Spending any part of winter in Beijing means dealing with varying degrees of smog and pollution. This year, the Chinese government has decided to issue red alerts when heavy smog (AQI exceeding 200) is expected to last for two or more consecutive days, and advise children and seniors to stay indoors as much as possible, people to reduce outdoor activities. Schools are closed and the number of motor vehicles on the roads are restricted. In December alone, two red alerts were issued, each preceding five to six consecutive smog-filled days.
Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to avoid discussions about the smog in Beijing whether in the real or virtual world (inside or outside of the Great Firewall of China). Old-timers and newcomers alike moan about breathing difficulties, feeling poorly/depressed and the need to wear a mask outdoors and turning on air purifiers for days on end.
The athletic community, on the other hand, obsess about the health benefits (or lack thereof) of exercising (indoors or out) when air quality is obnoxiously bad. Many early morning group rides in the warmer months have been preceded by conversations of personal limits when it comes to AQI levels, and aborted when the northern winds don’t arrive as per the weather forecast.
As you can see from the screen shot of the Wake Me Run Run app on my Iphone, my personal AQI upper limit is 150. I figured if I’m going to forsake two hours of sleep to exercise outside, I’d rather do it in decent quality air. I’ve cycled outside when the AQI hovered between 180 and 200 and found it hard to breathe even with a mask on. When the AQI exceeds 300 outside, I find it tough even running 5 km on the treadmill in the gym with the air purifiers turned on.
I’ve met athletes whose performance seem unaffected even when the AQI exceeds 200 and I’m truly envious of them. But we all know that the PM2.5 air particles we suck right into our lungs stick around for a long time, if not forever, with the potential to give us respiratory problems or even cancer in the future.
All hope is not lost (yet). There’s been quite a few studies conducted overseas about the benefits of exercising outside in polluted air. One of my tri mates (he came in second in his very competitive age group at last year’s Beijing International Triathlon) wrote a piece on this topic, listing his personal limits for exercising and citing a number of articles on these studies. The overall consensus seems to be that it’s better to do some exercise than not at all, but keep it to under an hour when the air quality is poor (150-300) and do nothing when the AQI is higher than 300.
On a positive note, we’ve been getting clean air for the most part since the second week of 2017 as temperatures drop to sub-zero. I’ve overcome my fear of the biting cold and run outside three times, relishing every minute. Now if I can get my hands on a balaclava mask, I might just muster up courage to cycle outside this weekend.
I’d almost convinced myself that racing season is over for me after the Beijing International Marathon in September. My left leg gave me so much trouble, I’d limp through my pre-run warm-up. I eventually went to see a sports physio about it and he prescribed me exercises and a limit of only two runs a week. This gave me the perfect excuse not to train when I went back to Brisbane for holidays. For two weeks, I cycled with my aunt, uncle and cousins, went on a couple of slow 5-6 km runs and swam a little in the sea at Noosa Heads.
It was bliss.
After 6 months of training and obsessing about metrics, it was nice to just do sports for fun and with family, without having to worry about air quality and traffic congestion.
Alas, I had to return to Beijing to work in mid October. When I exited from Beijing airport around midnight, I saw the smog and tasted it in my mouth. I wished I was back in Australia right then and there. The smog (which enveloped Beijing for 10 days prior) hung around for the next 7 days, which meant I couldn’t work out outdoors. In a vain attempt to feel better and hopefully alleviate my depression, I set up my trainer and joined a gym so I’d at least be able to do some exercise. With winter coming and more central heating coming on, the forecast is more cold smoggy days in Beijing for the next 3 months. Not a prospect I’m looking forward to.
Probably out of desperation to run outdoors and against my better judgement, I decided to do a 21-km trail race in the northeast hills of Beijing with some friends on the last Sunday of October. (There were also 42 km and 10 km options.) It’d be a great way to enjoy the autumn scenery without enduring the crowds at Fragrant Hills. My left leg was feeling stronger after resting for close to two months. I just had to make sure I don’t push myself too hard on the run.
