on the edge of a storm

I’d finished my lesson prep so far as I could – one of those frustrating ones where you know what you want to do with the class, but you’re struggling to figure out how to put it all together – and I was sitting there, fidgeting, nameless, directionless, frustrated energy bubbling away just beneath the surface. I decided to get up and go for a walk and burn some of it off.

Get outside, bump into a colleague, chat for a bit. The sky was grey, the sun was sinking, nothing unusual. A few raindrops fell, and I said, well, I better go, meaning I’ve got to get some fresh air before the weather turns nasty and night falls. Out the gate, down the road, I was crossing the next intersection, a quarter of the way out into the road, looked back, and


Big, black, ugly, menacing cloud bearing down, the kind you see on one of those really disturbed summer days, days when the air is filled with tension that snaps into a violent squall that scours the city then disappears as quickly as it came, leaving the place beaten about, but calm. A slightly over-the-top description, perhaps, but if you remember the summers in Beijing between, say, 5 and 8 years ago, you’ll have seen more than a few of the squalls I’m referring to, and you’ll know that they can be as violent as they are sudden.

And so I crossed the road and continued on the route I had planned, thinking, I’ve got to get some exercise, and I’ve got to figure out what to do about this weather. And so I, zipped up my jacket, flipped on my hood, and continued, one eye on the weather, one eye on hazards, like our friendly, local high-tension powerline and on places to shelter should that cloud’s threat turn into reality. People were zipping around with extra urgency, hawkers quickly packing up their fruit and veges, everybody keen for shelter.

I stopped in the little Jingkelong about halfway along the weather-shortened version of my stroll (I had been thinking of adding another loop into the route, but that didn’t look like the best idea, having less potential shelter along the way), but they had no Yanjings in the fridge as they have for the last couple of weeks. So I walked to the shelf, and settled on splashing out on a couple of cans of Tiger – it’s no different from the rest, just a cooler-looking can and higher price, but might as well. I opened one can and put the other in my pocket, sipped and watched the weather. Wind and a bit of rain, not too bad, looks like we’re only copping the edge of the squall this time, might as well head for home.

A nothing story, but a reminder of the weather that is likely to come in the next few months. Last week I saw the first blossoms of the spring – ‘first’ meaning the first I’ve seen so far. It hasn’t quite sprung yet, but it’s certainly on its way.

Friday afternoon (Good Friday, it seems. I completely forgot) we jumped on the bus for Yanqing, came back yesterday evening. We had pretty sweet luck with the transport both ways, beating the holiday crowds both times. We got off the bus at Nancaiyuan close to six on Friday evening and got in a taxi straight away – for the first time ever, not needing to negotiate the price, the driver giving us the right price straight away. We headed up to where the road crosses the Gui River into the county town proper. There was still ice on the water. Patchy, thin, dangerous-looking, but still ice. And, of course, no blossoms that side of the Jundu Mountains.

Change of a different kind: The old cinema west of the bridge on the south bank where the main road crosses into the county town, a cinema that had been gutted for renovation last time I saw it, was standing there rebuilt in a style largely reminiscent of that of the new church on the north bank at the eastern end of the county town, a red brick modern style one would expect of perhaps the mid-90s where I come from, but with an odd dome poking out the top seeming to stubbornly keep the style of the old cinema. I don’t know what this building has become, but as we zipped past in the battered, old Xiali, it certainly looked like a church. Still, maybe it’s just a renovated cinema. Or something else.

The ice disappeared as we headed west, and the river was completely thawed by the time we reached the next bridge, less than a kilometre down the road, and crossed over to the north bank. A couple of blinks of the eye and we were back into countryside, and some farmers still finishing off the day’s work in the fields, some burning off stubble, others turning the earth over, others, maybe judging from the aroma, spreading manure, all preparing for the planting. In response to a question from my wife, our driver said, nah, won’t be planting corn till about the 20th. Preparing, at least, then.

So, yeah, it’s still cool up there. Not uncomfortably cold, even quite comfortably warm during the day if you’re out in the sun, but certainly still cool. Even had my brother in law not claimed the bed in the other room, we would still have been sleeping on the kang for the warmth, I’m sure. In fact, my brother in law still had an electric blanket on that bed.

Early starts, that means, earlier than if we’d managed to claim the bed. Sleeping on the kang means there’s no way you could roll over and go back to sleep. But it’s warm, and in the winter when the coal stove is going, warm enough it can have you sweating in even the coldest weather – so long as, of course, you stay on the kang and under the covers. That can make getting up in the morning a delicate negotiation between drying off and staying warm. But it’s warm.

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

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