On the Twelfth Day of China: Not Just Cold, China Cold

Holy moly was China ever cold. So, so cold. My first day there, my tour guide looked at what I was wearing and said she didn’t think I’d be warm enough. I was wearing all the usual winter clothes: knit hat, scarf, gloves, boots, and heavy wool coat. I laughed it off. I was born in Buffalo and I live in Colorado. I walk my dog twice a day, year round on zero degree days and in ice storms. I snowshoe. I went camping on a night that got down into the 20s this year. I can handle the cold.

No, I can’t. Not China cold. She was right. I was wrong. I froze. It wasn’t only the temperature, because 20s and low 30s isn’t that bad for me. It wasn’t just the breeze and the humidity either. The bigger issue was that China doesn’t believe in heat. It was the prolonged exposure to these elements. There was never a chance to warm up. Museums, shops, our tour van, even some restaurants we ate at…none of them had adequate heating to counterbalance the temperature outside. Most places simply leave their doors open all day, no matter how cold, because so many people are coming in and out. They have padded curtains that hang down in the entryway to supposedly keep some heat in, but they do very little in my opinion. It was brutal.

I made ample use of the hotels’ saunas each night when I got back, and as the trip progressed, I increased my layers as the cold set further and further into my bones. By the end, I was wearing ear warmers & a knit hat; a long-sleeved shirt & two sweaters; fleece leggings under my jeans; two pairs of socks with my heavy winter boots; and, of course, a scarf and gloves. That made the weather tolerable.

But the Chinese? They are a different breed for sure. Most of my tour guides never wore a hat, and often times they weren’t wearing gloves either. One young man had on a thin sweater and a light wool coat, which he never zipped, and cigarette pants with trendy loafers that left his ankles exposed. How was this possible? When we were outside walking around places, I always tried to stand in the sun or in a spot that was shielded from the breeze. My guides seemed unfazed and unconcerned about trying to find some reprieve. I don’t know what they are made of. Perhaps their bodies have evolved differently from millennia of garden homes in which each room stood alone, forcing you to go outside to get from one to the next, and the woodwork lattice windows had no glass and the only heat was a little bowl of burning coals. Perhaps.

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But this lady at Purple Glow Lake in Nanjing tops any level of hardiness I’ve ever heard of or read about. This sorceress was out for a leisurely swim. That’s right – she was not doing a last-day-of-the-year polar plunge. She slid into that water on a 30 degree day, and I stood and watched her casually swim for a several minutes before I couldn’t take it anymore and had to walk away. What sort of magic power she has, I’ll never know. But if she could bottle and sell it, I’d buy.

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But all of this is to say, so what? You can’t let weather keep you down. I probably have 35ish more good travelling years on this planet and I plan to take advantage of them all. And as for China? My god – thousands of years of history, the most populous and rapidly economically growing country on the planet, wonderful people, and a beautiful and unique language? It is fascinating. Thank you, people of China. For teaching me, entertaining me, letting me relax, making me emotional in all sorts of ways, for being you. I wish you all the success.

For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.

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