Notes from Beijing: Pollution, Building and Freedom

by | Nov 28, 2011 | Taoism, Travels | 6 comments

One astonishing sight is the pollution.  Yesterday the sky was a nasty shade of grey, and you could barely see the sun through the soup.  Yet I was told that it wasn’t that bad.   Apparently there is “bad”, “very bad” and then there is “crazy bad”.   The U.S. Embassy issues a pollution alert only when the worst is “crazy bad”.  All I know is that last night I began coughing, found black in my nostrils, and got a vicious headache.  Normally to relieve headaches there are points you can press in the eyes and forehead bones just above the eye sockets.  I have never experienced such pain from pressing these points, nor had my entire eye socket bone hurt so bad.  Went to bed early, thankfully the headache was gone by morning. Check out this from the US consulate in Beijing:

The pollution today ( is at 351 and the highest negative rating is the following:

201-300 Very Unhealthy (People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors. Everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion)

Another mind-blower is the hyper construction and modernization around the city, a result of increasing wealth and a population that has doubled since I left.  Many of the buildings that used to be four or five stories tall have now been replaced by those that are fifteen to twenty stories tall.

Some of the more weird things available for tourists to try in Wangfujing area of Beijing are bugs, seahorses,starfish and still-wriggling scorpions available on a stick that they will deep fry for your gastronomic pleasure. My wife felt sorry for the seahorses but not for the scorpions or bugs. Is this a form of animal racism?

I went to hang out with my son, who is doing a college year abroad at a University in Beijing.   The campus used to be cold, grey, and built from Communist-style block architecture.  It is now completely modernized.

Another difference between Beijing of the 1980s and Beijing of today is that today people seem freer.  Although they cannot speak freely in public, most can say what they want to say in private.

In the 80s everyone was so terrified of the local KGB (called the public security bureau) they would not talk at all.  The KBG had ears everywhere.  Some of the fear was a hangover from the Cultural Revolution of the 70s, when some children turned their parents in, as happened in Germany with the Gestapo in the last World War.

Today people commonly smile and laugh on the streets and restaurants.  Back in the 80s most seemed distinctly shut down.  People on the subways do look exhausted and downtrodden, for which the severe pollution definitely doesn’t help.  Before the reforms to the old communist iron rice-bowl economy, few worked enough hours to be exhausted.

For Thanksgiving, we went to a restaurant to eat duck.  We got a private room with seven seats.  Every time the door was opened, a young Chinese group was having a good old time laughing, smiling, and definitely drinking.  I walked back and forth from the dining room to outside, passing one table numerous times.

Then the woman at the table asked out loud, “Wonder if he understands what we said.”

I replied, “I can understand, however I wasn’t particularly listening.”

Surprised I spoke Chinese, they asked me to sit down and have a drink.  I refused the booze but had some tea which they assured me they had brought so there was no poison in it.  We chatted for ten minutes.  They were from Shanghai to do some business in Beijing.  Chinese are pretty friendly, but this is something that never would have happened 25 years ago.

Times have changed and from this level of freedom of easy communication it is night and day for the better.

From the road,


P.S. In the next post I’ll talk about my visit to the White Cloud Temple in Beijing – one of the main centers for Taoism in China


  1. Meredith

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Amazing –

  2. Tony Gibbins

    Hi Bruce
    Strange about the pollution. My wife is asthmatic and we spent 2 weeks over in Beijing in May this year – and she had no problems with breathing at all (as opposed to wlking around London, UK, where she was in dire need of a puff of her inhaler within 20 minutes). Could it be that the Beijing pollution is a seasonal thing? Only happens at certain times of year maybe?

  3. johnwilliams

    I spent many years in the far east & it was heartening to
    hear your report I’m studying your teachings and your
    work is invaluable ; the best of both worlds for all, thank u.

  4. John Honey

    The air pollution you speak of is mostly dust blown in from the desert. At times it can make the sun look like the moon. Very disorienting and holy hell on your respiratory system.

  5. Stuart Shaw

    We were blessed when we went to Beijing a couple of years ago. It was around this time of the year and the night we got there it snowed quite heavily. Thankfully it pulled all the pollution out of the air and we had 3 magical days touring though the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Great Wall with picture perfect days.

    By day 4 though the pollution was back and we were aghast at the difference. To be walking though the shopping center under the World Trade Resort and seeing pollution INSIDE the mall … that was “crazy bad”!!!

  6. Davis

    Taught in Anhui province,China during 2009-10 sponsored by the National Committee for US-China relations. I concur with almost all of what you observed except for “sharing freely” in private. The incredible pollution that existea there makes one pessimsstic about the coming decades. The only time I saw the sun and blue sky was when I visited Yunnan province.


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