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  Many of the buildings that used to be four or five stories tall have now been replaced by those that are fifteen to twenty stories tall.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

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