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China's fresh air pleases

Like many Americans, James Uhlir has watched the Olympic Games. Unlike others, the Fargo man's interests go beyond the sports.

He lived in Tianjin, a port city about 60 miles southeast of Beijing, from March 2007 through July.

So he's pleased to see that Chinese officials have cleared the air - literally.

Uhlir left China just as authorities were beginning the first phases of a pollution crackdown by limiting driving and closing factories for the duration of the games.

Despite Tianjin's name, which translates into "heavenly port," the sky was "pretty gross," Uhlir said.

"I don't remember seeing a blue sky until June," he said, referring to his first four months in China's third-largest metro area.

Hearing Uhlir talk about what he saw - or didn't see through the smog - sounds more like a horror movie than a tourist endorsement.

"More days than I wish, you could watch the sun set the whole way down. Being able to stare at the sun, I've never been able to do that."

He left his windows open one nice night, only to wake up coughing to the smog that rolled in to his room.

"I could've swept and dusted every day," he said.

Even the rains didn't help; in fact, they made it worse. If he got caught walking in the rain, his clothes would smell.

"There were days I couldn't see the apartment across the street."

Even nicer days spent outside held dirty reminders of the pollution problems. Riding his bike while chewing gum once, he had to spit out the piece after tasting grainy dust particles he'd inhaled.

It made him appreciate the Midwest air more, though he had trouble getting used to it.

"I looked up at the sky one day and thought, 'That doesn't look right. That color blue is only on graphic designers' computers.' "

Ina Danova has also seen the pollution problems. The Fargo resident spent two work weeks in Beijing in summer 2007.

"It was really dirty. You couldn't see the sun," said the native of Sofia, Bulgaria. "Sofia is a big city, and when you get to the mountains surrounding the city, you could see the smog hovering over the city. But it wasn't as bad as Beijing. I've never been in a city where you couldn't see the sun."

Leading up to the Olympics, at least one runner dropped out of the games citing health concerns related to the smog. But Uhlir and Danova, both runners, question the effect the smoggy conditions would have during such a limited exposure.

Air quality improved before and during the games, and the news service Reuters reported Tuesday that Beijing has breathed the cleanest air in a decade. The story quoted a Chinese environmental official saying the country would take steps to make the improvements permanent.

Uhlir and Danova want to return to the area, but he's a bit cautious of news he hears from both Chinese and American media.

"You should probably take everything with a grain of salt," Uhlir said.

A grain of salt, yes. But not particles of dust in your gum.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533 or

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead