Beijing’s summer quirks

Shruti Bajpai | Updated on September 13, 2019

Cooling point: A summer speciality in Beijing is the suan nai — a sweetened yoghurt drink that comes in squat white bottles   -  SHRUTI BAJPAI

A stroll gives unexpected insights into the city’s equation with the season

Every morning at 4, nature begins its orchestra. Perched on the huaishu, or the Chinese Scholar Tree that kisses my bedroom window, the cuckoo sings — in a slow cadence at first, relentless soon after. In the background, the crickets continue their chorus. Summer is when Beijing truly comes alive, both with its foliage and with its people. Beijing’s green cover has flourished alongside its transformative infrastructural development. Poplar trees tower on both sides of the vast network of highways. Japanese pagodas, weeping willows and leafy gingkos form canopies, giving shade to the lanes and alleys that meander through the city. Wild roses of every hue spring out of traffic dividers and roundabouts, along the arterial ring roads, untamed and manicured at the same time.

While the city boasts four distinct seasons, spring and autumn are mere screensavers wedged between a three-month stretch of sultry summer and an even longer dry winter.

Summer, which stays for about 120 days a year from June to September, is also the best time for “people sighting”. You can catch glimpses of the populace’s quirky ways of beating the heat, which are amusing and endearing in equal measure.

Beijing belly and masked mei nus

As the day progresses and the temperature starts rising, many men on the streets begin inching their shirts up their bellies. It’s a balancing act that requires precision as well as practice to ensure the shirt is pulled firmly into position. Also known as the Beijing bikini, the exposed midriffs of men are a common sight all over the city (and even in other parts of China). “This is my personal air conditioner,” says a portly bystander cheerfully.

The women, however, find a different way of beating the scorching sun. They cover every part of their bodies with a wide range of protective clothing — a broad-rimmed hat and scarf to cover the head and neck, long slender gloves that go all the way up to the forearms and sheer jackets with UV protection. Some take their sun protection methods to new extremes by donning surgical masks, or elaborate ones that cover the entire face, with slit-like openings for eyes and the mouth. These are the masked mei nus or beautiful ladies. They will go to any length to keep their skin hidden from the sun’s menacing rays.

The Beijing bellies and masked mei nus are sometimes spotted walking alongside, pleasantly contrasting with each other.

Ikea snoozers and sofa surfers

Beijing’s central district houses a sprawling Ikea store, one of the largest stores in the country. For the residents, an outing to this store is an end in itself. This is where they come to eat, socialise, shop, even nap. Eager to witness this unique gathering of people, I make a quick trip to the store. The floor is packed with people lounging, resting, snoozing on sofas, beds and armchairs. Old men and women nap, young couples get cosy with each other and with their mobile devices, toddlers curl up with their mothers. I feel like a gawker, intruding into their personal space in a public domain. They don’t seem to mind; they are lost in their world of scrolling, texting and dreaming. Apartments can be small and cramped in this city overflowing with people. Ikea offers an air-conditioned haven to escape to and relax in. Ikea couch-surfers can be found in stores all over China. The store’s staff looks unaffected by the constant stream of sleepers and squatters, and carry on as if nothing is amiss.

Kuaidi and lassi

You can spot rows of three-wheeled delivery vans parked haphazardly along the lanes and on the curbs of Beijing’s busy roads. Their drivers are taking a quick break, resting under the welcoming shade of the foliage. They nap, smoke a few puffs, wolf down a few mouthfuls before returning to the punishing schedule of non-stop parcel deliveries. These are the kuaidi, the delivery people who are the backbone of the country’s advanced e-commerce economy. Not exactly “locals”, kuaidi are mostly migrants who arrive from far-flung villages to make this city their “forever” temporary home.

Summer is also a time when Lao Beijingsuan nai comes out. These squat white glass bottles filled with the traditional Beijing sweetened yoghurt drink are visible in the shops and kiosks that line the alleys of Beijing. Quite like the lassi in Punjab, they sell rapidly on hot summer days. Sadly, the quaint white glass bottles are slowly being replaced by impersonal plastic versions.

Autumn beckons

For an Indian, a summer in Beijing, though sweltering at times, is tolerable for the most part. By the time September rolls in, the days start to cool down. The Beijing bellies are no longer on full display. The cuckoo’s song has faded away. She has stopped visiting my backyard. The huaishu are more resilient, their verdant branches will last another couple of months. The Ikea snoozers and the resting kuaidi are still around, in their respective cosy corners — they have nowhere to go.

Autumn waits silently in the wings.

Shruti Bajpai is based in Beijing

Published on September 13, 2019

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