Saturday, May 3, 2014

Finding a Breath of Fresh Air in China

Air pollution : everyone hears about it, but as a problem that is across the world, it is easy to not understand the full picture.  China's air pollution is the world's problem, so here is my experience from the few days we have been here.

Our first day in Shanghai, taking the shuttle from the airport to the hotel.

I bought the family masks to use in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but the pollution is much more pervasive than I had expected. If you look at this real-time pollution map, you will see that the average numbers are in the red zone (refer to map above), with the worst city at 750 aqi (air quality index). There are many different ways to gauge pollution and air quality, but we will stick to aqi to make it easy. To give you an idea of what that means, LA might experience 12 days a year at 150, but it's very rarely seen anywhere else in the US.

We arrived in Shanghai with the pollution scale at 175 aqi, and this is the good season. The winter months are worse because heating an entire country using air will put lots of additional particulate matter in the air. The haze was so thick, the long distance visibility was limited.  The following day in Shanghai the index was at 165 aqi, and the air looked so much clearer; the thought of this was disturbing to me because of the drastic effect 10 points can make.

We expected Guilin to be better with a population of 800,000 people, but it was in fact worse than Shanghai that day.

Elephant Trunk Hill : a child engages with the famously trained Cormorant fishing birds which assist fishermen with their daily catch.

The lake views are deceiving of the 180 api index for the day, but being around the water and trees helps quite a bit.

Within minutes of being in Guilin, my whole family developed throat irritation, a persistent cough, allergy-like symptoms, and mucus build-up in the throat and lungs; the body's way of lining our lungs to protect them from harm. We put our masks on immediately. Once we climbed up Elephant Trunk Hill, we saw why our symptoms were so bad.

I read that buildings have filtration systems, so during really bad days, it is safe to be inside.  I should have expected that this was not the case because the filtration systems are quite expensive.  I have yet to be in a building with clean air, most notably, none of the hotels we've stayed in have had them, so I wonder if there are any that are willing to invest in the filtration system.

The other thing that surprised me is that hardly anyone we saw wore a mask.  The weather has been in the 70's and humid, so it's not comfortable to wear a mask and your face may have a layer of sweat, but the nagging cough we get forces us to even wear them when we sleep.

You will hear people hocking loogies constantly, so much so there is a basket in the bathrooms filled with phlegm.  They are obviously experiencing the mucus build-up as we are. This has become everyday life, and no one wants to wear a mask everyday, so most people are unprotected most of the time.

Not a mask in sight.

I bought us the Vogmask carbon filter masks.  They are cotton with a carbon filter on them and a bendable nose bridge so you can adjust it to your face.  They are comfortable in their small size and the way they just loop over your ears.  They are reusable and washable, available in kid sizes, and they're the most stylish masks on the market.  They have helped quite a bit, but I think next time I might get one that tightens to your face better, though there are only 3 companies that make masks for children. This MyHealth Beijing blog gives a quick overview of what to look for in a mask.  I would still recommend the Vogmask at least for sleeping in because it is comfortable and not bulky.

Taking the subway to the airport. Neva commutes like a champ.

We have had one opportunity so far to go mask free for part of a day.

In the Ping An village of Longji, where the Longsheng terraced rice fields are, you are in the mountains, surrounded by trees and the majority of the population that live there are indigenous people : the Yao, Dong, Zhuong and Miao people.

Indigenous Yao women unwrapping their long hair.  It is customary to not cut it as long hair is a symbol of beauty.  They are also known for having very black hair into their 70's.  They wash their hair with home made fermented rice water shampoo as their secret to keep the grey away.

We were able to hike and even run on the cobblestones and it felt nice to breath fresh(ish) air.

The main transportation is by horses or walking.

Though it may seem obvious, being around lots of foliage really helps.  Even in Shanghai, when we visited the Yuyuan Gardens, I felt much more at ease and didn't notice a heavy chest.  In the north of China, the pollution gets worse.  I imagine this is because the weather is more arid, and the land is flat, think of the midwest in the US, or anywhere that wheat will flourish, those areas don't have the foliage to assist in the pollution.

Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai.

The take home message is that when you're visiting China you will be much more comfortable wearing a mask.  We wear them most of the time except when eating, drinking, in a conversation where we want to convey emotion better and be heard more clearly, or if we are able to breathe without a scratchy throat and mild headache.  For us, I think the threshold is around 100 aqi (the smaller areas don't have aqi postings, so that's a guess), but your tolerance may be more or less.

We got to ride the Maglev fast train in Shanghai.  It got to 431 km/hr while we were on it!

Try not to contribute to the pollution and rent a bike, carpool, use the amazing public transport system or walk places when you can.  There is so much to enjoy in China, so make sure you are comfortable and prepared, otherwise you may miss the grandeur over the sound of your own hacking.


  1. Beautiful shots, Megan! Enjoying living vicariously through your blog. At some point I'll peel myself out from behind the computer and get out of the States for a bit again, but until then, keep the updates coming!

  2. Neva is so cute in her mask or without it! Glad you are having a good time in China despite the pollution.

  3. Thank you! It is so special to see Neva as she grows up so quickly. Grandpa Gene and Grandma Ann