March 15th - Happy No Heat Day!
In the North of China there are two 'festivals' that aren't marked on any calendar, but which everyone except new foreigners know about. The first is on November 15th, and is "Heat Day". The second occurred yesterday, March 15th, and is called "No Heat Day". I should clarify for those who haven't lived in China for one of these festivals because there's an imaginary line separating the North and South of China which starts a bit north of Shanghai, continues west between Xi'an and Chengdu (i.e. Xi'an gets heat, Chengdu doesn't), then continues somewhere along the XinJiang/Tibet border (Lhasa gets no heating). This line only applies if you live in cities, because many villages in the North have no central heating, and can only burn coal to warm up. This imaginary line determines who gets central heating in the winter, which is OK if you live in warm Guangzhou or Hong Kong, but can make for cold and damp winters in Shanghai. Not to mention freak snow storms like when I was in Kunming, which is below the heating line.
Anyway, the general rule is that the central heating doesn't go on before November 15th, no matter how cold it gets. We were lucky this year in that the autumn was quite long! Then the heat goes off again on the 15th of March and you hope it doesn't dip below freezing again.
I call the two days festivals because everyone is quite happy when the heat goes on in November, but the mood is quite the opposite near the middle of March, and it makes for some lacklustre conversation amongst the foreigners. "Don't forget the heat goes off next week", "I woke up on the 15th without heat", "we still have heat until the evening of the 15th!", etc.
Being in a foreigner apartment helps a bit because we usually have extra heater/AC units, but they don't always keep the place warm. The other problem comes with laundry. Laundry? you think. Yes, there don't seem to be dryers in China so most clothes are hung to dry. But if it's a few degrees above freezing outside, and the central heating radiators don't work, it can take days for your clothes to dry. In the meantime you need to take you daily shower and the towel is still damp.