Before I visited Beijing, some friends warned me about the pollution problems in the area. When I toured some of the famous attractions, including the Temple of Heaven, I did not notice a huge difference in the air quality. The skies were resolutely blue.
Four days later, when I was on my way to Shanghai, I saw a startling news article in China Daily about the smog in Beijing. The article displayed a picture of three tourists standing near the Temple of Heaven. The individuals were wearing masks on their faces and even though they were in front of a famous temple, I could not see the temple because of the engulfing pollution. The surrounding air was purely gray and thick. I could not believe that in less than a week, perfectly clear weather had transformed into a murky and opaque mess. Clearly, the travelers in the picture had gone sightseeing on the wrong day.
Beijing has a serious predicament because the smog is steadily increasing. Highways and airports are closed down especially when visibility reduces to 500 meters or less. When the pollution is particularly horrendous, visibility has been reported at an appalling 50 meters or less.
It is justified for tourists to worry about the smog because there is an element of unpredictability with the variable weather. I was lucky that smoggy weather didn’t occur during my travels, but unfortunately, that is not the case for everyone.
One of the significant concerns in Beijing rests with its air quality, one that is wholly shocking. Air pollution is measured by airborne particles per cubic meter of air, otherwise known as PM 2.5. “2.5” refers to particles that are 2.5 microns wide or less. The higher the number that the air quality index reaches, the worse the air is.
After I left Beijing, the air index reached between 470-490. The Environmental Protection Agency stresses that ranges between 300-500 are dangerous and people should not participate in outdoor activities. For perspective, the air quality of Central Los Angeles on a July summer day is 66. Beijing’s air quality index is off the charts! Furthermore, in January of this year, the index reached 755, which is truly disturbing.
Although these numbers sound distressing, the pollution in Beijing does not always reach these monumental figures. At the end of March, the Chinese government proposed a plan to spend $16 billion dollars over the next few years in order to combat the growing pollution.
Traveling anywhere has its particular dangers, and sometimes the best traveler is the informed traveler. In the meantime, we can all hope for clearer days ahead.