Beijing, Your Air Pollution is Killing Me

As the sun began to set in Beijing the air was filled with a mist like I’d never seen before. I questioned it: “is this what the air really looked like when the temperature sunk below zero degrees at sunset?”

Walking around the walls of the Forbidden City in search of Tiananmen Square and the entrance to the Palace, I thought that I could almost be on a Hollywood movie set; with perfectly positioned lights accenting the pagodas and a heavy spray from a smoke machine somewhere giving everything a dreamlike quality. The world had turned mystical and transported me back to the time of the Ming dynasty.

Beijing pollution creates fantastic photos outside the Forbidden Palace/Forbidden City

But one thing confirmed that I wasn’t on a Hollywood set. A sneeze wracked my body and out instead of the healthy clear colour of a normal sneeze, blackness came out of my nose. I yelped – was I in a time travel movie? Had my Ming dynasty dream suddenly changed countries, from China to Britain during the black plague? I coughed again, my lungs fighting something; I spat, and out came mucus speckled with black – yes, I was clearly fighting the black plague; I must be dying.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world and I would have taken precautions before landing. Instead, I had spent the afternoon traipsing through what I would soon discover was the worst pollution day on record in, not just Beijing but, China, and reached levels that were off the measurement chart; and here I was developing what has now been not-so fondly nicknamed as “Beijing cough”, by the cities expat community.

Whilst the pollution helped create some fun effects with my photography over the next three-days, the coughing and black-pollution that coated my clothing and face by the end of the trip was not worth it!

Beijing pollution creates fantastic photos outside the Forbidden Palace/Forbidden City

Tips for Dealing with Polluted Air when Travelling

  1. Buy a face mask and wear it
    Sounds silly but I didn’t realise that Beijing’s air was so filthy until after I begun coughing and sneezing black. I recommend you wear a face mask with the best air purifier from the time you leave the airport/hotel to ensure you minimise rick of breathing in that yucky pollution.
    Need to buy a mask? Head to the local supermarket or chemist, or if staying at a hotel ask the concierge for their recommendation of the best place. I also recommend buying a N95 mask, something I didn’t learn about until after my trip.
    A N95 means that it will filter 95% of particulate matter as small as PM0.3 microns, which is much smaller than the PM2.5 microns which cities like Beijing and Shanghai experience currently. 

    Smart tip from Aisleen: if you wear a face mask be sure to wash it each night and wash your face frequently to stop pimples! 

  2. Exercise indoors
    If you’re one of those mad people who like to exercise on holiday, I commend you; but in places like China and India where the air is bad please try to exercise indoors to minimise the risk of breathing in the pollutants – panting, increased blood circulations and pollutants don’t exactly make for increased fitness levels!
  3. Get out of the cities!
    Choose some fun activities outside the city to escape the pollution for a day.
    Instead of climbing the more touristy sections of the Great Wall, spend some extra time to get to the Jinzhou section of the wall before spending time in the surrounding area; including Yiwulu mountain, one of three sacred mountains with many temples and sites to see throughout the mountain range, and the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial, which houses a large museum of over 16,000 pieces of equipment used during the military campaign.
  4. Follow @BeijingAir or similar
    The US Consulate have an automated Twitter account that frequently updates about the state of the air in certain cities, Beijing and Shanghai being two that I’ve used.
    Each Tweet shares a bunch of information which I’m no expert about so the numbers that I concentrate on is the concentration number (size of the particles in PM) and the AQI (unhealthy/moderate/good etc.).
    There is also a website which I recommend that monitors air quality throughout China and Asia (click on the ‘More Cities’ tab for Asia)
  5. Invest in pollution reducing moisturiser… or any moisturiser!
    A recent introduction of a new ingredient to Chanel’s Précision line are creams and serum, tulip tree leaf extract is said to target the residue that pollution can leave on skin.
    The tulip extract works as a magnet that traps pollutants accumulated on the skin, then rinses them away with water,” explains Armelle Souraud, Chanel’s scientific spokeswoman. As for whether the tulip-tree extract rids skin of environmental residue better than a regular cleanser,” Cincotta says, “Most cleansers will remove environmental grime, but if you can leave a barrier of protection from pollutants on the skin, that could be beneficial. I’d want to see studies conducted to determine both the amount of tulip-tree wax left on the skin after cleansing, and the amount of pollutants the cleanser was able to buffer, to see if it’s legitimate.”I’ve tried the moisturiser and the UV protection cream in the Chanel Précision line and the jury is still out as to if it made a difference. Whilst my skin felt softer and cleaner, isn’t that what any beauty product should do? I will admit that having something on your skin is probably a smart move to ensure pores don’t get to clogged up, and it’s better to be safe than sorry!


Now it’s over to you:

Do you have any tips on how to deal with pollution when travelling?

