How To Handle Chengdu’s Pollution Like a Pro

Right now it seems like everyone in China, even Xinhua, is talking about the pollution. Beijing pollution has reached record highs in previous days, a staggering 900 micrograms of particulate matter per square meter. And not just any particulate matter, this is specifically referring to the most hazardous kind, measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

Fortunately for us, the pollution isn’t quite as severe in Chengdu, but we’ve been breaking our own records recently.

The pollution index has gone over 400 this week, which is a rare and unfortunate event for the city. Along with the increased pollution, the subject of air quality has become a topic of discussion in Chengdu like I’ve never seen before. With 14 million residents in the city, few foreigners have the illusion that Chengdu isn’t polluted, but the situation has escalated to perturb even the most laid-back locals.

On the Chengdu Forum, discussion of air quality has become a recurring theme among concerned residents.The truth is that we’re all looking for ways to cope with the side-effects of Chengdu’s development. With that pursuit in mind, here are five tips on dealing with pollution in the Sichuan capital city. We need them now more than ever before.

#1: Stay Updated on Air Quality

The first thing to do is be aware of what the current condition is. Fortunately, it’s easier to do that now than ever.

Although Chengdu’s local government reports pollution data daily, information coming from the U.S. Consulate in the South of Chengdu is more accurate and reliable. When the pollution is very bad outside, the US. Consulate will report that, whereas local and regional government will ordinarily report that it’s nothing to worry about.

Chengdu pollution

China air pollution on January 12, 2013

For monitoring pollution data on Chengdu, the most convenient method is likely your smartphone. Whether you have an Android phone or an iPhone there are free apps available that report pollution levels daily. I use China Air Pollution Index (which was mentioned among my essential China apps). Beautifully designed and super handy. There’s an Android version available, too.

If you don’t have a smartphone or want to see what the Chengdu sky actually looks like, I started taking daily photos and posting them here: Chengdu Air. There’s also the China Air Quality Index, as well as the Chengdu Environmental Department website which lists pollution in specific areas of the city.

Once you have information on when the pollution in Chengdu is tolerable and when it’s really bad, use it. Refrain from exercising outside on the really bad days.

#2: Get an Air Purifier at Home

Having one of these in your home can make a huge difference, significantly reducing particulate matter in the air as long as you have your windows closed. If you put one in your bedroom and keep it on while you sleep, you’re improving your daily breathing conditions significantly.

When purchasing one for home use, there are two options: air purifiers and ionizers. Air purifiers use HEPA filters which use special, statically charged fibers to collect airborne particulate matter. They’re relatively inexpensive, but they’re essentially a fan pushing air through a filter, which will need to be replaced and can sometimes not eliminate the smallest particulate matter.

Philips AC4025

The Philips AC4025 air purifier

Ionizers, on the other hand, catch everything airborne by creating a charge which makes particules stick together and fall due to their combined weight. Negative ions are healthy and found in natural environments like mountains and forests, but these devices cost more. Note that a regular part of ionizer maintenance includes sweeping the floor to collect airborne particulate matter which has fallen to the ground.

I purchased a Panasonic air filter for my bedroom which had a noticeable effect on air quality within an hour of being first turned on. It’s the same model that’s in the office where I spend my days, except there are over a dozen in the office. The cost of this particular model is about 750 yuan, a Philips AC4025.

#3: Wear a Mask Outside

This one’s especially useful if you do any kind of cardiovascular exercise outside.

Whether you’re playing tennis, cycling around Chengdu, or jogging along the riverbank, a filtered mask like the Totobo or Respro makes a big difference. Instead of coughing and having congestion after prolonged exercise, your throat will be clear and you won’t experience the normal side-effects of exposure to pollution.

Respro mask

The Respro “Techno” mask

You can wear these around while walking outside as well, but don’t be surprised if you get looks. I normally only wear my Respro mask while cycling around Chengdu, but I’ve been compared to Hannibal, Bane, and Sub-Zero. You will get attention.

In recent days, I’ve been wearing my Respro mask when walking along crowded streets around rush hour. It filters out much of the car exhaust smell that lingers around major roadways in Chengdu within a few hours of rush hour. By now I hardly even notice the looks I get, and I’m confident that this will become a more common sight for Chengdu pedestrians.

