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Beijing: a sky of two colors

August 7, 2008 |  9:12 pm

Skylineoct07

Skylineaug08

BEIJING -- "It's the humidity, huh?"

Those of us living in Beijing have learned that the weather is in fact not a safe topic for small talk. Especially with the Olympics around the corner, Beijingers are very sensitive about atmospheric conditions. Many quarrels begin over whether that stuff in the air that makes it impossible to see the building across the street is smog or fog, air pollution or simply bad weather. Speaking just enough Chinese to get into trouble, I have had the following conversation repeatedly with taxi drivers.

TAXI DRIVER: "Today's weather is really bad?''

ME: "It is the air quality that is bad, no?''

TAXI DRIVER: "No, the problem is the weather.''

In Chinese, the word for air quality (kongqi) and weather (tianqi) are similar and so the debate revolves around the proper word to describe the air until my language abilities are exhausted. To some extent, the taxi drivers are reciting what they've read in the newspapers, which in turn are parroting the government line -- it is not the pollution, it is the humidity.

The Chinese do have a point. This is the rainy season and the high summer humidity traps pollution in the city. Blue skies are a rare sight in Beijing until September. Guo Wenli, director of the Beijing Climate Center, says that initial plans had called for a July 25 opening for the Olympics, but that the date was pushed back to Aug. 8 because of the weather. Chinese meteorologists would have preferred an even later date, but further delays would have turned the 2008 Summer Games into the autumn Games. And that would have cut into the National Football League season.

Two photos taken from my apartment building show the difference. The top one is from October 2007. The other was taken this morning at 10 a.m.. -- 10 hours before the opening ceremony.

-- Barbara Demick

Photos by Barbara Demick / Los Angeles Times

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