Winter in China; how can this even be a topic you might wonder, but believe me when I tell you, it can. The reason for that is the North-South divide that exists in China with regards to heating and climate. Anything south of the Qinling Mountains and along the Yellow River does not have central heating in winter, a policy enacted 60 years ago by Zhou Enlai. While in some of the country’s most Southern provinces, where temperatures rarely drop below 15, this is kind of understandable, in regions closer to the heating border such as Anhui or my previous home of Nanjing, where 0 degrees and snow can be fairly common, it is not necessarily what you would call a pleasure. Though of course there is still air con available to heat up a room to a certain extent.
Before moving to Nanjing I had heard the Chinese expression that the Southern cold 进骨头里 goes right to the bone, because the climate is much more humid than in the North. I never really knew what people were on about; until that first winter in Nanjing. It was, in short, four months of constantly frozen toes and weirdly enough the tip of my nose. That’s what I get for being a big-nosed foreigner…
In my first year, when I was living in a rather old flat, I ended up actually sleeping in one of those skiing hats, you know the ones that pull over your nose.
During my second year, I quickly learned that when the aircon was on in my little studio flat, I had to sit in the hot air stream and not move an inch. Any attempt to stick my arm outside of the hot air range would have been accompanied with icicles dangling off my extremities (had we been in a cartoon movie…oh how I wish we were).
After a while though, I got used to the constant cold and the limited mobility in my own flat. Which was of course when, as it happened, I made my move to Beijing.
My first Beijing winter wasn’t good. Sure, our flat had floor heating and so you would often find me looking like a passed-out drunk as I lay sprawled across our living room floor, soaking up the warmth. And yes, I loved walking around without slippers and having toasty feet, to Mr. Li’s utter dismay, but the dryness of the Northern winter brought with it two terrible, terrible side effects. Every single inch of my skin became mind-numbingly itchy (and if you know me you know I’m a terrible scratcher). No matter how much cream I applied, after a while my legs and weirdly areas on my lower back were so raw from the scratching I could hardly put on my layers of clothes. But even worse was the fact that my lips dried out and split to an extent I wasn’t even aware was possible. They doubled in size and were as painful as they were unpleasant to look at. Again, no amount of balm could salvage the situation.
A work trip to Shanghai turned into an unexpected relief as my crumbly skin soaked up every inch of bone-freezing humidity it could find. The Beijing winter reminded me of the German winters of my youth, and not in a good way.
A Question of Adapting?
Fast forward a year and it is the end of November. While there has been a spot of itchiness, my clown lips have yet to surface (*touch wood*). It almost seems like I am on the verge of getting used to the harsh Beijing winter.
The thing, however, that surprised me most, was our recent trip to Changsha, again South of the warm and toasty centrally heated lifeline. When it hit 0 degrees and we were filming outside, I just wanted to jump into the Xiang river. When we were in a public hospital I just couldn’t fathom why on earth some of their hallways were actually open so the ice cold air could stream in and the wind could cut into my shivering body like a knife. Even while lying fully clothed with five layers underneath the duvet in my hotel room, my frosty toes simply refused to thaw. Imagine getting up in the mornings after 8 hours of your body generating just enough heat for even that little toe to defrost and then being forced to throw off the covers and instantly turn into a rather unappetising human ice lolly. Yeah, I think I’ll just stay under these covers till April, thanks. (Oh yes, I forgot, Nanjing for one typically doesn’t warm up until well into the fourth month of the year).
I have been quick to profess my love for the Southern climate on many occasions; my body, it seems, has other plans. It couldn’t wait to get back to lip-splitting, itch-inducing dry Beijing and its toasty indoor heating.
What has your experience been? Have you gotten used to the Chinese winter where you are?