Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Keeping Warm, Chinese Style

Words: James Kramer
Wednesday 01 November 2017
reading time: min, words

Batter down the hatches and get your slippers on — winter’s coming! Our man in Beijing, Nottingham’s own James Kramer, brings us some tips and tricks for keeping out the winter chill, Chinese style.


Winter has yet to set in, and already this small hapless island has been turned an apocalyptic red by Saharan dust, received the shale-shattering backlash of a sea-bound hurricane, and suffered an increasingly cold shoulder from a jilted Europe. Indeed, it seems that these dark months ahead are set to be wickedly brutal. Predicted to be one of the wettest winters on record, I hate to be the harbinger of doom, but we are in dire need of some helpful advice from those more used to crushing tempests and the chill of unrelenting winter hardships. With this in mind, NFTMK is here to provide a few warm and welcome tips from northern China on how to brave the season that the sun forgot.

Beijing’s already heating up the propagandistic campaign for the 2022 winter Olympics with CCTV (not cameras trying to capture grainy, inadmissible footage of Youths ‘granny riding’ and ‘trolley bashing’ round the estate, but instead China’s Party controlled national television network) playing a constant stream of piste and crystalline like power amid frolicking swaddles of ludicrously ecstatic children waving mitten-donned hands at the screen, their youthful faces almost sickeningly rosy. So Beijing’s got the hots for the cold season this year, despite the guaranteed apocalyptic changes that the festive months are sure to bring.

Unlike in most other countries, in China you can pinpoint the start of winter down to a single date. Last year, winter began on October 14th for this was when the PRC decided that the (nationally regulated and controlled) heating was to switch on and commence, the date marking the first day that we proles were licensed to feel peaky. Up until then, you’d better be out in your short sleeves with the best of them because the season’s still golden breezy. Heating, mind you, is only for the north. If you happen to find yourself shacking up in Shanghai then you’re straight out of luck. Given the governmental decision that it’s not as cold in the south, the populace go without heating all year round. Pipes freeze up and become purely decorative. If you’re Hangzhou bound (a city near Shanghai), you’d better layer up and prepare to bed in. My wife, a native Hangzhouese, often describes climbing into a sturdy four layers of heavy cotton padded clothing, then not stripping down till the cherry blossoms burden the trees. And as for warm showers, re the pipes plugged with the popsicles of what was once your bathwater. Spring is a fragrant season down south, which sounds way worse than what I probably mean.

However, the south does still get the last (and only non-carcinogenic) laugh, for although the northern territories have access to central heating, they’re also blessed with the cancerous pollution that comes with it. Winter is the season for not venturing outside. There are days of red alert pollution warnings that require the sealing of all doors and a domestic army of whirring air purifiers to keep the wolves of heavy metal particles at bay. Recalling my second year in Beijing, I still sweat when remembering a February that contained three consecutive weeks of 450+ PM25 Though I did get left with the nice memento of adult onset asthma to remember it by. But hey, what’s a shortened life expectancy in return for toasty feet by the fireplace?

So Nottingham, looks like we’re going to have to sacrifice a little of our personal pride and vanity here, because the Chinese solution I’m afraid comes in the form of a rather embarrassing garment. Abandon any delusions of a shred of aesthetic sex appeal that you might have previously held and embrace your new leg hugging long johns. Straight out of the ever-popular publication Appalachian Cabin Weekly you will look like a terrifying manchild/womanbaby in an tasteless outstretched onesie. But at least you’re not shaking to the bone. Plus they come with a neat little fly that remains permanently open to expose you at the most inappropriately suggestive of times. Look Nottingham, nothing screams mammalian desire more than a body dressed near neck to toes in neon coloured synthetic fibres. I am Beijing man; hear me roar, sort of.

