My eyeballs are burning. Even the saline rinse does nothing to alleviate the stinging. The black particulate that appears on my handkerchief along with the mucus of a long-lingering on and off seven-week cold feels as though evil has settled into my body. The only star I have seen in four days is the sun, and it is a diffused orb that shines wanly with no warmth or promise. Beijing…shit!
The pollution count is “Crazy Bad” according to the US Embassy tweets. Schools were closed for two days but are open again. Schools should remain closed but they don’t and images of little children at recess haunt me. We are warned to stay inside, wear a mask but the acceptable index to the Chinese government and other indices are different by a couple of particulates to say the least. Los Angeles and Mexico City are clean and clear compared to what we are dealing with here. I have gotten emails from friends around the world telling me to take care. Thank you for the concern. And, no, don’t drink the water from the tap. You can, but you wouldn’t want to. I don’t want to read about the ground water statistics; I shower in the stuff.
It is indeed intense pollution. A grey mist that I that I would have taken for fog or mist has appeared; it settles everywhere leaving a film layer of black dust as fine as the playa dust in Black Rock City. We drive and advance through the grey-black mist. It is a permanent dust storm with no wind. Imagine the PLAYA in dust with no wind (for those of you who have been home)…deadly stuff. The traffic, the endless traffic continues: Los Angeles or Mexico City with everything written in Chinese. It feels otherworldly. I don’t want to breathe it in. I don’t want to breathe at all.
What do you do with such adversity? Get in your car and drive to a great restaurant of course! Day or night, sit in the car and go to find great food or go shopping. I can imagine my doctors shaking their heads…living on smog, eating four meals a day of the most delicious and food I have ever eaten, resembling a beached orca. Hell, I might as well take up smoking again (kidding) and drink Baijo the wicked white lightning made from sorghum, or rice or whatever. Hi mom. At night it is a fog, a dry curtain that reflects back against the high-beams; better to set them to low and pray. I cannot see 150 meters ahead, seat belts optional. Our driver takes risks, and swerves to pass people in the emergency lanes. What should one expect from a man who has a Lamborghini as his phone screen picture?
I had not noticed it before but an expat whom I met at a bar went hiking to the Great Wall. As he was returning to the city limits with his companion, he coughed twice. “Ah,” the companion said. “You have the Beijing cough now.” I listen around me and there is indeed a reflexive two cough clearing of the lungs. It is a constant. I have it too after only a couple of weeks. It is why my brother and his family moved away.
To be fair the first three days were blue sunny and clear; everyone marveled at the weather. I figured it was just some exaggeration until the latest round of death came in. I am not a scientist, or doctor but it doesn’t take much brains to see that the health problems in the future will be unimaginable. Sitting in a bar, talking with a manager, young Kate from the Netherlands, after performing an open-mic at LUSH in the Wudaokuo (WU), the conversation was the pollution. She has been here four years. She had a year abroad in Beijing as a junior, returned to finish her Bachelor’s degree, told her parents she needed another year in China, and never plans to return. “How do you deal with the smog and the grit and the noise?” I ask. She shrugs and like all citizens bitten by a city, says this is her home. Life is good, cheap, and a constant party. Oh to be twenty again – no thanks! If the pollution weren’t so bad I would consider living here. I haven’t seen Shanghai yet, so no rush. Vietnam and Southeast Asia seem far away for now.
We got some snow, four inches or so, and traffic crawled along even slower than usual…but the air was cleaner as the pollution bonded to the snow flakes and coated the ground; it was white for about three minutes. Don’t stick your tongue out here.
On the music side of life, I have been offered two paying gigs. It looks like I will try to come to the capital once a month. Bossa Nova is a hit, and they seem to like my style and voice. I have to keep working the guitar which remains my struggle. Wake up NYC musicians! Come East! Forget Nashville! I have been playing the open-mic scene and played a full gig (an hour and twenty minutes) at a wonderful little place – 4 Corners – in the famous Hutongs or alleys of Beijing. After the set, it was late and the mighty J and Dr. Yu, my hosts here, (more on them later) took me to a “cab driver special restaurant” otherwise known as a Beijing Slap, for a “pig everything” soup with tofu. The place was gritty, quick and intense. I am pretty sure it would have gotten a “D” from a sanitation inspector in the states, or closed immediately, but I have survived intact and solid not to be too graphic. The place consisted of lines of people, formica tables, chopsticks, Kleenex (what the Chinese use for napkins), taxi drivers and drunk patrons. There was a sink in the corner and when we arrived a few good friends were holding a compadre’s head as he was sick with too much drink. It sort of turned my stomach, but I too was drunk and hungry, and they shielded him from view…almost. This isn’t the third world. It is the dark side of the first world, a magnificent soft white underbelly they are trying to eradicate in the States but not yet in China. The soup was fabulous, the broth rich and intense, and it was indeed a pig everything soup: offal, tripe, and all the good bits. We had pickled vegetables to accompany the feast and I had another bottle of beer. As we left the restaurant (the Mighty J paid 24 RMB or four dollars for the soups and the beer) there was a little yakitori style stand just outside. We had a couple of skewers of hot and sputtering meat: chicken hearts and lamb something or other; a fine cap to a lovely evening. In case you are wondering if they would serve dog, I have been informed that even in dog restaurants you are sometimes not served little Fido, or Fifi because it is too expensive, and you cannot tell the difference anyway.
Pig Everything Soup
Don’t try to make it, just get in line and say yes to everything. Have a beer or Baijo and enjoy. Have another beer or Baijo too…