Pollution in Beijing, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

I know what you were thinking after the last post — ‘the pollution in Beijing is nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be!’

Not true. That part of the wall was 2 hours drive out of Beijing, and on a day when pollution was low and the weather was good.

Here we are in Beijing, on a bad pollution day — try and guess which one I am. Don’t we look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie with our anti-pollution masks? (which one do you think I am, by the way?)


We’re in front of the Temple of Heaven there. Not as heavenly as you might wish with the smog, but still a beautiful building.



Here I am with our lovely guide Lee (now you can check if you got it right in guessing who I am in the top photo — did you get it right? Virtual gold star and pat on the back for you if you did)


It was proper smog — like stepping back in time to the Victorian London pea soup. To give you an idea, the World Health Organisation’s guideline for maximum healthy exposure to pollutant particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing gets up to 500. Ouch….

We were only there for five days and yet by the end we all had picked up a bit of a cough and our clothes stunk of coal smoke. For those of you who have long hair and who smoke or have been around smokers, you know that horrible moment when you take a shower and all the smoke trapped in your hair is released once the water hits it? That was a daily occurrence in Beijing.

It was gross.

These photos, by the way, were taken on a sunny day. This was the sun:

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What was even bleaker was when we were on the train travelling from Xi’An to Beijing. Then the landscape really became ghostly and incredibly depressing:

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Especially because a lot of these sky scrapers were in desolate areas, and empty. Look at them — they look like they’re appearing out of the fog.


During the day it was less obvious, but at night, when we drove past the outskirts of Xi’An, we drove through a forest of skyscrapers, and all of them dark and empty. There’s this weird problem of ghost towns in China, where the government builds entire cities in the expectation of the enormous influx of population from the rural areas — except that once the construction is done, the builders all leave, and the cities remain empty.

We didn’t drive through these ghost cities, but we definitely drove through a weirdly deserted part of Xi’An. The cities themselves are a bizarre concept, based on the expectation that one day people will just move in. These are cities without a mayor, without a culture, an identity, or a history — without anyone actually there (at the moment) to run and organise it. Just a collection of roads and buildings and general infrastructure. As if it had all sprouted up like mushrooms under the rain.

Seeing these empty skyscrapers shrouded in smog was rather disquieting — it also gave me a renewed appreciation of how clean and bright Hong Kong is by comparison!!

On this (delightful) polluted day, we also visited the Summer Palace — winter edition, of course.


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It fronted a lake that was completely frozen over, and it had these lovely long promenades that must be very pleasant in the summer. As it was, it was so cold that I hopped and skipped and generally walked like a bit of weirdo in an attempt to get the blood flowing into my frozen toes.





The Summer Palace comes complete with marble pleasure barge, should you wish to be on a boat, without the risk of getting seasick (or would that be lakesick?) It was odd, but very beautiful. Behind it — and we didn’t get a photo of this sadly — were hundreds of yellow plastic pedalos, all marooned in the ice, waiting for the summer heat and tourist hordes. It was a pretty perfect metaphor for ‘low season’.


Alright – next up — the Forbidden City.