There comes a point in every Trips and Tales where I start reading up on “things to do in …”, and with Beijing, that time is now. Firstly a “not to do”, or at least a “not recommended”. That is: driving, apparently. Notwithstanding the fact that most foreign driving licences – the International Driving Permit included – are not recognised within China, the chaos and the appalling accident rate make it a potentially unwise pursuit. Locals only then? Maybe.
Can this be true? I read a quote to the effect that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in China for people under the age of 45. Really? Shocking, if so. Also that Chinese businesses employing foreigners prefer to ferry around their employees in taxis rather than have them drive themselves whilst “on duty”. This, with an eye toward potentially massive claims for damages should the inevitable (?) happen amongst those who don’t (or even do) know the ropes.
Casual chat about x number of incidents that family members were involved in over the last few years is also “normal”, as are on-road cut-ups, the monotone blasting of car horns, and meandering, zombie-pedestrians who wander into the road like stray, bewildered cattle in search of an impact.
Remember the 1970’s film Rollerball? An amazing piece of cinema. There was a party scene where the hedonistic elite indulged themselves in casual destruction and intoxication, whilst one woman sat in tearful epiphany, as if realising for the first time the sheer spoilt, futile, pointlessness of their collective existence. They cheered to the brutal slow-mo footage of bone-crunching, in-game hospitalisations – and horrifyingly, now you can too. We are there: BTV broadcasts Traffic Lights, up to four times a day. It’s a show featuring uncensored footage of road accidents captured on traffic-cams from around the city, where humans are reduced to flesh rag-dolls, to be flung down the road or casually crushed by tons of wheeled metal. No exaggeration. And all accompanied by crunching/splintering sound effect overdubs too. The angle appears to be “road safety” (I don’t speak Chinese). If you include a guy standing in a “white lab coat” – literally or metaphorically, then you can show virtually anything.
The Beijing smog is renowned, even infamous. I found an article on the web introducing a couple of images that depicted the same Beijing cityscape with high and low air pollution evident. The first image was relatively clear, if a little hazy – great for atmospheric photographs; not so for your lungs. The designers of the web page had laid out the still next to an equally-sized grey spacer in order to fill out the page width. A little odd, why not just use a bigger picture? Anyway, I scrolled down to view the “after” with-smog photo, and it was absent – great article, great layout – not! Hang on, that wasn’t a grey “spacer”; that was the same view photographed under its smog blanket! I could make out the blurred-out shadows of the fore-ground buildings, just about. Ridiculous.
OK: the PM2.5 is what it’s all about. It’s a measurement of the number of particles up to 2.5 micrometres in size, inside a cubic metre of air. Particles inside this criteria are considered the most dangerous as their microscopic size allows them to penetrate further into the lungs. Of course, other factors apply: such as the nature of the particles themselves, i.e. what they are actually made of. Something carcinogenic perhaps? Or “just” something that can abrade or block minute passages causing damage. There are exposure limits for various substances too, but this is a whole specialist area beyond the scope of this article (and my remit!).
Anyway, there’s a “stink” (appropriately enough) about the air quality in Salt Lake City (bear with me) reaching an “unhealthy” PM2.5 of 69 – though there is some way to go (through other warning plateaus) before a “300” rating: where “all outdoor activities should be avoided”. Got that? OK, Chinese cities such as Beijing can reach a PM2.5 of 500 – and stay there for days!
Conversations concerning the best respirator, filter or gas mask to use are not uncommon. Time to take proper, qualified medical/scientific advice I think.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 115) Arrival Beijing #4
[Photo by dearbarbie]