You can order the Respro mask on Taobao for about 250 yuan, or buy it locally at the Natooke Bicycle Shop where you can select from different types and colors.

#4: Avoid Major Roads at Rush Hour

If you can, stay away from the major roads within an hour or so of rush hour. In Chengdu, that’s from about 4-7pm on Monday through Friday. Pollution aside, you should avoid these roads at that time of day anyway. When I’m not cycling, I take the subway to and from work, which is crowded but still easily beats the congested roads.

The roads you’ll want to avoid are first and second ring road as well as Renmin Nan Lu. I work within the Tianfu Software Park and driving from there into Chengdu is an absolute nightmare at rush hour, which can take over an hour. During that hour, wherein you traverse about 12 kilometers, you will inhale a lot of car exhaust. Skip all that noise and take the subway, which will get you within a stones throw of the US Consulate in 20 minutes flat.

Second ring road is particularly bad right now as well, due to construction. I would avoid it at all times of day, not just rush hour.

#5: Don’t Smoke Cigarettes

Zhonghua cigarettes

Good for guanxi, bad for health

Chengdu sure is a friendly city for smokers. It feels like everywhere you go, people are smoking. But as pollution grows, the city becomes less conducive to activities which put your lungs and heart at additional risk. Since these vital organs are already under additional stress due to the side-effects of Chengdu’s development, give them a rest by not smoking cigarettes.

Over the years I’ve seen countless friends relocate to Chengdu and suddenly pick up smoking cigarettes. It’s one of modern China’s traditions that’s woven into business and personal relationships. Cigarettes are cheap, everyone will offer them to you, and it is a part of the bonding ritual between Chinese men. But considering the current state of Chengdu’s air, there’s less room to play games with your health.

The Bright Side

Despite the growing severity of China’s air pollution, I feel that due to these recent events, it is becoming an issue of widespread discussion. That’s a good thing.

For years I could count the number of discussions I had with Chinese people about air pollution on one hand. Now, over the past two days, everyone is talking about it. Today a colleague asked me, “Why isn’t pollution this bad in the United States?”. Hours later my roommate asked, “Where did you get your pollution mask, and how much was it?”.

Hopefully discussions like these, undoubtedly happening all across Chengdu right now, will be a catalyst for real change. In the meantime, picking up good habits and taking a few precautions will go a long way towards enjoying more of what’s great about Chengdu.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

About Charlie

Having lived in Chengdu for seven years, Charlie has traveled to every corner of China and back again, calling the Yulin neighborhood of Chengdu his home. He's a part time DJ and full time iPhone game developer, too.

65 Responses to “How To Handle Chengdu’s Pollution Like a Pro”

  1. I just placed an order for a couple of Respro Masks for my girlfriend and I. Can’t say I’m looking forward to using them, but I’m sure they will save our lungs when we come back to China.

    • I felt the same way when getting mine, but you really do get used to it, and then you just feel good about having it on. That’s been my experience, at least.

  2. oh man~ tis is awesome. i just ordered the air purifier from taobao. the air in CD is kina freak me out tho, i dont want to end up being sick like this..

    • Nice moves. I’ve heard that “Blueair” purifiers are among the highest quality you can get for home use, but they run upwards of 4k yuan. Here’s a link to one on Taobao: http://tinyurl.com/cqj59vd

      But the model that I got, for 700 yuan, seems to be getting the job done. It’s rated to clear a room up to 30m2, so bedroom size.

  3. JerryS

    Filters, dont forget the filters. After 2 months, i was in dire need of filters and new batches came in recently… Ideally the filter should last for about one month, but not sure in conditions such as we seen lately…

    • Right, I’m told that you should swap the filter every 3 months. What model are you using, Jerry?

      Don’t forget to swap the filter on your Respro mask, too. I think that one’s also good for several months. I should be changing mine soon, the filter has visibly degraded.

  4. Brendan

    #5: Don’t Smoke Cigarettes…

    If you do and you make a single mention about the pollution, you fail at life miserably! Even more so if you’re buying 7 rmb packs of smokes.

    There’s a great article on pollution just appeared on China Daily with more information on the subject: link

    I’ve been talking about this with just about everyone for a while now, the last 6 months in Chengdu have been markedly worse for air quality. I just met a new face last night and one of the first things he asked me was about the pollution, and where to get a mask, so it’s hopefully getting the attention it needs now to give people the choice of protecting themselves from the exposure.

