Beijing’s worst sandstorm in 13 years just ‘normal spring weather’

Rule No. 1 for surviving Beijing’s often-brutal living conditions: Develop a sense of humor.

Smog. Frigid winters. Smog. Scorching summers. Smog. Gridlocked traffic. And oh, have you heard about the smog?

The latest air assault came Wednesday afternoon, when a mighty wind transported several tons of Gobi Desert sand straight into China’s capital. For hours, anyone not wearing a mask and goggles felt like their eyes and throat were being sandblasted.

Beijing-based foreigners griped on Twitter, but on Sina Weibo – the nation’s main social media platform – many Chinese citizens cracked jokes. Soon some were posting monster memes, with Godzilla and other invaders emerging from the sandstorm to tower over the Beijing skyline.

Advertising companies quickly exploited the dust-up, a demonstration of how one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. A Beijing real estate company produced ads urging potential customers to move to an apartment closer to their work. “How many more sandstorms will you inhale?” the ad asked.

Tuniu, one of China’s largest travel companies, also went to work. The company juxtaposed images of Beijing’s dusty air with tropical beaches and the Egyptian desert under blue skies. The obvious question: Why not experience sand in a more pleasant locale?

Beijing is a city of artificial landscapes, ranging from fake cherry trees to man-made ponds. At a popular park, Houhai Lake, the sandstorm managed to pick up an artificial island and blow it more than half a mile until it ran into a bridge. Netizens snickered and shared images of the wind-blown island on Weibo.

Chinese state media covered the sand blast, but with little enthusiasm. China Daily reported that the dust storm was the largest in Beijing in 13 years, but it played the story Thursday on Page 3, quoting a government meteorologist as saying this was “normal spring weather in northern China.”

Normal or not, Beijing has a recent history of dust storms, thanks to the nearby Gobi Desert and deforested parts of Inner Mongolia. Like Beijing, these desert regions get virtually no rain during the winter months. When spring winds pick up and blow to the southeast, Beijing becomes enveloped in dust. The storms end only when summer rains arrive.

The Chinese government claims the sandstorms have decreased the last 30 years, and it credits the planting of billions of trees for the dust control. Still, many Chinese citizens doubt the government can stymie the sandstorms any more that it can end the smog, a byproduct of China’s coal-powered economy.

On Thursday, Mother Nature gave Beijing a temporary reprieve. The winds changed direction, allowing Beijingers to wake up to a morning of blue skies.

The sandstorm’s arrival and departure provided relief in other ways. Prior to the storm, Beijing’s air was filled with fluffy seed balls from the city’s numerous poplar trees. The Gobi Desert sand apparently blasted the fluff balls to oblivion.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.