The main reason staying for a long time in Beijing is hard, is the pollution. For everything else, there is some sort of a solution, a strategy to devise, a plan to undertake. The pollution however, is unavoidable and can be so unrelenting, it takes the edge off of you.
Now, I have heard that the french news went into conniptions recently because the capital had the unbelievable PM10 count of 180 during one single day which caused various newsmedia to liken the conditions in Paris to those in Beijing. That made me laugh. That was kinda cute.
It also made me grit my teeth. This tells you what the airquality in western Europe normally is like, and moreover, what europeans expect it to be, if one day of 180 PM10 is meted out in world news!
The truth is, I cannot explain what the kind of airpollution one experiences here, in the northeast of China (I am not even mentioning the water, the land and thereby in extenso the food) feels like, what it does to you, how it permeates everything in your life. People who have not lived in these circumstances simply do not know. No one in the west has lived through this kind of airpollution, has never experienced anything like the scale or composition that this modern chinese phenomenon has reached.
Beijing based businesses and organisations are sometimes having a hard time getting through to their bosses abroad that yes, they need extra funds for airfilters, extra holidays, that this is no place to be for families, especially those with young children, and, yes, occasionally, it is better to have their office crews work from home rather then brave the streets. Far too often, such complaints and requests are waved off as ‘whining’ because they cannot imagine what this is like.
Only people who have never breathed any kind of pollution can wave it off as whining. If the Beijing expats are whiners, then what are Parisians?
This is not to say that days like the one Paris recently experienced are okay and people should just accept that kind of pollution as a given, certainly not. Nor is this to say that those fighting for better air in Europe aren’t fighting for a just cause or that they are overreacting. Pollution is a slow poison that is too often overlooked and underestimated, far too often waved away as ‘whining’
Let me try to make a bit clearer to you what the pollution here is like, what it does, to me personally, and suspectedly, to other people.
Let’s start with the facts and the numbers.
So what am I talking about when I mention ‘PM2,5’ or ‘PM10’ or, as those who follow me on FB have seen me do often; ‘AQI’?
Technically, airpollution is a relatively young phenomenon. Nature also produces airpollution, mainly through duststorms, woodfires or volcanic eruptions, but the near everpresent blanket of haziness that makes breathing in developing cities sometimes literally a pain has only been around since 1860 or so, since industrialisation.
Science has therefore not really a full overview of what pollutants are nowadays being produced and which are more and which are less harmful to us.
For instance, lead was once a big problem, produced by vehicles, but the refining of fuel has since then developed such, that lead is, even in China, no longer a concern. Cars still emanate plenty of pollution of course, but lead pollution is no longer one of them. Likewise, there are new chemical components in modern pollution science has yet to do sufficient research on, as well as the suspicion that ‘ultrafine particles’ those even tinier then pm2,5, are more dangerous then the pm2,5 were recently discovered to be.
And those ultrafine particles aren’t even measured yet.
The pollutants science so far has the most extensive picture of, are also the particles that are measured by the two most common measure systems currently used in Asia. These pollutants are:
Ozone, which is an unstable form of oxygen. This ozone is not the same as the ozone layer that surrounds the earth at stratopheric levels that protects us from the radiations of the sun and the universe.
Carbon Monoxide, which is estimated to be emitted for 75 to 95% by combustion engine driven vehicles.
Sulphur Dioxide, that is produced by burning coal or oil, and can be found near power plants and refineries. It causes what we call ‘acid rain’
(Acid rain was a big thing halfway the eighties in Europe. Nowadays, I hardly ever hear nor read about it. Does this mean it is no longer a problem, or maybe no longer deemed a problem or that it is no longer in the collective consciousness?)
Nitron Dioxide, a byproduct of both vehicles and power plants (burning oil or coal) which, apart from it’s own toxic characteristics for human and animal life, will produce the bad ozone I spoke of above when hit by direct sunlight. (So clear days are not necessairily healthy days, alas)
And then of coure the particulate matter. Dust. Which we all are made of and will return to, but some dusts are better than others. Our bodies are able to filter dust out of our breathing systems, it is the reason why we snot, but this system was designed for particles the size of fine sand and the like, not for the very fine particles that combustion produces.
(Kitchens are for that reason not the healthiest spaces in the house, since cooking, too, produces fine particles, but the amounts of these being produced by normal day to day cooking are not large enough to cause real longterm problems like airpollution can. Though I know from experience that frying some dried chillipeppers can nearly choke you!!)
