When I first arrived in Changsha, I was expecting it to be polluted. I was expecting the air to be black with smog, the streets to smell like open sewers from babies and children relieving themselves on the street. The air is definitely polluted, but it’s no debilitating. The worst visible air pollution comes from the heavy traffic and from Chinese men smoking cigarettes. When traffic is bad in Changsha, it can take 20-30 minutes to get through an intersection. The carbon monoxide is nearly impossible to get away from, and crossing a busy street all but guarantees a direct inhalation of exhaust. Cigarette smoke is everyone: restaurants, bars, hospitals, video game arcades. I was very surprised to walk into a popular arcade and see young men in their 20’s chain smoking with they play the latest fighting game. I always associated arcades and video games in general with much younger kids. The haze of cigarette smoke seems more hazardous than the car and industrial pollution.
It’s not uncommon for the streets to smell like raw sewage. I haven’t seen babies pooping in the gutter, but there are dogs that will do their business anywhere, street or sidewalk, regardless of traffic. But the streets are Changsha are full of many smells, its a very odorous place. There are many small restaurants (literally, it seems like every family operates a small neighborhood restaurant with 4-5 tables) that line the sidewalks, from which one will catch a whiff of roasted garlic, stir-fried meat and vegetables, or the cough-inducing smell of chili-powerder. The streets of Changsha are actally very clean. Every stretch of sidewalk has someone who continually sweeps throughout the day, so the streets are generally clear of rubbish.
What is alarming is that Changsha is still rapidly growing. A Chinese friend was telling me that there are plans to connect Changsha with two other surrounding cities and they expect the population of Changsha to reach 12 million in a decade. The worst pollution visible to me is from cars, more Chinese are able to buy cars, and more Chinese are moving to cities where they want cars.