Staying Warm, Chinese Style

Staying Warm, Chinese Style     —by Jinny Batterson

Heating season officially started in northern China on November 15. When we lived during 2006-2007 in the area of China covered by central heating (roughly above 33 degrees north latitude along an irregular, government-decreed line), this official day for the onset of available heat was strictly adhered to, regardless of weather. In spring, heat was turned off on March 15, period.  We heard that during the 1950’s, shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic, the Chinese government, with Soviet help, began a practice of developing a single heating plant for each large area or population center.  At the time, this was a considerable improvement over the hit-or-miss heating available to most Chinese householders.  However, the policy has changed little since then, while increases in population and population density, advances in technology, and changes in fuel supplies and fuel use have made these centralized systems less and less efficient compared with other available options. Coal-generated winter heat is a substantial contributor to smog problems in major Chinese cities. Coal-fired power plants produce the majority of China’s greenhouse gas emissions, so there will need to be substantial changes to existing systems if China is to meet the ambitious emissions targets laid out in a recent U.S.-China climate change agreement.

Our faculty apartment in western Xinjiang was a recipient of central heat, as were all the other staff apartments, dormitories, offices and classrooms of our 10,000-student campus. The heat for everyone was produced by a coal-fired heating plant at the campus’s western edge, just beyond the athletic fields.  I’m not sure how the heat reached the various buildings, but once it arrived in a building, heat was delivered via hot water radiators. We had no thermostats in our apartment or our classrooms, and no valves to control the flow of hot water to the radiators, most of which were situated under south-facing windows. Heat arrived on an irregular basis, causing considerable clanking plus alternating periods of sweltering and chilly indoor temperatures. Sometimes we’d have the windows wide open on -5 degree C days; at other times, indoor temperatures would be as cold or colder than outdoors. We had no way to circulate the heat inside, either (except for drafts when the wind blew). The temperature sometimes varied by several degrees from one side of a large room to the other.

We never got totally toasty during any of our winters in China, but after a while we picked up tips from our Chinese colleagues that helped a lot:

1) Long underwear is your friend.  Nearly every Chinese friend had several pairs. Larger department stores even stocked sizes big enough for our sometimes larger Western frames. As soon as the weather got cold, everyone layered up.

2) Change your eating habits with the seasons—in most places, winter offered various flavors of “hot pot” (vaguely like Western fondues, eaten communally around a large table with a gas burner at its center—more about winter eating in next week’s installment.)

3) Huddle.  Although Chinese people we knew were generally shy about hugs and public displays of affection, they were not averse to having a lot of folks around the same table  or in the same room during cold weather, upping the temperature noticeably in the process.

4) Get and use inexpensive hand and foot warmers—the ones we were familiar with were electrically powered, filled with a sort of gel that would warm fairly quickly when the power was on, and then hold their heat for up to several hours unplugged.

5) Wear tip-less gloves for indoor work. Outside, wear many layers, including hats, mittens, and warm boots.

6) Invest in padded vests and down jackets, long enough to cover your entire abdomen, which can get chilled by wintry winds.

7) Get the best, warmest bedding you can afford or acquire (often previous foreigners or Chinese colleagues will leave theirs behind when they move to more temperate climates).

8) When you are awake during the day, stay physically active. Come evening, take advantage of the long winter nights to get plenty of sleep.

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