Pollution afflicts parts of China all year round, and across much of the country at some time or other. It reaches one of its peaks in the winter. A lot of heating systems for the clusters of tower blocks, housing tens of thousands of people, are centrally controlled… From the 1st of November, this central heating is switched on, and will only be switched off at the end of March.
The heating comes ultimately from coal-fired power stations - and you can tell that, from the taste of the smoke and ash at the back of your throat. It’s very cold now in China, especially in the North - where coal is also plentiful. The combination of cold and smog can make you cough uncontrollably.
At other times, the sweet and gritty smell of burning coal reminded me of the comforting domestic fires of my childhood. I grew up in a town of about three thousand people, in West Wales.
In China, locals describe their neighbourhoods as villages when they contain just a quarter of a million people. Four million people makes a small city. Eight a medium. Twelve a large city. Beijing is officially 25 million strong - although that’s more likely to be 35 millions, really…
That gives you an idea of the scale of providing heat and comfort to urban residents.
The pollution is not always accompanied by silence, either - you can find yourself passing a kilometre-long queue of grumbling lorries carrying coal to power stations or factories - nose to tail. And then another one. And see another in the distance.
Still, it’s hard to believe there’s all that smog there, being breathed-in hour after hour, for months and months. Out of wonder and politeness, we’d ask : “Is it cloudy today?” But get the answer - no : it’s smog.
On a trivial level, photographs you take along the way are rendered flat and bland - there’s always a grey filter in the way of the anaemic sun, smiling sickly through.
Some cities are relocating factories outside the town centre (which is a shifting definition, so fast and large are they growing). And others are being closed.
China has been moving from being the world’s workshop, towards a more balanced economy, after all.
Beijing wants consumers to spend more on Chinese goods, to make growth more local, more sustainable.
But before industrial emissions are reduced, those consumers will add to pressure on the environment, as they always have elsewhere in the world.
No longer will they suffer low voltages, power cuts or no supply at all. It’s an impressive programme : 40,000km of cable will be unwound through one of China’s most mountainous regions.
They’ve bought 1.25 million air conditioners; 861,000 refrigerators; 787,000 washing machines; 747,000 TVs and a million electric cooking appliances.
But it’s a political picture as murky as the air. Consumers want power and clean air. The government wants to reduce pollution, make money from green tech - and yet not kill the golden goose which is manufacturing.
Some hope is invested in smaller things…
I have never seen so many electric vehicles driven by such a big cross-section of people as I have in Beijing, Shanghai and other large towns in Central China. Lotteries on use and ownership are discouraging people from driving petrol cars and encouraging them towards rechargeable bikes and scooters.
The chances are that the electricity they’re charged with is coming from those coal-powered generating stations I spoke of at the start. But at least at nose-level, there’s less exhaust.
If you listen carefully to the audio on the scrubby video below, you’ll hear the new electric bikes and scooters hissing by, quietly. Another good thing in itself - if it weren’t for the fact that it’s already a scare, crossing streets in China, even when the pedestrian traffic signals show green.
You don’t walk across alone… Instead you gather a critical mass of allies for the journey, hoping the driver will consider you all a bit too much to plough through.
Like busy fish passing around rocks in a rushing river, the scooter jockeys will try to keep going.
They’ll beep and toot to let you know they won’t be stopping.
Or, at least the petrol-powered drivers will…
You see : a Zen-like calm and fatalism has taken over the drivers of these quiet electric bikes.
They’d rather not stop. And they’d rather not toot.
In a way, as they scoot over your fallen body, it could be a rather peaceful way to die.