Clearing the air

Nov. 23 – Beijing

Four minutes without it and you die. I’m not referring to internet access but oxygen. You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned air quality in most of my posts from China. I’m particularly sensitive to the breathability for a few reasons; I’m from Vancouver, which has among the best urban air in the world. I’m into endurance sports, and use a lot of the stuff. And I have been asthmatic in the past. So the topic has preoccupied me in much the same way ocean waves did on the Pacific – it makes a big difference to how my day is going to go.

Consecutive mornings. The vantage points aren't identical, but you get the idea.

Today was great, air-wise. Overnight, strong winds blew away all of the smog that had been hanging over Beijing. Visually, the impact is astonishing. From the flat, the view is a mountain range rather than the gloom-shrouded apartment complexes nearby (which the Chinese call tower forests). And I’m breathing easy in the literal sense. Fortunately for me, it may take a while for the pollution to build up again, and in any case I can leave if it gets really bad.  Few Chinese have the luxury of making such a choice. Many go around wearing surgical masks, and on the really bad days it means kids simply don’t get to play outside at recess. How long it will be before the authorities get serious about air quality is anyone’s guess.

Since we’re on the topic of noxious substances, let’s talk about tobacco and alcohol. Smoking is rather prevalent in China. Although some people would rather that others butt out, it appears that frowning upon is frowned upon. As for the booze, I’ve finished my first bottle of Baijiu tonight. It’s a wheat-based abomination of 56% alcohol that is great for getting you drunk/thinning paint. Many Chinese drink this without moderation to celebrate festive occasions.     I’ve only had a little with each evening meal since I’ve arrived (mixed to tolerable level with fruit juice). And in any case I need to practice for the long vodka sessions on Russian trains.

Into the Northern Capital (dernier paragraphe en francais!)

Nov. 21 – Beijing (Bei=north Jing=capital)

“First I went here. And then I did this. And so-and-so happened after that.” I really wanted to avoid having my blog turn into a straight-up diary of events. Picking a theme-of-the day was more what I had in mind for this journey.

But how to choose among the following experiences in my first 24 hours here? Where I’m staying, and with who; a night-time grocery shopping trip; Beijing’s air quality; the 12km of walking through the city centre; bus and metro commuting; or two hours auditing a Chinese-French interpretation class? “Quit whining and do all of them”, you say? To which I retort: “I’ll save the groceries and commuting for later posts. Deal?” I guess I’m learning to bargain, after all.

My Beijing base is an apartment complex about 20km north west of Tiananmen Square, in a two-bedroom furnished flat rented by a former colleague. It’s on the 12th floor (really the 11th, since the superstitious Chinese don’t use the number 4 for floors), from which there’s a view of the commuter rail station and another endless array of apartment buildings. The place is modest-to-decent by Canadian standards, though it could use a coat of paint and vigorous scrubbing of the kitchen and bathroom utilities (not the current tenant’s fault, I’m quick to add).

Daniel is the name of my generous host. He’s the first of a list of friends I hope to visit as I make my way west. In fact, as he’s my only contact in China, I likely would not be doing the “360” without him putting me up. We worked on the 2010 Games together. He’s a superbly proficient translator/interpreter, an avid cyclist, and has a quiet, wry sense of humour. While we pored over a map of Beijing yesterday, I also discovered that he has ambitious plans for my stay here. You’ll find out about those in due course.

This morning dawned cold, clear, and toxic. According to the U.S. Embassy website, Beijing’s air today rated a 215. Can’t tell you what that means other than it’s deemed “very unhealthy”. I had thought the heavier the smog, the worse the air. But I guess smaller particles cause more damage because they can bury themselves deeper in the lungs. Chemists or Wikipedists will know the science behind this, but certainly I was huffing a bit trying to keep up with Daniel on today’s excursion. After picking up my Beijing-Irkutsk rail ticket downtown, we made our way along the outer moat of the Forbidden City, where Chinese tourists in matching hats clustered before entering. We climbed up the steep mound of Jingshan Park, where seniors gather to sing patriotic songs, ballroom or line dance, and even play hacky-sack (they’re good at it!). The view from the dead centre of Beijing’s bullseye is as good as it gets – hazy and incomplete. We skirted the pretty, placid Qianhai and Houhai lakes, then ambled through the quaint Hutongs and a great outdoor market offering the full culinary spectrum from revolting to mouth-watering.

[Ma version en langue francaise de ce paragraphe se trouve ci-dessous, mais sans corrections par le prof. Clavier anglo, donc pas d’accents!]

A long northward bus ride took us to the leafy campus of Beijing Language and Cultural University, where twice weekly Daniel teaches a course on Chinese-French interpretation. Nine young women take the course, and all speak very good French for having learned from scratch in four years, with at most 3 weeks in France. I gave a five-minute presentation in French about my journey, while two of the students left the classroom, then returned when I was done. Two other students presented their French-Chinese translation to the first two, who then translated all back into French. The results were more-or-less accurate, but there were a few surprising results: Apparently, I sailed to China from Canada’s capital; the ship had a crew of Filipinas; I’m going to visit my girlfriend in Moscow!

Un long trajet d’autobus nous porta vers le nord au campus de l’universite de langue et de culture de Pekin ou, deux fois par semaine, Daniel y enseigne un cours d’interpretation chinois-francais. Neuf jeunes femmes prennent ce cours, et maitrisent tres bien le francais pour n’avoir eu que quatre annees d’apprentissage, y compris trois semaines en France. J’ai fait un discours de cinq minutes en francais au sujet de mon voyage, durant lequel deux etudiantes se sont absentees. Deux autres etudiantes ont presente leur traduction francaise-chinoise de mon discours, et les deux premieres on par la suite traduit le tout en francais. Les resultats etaient plus ou moins corrects, mais avec quelques resultats etonnants. Figurez-vous que j’ai navigue vers la Chine depuis la capitale du Canada; que l’equipage du navire se compose de Philippines; et que j’irai a Moscou visiter ma blonde!