    Any of you reading this article should consider the precautions you can take, and do something about them for your own health. This has become a serious and persistent issue that isn’t going away, and if you intend to be here for a duration you would be advised to take any action you can now. I personally don’t think anyone should be cycling in the city without a mask at this point, the health risks are just too high.

    • Agree completely about cycling without the mask. Jacob of Natooke has gone on some long rides without his mask and has suffered for it, I hear.

      Interesting that you mention the China Daily – one notable thing about the recent pollution fiasco is that state-owned media has been pretty transparent about the issue. Xinhua and China Daily have both featured the pollution prominently, which come as a bit of a surprise. This has contributed to it becoming an issue of national debate, and might be related to Xi Jinping’s leadership opening up (even though there are still signs to the contrary).

      The US Government has also played a significant role, seeing as everyone is looking at their figures before the Chinese government’s. I wonder if when setting up that service they knew that it would become the authority on pollution for so many millions of people, not just the relative handful of American expats in China.

      • Mr. Klink

        Pollutions been rough lately.

        I’ve got a number of anecdotes regarding difference between wearing a mask and not.

        Even with good air quality readings, if you pick a busy road with construction you’re bound to suck down grit and sand. This is a simple pointer that this article points out that’s really easy to forget when you get one of those rare, beautiful clear days here.

        I’ve only ever used the Respro (Natooke is the distributor for China) and for what it’s worth it fits well, is reasonably comfortable, durable, washable and most importantly works.

        I’ve heard of Totobo and other filtration masks but can’t speak on behalf of how they work during exercise or any other factors regarding use.

        All I can say is regardless, use some sort of protection whether it be not going outside on rough days, using some sort of mask or moving to the countryside. Nobody wants lung issues down the road.

  5. Ray

    I gotta have windows open (even in winter) or i feel entombed (some mental deficiency i guess). Air purifier not an option for me…longer-term in Chengdu may not be an option either!

  6. Cheers, Charlie. Also good article here from Greenpeace, for an overview and preventative measures: The Coal Hard Truth About Air Pollution

    Plus an amazon link here for the masks mentioned in the GP article: N95 Masks

    • Thanks for sharing these links, Richard. I’ve been hearing a lot about how China’s dependency on coal is a major contributor to the issue of how pollution. I read a NYT article a few days ago that said there’s a lot of natural gas which China could transition from coal to, but they lack of the expertise and experience in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technique to extract it.

      Hopefully pollution isn’t quite as much of an issue for you guys in Xian.

  7. If you can’t afford an air filter. The best thing you can buy are Snake plants you can pay around 5rmb for one at flower town.

    http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/air-quality/news-10-fabulous-houseplants-absorbs-indoor-pollution?image=8

    The reasearch was done by NASA.

    You would need around 10 plants for a 120sq apartment

  8. Are there any studies about the effects of air pollution on health? For example, what kind of symptoms could show up after a year of being exposed to 300+ AQI environments? How long does it take for your lungs to get back to normal?

    I know that I feel short of breath and have a cough immediately after short distance biking on 300+ days.

    • I read this fantastic article just the other day: Which Lifestyle Choice in China Will Kill You First?

      It’s authored by an American family doctor with a practice in Beijing. The blog post references a study by NIH that compares ambient air pollution with cigarette smoke and the data says that a day in Beijing pollution is roughly equivalent to smoking 1/6 of a cigarette.

      So even a “light smoker” who smokes 3 cigarettes a day is at greater risk than a non-smoker in Beijing, speaking strictly in terms of the danger from air pollution.

      However, I checked out the article and noticed that in the final paragraph reveals that most of the studies of these effects are in places with “between approximately 5 and 35 μg/m3″ of PM2.5. Obviously, we are far beyond that.

      But what I gather from that article is not to neglect the other areas of health. Namely don’t smoke, don’t be overweight, exercise, and eat real food.

  9. Be careful about recommending air ionizers.

    http://www.livestrong.com/article/108499-breathing-ionizer-dangers/

    http://www.ehow.com/info_8588921_air-ionizers-harmful.html

    http://voices.yahoo.com/the-hidden-dangers-ionic-air-purifiers-395157.html

    I would be particular worried being in a room full of these devices which are each pumping out a small quantity of ozone each. The cumulative effect could be worse for your lungs than the pollution.

