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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Crossing over to the other side is usually a term that refers to dying, to seeing the bright white light at the other end of the proverbial tunnel. In Beijing it may just as well refer to crossing over to the other side of the street, a procedure that may lead the unwary pedestrian to seeing that celestial white light sooner than they expected. In China there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. In fact, there were times when I thought that the cars were purposefully aiming for me.

Beijing isn’t like the chaotic streets of Rome where the little old ladies purposefully stride across the street, knowing that the Fiats and Alfas will swirl around them like they are so many rocks in a river. This was pure street mayhem, as if an undeclared war had been called on pedestrians and we were the last to know. If I could read lips in Mandarin I would have sworn that one truck driver looked me in the eyes and uttered, “Make my day.” No lip-reading was necessary for my response.

It reminded me of a late ‘70s video arcade game called Death Race. It was one of the first games of the post-Pong Era so it was still pretty rudimentary; basically a steering wheel and gas pedal attached to a black-and-white video monitor. After you plunked in your quarter, stick figures ran erratically across the screen. The player’s goal was to run over as many as possible. After impact a tombstone would pop up to represent points earned.

It was probably not a good game for me to be playing while I was still learning how to drive but I really enjoyed it. (C’mon, I was a male teenager, my brain wasn’t fully developed yet, if ever.) Larissa, being a bit more subtle than me, compared it to being in a real-life version of Frogger.

To cross a street in Beijing is to known firsthand how those stick figures felt. We were now the target and we didn’t like it very much. Like most cities, Beijing thoughtfully provides pedestrian crossing signs that show either a green man or a red man. I’m not sure why they bother because they are extremely misleading. Crossing on the green is no guarantee of any level of safety, in fact it just lulls the walker into a false sense of security.

Having a green crossing signal does not stop the cars that go right on red without slowing down, or the mopeds, bikes and motorized rickshaws that drive on the road (and sidewalk) in the opposite direction of traffic and for some reason can ignore all traffic signals. You don’t see them coming until it is often too late and your toes end up paying the price. And don’t get me started on the buses that play by their own set of rules.

To be more accurate, the pedestrian crossing sign should just flash a continuous red man and skip the green guy altogether. At least then pedestrians will know where they stand and will exercise extreme caution at all times.

We finally realized that we had to travel in packs, like the herds of gazelles we’d seen on the Discovery Channel who do so to avoid being eaten by lions. We didn’t want to be the weak gazelle who couldn’t keep up with the pack and was left behind to become the lions’ dinner. We’d find a group of strangers that was waiting to cross the street and then latch on to them. As we crossed we’d remind each other, “Don’t be the weak gazelle!” It must have worked since I’m now sitting here writing this.

So if you ever find yourself crossing the street in Beijing just remember two things: travel in packs and ignore the green man. Your life could depend on it.

Related Post: A calm haven in frenzied Beijing