Fine particles are categorized according to their size; PM10 is dust equal or smaller then 10 microns, but bigger then 2,5 microns. PM2,5 is any particles as small as or smaller then 2,5 microns in diameter.
Ultrafine particles are those that are smaller then 0,1 micron. Viruses fall within this range.
PM 10, when inhaled, typically reaches till the upper parts of our lungs, to the level of the bronchii. PM2,5 reach all the way down to the deepest levels, where the alveoli are, and can pass through the membranes there that the oxygen also passes to reach our bloodstream.
PM2,5 is classified as a cancer risk by the WHO. The more you breathe it, the longer you are exposed to it, the higher the risk you run to develop cancer later in life.
To put the size of these harmful particles in perspective: a human hair is usually around 100 micron in diameter. A cell measures between 6 and 10 micron, a bacteria measures around 1 micron (and therefore falls in the PM2,5 micron range) Molecules are no bigger then 0,03 micron.
There are two accepted ways to translate the measurements of the above mentioned pollutants into a general pollution number: the Air Quality Index (AQI) as used by the United States’ environmental protection agency, and the Air Pollution Index (API) used by the Malaysian authorities. Both systems measure the pollutants I mentioned so far, and their respective readings differ only a bit from each other. But the conclusions and classifications they turn out are wholly different.
In China, the local governments of most cities use the API system and have the results available to the public on various websites. The Chinese state television, aptly named CCTV, displays the numbers.
This is actually a huge thing. I mention it casually, as I am already used to having an app on my smartphone that tells me hourly what the pollution reading for Beiijing is according to the Beijing government, and setting off the US embassy data against it, but the fact that these data are available is a huge difference to the situation when we arrived here, a mere two and a half years ago. Back then, there was no data available.
Well, no, that is not entirely true. The Beijing government did give out a pollution number. Just the number though. No measurement data whatsover, except the PM10 measurement. Just that. The numbers were generally about a third of what the US embassy posted on their website. The US embassy published, as they still do, the PM2,5 measurement and the overal AQI number along with the categorization that this AQI corresponds to. So if the US put up ‘170’ which is considered ‘unhealthy’ according to the AQI system (General AQI advisory at ‘unhealthy’: “Avoid all outdoor activities, particularely for infants”) the chinese website put up a number near the 50’s, calling the air ‘good’
We were in our second week, when the haze was so thick, it even made the tower of the prestigious merchant’s bank just opposite the street of our building hazy. We visited some friends in town, and when we came back, we both had to lie down because we didnt feel well. A feeling that is very similar to car sickness: nauseous, headache, and so, so tired.
The US embassy reading was 500AQI that day, maximum reading, the number above which, at the time, machines could not accurately measure the concentration of pollution in the air.
The american embassy put out a statement in which they said the Beijing airpollution was ‘just terribly bad’
Irritatedly, the Beijing government, that had put up a 200 something number calling the circumstances ‘mildly polluted’, blocked the US embassy website and demanded apologies from the Americans for ‘blackening the image of China to the world’
Those westerners, all they want is speak badly about China, they are just jealous, they are just always whining!
The US ambassador did not apologize, as far as I know. The site was unblocked however, but now displayed “when exposed for 24 hours at these levels” under every AQI number and interpretation. The Beijing official numbers meanwhile, stayed at roughly a third of what the embassy was reporting.
When we asked our driver or our ayi about the pollution and the haze, they smiled nervously and said that ‘the weather today is not so good” Or “yes, there is often mist here, in Beijing” The word pollution they simply pretended not to hear nor did they never use that word themselves, not in english nor in chinese.
But for mist, one needs humidity. And humidity, Beijing sorely lacks 9 months out of the year. Only in may, june and july, when the big rains come, can one experience actual, real mist in Beijing.
Then, one day, I do not remember exactly when anymore, about one and a half year ago, the Beijing government started publishing the official API numbers. With all the separate measurements listed under it.
In my pollution app, there appeared a map with all the API numbers on it of all the individual measure stations China possessed, showing an interesting array of multicoloured numbers all over the country, from which one could easily deduce where the heavy industry was located and what the wind was doing. The numbers published for Beijing were still laughably low.
