The Spring Festival is about done and dusted, and we in Chongqing needn’t fear the cold again until November, fingers crossed.
That’s right. To speak the absolute truth, the winter climate in Chongqing city is far from great, and it’s perhaps the one biggest complaint from foreign residents and Chinese from out of town alike.
At the same time, I don’t wish to come across as melodramatic. Amidst the conditions I’m about to desribe, life continues unabated for locals and residents alike without the raising of an eyebrow or second thought.
Not that it’s really cold here. Even in the depths of foulest winter, the temperature virtually never falls below zero overnight, and it does sometimes happen that on a particular day the sky clears you get an inexplicably balmy day of warm sunshine. The issue for most is that homes don’t usually have any heating other than the a/c. The general rule of thumb is to do an eskimo impression and huddle indoors all day with the windows wide open. Electric blankets and heaters are a big help, but for somebody who grew up with double glazing, radiators, and a fireplace, this is still extremely difficult to shrug off and carry on with daily life as usual. I have Chinese friends from the north who are used to harsh winters with temperatures below minus thirty, but they always had heating at home, public hot bath houses and days on end with blazing sunshine. They easily find the winter in Chongqing as hard going as any foreigner here.
The second aspect is indeed the lack of sunshine. In fact, the winter of late 2019 broke records for the total low of sunshine hours. For anybody who suffers from seasonal depression disorder, or those who never knew they had it, may particularly find the winter here difficult.
A third feature in this picture is the fog, or smog, perhaps. Chongqing is actually known nationwide as ‘fog city 雾都 (wu du), as in the amateur actor series ‘Fog City night tales雾都夜话 (wu du ye hua) shown on CQTV. In winter, it’s not uncommon for me to open the curtains first thing and not even see the road below through the fog.
In recent years, many of the worst polluting factories have been either closed down or moved further away from the city. The rusty old bangers that bellowed thick black smoke everywhere have been replaced with modern natural gas powered buses. The air quality is without doubt vastly improved from the early 2000s when I first arrived.
Having said that, Sichuan and Chongqing are after all a geographical basin, and during the winter, static weather patterns cause pollution to build up, augmented further by the burning of stubble in rural areas, and even the smoking of sausage meat on a mass scale.
There will times when the pollution level rises to unhealthy proportions, in which case you should reduce your exposure using a mask outdoors, and an air filter when indoors.
PM 2.5 (Parts per million) masks are available cheaply online, so you can order one yourself or ask a Chinese friend to help. I used to feel a little embarassed to wear them outside, but nobody will care or think you are making a negative statement about their city.
As for indoor filters, there are many effect brands available on the market, but they can be pricey. Funnily, the cheapeast and even most effect method is buying a powerful fan and attaching a separate filter to the opening. The air blasts through much more quickly and reduces the PM2.5 count in your home in no time. The only down side is that they can be noisy.
Sichuan and Chongqing are geographically part of the same basin, low in elevation, high humidity, surrounded by mountain ranges and traversed by great rivers. These factors, along with sunnier climes outside, cause an almost ever-present blanket of cloud over the winter months from late October to early March.
In fact, this is so well known through history that Chinese has an ancient idiom to express surprise at an unexpected situation, and that is 蜀犬吠日(Shu quan fei ri). Shu is derived from the ancient country of Shu which is now Sichuan, quan means dog, fei means bark, and ri means sun. So this idiom literally means ‘A dog of Shu barking at the sun.’ The sun is so rarely seen that dog barks whenever it happens to come out.
How to live through the winter
There is good news. You needn’t feel depressed and spend the winter huddled miserable indoors as a recluse dreaming of next spring.
The easiest way is to take a break and leave for a period of time. Chongqing is so well connected nationwide and abroad, that hot sunny climes are within as little as two hours by plane. Sanya at the southern tip of Hainan province regularly hits around thirty degrees in January, and Xishuangbanna, where I just drove two on a winter trip, was even hotter. I find that whenever the weather gets me down, a short break away makes me feel much refreshed, and I don’t mind the dreariness for a few weeks on my return.
If it’s just sunshine you want, than an hour or two by car or high speed train is just as good. Though not guaranteed, you are likely to see blue skies if you drive out of the Sichuan basin and head south towards Guizhou, or Yunnan in particular.
Getting away is not always a feasible option for all, in which case you should know that Chongqing has many fun activities to partake in over the winter, you just need to get up and take some action.
In and around the city, the hot springs are great in the winter. You may feel a bit cold switching pools, and need to keep the towel close at hand, but you won’t care about the winter climes once you’re relaxing in the hot water.
The night city views in Chongqing are amazing, even in the winter. It may pay to face your fears directly and spend time around the river roads, and district centres like Jiefangbei解放碑 or Guanyinqiao观音桥. The neon lights and lively atmosphere would likely perk you up.
Hotpot is also great in winter. I will do a blog post specifically on this local speciality, but you cook food raw in a wok full of cooking oils, chilies and other spices. You have your own bowl in which you add sesame oil and a choice of condiments. In the depths of winter, hotpot is definitely heart warming, and if you’re particularly brave, there are some outdoor hillside hotpot establishments like Pipa Hotpot in Nanshan, where you can try the delicacy, as long as it’s not raining.
It never snows in the city, but it certainly does in mountain resorts. Not far from Chongqing is Jinfo Mountain金佛山. About two hours away near a small city called Nanchuan南川, where you can do skiiing, snowboarding, zorbing, or just enjoy the wintry scene.
Another factor to bear in mind is that it’s low season for tourists. All of those sites that are teeming from spring to autumn can be visited when they are quiet and relatively inexpensive.
In Chongqing, there are a few leisure establishments that offer baths, saunas, relaxation and entertainment. The most well known place of this description is called Dalangtaosha大浪淘沙. There are only a few scattered in Chongqing, so you will probably need a ride, but like the hot springs, you can stay for 24 hours on a single reasonably priced entry fee.
I’m a big squash enthusiast, and nothing takes my mind off the cold weather than a good hour or two exercise followed by a hot shower and sauna with friends, like I often do at the Blue Lake Fitness Centre. I would strongly suggest indoor activities like squash or badminton with friends to take your mind off the weather. A problem shared is certainly a problem halved.
I’ll finish on a piece of practical advice. Though I don’t suffer from seasonal depression here, I do find that using a UV lamp does contribute to keeping my spirits up, and the extra vitamin D helps fend off the typical winter illnesses.
The key to surviving the Chongqing winter is taking all the above advice together, and bear in mind that once spring arrives, the weather is take a turn for the better.