The whole thing about China being covered in smog always seemed like a bit of a fabrication to me. Sure, it’s a huge country with an insane amount of people, but the air couldn’t be much different to rush hour in London. When I went to Beijing in 2014, I saw how the sky could be grey and the sun looked smudged out on a couple of days, but aside from that we had beautiful blue sky.
But this is a photo from my first day in Xi’an (both photos have absolutely no editing on them):
A city with a population of 8 million people, a mere fraction of the capital, yet the air felt thick when I stepped out of the airport. As I sat in the back of a taxi and made my way to my hotel, the horizon was fuzzy. It could have been mistaken for fog but it looked heavier. It clung to buildings and didn’t feel cold and damp like a wintery mist I’m more accustomed to.
As I made my way out for my usual ‘getting to know the area’ stroll, I was horrified to feel it in my chest. I couldn’t take a deep breath as my lungs seemed to fill much more quickly and I had to slow down my overenthusiastic pace to a gentle meander so that I didn’t have to do a characteristic Chinese hocking on the side of the street.
My mouth tasted metallic and the inside of my nose felt crispy. I was suitably freaked out and headed straight to a little chain of stores I’d seen in Shanghai which sell literally everything and bought a mask to cover my face. I’ve seen Chinese people wear these on TV and in person and always thought they were totally ridiculous, but now I get it. I put on that mask and the chemical, clean smell of the material was so reassuring that I knew I wouldn’t care what I looked like; nobody would give me a second glance anyway as everyone else was wearing one too.
I always thought a ‘bad pollution’ day was just people over-reacting to grey sky and a lack of sunshine, but actually experiencing it was something else. I adore China, and this hasn’t put me off visiting again in the future, but it has opened my eyes to what road my own fair city of London could end up going down and it really is quite unnerving.