As time progressed, measurement stations were added all over the country and all over Beijing. And as time progressed, I also saw the chinese numbers slowly creep closer and closer to the US ones.
They still differ, but do so now in such a way, that I suspect this has more to do with differences in interpretation, as well as the Chinese API number for Beijing being a general number composed of many measurements taken all over the city, from the far east to the far west. In less than two years, not only have the Chinese installed an impressive network of measure stations, pollution has been lifted out of the taboo sphere, and placed itself on top of the political agenda. More and more Chinese are wearing masks on bad air days. The US embassy is no longer chastized for publishing air pollution data, on the grounds of ‘mingling with the business of another sovereign state’ The driver and the ayi no longer smile nervously, but frown, when they say ‘the pollution today is very bad’ And note that they now use that very word: pollution. Both in english and in chinese.
This change I think we owe to the airpocalypse of last year, january 2013. The month where pollution reached truly unthinkable levels. The US embassy measurements, now able to detect concentrations higher then 500, (another indication of how fast development is going) reported numbers above this maximum, the so called ‘beyond index’ for a whopping four days in a row, days that fell within ten continuous days that were classified as either very unhealthy (AQI of 201-300) or hazardous (AQI 301-500) Do realize, that from 400 AQI onwards, the PM2,5 reading and AQI reading are the same.
One of these beyond index days broke the 800 AQI. The next day saw the 1000 AQI breached.
Not even the Chinese government could pretend any longer that pollution was a minor issue taken out of proportion by the whining west.
I wasn’t in Beijing during that time, but my girl was, and she told me her eyes hurt when she went outside, and she could physically not breathe properly on those two horrendous days.
In Japan, where I was having a snowboard holiday, the layer of snow deposited in the week after the airpocalipse was brownish, and clearly visible in the snowpack.
So now you have read plenty of numbers, but what do these numbers actually mean? Without perspective, how are you going to know what it means, when I say the AQI is 170 today? (which is a fairly normal day in Beijing I’d say) What do you balance this information with? What kind of AQI or PM readings do European cities have, generally? What exactly is the WHO limit for airpollution? What does a number like that feel like, breathe like, look like?
There are actually two different limits set in (and by) the west.
The EU has set the limit for PM2,5 on a maximum of 25.
Together with a limit of no more then 40 PM2,5 per day.
The WHO goes further, setting the maximum for one year at a count of only 10 PM2,5. A count that, I am sure, many European cities also cannot avoid exceeding.
Let’s assume the WHO is whining. Let’s assume the EU is also whining. Let’s say that actually double the numbers the EU advises, are just fine for human life. That would mean that a general measurement for a full year should not be higher than 50, and no more than 80 on any single day.
Let’s not be whiners and take double the EU limits as standard. Where does that leave us in Beijing?
Still shitf*d, that’s where.
According to official reports, the amount of days that the airquality can be considered either unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous (with an AQI of 160 or over, double the ‘non whining’ standard I just set above) is 220 days per year in Beijing.
22 days out of the year (as measured over the past few years) the measurements exceed the WHO limit a whopping 50 times or more.
The amount of days per year in Beijing that fall within the official WHO limits are 20 days. Just under three weeks. Even if we count according to the ‘non-whining’ option as mentioned above, the amount of days in Beijing that would be considered ‘okay’ according to daily measurements would be a mere 100 days. The yearly totals are bad no matter which limits you choose to measure them against: average daily pm2,5 level in Beijing is 90.
So now we’ve had a load of numbers which paint a very dark picture. In comparison, in the Netherlands, parliament asks the qovernment questions about what measures to take when the airpollution due to rare weather conditions, reaches over 60 AQI in the south of the land for one single day. In London, brits go berserk because they witness a few days of 160 or above (which, by the way, is indeed pretty bad!) Compare that to the Beijing numbers and you might come to understand the enormous differences. But that doesnt mean you actually know what the difference is like, what it feels like.
Many tourists do not notice much of it. The effects airpollution has on a single individual differs enormously. There are people who are sick when the AQI hits 300, there are those that bike to their work whistling all the way. -with a mask on, I should hope- I am someone whom it effects a lot. My girl however, hasn’t had much of a problem these past three years. I suspect that smokers have less problems with it in general. Their bodies are used to a daily dose of airborne poison. And, as one smoker smilingly said; I am breathing the same kind of shitty air. But I at least have a filter with it!
