The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A day in the life of Beijing’s apocalyptic smog

Despite a 'War on Pollution,' Beijing is facing its smoggiest days yet (Video: Simon Denyer, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The smog is rolling in over Beijing. We are about to experience what the foreign media have nicknamed the “airpocalypse” — another days-long episode of choking air pollution. In fact, this is the second one in just three weeks.

In central Beijing on Monday, life is going on as normal. In Ritan Park, couples are enjoying an afternoon of ballroom dancing out in the open, while others are playing cards. But that's about to change.

We use a scale called the Air Quality Index to measure how polluted the air is on any given day. According to the phone app I use, air quality is “good,” posing no significant health risk if the reading stays under 50. If it rises above 300, the air is officially “hazardous.” That means it could cause “irritations and adverse health effects that could trigger illnesses.” Everyone is advised to avoid exercise and remain indoors.

By Tuesday evening, the Air Quality Index is more than 700 in some parts of the capital. That's close to a record high.

A huge shroud of polluted air has settled over much of China, and it's set to stay for days. The main source of pollution — the worst pollution cluster in the world, in fact — is the industrial heartland of Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. Steel and cement factories burn huge quantities of coal as China tries to keep its economy fired up.

The air filters are on full blast inside my house, but the air quality monitor says I should still be wearing a mask, even indoors. I am usually pretty relaxed about air pollution — probably too relaxed — but this is starting to bug me. My wife and daughter are asleep upstairs, and I can feel the pollution in my lungs. I have a slight headache.

Outside, it’s even worse. On nights like this, you really feel like you are living in a dystopian nightmare.

On Wednesday morning, the sky seems a little bluer outside my house. I am hoping to play soccer tonight, but we will call off the game if the AQI is over 300. To cover my bases, I bring my soccer kit and my mask to work.

But as I drive to work, you can barely see the tower blocks looming out of the smog. It’s not looking good.

As the day wears on, my foreign journalist friends in Beijing start to sound exasperated. At the Financial Times, Tom Mitchell tweets that, for the first time, a contact has suggested meeting at home rather than in a restaurant. The contact is worried the restaurant may not have air filters.

DPA's Joanna Chiu reports that many air purifiers are out of stock, but she and her cat are safe in the midst of their three machines at home.

The Globe and Mail's Nathan VanderKlippe is frustrated: It should be the second day back at school for his twin boys, but classes have been called off because of the smog. (The following day will be called off too.) The year, he sarcastically observes, is “off to a tremendous start.”

CNN's national security correspondent Jim Sciutto tweets this “otherworldly” image of the city seen from the air. Someone points out that the buildings look like tombstones.

On the streets, some people wear masks, but many don't. Middle-class Beijingers say they have air purifiers in their homes, but they complain to us that the smog is stopping them exercising outdoors, jogging or cycling. One man says he is worried about his elderly parents, and he has told them not to go grocery shopping. A mother says her children have been stuck indoors for more than a week, and they aren't happy.

It's even worse for the poorer members of society. A woman selling toys on the street says business is depressed by the smog, but she has no choice but to be out there. A street cleaner says the mask distributed by his work unit helps. Without it, he'd have a sore throat at the end of the day.

It's 5 p.m. and the AQI is still over 300. Soccer has been canceled, which really gets me down. I make revised plans to play on Sunday morning instead — if the smog lifts by then.

Jin Xin and Luna Lin contributed to this report. Video of the smog rolling in courtesy of Chas Pope.