05/01/17 – The Smog That Thunders

Temple of Heaven, Beijing – a landmark that seems good enough to use as a cover photo representative of how much the current wave smog has packed the city in (it was sunny that day in July 2015). Mmm-mmm sulfur!

The adventure has finally begun. The actual work…well, that’s more of next week’s problem. I’m currently sitting in a dormitory room in Peking University pouring through books on art-history and Buddhist grottoes (and having established that my VPN works!), trying to stay awake with multiple cups of coffee and the continuous lure of a nearby grocery store selling some high-octane Red Bull. It’s a bit of a slog, reading, especially fighting through both jetlag and a nasty cold that set in at some point after New Year’s, but it’ll all be worth it to know what on earth I’m looking at. The last time I saw this many grottoes on a single page was in 2012 in a small classroom at SOAS.

I was told I had to look at the pictures of Buddhist cave-temples in order to be allowed to go to the train station.

I woke up on the morning of February 2nd feeling great, excited to travel the next day, excited to get this amazing odyssey on the road…in a plane. Through the day, whether it was standing in the cold on my two engaged friends’ (Matt and Natalie) roof celebrating New Year’s or it was just my body coming down from some holiday highs, I started sniffing. Then coughing. Then getting dizzy. All while trying to fit in my one last proper gym workout where I went way harder than I should have.

This happened in late October but it happened again yesterday after trying to deadlift 463lbs (210kgs). I got to 440lbs but I think you can only really get one super-heavy lift in per workout without your face-veins exploding.

Realistically, you’re going to not feel so good after all the blood rushes to your head during any given exercise, especially if your cold is only starting to warm up. Worse, even, on the day before you travel 12 1/2 hours across the world. It wasn’t worth it by any stretch of the imagination.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 9.38.51 AM.png
There was an odd amount of water at the North Pole this year…

I woke up on the big travel day feeling like utter garbage. If you’ve ever tried traveling while sick you’ll notice two things: first, everyone in the entire airport seems to give you about ten meters of avoidance room after even a single cough; and second, airplanes exacerbate every shitty feeling you’ve got because half the cabin has something similar to what you’ve got.

On the plus side, besides for deciding “hey, why not chug a whole airplane bottle of wine to clear my sinuses” three hours into the flight, it was a pretty low-key half-day in the air.


We touched down in Beijing Airport around 4:45pm in the afternoon and could barely see the runway – the entire city smells like a combination of sewage and sulfur because every generator runs on a grimy 1950s-60s coal oven and fills most of the large cities in China with a greenish-grey layer of smog. Right now at Peking University I can barely see the nearest dormitory.

It’s like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day just breathing the air in Beijing once the coal starts to burn…(Photo courtesy of Francesca Monteith)

Francesca (my co-researcher on this epic project) came to pick me up at the airport, which I was grateful for because at that point I didn’t know which way was up, and led me in my jetlagged sickly haze through multiple trains and sardine-packed subway cars to Peking University. Getting three bags and a duffel suitcase through Beijing rush hour was kind of a hilarious exercise in maneuvering and yelling, and trying to stack my bags on top of each other was kind of like playing a game of Twister.

Right hand blue bag.

The university itself is reminiscent of a communist government building you’d find in Tiananmen Square: a brutalist facade in sandstone-coloured concrete with bright red Chinese characters on top meant only for mass-function and not for (bourgeoisie) aesthetics. Francesca’s dorm is called the “Global Village”, and from what I’ve seen it’s essentially where the foreigners get squashed in so they don’t communicate their evil ideas with the good wholesome Chinese nationals. Most of them are there in Chinese immersion programs, so she’s a bit of a loner as the sole foreign archaeologist.

The University of People’s Austerity and Workers’ Grim Sooty Faces (actually Tiananmen Square but Peking University isn’t far off).

The goal, because of the pollution, was to go outside as little as possible, so I’m not braving the sulfur again (with my new anti-smog face mask, China’s popular solution to its government’s ambivalence to lungs) until we leave at 2pm today to catch our 3:30 train to Datong. We’ve decided to go northwest first instead of southwest to avoid the ongoing mass-exodus of Chinese New Year workers from the cities in the southeast (Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Nanning, and especially Shanghai) to their various villages in the overpopulated Southeastern Chinese hinterland. Datong is followed by a 9 hour layover in Xian (instead of Tianshui, which we’re hitting on the way back) and then a 30 hour mega train ride to Turfan in Xinjiang Province.

Right now I’ve got a bit more work to do on that big pile of books, but what I’d really like is an intravenous espresso drip to keep me going until tonight when I finally pass out in Datong and transcend the jetlag that is currently making my eyes ache.

That’s the stuff…

Ah, if only.

Next stop: the Yungang Grottoes! More pictures tomorrow – today was about as mentally hazy as the sky.

Andrew Harris

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