Tourists generally aren’t here for long enough to ‘appreciate’ what the northeastern chinese pollution is like. One can, after all, get lucky, in Beijing. There are good weeks. Or weeks that have many days hovering around the 150 level. Not good, but also not so hazy or choking that it would impact your holiday. For those busy wandering through the hutongs, the temples, the forbidden city, they might not even notice it was a 180 AQI haze above them that made the light so distorted and contrastless. Being in that air for two or three weeks will most likely give no problems beyond a mild rash and a cough, both of which will dissapear as soon as you are back in a healthy(er) environment.
This is the only comparatively ‘good’ news the researchers can give us about air pollution: the negative health effects of airpollution will, provided you go (back) to a healthy environment, diminish over time. Given time, your body recuperates from air pollution. Slowly, but surely, your chances of getting cancer diminish.
Therefore, the best you can do, so urge the Beijing based US doctors of the SOS clinics, is to limit your exposure to airpollution. Wear well fitting masks (and the “well-fitting” is imperative here: badly fitted masks are no use at all) Do not do outdoor sports on days with an aircount over fifty (So say goodbye to biking, hiking or anything else on all but three weeks of the year) Do not even go outside on very bad days (In unfiltered houses, the air can reach up to two thirds of the count outside, depending on how often doors and windows are opened..) Take as many holidays in healthy environments as possible, to give your body the time to recover.
It is a slow poison. During daily Beijing life I do not notice the effects that much, mainly because the effects are there every day. One forgets. Only when I return to Europe, or go to Japan, and stay there for two weeks or longer, do I feel the difference. It startles me. The difference in stamina, which is huge, even when untrained. How much more deeply I sleep, how well rested I am in the morning. The difference to my skin, that is without rashes when in healthy environments. I cannot wear jewelry when I am in Beijing, for instance. My skin grows red and itchy almost immediately. After two weeks back home, I can wear jewelry without problems. (The dryness in Beijing surely doesn’t help, either) After two weeks in a healthy environment, I look ten years younger then I do while in Beijing. My cough disappears. After a week, I realise I have no headaches anymore. And my mood is so much more uplifted. These effects of a healthy environment last on a little while after I’ve returned to Beijing: the first two, three weeks after a getaway to Europe I feel good still, strong, unfettered. This slowly gets eroded away. Beijing pollution doesnt kill anyone fast. But it is unrelenting. As the Beijing years draw on, and the amount of pollution heaps up in my lungs and my blood, I notice these effects more and more.
Everyone who lives in a place where the light diminishes in winter, knows the depressive feelings that the dark months of january and february can bring. Here in Beijing, one can experience something much alike, as in wintere there are days and days on end that the haze envelopes the city, allowing the sun to be only a pale white disk in the sky, the light low and dispersed, the sunset already glowing red at half past three, the sun already dissapearing at four. Not because the sun has sunk below the horizon, but because the sun has sunk below the pollutioncloud that hovers over Beijing.
Sometimes, when flying to Beijing, you can see it: as the plane descends , the clouds shift from white to brown, the border marked by a darker layer of soot.
Had the pollution not been here, or not been this severe, living in Beijing would have been a great adventure. Now, it still is an adventure, a wonder on many days, an exciting time of learning, but it is a much darker, unhealthier one, one that tires you out, one that every so often, I just need to hide from in airfiltered rooms. One that I need to leave behind to go breathe fresh air, to recover from in a healthy place, much like tuberculosis patients were once sent to the mountains to recover. An adventure that requires you to grit your teeth and hold your breath and count the days till the wind turns towards the north and brings fresh breathable oxygen. Beijing can be great, ugly and gritty and sandy, overwhelming in it’s size and scope, the sheer magnitude of what is happening here and at what speed, exciting and contagious and just great, if only, if only, if only the pollution would not be there.
Images from the capital of the middle kingdom, snapped throughout the past year. No point, no grand story, no artistic intentions, just images of moments lived here.
Also still sitting on my harddrive, were pictures of the show Nashunbatu had at the Pekin Fine Arts gallery in Caochangdi this last september. Nashunbatu is a painter who heralds from inner mongolia, something which can be seen in the landscapes he depicts. Mongolia, inner (part of China) as well as outer are being raided by now, due to the findings of many natural resources there. The story goes, that in the past ten years, the sleepy town of Ulaanbator has transformed into a swiftly expanding, polluted and frenzied backdrop to something one can only describe as russians and westerners going haywire in the wild, wild east. Especially the so called ‘rare earth’ is hot right now, and the world is rushing to Mongolia to get it, as this investment newssite portrays.