    • Thanks for providing those links, I wasn’t aware that ionizer could produce ozone. From the information your links provide though, it seems that a very small number of ionizer are releasing enough ozone to be harmful. A regular part of ionizer care is sweeping fallen matter out of the room, since all of the airborne particles will fall to the ground nearby. I didn’t mention that, but I will add that to the post. The Wikipedia entry on air ionizers has some useful information as well.

      As for the many devices in a room, the Philips AC4025 which I mentioned is a HEPA filter-based air purifier, not an ionizer. I don’t have an ionizer nor have any first hand experience with those.

      • All ionizers create ozone to some degree or another. It’s a by-product of ionization.

        Sorry, I was a bit confused by what you wrote. You went from ionizers, to Panasonic air filters you have at work and home, then finished off by mentioning a Philips model. I wrongly assumed the Panasonic model included an ionizer, as some do.

  10. Ray

    @Bigdaddy: yeah i saw that one too and also other articles about this effect. A friend of mine who sells air purifiers says they have sold out in the last week and are getting new ones “reverse -exported (imported?) back from the US. These ones aint cheap either: RMB 8K

  11. I used to get lung infections every 3 weeks from cycling in Chengdu before I bought my Respro – did not have another after using it. Of course you will get looks, but don’t you already?

  12. I’ve been corresponding with Michael Zhao recently, writer for The Atlantic, and he pointed me to a Chengdu government page which lists pollution by district in Chengdu. Interesting to see which parts of the city are most polluted. Updated daily and previous data is accessible, too. Here’s the link: 成都环保局

  13. Just out of curiosity, I am looking at spending 2 weeks in Chengdu somewhere between April and July. As a 47 year old man will the air quality be bad enough to make me sick?

  14. Is the Respro company paying you to advertise? There’s literally no difference between them and any run-of-the-mill n95 you’re likely to find on taobao for 5 kuai, unless you plan to look pretty for the cameras at a motocross racing event. How much of that 200 kuai you spend on a respro is actually going to materials and construction?

    • Hi Lewis,

      You seem quite confident. Let’s if I can find some literal differences between the two.

      1. The Respro techno filter (the kind I use) is an activated charcoal filter unlike the N95, which filters more than just particulate matter. Hydrocarbons like benzene and nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, lead and black smoke, etc.

      2. The Respro is made of neoprene and has velcro fasteners which allow for a better fit and tighter seal. The Respro is more comfortable, since this mask is not disposable.

      3. Two rapid airflow valves mean it doesn’t restrict your breathing nearly as much, considering many of the 5 yuan N95′s on Taobao that you mentioned don’t even have a single valve. When they do, it’s a tiny, cheap valve. This isn’t a big deal if you’re using it to cross the street, but as I mentioned I use my Repro primarily for cycling and only recently begun using it for walking around near major roads in Chengdu. I want a mask to restrict my breathing as little as possible, and you need high quality valves for that.

      4. The Respro comes in different sizes to fit different peoples faces. A non-functional bonus is that they come in different colors, too.

      5. The N95 which you mention are more geared for construction workers and such, they’re just not very consumer friendly. They’re disposable with flimsy elastic straps and are overall just a nuisance compared to a product that you can use everyday for years. Read this blog post by a doctor in Beijing who wrote about the N95 versus other options.

      If you want to save 200 kuai and aren’t affected by any of the above, N95′s are dirt cheap and ubiquitous. Personally, I think the Respro is worth every extra yuan. Respro is not paying me to advertise.

  15. Respro® have a distributor in Beijing, they have a retail outlet called Natooke (www.natooke.com) based at the same address. They offer a great service and carry the right inventory, I am sure you will be satisfied with their service.

  16. It’s exceedingly awesome that you got the company’s direct input but my budget is no higher than 40 kuai for a charcoal filter, n100 painter’s mask with numerous replaceble cartridges.

  17. I used to execise in the morning, but I’ve ceased my routine currently. Getting fat is better than dying sooner. hahahahahah

    • I think a lot of people share that sentiment, Eric. But from what I’ve been hearing, the health benefits of exercising outside, even when it’s polluted, outweigh the detrimental effets of the air quality. Don’t neglect exercise!

