My weather app indicated full sun the day I flew to Xi’an, and plenty of sun was to be had from 36,000 feet on my flight in, but on the ground, as the photo on the left below demonstrates, no sun was visible. China’s air quality issue is well known but until you are in it, you can’t really understand how it affects you. Within 15 minutes of landing in one of the oldest cities in the world and one of China’s most polluted, a tickle began in the back of my throat. The weather app also indicated “Unhealthy Air Quality for Sensitive Groups.” I don’t consider myself a “sensitive group” and I’ve lived in plenty of heavily polluted cities in India, Russia, and elsewhere, but maybe a decade of clean, blue, Rocky Mountain skies has altered my ability to deal with smog. That tickle quickly turned into a scratch and then a persistent cough that cleared up briefly as I moved on to Shanghai but then returned with a vengeance. I don’t know how the Chinese do it. I don’t think those ubiquitous face masks can help that much.
And yet, as grossed out as I was by the pollution and as much as I love my hikes in the fresh skies and green forests and looming mountains, there’s still a serious appeal to these metropolises, Shanghai in particular. While I didn’t care for Beijing very much, Shanghai grabbed me instantly. In a previous incarnation of myself, I was a city girl. I loved living in Moscow and Montreal, and I miss the pulse of a dense, international, urban environment. I miss the culture, the possibilities, the bustle, the anonymity, and the idea that you can start over every single day.
It was hard for me to leave Shanghai, and if I didn’t have a dog to return home to, I might not have left. I felt instantly at home hopping on the metro and roaming the streets of random neighborhoods. I also felt an intensification of the sadness I’ve been feeling since spending time in DC this summer that my life choices have landed me in a tiny city and taken me away from all that I used to love and fundamentally changed me as a person. It’s not too late to change back again, but unlike when I was younger, now I have to consider what cost to my health am I willing to incur to return to this lifestyle. I know I could never live in the crippling air of Xi’an, but Shanghai for a while feels so worth it.
For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.