Pictures of the mining going on in Chinese inner Mongolia as featured on the national geographic website show landscapes that are very like the sad, empty backdrops Nahunbatu paints. None of these paintings have titles. They just have dimensions.
In the category waaaaaay overdue artsy fartsy blog entries: pictures from the exhibit by Cheng Dapeng that featured in Beijing’s Today art centre this last summer. The somewhat gruesome figures he makes by using a 3D printer (I want one of those babies!) made me think of Gu Dexin in many ways. The bleakness that I percieve in these massive assemblages of sculptures are the same, too, and it is no surprise that chinese life is said to be bleak and desolate by both chinese themselves as their surveyors in their countless blogs. It was bleak and desolate for a long time already: now it is bleak and desolate with a car and an Iphone.
He made this installation on a table that emanates light, therefore, the pictures are not that good, as the camera struggles with the strong contrast. One can get an idea of what it looked like nonetheless..
A quick video of what the installation looked like when moving, one can find here.
Well, I suck at blogging.
And no, I did not make a new year’s resolution about it. I will continue to suck at blogging in 2013, soon to be year of the snake. I apologize, but I am afraid that is the way it is. I suck at blogging. That said, happy new year to everybody.
I am back from a quick christmas holiday in my homecountry, and now back in wintery Beijing, whose morning greet us at a nippy -16 on the balcony, and whose drought and airpollution cracks my skin.
I have a studio now, in Song Zhuang, the art village just outside of the sixt ringroad to the east. It is unmercifully cold in there since about halfway november. The building has general heating, meaning there are heating pipes running through the floor, which indeed prevent the place from actually freezing. It is about 6 degrees celcius there now. Which, I must admit, helps with keeping my paint fluid for a long time. It also helps a lot with procastrinating. It is only so much fun to hold a brush while shivering, and after a few hours, the skiing underwear and triple sweater combo I am wearing does no longer suffice.
But when I go, I go there in the morning, after the driver brought my girl to her work, he brings me to my studio, making me undoubtedly one of the few, if not the only, artist who is driven to her studio by a chauffeur in a fancy car. To balance it out, I go back to Beijing by bus. I stand waiting at the dust ridden, windswept busstand with the rest of Song Zhunag people on their way to anywhere in Tongzhou and Beijing. I walk over the dirt strewn sandroads and wobbly sidewalk towards that busstop, hopping over a part of the sidewalk that has fallen in, probably a sweage pipe that collapsed -as happens frequently throughout China, one can’t be sure here wether the ground uner one’s feet will or will not suddenly give way- shielding my eyes for the dust that the trucks passing by leave in their wake, and ducking for the stray strand of steel wire that still floats halfway over the new road. You see, the crossroads that the busstand is on, was recently renewed. Song Zhuang has been named the new hotspot in town, and the village is in a building spree. Naturally, the roads need to be renewed to mirror the grand imaginings of their political caretakers too, so they get widened, to make for even more dust and wind.
These crossroads were widened too, but somehow, no one bothered about the electricity wiring nor the poles the wiring is on, so there still is a pole with a bundle of wires that stretches till roughly halfway the crossing, some broken and dangling down -hence the strand I duck for- with one electricity wire plunging into the asphalt right there, in the second lane for the traffic that travels north. Of course, one day, someone is going to see that too late and will not be able to swivel around it in time. But so far, since the traffic going north is not that dense, it has been going well and the wires remain there.
Welcome to the China outside of it’s shiny modern city interiors, so eagerly displayed in the business and travel folders…
I did not jest when I remarked that the ground in China might just give way under your feet. Sinkholes are, by now, an almost normal occurence in China. Here is a collection of pictures from sinkholes that got in the news from all over China: 7 are from last year alone, 2 are from 2011, one unknown. And there are more out there, even.. shoddy construction is rife, a direct result of the corruption that cripples this country.