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  • Reply
    February 6, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Living in Shanghai and not having an actual job to go to, I have the luxury of staying indoors on the really bad days. If I can’t see the skyscrapers out my window, I try not to go out. Inside, we run air purifiers in every room and still I have to take an antihistamine every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like in Beijing – I’d probably develop asthma!

  • Reply
    Dave Brett
    February 6, 2013 at 2:51 am

    Very helpful thank you for the post, off next week can’t wait. will for sure head out to the wall of China to get some fresh air : )

    • Reply
      February 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

      No problem, Dave! Enjoy your trip and enjoy your ‘fresh’ air. =)

  • Reply
    February 6, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I can’t believe as someone who has a pretty successful travel blog – and as such, has positioned themselves as somewhat an expert – didn’t know about China’s pollution! Have you never watched the news? I’m not trying to be snarky, that just makes absolutely no sense. It’s not a secret.

    • Reply
      February 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Hey Liv,
      I knew that China, particularly Beijing, had an air pollution problem, but as someone who usually just stays in the south in Hong Kong or Macau I didn’t realise the extent of the issue, nor that it would affect me so quickly!

      Even after coming from Shanghai, where the air quality was average at best, it was a shock looking out the window of the hotel in Beijing and barely being able to see to the street corner. As someone who had never experienced ‘minus temperatures’ before I put a lot of it down to low hanging fog, perhaps some what in denial that it could be Beijing’s smog since I thought that it would be minimised during the winter months.
      Also, working in the Media I know that news agencies can oversensationalise things, and somewhat hoped it would be true in this case.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  • Reply
    February 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Nicole that doesn’t sound like fun at all. I haven’t been anywhere, yet, where the pollution has been that bad. I’ll have to remember the tip about the N95 mask if I ever go somewhere with bad air pollution. I wouldn’t have known there was any difference between that and just a regular mask.

    • Reply
      February 18, 2013 at 1:11 am

      I didn’t know anything about air masks either! Thankfully there was a nice English speaking pharmacist who explained, and my research confirmed what she said.

      Hope you get to visit soon. Beijing is an amazing city!

  • Reply
    February 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    That looks terrible. When I was in Beijing it wasn’t nearly as bad. I did stay in some days because of the lack of clean air but overall it was fine.

    • Reply
      February 18, 2013 at 1:10 am

      Glad to hear you had a good trip to Beijing.
      Yes, with the winter weather leaving the air stagnant as well as having some of the coldest days on record meant that pollution levels were crazy bad when I visited. Hopefully China can clean up their act because it’s an amazing country, and Beijing is a wonderful city to explore!

  • Reply
    February 7, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    It does look terrible indeed. Black boogers and cough? Yikes!
    I already have asthma so Beijing doesn’t really sound like the place for me.
    I knew pollution over there was bad, but this sounds reeeeaaaaaaally bad.

    • Reply
      February 18, 2013 at 1:09 am

      I think if you have asthma it would be really difficult for you, but if you take precautions I’m sure you’d be fine.

      Black boogers and cough teaches me that I should have worn a mask from the time I landed – whoops!

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    February 24, 2013 at 12:07 am

    man that sucks! Exactly why I hate cities and stick to the beach 😛
    you’re right though…made for some epic pictures!

  • Reply
    February 25, 2013 at 9:14 am

    I hope they start to do something about it. My husband has been 7 X and says there are times you can taste the air. I have to believe the pollution is scaring off tourists.

    • Reply
      February 25, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      Wow, ‘taste it’? Never thought of it that way, but yes you kind of can.

      I would say the pollution is definitely scaring of tourists. I was dead set about going to Chengdu for my birthday in April but reading more into China’s pollution problem I found Chengdu is even more polluted than Beijing and I’m no so sure I want to go anymore.

      Hopefully China can find a way that reduces pollution quickly – and your husband gets a pollution-free visit to Beijing soon!

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    March 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Wow great tips planning on going to china for the summer and didn’t realise the problem was this bad. I suppose you don’t think about pollution until you are amongst it/

  • Reply
    March 26, 2013 at 12:54 am

    Be careful advising people to wash their face masks – the chemist I purchased my N95 mask from advised me to replace the mask should it become wet. Best to check.

    • Reply
      March 26, 2013 at 1:10 am

      Thanks for correcting me, KN!

      I should correct this. You should wash the fabric ones which are mainly used for illness but not the N95 masks.

  • Reply
    Sam D
    April 29, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    We found the same thing when we travelling to Bangkok in October. We had seen so many photos of beautiful unpolluted Bangkok (with amazing sunsets!). When we arrived it was smoggy and polluted, you could barely take in the full “wow of Bangkok being so large! We noticed a huge difference when we went on day tours.

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