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.

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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.

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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?