I get onto the bus, I swipe my public transport card past the machine that the busconductress is leaning over, and walk as far back as I can go into the bus. Sometimes there are still seats to be found, old indented seats with ripped blue fabric over older yellow fabric next to windows that sit loose in their frame rebates, resulting in deafening rattling with the bus is navigating the roads still under construction in Song Zhuang. Sometimes there is no seat anymore, so I squeeze into any quarter square metre still free and hang on to the seatposts. The conductress chases lingering passengers further back, making sure that the bus is filled up to the very brink. Yes, 120 people really do fit on a 60 persons coach. Leave that to the busconductresses, thats their job and they have years of experience. They also sell single tickets, chat up the old folks, and stick a little red flag out of the right window when the bus wants to veer right to get to the busstop.
The trip leads past the poorer parts of Song Zhuang, hutong like streets lined with single storey houses painted gray, with every now and then the black coal smoke rising from the general heating building. Rubbish lies everywhere. Bikes, car parts, old furniture, toys, everything just lies in a jumble outside, in an intriguing showcase of desorganisation and carelessness. Every street facing house has a big sign with blaring characters, the wares stacked up behind the greasy windows. Then we pass a bridge, over the grand canal -yes, THAT grand canal- and there is a compound for the very rich. American style portico houses bare;y visible behind carefully groomed grassy slopes, an unexpected green sight amidst the dusty grey, and then the entrance lined with a waterfall tumbling over a terraced wall, a display of extravagance in this drought riddn part of China. There are guards in long black jackets with white gloves standing next to the entrance, and I wonder which wealthy chinese have made their homes here. That it is established through corruption is as obvious as the sky is blue. No officialdom in China does anything without corruption and it is China’s top problem, though the lack of (clean) water is a close second.
Then the bus wobbles through Tongzhou, once a town outside of Beijing where the grand canal ended. Now it is part of Beijing, but it has grand plans for itself, as proclaimed on the billboards a the decidedly fancier busstands here: a modern cityscape is shown, with glistening glass and roaring high concrete, against a backdrop of lakes (water? here? which water?) and snow covered mountains that rise higher then the treeline.
That always makes me roll my eyes in China. The billboards. The display of a total disregard, a deliberate ignoring of what the reality looks like. There is no water in Beijing. There are no lakes except the reservoirs behind the dams in the mountainous area that surrounds Beijing, of which none rises above the treeline. Even in summer, when the rains fall heavily, the riverbeds do not fully fill up. Yes, during the rainfall itself they do, and the streets flood, because the whole province that is Beijing is by now covered in asphalt and there aren’t any decently working sewages anywhere, but after the rain, the water seeps away as swiftly as it came.
The resort of Wanlong, where we went to february last year, has started a PR offensive to lure the rich chinese and the western expats. They made a promotional video, in which they blithely show knee deep powder, pictures from alpine resorts and even a picture of what looks like a british villgae in cornwall somewhere, proclaiming that this is what Wanlong either already looks like, or will look like in the future. A thing which is nary impossible. But that doesnt matter, it seems. It is about the beauty of the image displayed, not about showing things for what they are. After all, when one does the latter, one will not sell much.
Then the bus takes the highway into Beijing, past the fifth ringroad, past rows upon rows of towerblocks, many of them still being built, cranes rising everywhere. I get out at the subwaystop of Guo Mao, in the middle of the CBD, the financial district that Beijing flaunts to prove that yes, China now belongs to the modern world, while rows and rows of people wait to board the buses that will take them out of fancy Beijing back to the suburbs from which I just came, where rents are still within reach, and the towerblocks not all glistening.
China is building like there is no tomorrow. Back in summer, just after the heavy rains, we went to Wulingshan, a mountain just over the northeastern border of Beijing province in Hebei. It is a beautiful mountain that supports it’s own special ecosystem that is wetter, and therefore lusher then the lands that surround it, so local government was quick in declaring it a ‘place of scenic beauty’ which means that there is a fence around it, a gate that extorts a hefty fee, even to the european mind (46 euro’s for one car with two people) a road leading through the park so you can stay comfortably in your car while gaping at the ‘scenic beauty’ stopping only at the foodstalls or the concrete path that will lead you to the top of the mountain. All paths there were, alas, concrete paths, completed with stairs and railings over the steeper sections. Even though outdoor sports have just begun to boom in china, the concept of going out into nature in order to find area’s as untouched by humans as possible is still very alien to the chinese mind. Our driver, when he once drove us, on our directions, to the beginning of a footpath into the hills, could not understand why we wanted him to do that. The village where the path starts off from, has a famous restaurant, so he naturally assumed that we wanted to go there to eat, and lounge in the shade, after which we would return Beijingward with a well filled belly, as any other normal Beijinger would do. The fact that we didnt want to eat, but walk (on a diet of just -gasp!- a mueslibar or two) over the mountain, thereby exerting ourselves, was incomprihensible to him. Crazy folk, them foreigners. Exerting yourself when you don’t have to! And not eating? Inconcievable.