After doing two trail runs making do with a cycling camel backpack, I decided to finally invest in a running hydration pack. To make sure I got one that fit me, I went to a shop to try on several before deciding on the Ultimate Direction Women’s vest. It was so comfortable and worked so well during the race, I wondered how I survived without it in the past.
The 21-km and 42-km racers started together at 8:30 am. The first 9 km was along a flat concrete road while the next 12 km comprised of 5 hills with a total elevation of almost 600 m.
I was very careful to maintain my negative split for the first 9 km, conserving energy for the later part of the run. Looking at my metrics from the organiser’s app, I’m pleased to see that I’d executed my plan quite well. The climbing wasn’t necessarily easier but passing people on the uphill climbs was a confidence-boosting and satisfying experience.
The trail was even more beautiful than what I’d seen in the advertisements, adding to my enjoyment of the race. Scaling an almost vertical part of the hills past CP2 was particularly tough past the 15-km. I had to hug the wall while gingerly inching my way up step by step. That was when I fully appreciated my brand new running hydration vest which sat snugly on my back.
I finished the race in 4:39:45 in 30th place among the women. I could’ve pushed myself and run a little faster, but I decided not to risk it. I still have to train for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March, and I’d like to do more and longer trail runs in the future.
My German cycling buddy, S, and I still don’t quite agree on who initiated the idea of signing up to the second Beijing Sportive race on 7 May. I’m standing by my version of events — she asked me first.
Admittedly, I was already examining closely the long (186 km) and short (116 km) courses, and asking friends who’s done the previous Sportive race about their experience when S’s WeChat message popped up. S and I didn’t take long to convince each other to register for the short course. Before I could change my mind, I’ve filled in and submitted the online registration form and paid the fee.
That was when I realised I’d given myself less than two weeks to prepare and train for the race. A particularly painful realisation especially when I hadn’t put in many cycling miles due to my overseas trips.
Cue *hair-pulling, nail-biting* anxiety.
I took an extra day off, so I could get four consecutive days off for Labour Day public holidays and rack up some miles on my bike. My original training plan had looked like this:
As with all best laid plans, the execution is seldom perfect. I woke up Friday morning determined to ride, even after seeing the AQI was hovering closer to 200 than 150 (which is already three times higher than what’s considered healthy). I rode the short route from my home to Wenyu River and back, and forewent the run in the park after seeing that the AQI remained high. I comforted myself by saying at least I did my ride.
On Friday evening, we were exchanging screenshots of AQI, weather and wind forecasts, discussing if we should still proceed with the 130k-ride. The general consensus was if the AQI was uncomfortably close to 200, then some were definitely not doing the ride.
Saturday morning arrived, but the projected wind and rain didn’t come the night before and AQI had shot past 200. Around 10 am, the diehards among us donned our anti-pollution masks and rode the long Wenyu River loop (68 km), determined to get some mileage under our belt. The AQI had dropped to below 200 by then but there was an obnoxious amount of willow catkins the closer we got to the river, and they got into our noses and mouths. We didn’t do any climbing, and this was our last opportunity to train our climbing stamina before the race. Sigh.
I woke up on Monday, looking forward to the Serk ride but was greeted with rain and strong winds instead. I sat on the fence about doing the ride all the way until 15 minutes before the ride started and decided not to do the ride, when it was clear the wind and rain was not stopping any time soon. I had no intention of catching a cold again after just recovering from one.
Immediately after the long weekend, I met up with my endocrinologist (for my hyperthyroid) and triathlon coaches. I found out I lost another 3 kg in the last month even after my condition had stabilised. The endocrinologist cautioned me against exercising too much, which left me in a funk for the rest of the day.