      • Yeah, I’ve been hearing that view and I consent what you said. But when the degree of the air quality is hazardous, workout indoor is better for our lungs. Since the weather is not so bad these days, I start execrising outdoor again. Yep, never neglect exercise!

  18. You would think that the Chinese would look into finding a way to reduce the pollution. But I guess they really don’t care about some elements of society. I’ll have to remember those things when I relocate to China for an internship!

    • I think they’ll only take action when they absolutely have to. I’ve heard that the Chengu government is getting serious about requiring companies that move manufacturing facilities here to limit pollution. Like Intel, Foxconn, the really big companies that have moved here in recent years.

  19. Ray

    Another brand of mask which gets good reviews (even better than Respro in some cases) is Totobobo. Mught look into this one….

    • I had seen the Totobo compared with the Respro in several online articles before I purchased the Respro. I never had an opportunity to check it out in person though, whereas I was able to check out the Respro and get an immediately recommendation from Larry and Jacob at Natooke. They were both using Respros so I pulled the trigger on that, and that’s what I mentioned here because it’s what I use and can recommend.

  20. I wish to comment on the Totobobo ‘Supercool’ mask and its failure to attend to even the most basic principles of a filtering facemask.
    The Totobobo mask adheres to one out of four of the basic principles that a mask should conform to in order to function adequately. It is a given, that we breathe though our nose and our mouth. The mask should cover both breathing orifices otherwise you have to make a conscious effort to breathe with the right technique. With the Supercool mask, this is pain to do and takes concentration otherwise, “oops I forgot to breath through my mouth” “oh well, the pollution really isn’t that bad”

    Breathing is a reflex processes that we do not think about and should remain that way. In through the nose, out through the nose, in through the mouth, out through the mouth,….. it should remain a thoughtless process.

    Totobobo Super cool mask is so cool, it lets you breathe through your nose if you want, how cool is that! …cough cough!

    2. The mask should have a nose clip.

    Masks used in industry have a nose clip of some fashion whether it be a strip of annealed aluminum to bend to an individual users features or something like a spring clasp. This vital component is required in order to seal between the bridge of the nose. This is the most common place for air leakage and without a nose clip you are rendering your mask next to the useless category. This will mean that unfiltered air will pass straight into your lungs by-passing the filter.

    In order to create an effective seal the mask needs a nose clip. Totobobo mask….. oooh,… doesn’t have one!

    3. The mask should have at least one exhalation valve.

    Heat, water vapour and Carbon Dioxide are plentiful when exhaling and the last thing you want is either to breathe them back in on your next breath or the water vapour to start saturating the filter material as it passes out of the mask; it has to go somewhere! The resultant is the ‘wet flannel effect’ which is where you cannot breathe for all the water in the filter material or all the tea in China.
    Without valves you also get condensation build up. The only way to avoid this other than by having valves, is if there are large gaps around the sealing area allowing the exhaled air to pass out. Air travels through the path of least resistance, so if the air passes out through the gaps then it will also pass in through the gaps, meaning that the air passing into your lungs is guess what…unfiltered. Surprise!

    4. The filter media should have the largest possible surface area.

    The key to low inhalation resistance is the amount of surface area the filter is providing for air to pass through, for example, try breathing through a biro pen tube and see how much air you an get into your lungs and then try breathing through an empty toilet roll. The difference is obvious. Like the filter disk in the Totobobo mask you will have difficulty drawing a couple of litres of air through the filter in one breath which is the average volume of air taken in each breath. Now multiply this by 20 and you will get 40 litres of air trying to pass through the filter every minute…. and back again because there is no exhalation valve. Exhausting work if you ask me!

    Well, simply explained and as far as I am concerned, it is a mask that will pass into history as one of the many masks that have been put on the market by companies who try to cash in on the back of a serious global problem. The global pollution problem is not going away unlike the Totobobo mask which most definitely will.

    by Smog the Dog from Toxin

    • Your point about the nose clip makes a lot of sense. The fit is crucial, especially if you’re breathing heavily. I recently swapped the filter in my Respro and the stiffness of the new filter made it difficult to get a tight seal. I can hardly imagine doing that without a nose clip or the velcro strap (which I have to secure pretty tightly for a 30+ minute ride).