Though the visit to the Wulingshan scenic park was interesting, and beautiful, even with concrete paths and hefty fee, the ride home where we got lost, was far more interesting.
It is easy to get lost in China. There are no good maps.
There are maps available, but rarely are they more detailed then 1;100000 (excepting the city maps) and the details, like the billboards, are not like reality. They are close to reality, but not reality. For instance, we have two maps that cover the whole of Beijing province: the city itself, and the mountains around it. One is a chinese map, with only chinese characters on it, bought in the bookstore on Wangfujing street. The other is a western map, with only english or pin yin (the chinese written more or less phonetically in roman letters) bought in a the hague map shop. The western map is far clearer, far better drawn, but the chinese map, cluttered with characters and lines as it is is somehwat closer to reality. So we end up using both at the same time, checking the western names with the characters on the roadsigns and the chinese maps, and finding that, as often, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The new highway that we took to get to Wulingshan is at the right of a river in the western map. It is to the left of a river on the chinese map, which is right, but it isnt nearly as close to the river as the map states.
We also have a navigation system in that fancy car, of course, but that one came with the car, and is last updated four years ago. Which renders it useless in China. They might have moved whole cities in four years’ time!
Unfortunately, it is impossible to get a real good map of any chinese territory. There are no climbing maps available. If you go about with a GPS mapping the terrain for yourself, as one unfortunate westerner tried to do last year, one runs the risk of getting detained by the army on the suspicion of spying.
So one gets lost from time to time. And so it was we drove through lush valleys -one expat stated that the summer of 2012 was the wettest he’d seen in all his 9 years in Beijing- where fancy lakeside houses were being built for the wealthy looking for their western village dream, and past the city of Xing Long, where whole neighbourhoods were flattened all at once to make way for yet more concrete and glass.
And so it was we ended up on the third airport highway, one we didnt even know existed, that took us in between terminals one and two, and over a laughably ill concieved conjunction between that highway and the main road to the famed ‘airport highway’ (of which we erronously assumed there was only one) that has one driving past and around roadblocks made by haphazardly placed stones in the middle of the road, only to come eye to eye with a driver that navigated the block of stone from the other side, searching his way to the other highway, the one we’d just excited.
And mind you, this was not a temporary solution because they were still building. This was just the way the conjunction of these two roads was organised. In that typical chinese way of ‘ooh, it’ll work like that too, whatever’ way. Resulting in a traffic bungle that one can only encounter in China. An intriguing display of both unorganisation and carelessness.
The most well known art district of Beijing is about to be f*d. Chinese style. No, it is still there, it will remain there, it will continue to draw tourists, but there have been drawn up great, glorious, harmonious plans for the complex of old factory buildings that make up 798 and 752, the art and design district of Beijing that features prominently in every travellers’ guide.
The plans are utterly chinese in their intention and scope. To give you an example of what I mean with ‘chinese’, me and my girl spent a fabulous, wondrous two weeks in northwestern Yunnan, close to the Tibetan and Burmese border. We saw many great sights and sleepy villages that seemingly were forgotten by modernity. Pictures of China of old. We also went to Lijiang, a city that says it is like a city of old. Which it isn’t. Yes, the ‘old town’ is built in the oldfashioned chinese style. But it is a theme park. A disneyland with chinese characteristics. And when night falls, the so called old town of Lijiang lights up with its many bars, yellow and red in the evening light, and the town is filled to the brink with people out for a drink, and oogling the souvenirshops that all sell the same. Rows and rows and rows of the same souvenirs, the same cloth, the same bells, the same hats in every street. No humans live in Lijiang old town, and the grey walls are freshly scrubbed and just a little too… fresh.
We were glad to flee that town, and found a far more genuine, far quieter, far more chinese/bai/old fashioned little town not too far from Lijiang, that is not yet in the tourist guides. It soon will be.
