Beijing, 23 March 2013

One of the first stories that you hear when you move to China is that the North gets central heating during the winter while the South doesn’t, the line between North and South running along the Huai River. The decision is normally attributed to Mao Zedong himself, taken in the early days of the “New China” (post-1949). This is normally followed by a shake of the head at such simplistic policies and war stories about winters spent in “the South” where the storyteller spent the whole winter, night and day, indoors and out, wearing multiple layers. I can empathize. I once went on a business trip in February to Morocco, where there is also no central heating, and I still remember the highly unpleasant meetings in these damply cold rooms where my internal warmth slowly but steadily leaked out into the surrounding room leaving me a block of ice by the end of the meetings.  I suppose there was a time when the Chinese endured, but with rising wealth and expectations there is now a fair amount of grumbling about this policy. I remember being struck by a story reported in the China Daily where a man originally from Shanghai but now living in Beijing told the reporter that he had decided not to spend the Chinese New Year with his parents because he found their apartment so unpleasantly cold. It might be colder in Beijing but at least he had heating, he said. For a country where spending the New Year with parents is still sacrosanct, that was quite a statement.

In all of this, one tends to forget that the rules for central heating in the North are quite rigid and are rigidly applied. By some mysterious calculus known only to the denizens of the Ministry of Central Heating (or whatever Ministry it is that made this decision), 15 November is the date on which the heating is turned on and 15 March the date on which it is turned off. Never mind what the actual temperatures might be; that is irrelevant. The first year my wife and I were here, on November 1 it snowed – artificially induced, by the way; the Minister of Meteorology decided that Beijing needed precipitation and so seeded the clouds. But she told no one of her decision, consequently throwing all the surrounding airports into chaos since none of them were expecting snow. But I digress. Beijingers, faced with 15 days with no heating, started to complain louder and louder; eventually, the Beijing municipal authorities decided to throw the switch early.

This year, as March 15 drew closer my wife and I scanned the meteorological prognostications to know whether or not the switching-off of the heating this year would be a prelude to an unpleasant several weeks of cold in the apartment. It was looking good; outside temperatures were quite acceptable even though the smog levels were disagreeably high. March 15 came and went, the heating went off, the temperatures inside the apartment stayed pleasant. We were congratulating ourselves when this sight greeted us on the morning of the 20th.

march-20-morning 002

It was actually very pretty, really just like a Christmas card. When I walked to work later, it seemed that every person on the street had their camera out, from super-duper machines to mere phones, and were busily photographing the magical effects. I joined in with my phone. Here are a couple of photos I took.

march-20-morning 003

march-20-morning 006

But even as I walked, the snow was steadily raining down off the trees (as it were) and melting rapidly. By evening, the snow was gone.

But the cold remained. So for the last few days, come nightfall my wife and I throw on thick sweaters and huddle around the electric radiator which we bought for this purpose soon after we arrived. When it comes to bedtime we throw off our clothes and throw on our pajamas in frenzied speed, dive under our duvets, and lie there shivering for a while until out body warmth heats up the space around us. When it’s time to get up, we poke our noses out from under the duvets, groan at the still-low temperatures, and make a dash for the shower. That and a hot cuppa sort of prepares us for the day.

The big question now is, where can we go for lunch which will be warm?

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg


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