The one sure-fire cure for all your winter blues is however to drink hot water. A running joke between several fellow Beijing delinquents and myself was how the ubiquitous answer of “drink hot water” is the suggested solution regardless of the symptoms or cause. Feeling stressed or run down? Drink hot water. Suffering from a cold or sudden and unexplained rheumatism? Drink hot water! Lost a leg due to sub-zero Mongolian blizzards? Then get yourself a nourishing mug of flavourless boiling aqua. China’s trust in the heated beverage dates back to the 4th century BC, when keeping alive and warm outweighed the luxurious privilege of cooled drinks, which was only really reserved for emperors and warlords down the line. By the 1830s, the development of traditional medicine in China led to an upsurge of ‘tiger stoves’ that provided the population with hot water, keeping them healthy with the medicinal properties via the ‘heat’ within. That southerners seemed less affected by the cholera epidemic that swept the country in the 1860s (in part due to the Taiping revolution and Shanghai diaspora) was largely accredited to their sipping scolding h20. In essence, you wasted that five-year medical degree when a good £7 kettle and An Idiot’s Guide to Homeopathy would have done the trick.

If all that hot water that Nottingham folk will soon be drinking threatens to make us all feel a little bit too healthy, then we can also indulge in the other Chinese cure for the cold, namely eating food spicy enough to cause hallucinogenic outer body experiences. Not only Szechuan, but also a vast variety of regional dishes in China come with mountainous landslides of chillies piled perilously high upon the plate. The other ingredients are not so much flavoured, as they are entombed pharaoh-esque under staggeringly brilliant pyramids of red taste bud death. Add to this then the famous ‘flower pepper’ that along with the heat introduces a strange, numbing sensation to the outer extremities not all that dissimilar to some good Friday night horse tranquilizer.

Yet on those rare days when the sky clears (and so electrifyingly clear when it does) Beijing is of course beautiful. All of those fantasies of snow capped pagodas and powder dusted bamboo gardens come true as a sky unnaturally big and bright and blue radiates down upon perfect pristine snow. Of course you’ll have to compete with the multitude of other bystanders trying also to capture that perfect picture, one lonely sparrow assaulted by a few hundred up-feather shots from ultra long zoom canon lenses. If you really want a photogenic Wintermas though, and are not afraid of temperatures cold enough to halt you from inhalation, then Harbin is the home you need to head to. Named after ‘the place for drying fish nets’, Harbin lies on the northeast border by Siberian Russia. Influenced by its Slavic neighbours, Harbin’s architecture is distinctly Russian, with orthodox domes and imperial promenades, not to mention restaurants with respectable vodka & borscht breakfasts (and oh will you need it). The city is also home to the largest Jewish community in China.

But sweet holy frozen Jesus infant, it is lethally, ridiculously cold. Harbin has a climate that shares a great many similarities to my teenage sexual encounters in that it is a frozen tundra where no sane person wants to tread without at least a good two pairs of gloves on and several protective layers. Upon arrival, one of my travelling compatriots not only found his glasses to instantly become two miniature ice rinks decorating his nose, but actually developed icicles on his beard while we were standing inside a bus, combustion engine heating us and all. The cold air greets you with the soft, embracing cuddle of a catapulted brick wall. When you step outside you can actually feel your lungs retreating away from the cold slap of the air.

Harbin’s big draw is the ice and snow festival, with its giant, obscenely large recreations of various cities, international monuments, cultural icons and basically anything you fancy made out of compacted snow or massive carved blocks of ice. Ignore that a good few migrant workers die every year when these blocks of transparent death slip or free themselves during construction, just think Nottingham what we could do! Sod Nottingham by the beach, let’s build a fifty-foot replica of DH Lawrence complete with cold, indignant frosty stare, or a young Jake Bugg whose face you could legally lick or break off in parts to add to a festive Old Fashioned.

Yet if trying not to slip on the frozen remains of lugies stuck to the street like lemon flavoured stalagmites isn’t for you, then why not copy the intrepid Black Lake ice water swimmers of Beijing’s very own Houhai district and go diving into the waters of the Trent this November? Be sure though to strip down to that beer blubbered waist and jump right in, for some of these daring practitioners live up to their mid 90s despite the lethal air.

Whether Nottingham is ready and/or willing to embrace cotton toilet seat covers and padded winter jackets that make the Michelin Man seem slender may not be, one thing is for certain; there are for sure cold days ahead of us and we all need to be thinking about these end of days winters to come. Though if another ice age does beset us, we can rest easy in the knowledge that we in Nottingham will be well protected against any evil that might befall us via the ancient secrets bestowed upon us by your humble subject right here; just go put the kettle on, won’t you? And let’s all get healthy and prepared.

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