That time of year again

About a week ago the temperature took a dramatic plunge downward. We had a few more hot days, but the nights now are cool, and today I saw a couple of people wearing jackets, an ominous sign of things to come. Last week only the most die-hard of the hundreds of migrant workers at the construction sites around my office were walking around shirtless; the week before they were the majority.

I guess if there were leaves in the part of Beijing where I live they’d be changing now. Everyone agrees, “Autumn is the nicest time of the year in China,” but it’s always too short. I remember walking up Tuan Jie Hu Lu (where I used to live) back in the fall of 2002 and wondering if any other part of China could be this beautiful. Even though the 3rd Ring Road and Gongti Beilu are seconds away, the lights and the neighborhood feel of Tuan Jie Hu made it seem like it was in another city, far from the noise and the traffic. It was in the first week of October and there was this huge copper harvest moon and I wanted to hold on to that moment forever.

I always get depressed when winter comes, and now I’m getting depressed in advance, knowing that Beijing’s beautiful autumn weather is famously ephemeral. Back in 2002, in the third or fourth week of October, winter suddenly dropped down on Beijing like an executioner’s axe, ushering in a winter that set new records for sub-freezing temperatures and snowfall. Ten weeks later or so, we began to read stories for the first time about a mysterious new sickness afflicting Hong Kong travelers, and it was all downhill from there. Six months later I’d watch on CCTV as the US marched into Iraq on a mission that was going to be over in a few weeks.

I hate the winter, but I believe the four distinct seasons do have a purpose. They remind us of the passing of time, putting it into useful perspective. It is the drop in temperature, for example, that causes me to remember it’s been nearly a year since that November day that I flew up to Beijing from Taiwan, believing it would just be a final visit before I moved back in a few weeks to America. And somehow, that little visit set off a chain of events that led me to do the one thing I swore I would never do, i.e., move back to Beijing.

So yes, it’s the weather and its seasons that remind us of the passing of time. In America, I live (not surprisingly) in Phoenix, where the seasons are far less defined – it’s always summer. As blissful as this is to someone like me who thrives on warmth, it’s also insidious. You are less aware of time passing because there are no seasons to act as markers along the way. Suddenly, you realize a lot more time went by than you realized.

Not quite sure how I got onto this, but let me see if there’s a graceful way to end this somewhat meaningless if heartfelt post…. All I wanted to say was that it’s that time of the year again, where summer is replaced by an infuriatingly short autumn, followed by an endless winter. It’s that time of the year, and it saddens me because to me warmth is safety and security, while cold is, well, just the opposite.

I went on long bicycle rides the past two weekends, exploring parts of Beijing I had only seen fleetingly from taxi windows. Winter is coming and I won’t be able to do that sort of thing much longer. I guess the best I can do is take every day of Autumn as a gift and savor it as best I can. Lots of bicycle rides. Maybe even a ride over to Tuan Jie Hu Lu, for old time’s sake. I hope it’s as beautiful and as secluded now as it was five years ago.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 16 Comments

This is why I love living in the UK – Autumn and Winter are never nasty seasons.

September 17, 2007 @ 2:24 am | Comment

My first time in China, I arrived in Beijing Sept. 1. I didn’t know I’d be staying longer than oh, two or three weeks. The autumn was SO gorgeous, especially back then, before nearly every square inch of Beijing had been bulldozed and turned into squatty high-rises.

Little did I know I’d be staying six months, and through a Beijing winter. Quite a shock for this native Californian!

Richard, you know I stayed in Tuanjie Hu my last trip and found it lovely. The park was a really nice surprise.

September 17, 2007 @ 3:59 am | Comment

I resolved to go on long cycle ventures when I was in Germany over the break and needed my bike, but with this pollution, the traffic, and the idiots driving through red lights I can’t be bothered. Where is there to go to risk your life and get stressed?
Anyway, I thought your post would have more resonance if the pollution wasn’t so bad. I expect it to be miserable in the winter when we’re told people burn coal to keep warm, but that is no excuse this morning.

September 17, 2007 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Why does even such a simple, personal, totally apolitical, and very beautiful article like this have to get dragged off into yet more name-calling and mud-slinging? What is wrong with you people?

Richard: Beautiful post. My wife works in Tuanjiehu, and the area is crowded, but nice, still like you describe it. Yes, I’d recommend a bike ride over that way before it gets too cold. And if it’s not too far to cycle, my part of town is also quite nice, you’d be most welcome to come visit. Autumn definitely is the best season in Beijing.

The bad news is that it’s been quite a wet autumn so far, and my wife informs me this means the temperature will drop faster than normal. It won’t necessarily translate into a colder-than-normal winter, though, so don’t worry too much.

Me, though, I’m the opposite of you. I hibernate through the summer (would that be estivate?) and feel much more alive in the colder temperatures. Guess I should avoid Phoenix, then.

September 17, 2007 @ 11:06 am | Comment

And the change in the weather pattern up north means the reversal of the monsoon down here.

