The Hidden Mountains of Beijing

In the modern capital, you can go days or weeks without seeing them. Beijing’s chronic haze and smog, held in place by those mountains, defeat long-distance gazing. From the windows of my Chinese language school, five floors up in a hotel-complex sky bridge, I’ve worked out an alternative set of landmarks. If the air is only moderately dirty, for instance, I can make out the shape of the world’s second-largest Ikea on the Fourth Ring Road; when it’s less dirty still, I can tell that the Ikea building is blue, and I can see the towers of the Wangjing neighborhood beyond it. (On the bad days? The buildings across the street fade out, and pollution hangs in the school’s hallway, like cigarette smoke.)