beijing a few months ago we’ll have to accept the smog explanation.

Jimi Hendrix never played there, but his classic song Purple Haze could have been inspired by Beijing – a city where the sun puts up a good fight to be relevant but just can’t penetrate the miasma. We flew into Beijing from Jimi’s hometown of Seattle, a city famous for its relentless fog, but residents there know it will eventually burn off to reveal a glistening city by the bay. Not so for Beijingers.  For them the sky is sort of in a permanent twilight, as if it was early winter at the North Pole.

After we landed I strolled through the airport and looked out the window. I could see something that looked sort of orange and sort of roundish on the distant horizon. It really wasn’t clear if it was daytime or dusk, like the images of the sky in post-nuclear war movies.  At first I didn’t think that it actually was the sun. But then I detected a faint orange glow to it and realized that yes, I was staring directly at the sun. As children we were warned never to stare at the sun because it would burn our retinas and we’d go blind. There is no such problem in Beijing.

The smog acts like room darkening shades over the landscape, creating a semi-permanent solar eclipse. When we walked outside the airport I felt as if I was suspended inside the chimney stack of an active coal-fired plant. The air looked and breathed like tile grout or mortar. Beijing’s sky is how I imagine cities like Birmingham, England or Pittsburgh were like at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a time when steel plants and rolling mills belched out a constant stream of soot and grime.

A week into our stay there was an overnight cleansing rain. For the next two days the sky resembled a familiar shade of blue and breathing became easier. We were told by locals to enjoy it because that was the clearest the sky had been in three months.

In the post-Clean Air Act age it’s hard to imagine that places like this still exist on the planet. Unfortunately China’s sulfurous output isn’t limited to their own skies. The particulates take a free ride on the jet stream and make their way over to North America as inexorably as the fleets of cargo ships carrying the output of their factories to American shores. All those cheap products come at a price.

The air was poor throughout Southeast Asia but particularly bad during burning season in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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