For us “Old China Hands” who’ve holed away in the capital for a few winters, we smile sympathetically at these newbies about to experience it for the first time. We shake our heads at their thin poly-cotton UNIQLO fleece and plans to see the Harbin Snow Festival. Worse yet is if those newbies rented a hutong flat in warmer weather, gushing about it’s open balconies and breezy windows. Were we ever that young and naïve? Seriously though, I’ve had both a Swede and a Fin tell me how unbearably cold Beijing winters are compared to back home, so you know it’s the deep end of the pool.
So, how do Lao Beijingers keep warm and sane in winter? Allow us to channel our inner meddling Chinese grandma and drop some hot tips.
Endlessly hearing “drink more water” seems redundant and presumptuous (how do you know I’m not drinking enough?), but it’s never bad advice. Avoid iced beverages whenever possible. Try hot, warming herbal teas with rose buds, goji berries and lotus leaf. Or for something sweet, try steamed Asian pear tea with honey or rock sugar. Besides an air purifier, do as your neighbors do and keep some snake plants or peace lillies on a windowsill. They are great plants for absorbing air pollution.
“Warming” VS “Cooling” Food
The old Beijing tradition of a two meter tall tower of leeks and cabbage right outside your doorstep might not be for everyone, but its a hard fought survival method for the harshness of winter here. This is the time that we tend to eat heavy, but hopefully, also healthy. The craving for soups and stews is almost primordial, so indulge. Hearty dishes that maintain qi and nourish yang include beef stir-fried with cabbage and leeks, chicken soup, creamy oatmeal and congee with red beans, sweet potatoes and chestnuts.
Dressing for the Season
If you haven’t yet heard your neighbors shame you with a scandalized: “you’re not wearing enough clothes,” be prepared. For maximum cozy warmth while outdoors, go the local route and have a bulky, down feather fleece jacket custom made. There is a cottage industry of these shops in the hutongs during winter, although with so much of hutong life changing recently, you might have to try a mall. Another necessity are disposable (or occasionally multi-use) medicinal heating pads called “rebao.” Many Beijingers use them frequently throughout winter. Note that in TCM, your feet, neck and lower back should be kept the warmest, so invest in quality boots and thick scarves.