BEIJING — Breathing Montana's smoky 2017 summer air was good training for the everyday conditions in China.

It took 12 hours of clean airplane air between Seattle and Beijing to finally relieve that heart-racing, tongue-scraping nastiness of forest fire residue that covered the Rocky Mountains through August. The feeling started all over again in the hallways of Beijing Capital Airport.

In a city packed with architectural marvels and 23 million people, the CCTV building claims a Top 5 wow factor. The television network staff inside nicknamed it "the pants building" for the two massive legs that support a cantilevered waist section swinging out into the thick air.

From the observation deck on the 37th level, Plexiglas portals in the floor allow a visitor to look 126 meters straight down. On Monday, the horizontal view through the more conventional windows extended just 3 kilometers.

The smog comes from a mix of coal-fired electrical generating plants, industrial activity, and 6 million cars packing the capital traffic. The federal government has recently pledged to reduce air pollution by 15 percent, although no one in a breath mask on the street was able to explain how that might be accomplished.

Ninety minutes outside Beijing, the signs along the trail leading to the Great Wall warn "It is strictly forbidden to use fire in the wild." But no forest fires have been reported in the Mutianyu region. The surrounding sawtooth mountains lurk like the unseen enemies the emperor's army hoped to deflect — out there somewhere but not quite visible.

The haze doesn't have a particular character, compared to the tongue-coating campfire taste of Montana's forest fire inversions. But it manifests in an odd gargle in the voice, a tickle at the back of the throat and a belt-tightening around the chest. 

A CCTV network editor said Monday's air measured 160 PM 2.5, considered just short of Hazardous by the Missoula County Air Quality standards. Tuesday morning's reading was 80 — considered Moderate by Beijing reckoning. 

"The air quality is improving," the editor said. "You can see more blue-sky days than you could two years ago. On a good day, you can see the mountains to the west."

Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney is in China and Hong Kong as part of the China-U.S. Journalist Exchange organized by the East-West Center and Better Hong Kong Foundation.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.