Our driver took the opportunity to also go on holiday. As luck would have it, he also booked a trip to Yunnan, and he, also, ended up in Lijiang. He however, loved Lijiang. Dali, whose old town is lived in and has a different atmosphere, though there too the tourists are plentiful, he didnt like so much. Too normal. Too much like real life. Not enough disco lights.
Back to 798. It is a district hopping with tourists, and has international reknown. So what have the authorities, together with some construction magnate, planned?
I quote directly from the Cige Gallery Guide:
“The Beijing municipal government and Melco International Development Limited signed a contract to build the “new Beijing Melco International Cultural Center for the Arts” in Beijing. The center is to be located in Chaoyang’s 798 Art District, and will have a total construction area of about 1,2 billion square meters and an investment of more then RMB 50 billion. Building is expected to start next year, and will be completed within two years.”
Ok, hold on, I just burst out laughing hysterically. I will repeat: “and will have a total construction area of about 1,2 billion square meters and an investment of more then RMB 50 billion. Building is expected to start next year, and will be completed within two years.”
“The new Beijing Melco International Cultural Center for the Arts will become the world’s largest water show theatre. The center of the complex will be the “House of dancing Water” and other high-end performance brands will include an international theatre, a laser stage, an original art village, international art gallery, the luxurious international Relais Residenza D’Arte, Residence Artesse, an international art exchange center. 2.5 times greater then Macao’s “House of dancing water” stage types will include the “water stage” “fountain and the lifting table” “air stage” and “multi-media screen” The dynamic auditorium is to be composed of five sections, including a stage that is 36 feet deep, and a water capacity equivalent to ten olympic size standard swimming pools.”
So that is what I mean with “chinese” in intention and scope. Plenty of chinese tourists will love it. It will be, you know. True and harmonious art.
From the artnewspaper comes the following quote: “The Beijing government has thought about improving 798’s quality in terms of environment, function and utility for a long time. Bungalows in the art district now will be replaced by skyscrapers,” project general manager Wang Jianjun says. “[It] will be the biggest art centre in China with the best service.” Full article here.
Wantchinatimes reports from Taiwan that chinese netizens have already protested the waste of so much water in arid Beijing.
From gochina.smcp.com comes this absolute gem of a quote on the matter: “(…) ,said Lu Wei, the vice mayor and Beijing’s propaganda chief. “The perfect combination of Chinese traditions and modern design will collide sparks of intelligence.”
They really, really do not get it.
..the police sent an sms to the main protesters not to show up anymore, which they promptly did. Playtime is over, back to your cribs!
For those whom do not know what I talk about, these past weeks, there have been anti Japan protests in China, and since the Japanese embassy is just north up the road from us we sometimes saw the demonstrators coming and going, weaving through the enormous congestions the demonstrations caused. We saw both old, dinged hatchbacks filled with people waving chinese flags as well as fancy, expensive cars, suvs that can only be afforded by the high classes, sporting slogans and waving flags out of the windos and sunroofs. It is interesting to know that, ordinarily, when demonstrations happen in China, police pops up at the scene within minutes and usually hoards the demonstrators off very quickly (unless the protest are really big, like in Qingdao lately) This time, however, police cordoned off the streets, stood and watched and let the demonstrators be, even helped them, and, in some cases in some cities where things got out of hand, didnt even jump in when japanese brand cars got overturned, burned and smashed, japanese restaurants and stores -more often then not chinese owned- went up in flames and got looted. (A rolex shop got also looted, because, you know, Rolex is so damn japanese!) The whole period prompted strange displays of what was considered ‘patriotist actions’ (which reminded me of tales from the cultural revolution, it bears the same madness)
And of course it spawned a frenzy both pro and contra on the chinese internet. One netizen sighed; ‘We even need Japan to allow us to demonstrate freely!’ which is a very apt observation. In Shenzhen, three human rights campaigners mingled with the protests, bearing a banner that didnt say the obligatory ‘Fuck Japan’ but read: Freedom – Democracy – Human Rights – Constitutionalism instead. They were quickly picked out of the crowd and nothing has been heard from them ever since. I personally do not think these demonstrations were about the Diaoyu islands. This was orchestrated frustration letting.
Information to be found on many places throughout the web, amongst others here:
Several posts about it on tealeaf nation
The information on the original dispute about the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands on wikipedia