So instead of the winds blowing from the south and southwest {south china sea), they blow from the north and northeast {Pearl River Delta and Guangdong}. *hack cough hack*

September 17, 2007 @ 11:23 am | Comment

Richard,

I’m a city-cyclist myself. Today I went on a two-hour jaunt all over Queens, New York. My favorite place to rest is Juniper Park, where one can sit and watch people playing baseball and soccer over an enormous open field and, because of its elevation, one has a view to the west with the entire Manhattan skyline set out and behind which the sun slowly sets over New Jersey. The air was crisp and dry today with temps in the mid-sixties. Cumulus clouds drifted by, catching the last rays of sunlight, as passenger jets passed above us, descending to JFK and LaGuardia. Really nice.

Another favorite biking city of mine is Berlin, a more orderly affair, of course, but lots of great ways to to get lost in outlying neighborhoods. I recommend for anyone currently in Berlin to hug the Spree and head south.

We may disagree on a few political issues but when it comes to biking I’m with you 100%.

*

September 17, 2007 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

Man I miss walking around the eponymous lake in Tuan Jie Hu Park. So many old folks walking around the lake, working on the public exercise machines there (which are a great idea by the way, the U.S. should implement those in cities hard-hit by obesity). And I miss that Da Cheng Yong He… Taiwanese fast food, so good, open so late.

sigh–enjoy Beijing, Richard. Warts and all, it simply has that vibe of positive humanity. It’s so hard to find that nowadays.

September 17, 2007 @ 3:35 pm | Comment

Denizens of cold climates, such as the Russians, tend to be inwardly all the more emotionally warm. Richard, I know this is “cold comfort”, but for what it’s worth, once again I’ll give you the link to Russian diva Alla Pugacheva’s delightful winter song, “Snow”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyujAIV2Rtw

September 17, 2007 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

First autumn for me in Beijing. Heard the winter is not that nice. But I prefer the dry cold from the wet kind which you have in Shanghai. Gee, I endured one winter there without heating and that was hell. So can’t get worse here, I guess.

One good thing about all the rain last view days was that you could see the West-mountains today. Great view. Sunset was beautifull.

September 18, 2007 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

Pollution is all seasons in Beijing but I have to admit that I like May and mid-september to mid-october there. Less pollution, less sandstorm and more blue sky.

September 19, 2007 @ 11:16 am | Comment

Are you insane??? After a sweltering BJ summer what could be better than not sweating for an entire 6 mos.!!!

I love BJ winters, the austerity of it attracted me to move back to BJ after living in the South of China.

Unlike you, I hate spring because I know the summer is soon to follow.

September 19, 2007 @ 11:50 am | Comment

Bill, to each his own!

September 19, 2007 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

what I would do for seasons. and being able to ride my bicycle again like I used to in Beijing. Still, lots of clean air here, which I guess is the trade-off.
Fred-Singapore

September 20, 2007 @ 9:51 am | Comment

Then there’s my mysterious home of Kunming, where seasons all seem to be inverted. The grimmest and most miserable season is summer, where the sun doesn’t come out and rain is prevalent. Autumn and spring are both bright, sunny, and warm. Winter is cool and bright but is made worse by the resolute lack of any central heating anywhere, necessitating one to wear a jacket pretty much all day

September 20, 2007 @ 11:18 am | Comment

I used to love summer. Then I gained weight and began sweating profusely. But I still hate winter. Particularly in Beijing. Although I imagine winter by the Great Lakes won’t be a piece of cake either….

September 21, 2007 @ 4:49 am | Comment

I’m with Bill. A Michigan native, I can tolerate cold better than heat. The dry cold of northeastern China and Korea are more comfortable than the damp cold of Michigan, but I missed the snow. A fresh white blanket now and then brightens the drab gray and brown hues of winter.

Korea is just lovely, a riot of color and nice weather, in the transitional seasons of spring and fall. Even the summers, rainy and humid, are lushly verdant from the monsoons.

Qingdao is pleasant enough in spring with some flowering landscaping and fruit orchards in the countryside, but fall is a bore – most of the trees are evergreens or ugly sycamores whose leaves turn a dull yellow-brown. I took a couple of personal days to fly to Beijing to glimpse the famous reds of the Fragrant Hills. What a waste of time and money. The colors were obscured by smoggy haze. I understand the Great Wall is actually quite colorful in the fall, and being further away from Beijing, the air is probably cleaner.

I agree with you that those of us who grew up in temperate climates mark time with the seasons. It just didn’t feel right when I walked out in shorts and a tank top to get my paper on Thanksgiving in Houston. I live in Virginia, very close to the West Virginia border. This is as far south as I care to go.

If you’re cold, you can always put on more clothes, but if you sweaty, there’s only so much you can take off.

Please don’t be offended, Richard, but why Phoenix? Flagstaff and Tucson have character.

September 22, 2007 @ 10:11 am | Comment

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