Monday, December 31, 2012

Self-Absorbed, Much?

Looking over the past few entries I see plenty about my doings, thoughts and feelings but precious little about China, culture comparison or anything even remotely related to vagabonding. Last I checked, that is what this blog was supposed to be about. With this post I intend to remedy that. But first…

I woke up today, experiencing a rare phenomenon. Sunshine streamed in not just from the living room and office side of my apartment but on the bedroom and kitchen side as well. This morning, for a brief time the sun was positioned in such a way that its rays trickled down between the buildings of our housing complex to flood my balcony and kiss my living room floor. And, at that degree it also struck off the fifth floor window in the building facing my kitchen, reflecting joy into that room.

Living on the first floor I’ve seldom seen my kitchen that bright, it being on the permanently shady side of the building. I decided to fling back the drapes in my room and enjoy my morning coffee in bed. Up only long enough for the kettle to boil, I scampered back to my heated bed, enjoyed my drink and read a chapter. After that, while the sunshine still prevailed at that unique angle, I headed to the bathroom for my shower. The warmth from the overhead spray, the brightness streaming in from the window, my general good feeling belied the fact that it is currently 8 degrees Celsius – about 47 Fahrenheit in my apartment. I’m not even shivering.

The Chinese Meteorological Society announced earlier this week that this is already one of the most brutal winters in recorded history. Across Northeastern Europe and Russia several hundred have died and in the Northern regions of China, many more are succumbing to the cold. Roads are impassable from the snow. Traffic in large cities such as Beijing and Shenyang is delayed while road crews struggle to clear highways and byways of overnight snowfall. Flights are suffering and train schedules are disrupted.

With Chinese New Year, the country’s busiest traveling day looming, none of this bodes well.

Earlier in this blog I reported that the Chinese do not heat their homes. To an extent that is true. Homes in regions south of the Yangtze River have heat pumps, such as I have in my apartment but they are highly inefficient, as I reported in winters past. I have reason to know: I tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate the Western system of heating my spaces: closing my windows in a futile attempt to trap heat, and then running heaters for all their worth. These wall mounted units do provide a measure of warmth but they are costly and, quite frankly don’t do a very good job. Even when supplemented by a space heater, the temperature never gets above the mid-60’s (high teens, in Celsius). See “The Chinese System of Personal Comfort”, posted January 2011 for more on the subject.

Contrary to what I previously reported about living spaces not being heated at all, cities north of the Yangtze River do in fact have central heat. It is government administered and controlled, in an effort to manage carbon footprint and resources. In a lot of these buildings, especially the older communities, the central heat system is fired by a single or a series of boilers that services entire neighborhoods. Nevertheless, it is nice to have a heated interior, even if it is just into the teens (Celsius) or sixties (Fahrenheit).

The Southern Chinese keep windows open year ‘round. That was a mystery to me, recently solved my by frequent walks through the Over the Wall Community. In cold times, people burn coal or wood in small, portable stoves resembling large (about 2 gallon) cans with a conical top, leaving a 5 cm (3”) opening at its apex where flames jet out and sparks fly up. Usually they light them outside, where the whole jammie-clad family hovers around it. At bedtime, everyone migrates inside and the heater goes with them. It is not uncommon for the entire family to sleep in one room, or even to share a bed. Windows are kept open so the family does not die of toxic fumes. Apartments have no chimney or ventilation system.

This week I heard on the news that the Chinese government is considering moving the demarcation line to permit heat into regions several hundred kilometers south of the Yangtze. That would require major engineering, considering the construction boom in Wuhan alone. Several other cities are growing as quickly, if not faster. By the time the government concludes its study, if it does advocate for central heating in southern regions, every building will have to be reengineered for heat. That will not be a small task. And then there is the question of whether the system of community boilers will prevail or if the government will look toward alternate means of distributing heat, all while keeping its pledge to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and gravitate away from its consumption of fossil fuels.

These are things beyond this vagabond’s brain to figure out. I seek simple pleasures.

Come nightfall, walking down the dark alleys of my dear OTW community I can get a true sense of Old China. Dark alleys not wide enough for a car and not a streetlight to be seen. All over, in front of nearly every home such a stove as mentioned above throws its light, burning with the intensity of a primitive torch. Eerie shadows adorn the walls as people jockey for position and youngsters dance close to and then away from the flame. The family elders, seated on primitive, hand-hewn stools closest to the warmth, regale all while rubbing their work worn hands together. Middle aged and slightly younger clan members mutter and stomp their feet, bury their hands in their quilted jammie jackets and long for a spot closer to the ‘canned heat’.

With nodded greetings and ‘Wan An’ cheerfully exchanged I run the gauntlet. All too soon I am back in my modern apartment complex, the illusion of life hundreds of years ago dissipated. Stark corners, buildings with modern facings and double paned windows greet me as I pad my way through the quiet, bedded down complex. Unused air conditioning units hang on the buildings like malevolent leeches.

I know my apartment will only be a degree or two warmer than outside but I am toasty in my layers of clothing. As I dig my keys out I look forward to cozying on my heated couch, and later a righteous slumber in my heated bed. I will not shed so much as hat or scarf until time to peel back the covers and climb in. Vaguely I note that my windows hang open. Not flung wide, just enough for winter ventilation. They’ve been that way for months and I don’t intend to close them.  

Funny how my way of doing things has evolved. I find the Chinese method of keeping warm works better than my Western attempts of years past. I should have followed their example two years ago.     


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