Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Beijing: Black as Coal

Two years ago, as my plane circled Beijing, I smelled the city before I saw it.

The metallic tang that filled my throat and grated my lungs would soon become familiar. It permeated everyone's clothing, and made my hair smell like nights out in a smoky dive.

charcoal bonsai

Charcoal in my studio

Once upon a time, all roads led to Rome. These days they all lead to China (and China's, to Beijing), the roads are more crowded than ever, and those of us who live here are choking from the fumes. 


Smog flattens faux "Great Wall"-style buildings into silhouettes, Beijing

Every dollar spent on a product made in China supports infrastructure which – in its current form – poisons the people who live here. 

In the capital, we are poisoned by the air we breathe.

Armed for Beijing

Today the air is so hazardous that pollution levels are off the charts (and I wear a Respro mask outside)

There are many reasons. 

One is that cycling is now done by few people, apart from the very old,


and the very hip.


Another is the coal which fuels, for example, the computer I use to write these words, and the ebike I use to explore the city.

It also heats our homes.

So, on mornings like this, we breathe dust from the coal which has kept us from freezing overnight. And which heats the water for the showers and caffeine that fuel our days.

To cope, I keep our air purifiers running 24/7. We check China's AQI (Air Quality Index) before going outside. And before making weekend plans, double check the Smogcast.

As I try to reconcile what's outside my studio with what I make in it, I've become drawn to using the toxic materials which permeate my everyday life.

One of them is charcoal:

wood on wood

from the local market.

I grind it up in a mortar and pestle,

mortar pestle charcoal

strain it, and sift it into a glass cup used in Chinese medicine.

crushed charcoal

After sifting several times, the pigment is fine enough to be mixed with a painting medium (oil or acrylic). I'm using it to sketch out several new pieces on linen canvas. 

Someday I'll write about them here.

But for now, I'd like to add: Beijing's infamous dirty air doesn't even hit the top 10 of China's most-polluted cities (though 7 of them are in neighboring provinces). Millions suffer from much worse conditions than we do, but they don't make headlines – because diplomats and foreign journalists don't live there.


A security guard on a smoggy morning in Beijing's embassy district

While days like this feel apocalyptic, I'm also struck by how lucky some of us are. I write this post in the room where I teach art three days a week. Next to me is a US$3000 air purifier. In my desk drawers are quality masks I wear outside which filter out much of the pollution. At home, we use two cheap – but effective – SmartAir purifiers. 

Most of my neighbors in the hutongs don't even have toilets; affordable (non-counterfeited) masks and air purifiers are out of reach.


migrant workers on their way to a job site on a hazy morning

And yet, Beijingers manage to work hard, enjoy life, and make the most of whatever comes their way.

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