What It's Really Like To Live Through Beijing's Smog Crisis

Update: Heavy smog in Beijing has triggered another "Red Alert" — just over a week after the hazardous pollution alert was issued for the first time. The city is expected to be blanketed in smog through Tuesday, according to the BBC. Ahead, student Yuchen Xue shares with Refinery29 what life was like during the first "Red Alert."

This story was originally published on December 14, 2015.

As thick smog blanketed Beijing, triggering the a first-ever "Red Alert" pollution warning, many of the city's nearly 20 million residents reached for their air masks and holed up indoors.

Yuchen Xue went skiing.

The 23-year-old student from Beijing has been living (and breathing) the Chinese capital's pollution crisis firsthand. Xue escaped to the mountains for some midweek skiing after conditions got so bad that officials essentially shut down the city for three days to allow the smog to clear.

"The air is so turbid that you can hardly see buildings across the street," she told Refinery29 via email. "Every day on the news, we hear about how poor the air quality is and how it's poisoning our body."

Xue shared with Refinery29 what it's really like to live in China's second-most-populated city during the ongoing pollution crisis.
Photo: Courtesy of Yuchen Xue.
Yuchen Xue hit the slopes during Beijing's "Red Alert."
Can you describe what it feels like when the smog hits these high levels?
"To be honest, I did not feel any physical discomfort with the smog. The sky just doesn't look clear. With no blue sky and sunlight in sight, I'm feeling rather depressed."

What was your response when you heard that the Red Alert was going to be called for the first time?
"The weather has been like this since the end of October. Seeing a blue color when I look up is such a rarity these days, so the news of a Red Alert didn't come as a surprise at all. Everyone is rushing to buy those air filtering face masks, so I bought one for myself as well."

How did the Red Alert change your daily life?
"Elementary and middle school students in Beijing had three days off, and for the first time in a very long time, there's no traffic in the city. [The government has implemented road-space rationing measures that limit automobile travel on a given day by the end numbers of the license plate.] Since most of the city has come to a halt, I had the chance to go skiing."

Are there favorite or go-to (indoor) activities or gathering spots you and your friends turn to when it's too polluted to go outside?
"People are afraid of going out. But they can get used to anything. Maybe once we get accustomed to this kind of weather, it will just become a part of daily life and everyone will proceed as normal."

Are there any unexpected ways that the pollution has impacted your life?
"Because of the smog blocking out the sun, Beijing has had an exceptionally cold winter this year. We have really low winter temperatures to begin with, so I don't even feel like leaving the house these days."

With no blue sky and sunlight in sight, I'm feeling rather depressed.

Yuchen Xue
Do you worry about your health and future?
"Yes, I do worry about it. Though physically, I don't feel the smog hitting me or changing my body, I do fear the impacts of long-term intake. And I just can't stress how I am eager to see a blue sky again! It has become a luxury."

Do you have hope that there will be a long-term fix for the pollution levels in your home?
"Everyone in China wants this problem fixed. When the [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering] took place in Beijing back in 2014, the issue was taken very seriously, since so many presidents and prime ministers were in town. The government limited gas emissions in factories and the number of cars on the road more than a month before the gathering took place. As a result, the air drastically improved for that little while. I've also heard that the heavy industries in surrounding provinces like Hebei and Tangshan and their gas emissions contribute to the smog. One can only hope for the same level of dedication from the government to solve the crisis this time around."

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