Then I met up with my coaches for triathlon prep training and found out I haven’t been eating enough or the right food when I’m cycling. In the past, I’d have a breakfast of a fruit smoothie and a peanut butter jelly sandwich or oats, then take a muesli bar or energy gel halfway through a three- or four-hour ride in the mountains. I told my coaches I’d often push myself to the limit riding uphill, only stopping when I’m out of breath or feel like I’m about to pass out. My coaches, with a look of mild horror, told me I haven’t been eating enough during my rides, that was why I had no energy on my climbs and that I needed to eat at least one energy bar after every hour, or two energy gels after every 30 minutes of exercise. They also advised me to load up on carbs in preparation for the Beijing Sportive this Saturday.
So for this week, I’ve gone against my inclination and eaten more carbs and meat than I normally would, hoping to build up reserves of fuel to burn on Saturday. I’ll know very soon if my last-minute carb loading strategy works. Watch this space for a write-up of my first cycling race.
As winter comes to Beijing and financially strapped households burn coal 24-7 to heat up their humble homes, Beijing becomes shrouded in smog for days on end every other week until heavy snow or wind clears the air. Beijing made headlines all over the world this week by announcing a Red Alert, closing schools and factories and restricting the number of motor vehicles on the roads for the last three days.
There’s been much written about the causes of the smog and its effects on our health, so I won’t repeat it here. For those interested to read more on this topic, check out these posts:
Having lived in Beijing for the last six years, I’ve experienced my fair share of heavy smog and have accumulated some knowledge and survival tips from online research, discussions with friends and my own trials and errors. It’s time to crystalise it all into a post (especially since I’m sick of repeating myself like a broken tape recorder to China virgins on the topic).
Out and about
There’s no hard and fast rules about what the air quality index (AQI) should be before one dons a face mask when venturing outdoors. When I couldn’t ride my bike and was walking and taking public transport a lot last month, I didn’t bother wearing a mask when I was outside, even when the AQI went beyond 150 (already unhealthy according to the US Environmental Protection). Now that I am cycling again, I wear a RESPRO Techno mask so I’m not inhaling dust particles and exhaust fumes.
Many of my local and foreigners friends who don’t wear masks on days when the AQI is above 150 usually complain of a sore throat or irritations in their respiratory tracts. It’s also important to wear a mask with a filter that can either be washed in water or changed.
For friends who baulk at the price of a RESPRO (about RMB450 from the World Health Store), I recommend they get one of the following masks:
If you don’t like the look of the usual air pollution masks, then Vogmasks are for you. Price between RMB 180-250, they come in a huge range of colours and designs, so you can buy different ones to go with your outfits. But unfortunately they don’t hide the fact that you’re physically wearing a mask.
When I first moved to Beijing six years ago, I didn’t see the point of getting an air purifier for my apartment. I naively believed that as long as I stayed indoors as much as possible when the AQI was particularly high, I’d be fine. I didn’t suffer from asthma, insomnia or any other condition that made the purchase of an air purifier absolutely necessary. Besides the only models of air purifiers available in Beijing at that time all cost upwards of RMB 10,000, another deterrent as far as I was concerned.
Then the first Airpocalypse happened in 2013. I still remember that Saturday in January 2013. I was playing boardgames with some friends in a bar when I decided to check the AQI on my mobile. Within a span of a couple of hours, the number had jumped from 100+ to 600+. I made an involuntary remark about it to the other gamers, and the marathon runner in our midst sighed in resignation, as it meant he wouldn’t be going for a run outdoors later that day.
That evening when I travelled to the southwest corner of Beijing to meet some friends for Peking duck, the AQI had climbed to over 800. I ditched my original idea of cycling, and took the metro instead. Even in the metro stations, yellowish brown clouds of smog were suspended in mid air. I wore my face mask while I was outside and during my entire metro journey and only took it off to eat at the restaurant. When I made my way home from the metro station later that evening, visibility on the roads was less than 50 meters. My breathing felt noticeably laboured, even when I slept that night.