      Thanks for your comment on the Totobo, Smog.

      • Mr. Klink

        I’m not sure the pricepoint of the Totobo but I’ve seen a couple in person. They seem functional undemanding use. For instance, walking from point A to B, but seem less than ideal for exercise.

        This is the simple difference with Respro. It’s designed to be effective for active aerobic exercise. It provides a huge filter area to eliminate the feeling of sucking through a filter (which, admittedly the Respro filter can get soaked with condensation and sweat and you notice the pull through the filter) and an effective valve system.

        Again, filtration masks are a precaution. I quit bumming cigarettes from friends at the bar so I figured it’s worth it to treat my lungs properly and protect them from whatever particulate that can accumulate in them during extended heavy aerobic exercise. Are the benefits tangible? I have no idea as I’m not a respiratory specialist. Do they seem as such? Sure as hell they do.

        Exercise should be a stress reliever and note induce worry about the potential hazards of poor air quality.

  21. I am from Toxin City

  22. Ray

    Who mentioned the Supercool model? My biggest aversion to the Totobobo is they look like surgical masks. Respro looks much more bad-ass, which i consider to be importsant…

  23. Someone mentioned houseplants that can help clean the air and here are three different ones that seem to have a helpful effect.

    -hǔwěilán (虎尾兰, Tiger’s Tail Orchid) (cleans at night) aka “mother in law’s tongue”

    -San wei kui.散尾葵 , cleans during the day

    -Money plant, 黄金葛, removes volatile chemicals

  24. I have 2x Respo Techno Pollution masks for sale.

    If you would like to get your hands on 2 Respo Techno Pollution Masks give me a call.
    Both we bought in the depths of last winter. A little use. I would recommend the filters are changed – which is easy. They are available from this bike shop: Natooke Bicycle Shop

    Both masks were both bought from this bike shop.

    They are described below:

    1) Army style colouring. Sport variety. Cost over 350RMB new. Ex condition. Filter should be replaced for hygeine reasons.
    2) Pink colouring. City variety. Cost over 300RMB new. Ex condition. Filter should be replaced for hygeine reasons.

    Make an offer for both or just one.
    All offers considered.
    Text me or call me on: 13881965941

  25. Pollution is the main issue in every country this time. So, it’s good to protect yourself from pollution by wearing surgical masks.

  26. Thanks for this article….I am moving my family of 5 to Chengdu in about a month and am concerned about the pollution. I would like to get an air purifier and was wondering if I should try to purchase one here in the states or if I could get one in Chengdu or perhaps even buy one off taobao.

    This article was helpful in determining the efficiency removal of many different brands of air purifiers

    http://www.myhealthbeijing.com/pollution/finally-great-data-on-air-purifiers-in-china/

    I would like to get the Blueair that had the best removal efficiency (the Blueair 503). I found this link on taobao

    http://item.taobao.com/item.htm?spm=a230r.1.14.287.Bn6hG3&id=22288891371

    what are your thoughts? thanks alot

    • Hi David,

      I don’t know what’s involved with bringing an air purifier to China with you, or what the cost discrepancy between the US and China is. They’re readily available here though, I wouldn’t think it’d be worth the trouble, especially if you’re purchasing something larger (which is likely what you’ll want for a family of 5). The good news is that the pollution has gone down significantly since this article was published. And in general, Chengdu is more livable now with less construction going on around the city.

  27. Hi Charlie,

    I read with interest your well commeted post “How to handle Chengdu’s Pollution like a Pro”. I also noticed some mentioning about Totobobo mask in the reader’s comments.

    I wonder if you would be interested to test and review Totobobo mask? Most user were surprise about the comfort and ease of breathing when they first try our mask.

    If you are interested I can arrange a set to be sent to you. Just let me have the mailing address.

    Best regards,

    Francis Chu
    Designer of Totobobo mask
    —————————
    P.S. your email address seems not working.

  28. I believe that China should follow my cities example, just because my city reduced air polution twice just in two years, here you can see tendency- Oro tarsa Siauliuose , and now we all are much happier, just because we don’t have to worry about our health anymore.

  29. Brand new air purifier with second hand price
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    search 远大Ta240 in taobao.com but the price is much higher than mine
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