I recently took an overnight train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing. I want to write about many things, and I shall, but first things first, and that is my train ride.
I took an overnight express train. It left about 5:30 PM and arrived about 3:30 the next day. It was a very comfortable, air conditioned express train, making only one stop along the way. The train passes through several provinces on its way north; I believe the distance is roughly equivalent to traveling from Miami to New York.
They say that the window of a train is a great way to view a country. I’m not sure, because a train doesn’t go exploring or track into destinations off the beaten path. But as I watched the countryside pass by from the window of the train, my first and overwhelming sensation was of the horrific smog. It was simply overwhelming. I’m amazed that the Chinese don’t have a word for this. They simply say the air is bad or that it is foggy outside, making no distinction between polluted air and air that is simply heavy with dew. In this sense, their language doesn’t do justice to the harshness of the truth. It’s really, really bad!
When we left Guangzhou, the air was relatively clear. The air here has been more clean than I’ve seen it in a long time. (It’s always cleaner in the summer, due partly to rain that washes the pollution out of the air and into the watershed, and partly due to less heating demand and hence less burning of coal fired plants.) As we headed north, the air in the northern part of Guangdong Province also seemed relatively clear. It’s always a bit hazy, but the air was good for this part of China.
Overnight, the situation changed. Sometime during the night, I was awakened by a chemical smell, perhaps faintly reminiscent of burning tires. Then, from the time of first sunlight, I was struck by the dense fog. Not a chemical plant was in sight, no belching smokestacks could be seen from the train window. Farmers were out in their fields, plowing. People were walking and otherwise going about their business in the small, rural, agricultural villages that we passed. It looked a bit heavy, but at first I thought it was perhaps just morning fog. Unfortunately, as the sun rose, the fog remained, and it never cleared.
In fact, the smog became worse and worse, even while the train was still several hours outside of Beijing. The air was so smoggy, I wondered how the farmers could work outside in it. Inside the train, I began coughing and developed a sore throat.
I remember thinking that the last time I saw anything so cloudy, it was the water in my fish tank on the night just before everything in the tank died. This was one of my first efforts at fish tanks, and I didn’t understand the nitrogen cycle. On day 1, the tank was beautiful with plants and fish, all nicely set up. Five days later, the water was a bit cloudy. The next day a lot more cloudy, but I didn’t realize the seriousness of it. When I woke up the next morning, every fish in the tank had died. The aquarium store then explained to me the nitrogen cycle. As material in the water decomposes, it creates more and more waste. Once the process begins, more things die and create more waste, which further compromises the health of the tank. The fish can tolerate a degree of environmental toxicity (some fish tolerate more than others), but at some point the balance tips. At some point, the fish tank can no longer support normal life. As I rode the train, I couldn’t help but wonder, "When will the balance tip for the earth?"
We were so far away from any obvious industrial activity. In fact, I never saw a single industrial complex, admitting that I slept much of the journey. But I wondered, does this type of air pollution waft all across China? I vividly remember the dense pollution during my train ride in the corridor between Suzhou and Shanghai, but that would be expected since there is a massive amount of industry there. I remember the constant haze of pollution in the world heritage geological site of Wulingyuan, but that could be explained by the proximity of Changsha, another industrial area. The air in Foshan also never fails to burn my throat and eyes, but that is a center of ceramic activity, and one can see dark smoke pouring out of small buildings everywhere in that town. But, the extent of the pollution I saw from the train was astounding to me, because it was obviously not a local phenomenon. The pollution so thick you could almost swim in it, and it seemed to extend all the way through rural Hubei Province, Henan Province, Shandong Province, and Hebei Province.
With my limited experience, I have no idea what the extent of the problem may be, what are it’s causes? I can only see it and imagine questions like, "What are the public health effects? What sunlight filters through this smog to the plants? What does this mean for global warming? How bad will it get before someone changes things?" Another thought that passed through my mind was to wonder if Europe and the USA got like this before emissions controls standards were implemented. How bad did it get in the USA before action was taken? What spurred that action, what political will was motivated to create the Clean Air Act? Industry will always complain that emissions controlls are impossibly expensive. But if human cost and quality of life is taken into account, what is the balance, what is the true cost and who is bearing that cost? Is it not fair to ask industry, and those who use the industrial products, to bear the cost rather than the farmer trying to tend to corn in his field?
When we arrived in Beijing, the pollution was even worse. One could not have seen the sun for most of the journey, and certainly not in Beijing. My overwhelming impression upon arriving in Beijing, therefore, was not good. I simply could not enjoy this city that is being so obviously spruced up and beautified in preparation for the Olympics. I couldn’t think about anything but the pollution, as I was coughing, my throat was hurting, my nose was burning, and my eyes were watering. I wondered if I would be able to continue on the trip.
Then, something quite unexpected occurred. In the western sky, on the evening of our first day, I saw cirrus clouds and a sunset! Unbelievably, the air was clear in one corner of the sky, though only in that one corner. It was somewhat shocking in itself, to see the air so smoggy all over except for one spot. The next day, the air was much more clear, and each day through the week I was in Beijing, it was increasingly better. By yesterday, the day I left, it was simply a beautiful day, crisp fall air and a brilliant sunshine, blue skies, with highs in the ’70’s during the day (21 C) and lows in the 50’s at night (9 C). My friends assured me that Fall was, indeed, the very best season to visit Beijing.
Returning to Guangzhou on the overnight train last night and this morning, it was already dark when I left. I didn’t see if the pollution had cleared in the Provinces near to Beijing. By the time we reached Hunan and Guangdong Province this morning, the air seemed fine again.
Pollution is not just a challenge facing Beijing as it prepares for the Olympics. It’s a challenge that is going to demand the best efforts of China to avert a public and environmental health crisis. There is a saying I once heard, "If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters." It’s much the same with water. Both are essential, and both are highly threatened in the China of my limited experience.