New Year’s prognosis: Murky

Here in Beijing, somewhat insulated from our usual daily car advertisers like the Blob and Lame or the Toronto Rats, we have to turn to other means of scanning as the old year ends and the new one, um, begins.

Actually we understand there is more of a continuity than is implied by that, a flow of time, an inexorable movement, not unlike the molecule-by-molecule change of state from solid to liquid that takes place in the high arctic as giant ice shelves slowly dissociate themselves from their historic state and move into a different sort of plane.

But nonetheless it is true that at some point the link to 2006 “breaks” and the year snaps free from its mooring, and we have 2007 on our hands.

Ugly, aint it [the answer is yes, if you’re talking about your prose. get on with it. –ed.].

So, divorced from our own normal moorings, we cast about for a check on what may be coming down for us in this brave new year.

And we see coal smoke.

We don’t actually see coal smoke, what we see is a blurry haze over everything. What it is is we smell coal smoke. That peculiar sulferous tang that turns everything, um, yellow [Hold on, thar…jest what are you implying? –ed.].

No, it’s not that. We saw it years ago, in our Prague Autumn. We saw it in a stove in our family homestead, back in New-Found-Land.

Coal is cheap, and plentiful, even by Kunstler standards. Coal is the broken ice shelf we’re standing on, looking bleakly into the future for a bearing.

We hiked the Great Wall yesterday, at a location about one hour north of Beijing called Badaling. Out of the city, slipping and pulling ourselves by the steel pole railing that is (happily) provided for the thousands of tourists who were out there that day, we noticed in our lungs a particular gritty residue from the previous two days in the city begin to loose itself. The ice on the steep steps leading away from the tacky souvenir stands was not just from the previous day’s snows.

The theory is, climbing the Great Wall on new year’s eve is a propitious undertaking, bringing luck and prosperity to those who undertake it.

We weren’t looking for luck or prosperity, but for perspective. We wished to get “above it all” and establish our bearings for the new year.

We climbed for about an hour, reaching the seventh tower.

As for establishing our bearings or gaining perspective, the fact is we were in a snowy fog the whole way. As we climbed, we gradually lost sight of what was below, while what was ahead shifted in and out of view but never revealed itself fully.

At about the fifth tower, after a vertical rise of about 600 meters, we noticed something: we could breathe better. When we stopped climbing at tower seven (or was it the public washrooms just below number seven?) it was not because we were winded, per se (although it was strenuous, and cold and colder). It was to return to the tourbus.

But up there, we could breathe again, and it was good. It made us reflect on the urban reality of a city of 16 (or 19, if you count the “floating people”) million. Coal smoke gets in your eyes, and your lungs. Getting away from the smoke may be as simple as climbing a mountain, but what then?

Back in the city, cracking off into 2007 (and our colleague jan Lundberg notwithstanding), we see coal smoke everywhere for the new year, and the years to follow. It ain’t pretty.

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