Since that fateful day, I’d acquired three air purifiers. My first air purifier was a cheap and cheerful Smart Air Original which was more than enough for my bedroom when I was sharing an apartment with a flatmate. Since moving to my current 55-sqm place in Dongzhimen and acquiring an Origins Laser Egg which monitors real-time air quality, I’d bought two more air purifiers, in the hopes of getting the AQI in my apartment down to 50 or less when the AQI is over 200. Unfortunately, my apartment is on the first floor of a very old high-rise building, so outside air seeps in one way or another. When the AQI outside went over 250, I’d only managed to get the AQI in my apartment down to 120 at best, even after leaving both air purifiers turned on constantly for over 24 hours.
My friends and colleagues have asked me how I decided which air purifiers to buy for my apartment. I’ve always relied on the research of others. Here’s an English article I’ve been recommending to my friends and colleagues to read before putting their hard earned cash down for an air purifier (or two). Don’t be surprised if many of the affordable air purifiers mentioned in the article (such as the Mi Air Purifier) are sold out. The air pollution situation in Beijing has been that bad.
These are the two air purifiers currently going full blast in my apartment:
I bought this brand new during the 11 November sales on Philips online store on Taobao.com for RMB 699. The dials are all in Chinese but are quite easy to work out if you refer to the English instructions on Philips’ Hong Kong website.
I recently inherited this from a friend who left Beijing for the US. After learning of Air-O-Swiss’ merger with BONECO while researching for this post, I’m now a little worried about where I can get replacement filters since Boneco doesn’t produce the model I have anymore. I haven’t found any online stores on Taobao that sold the replacement filters and I doubt I’d be able to in the future. Hmm….
My fellow Beijingers, how have you been coping with air pollution? I’d be interested to hear from you.
I’ve been having quite a few conversations with my friends in Beijing about moving to Hong Kong. It all started a couple of months back when I was chatting with my colleague in Hong Kong about staff turnover in our team. She said they were having trouble finding a replacement for a colleague who’s finishing her secondment in Hong Kong end of March, so it’d be great if I moved to Hong Kong and took over her projects. I’d be closer to our department head and much closer to getting a promotion in the near future. Because I didn’t see it coming, I was taken aback by her suggestion and gave a wishy washy answer that she interpreted as I’m open to moving to Hong Kong in the future.
I was in Hong Kong for 2 days this week for some meetings and training. Less than 24 hours passed after I touched down in Beijing before my Beijing supervisor informed me I was going to Hong Kong again in early April for a regional meeting. My colleague was over the moon while I sulked after hearing this news. 2 trips to Hong Kong in less than 2 weeks! I couldn’t help wondering if this was all part of my colleague’s ploy to get me to transfer to the Hong Kong office.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always enjoyed my previous visits to Hong Kong, be it a visa run or a work trip. The humidity is great for my skin, my friends there always take me to the best places to eat and drink, the shopping’s great and it’s nice to get unimpeded access to Facebook, Twitter, BBC and whatever website’s blocked in China. I’d even think about moving to Hong Kong 6-7 years ago, but ended up in Prague instead.
After Prague, I moved to Beijing in late 2010. In the past four years, I’ve seen more and more colleagues and friends leave Beijing for Shanghai, Hong Kong or their home country, citing the capital’s increasing pollution as their primary reason to move. There’s been days when I’d wake up, look out the window, see nothing but a greyish/brownish shroud and start entertaining thoughts about leaving Beijing. These thoughts would grow in urgency if the pollution persisted for more than two days, probably because I start getting depressed after not seeing the sun for a while. And just when I’d decide I’ve had enough, the wind would blow, the rain or snow would fall, transforming Beijing into this:
Then I remember everything I love about living in Beijing: cycling on wide cycling lanes, Chaoyang Park, great hiking up the Great Wall, straight-talking, down-to-earth and nutty locals, the hutongs, my interesting, off-the-wall expat friends, politics, history, culture….
And my thoughts of leaving Beijing would once again be shelved into the deep recesses of my consciousness.
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