In a dark, icy city, residents muddle through

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2008, 12:00am

How Chenzhou weathered the fiercest snowstorm in 50 years

The temperature was below zero, the place was deadly quiet.

The only noise was the sound of the car's engine as it carried me from Changsha , the provincial capital, to Chenzhou - a disaster zone where 4 million people were cut off from the rest of the world by heavy snow.

The city was one of the areas hit hardest by the fiercest snowstorms to batter central and southern China in half a century, with snow stopping train services and blocking roads to a place desperately awaiting help.

Despite being prepared for the worst, I was still shocked by the sight of the ghost city. The hardship faced by the people of Chenzhou was far worse than I had expected.

When I reached the city centre, walking on streets where nearly all shops were closed, I saw thousands of vehicles lining up for petrol. Dozens of people, holding buckets, waited for water at fire hydrants.

Lining up for petrol for up to four hours every morning had become the norm for 27-year-old taxi driver Zhou Lijun. 'It is annoying, but I have no complaints. We're talking about the fiercest snowstorm in 50 years.'

At every fire hydrant, there were not only people lining up for water, but people washing their dirty clothes and preparing vegetables for cooking.

A power blackout meant residents had to rely on candles at night and burn coal to keep warm. It also meant living in ignorance as there was no television, no internet and no power to keep mobile phone batteries charged.

Newspaper distribution stopped on January 25, with vendors having only lifestyle magazines, snacks and cigarettes to sell. A day after Premier Wen Jiabao's unannounced trip to the icy city, only a handful of people were aware of his visit.

Severe snowfall damaged telephone lines and mobile phone towers. There was no gas for cooking, forcing people to turn to coal, which shot up in price from half a yuan a piece to 1? yuan.

Those who found coal too expensive kept warm by burning pieces of wood they gathered from the streets.

One of them, 50-year-old Sun Zhijun, a stranded businessman from Changsha, caught my attention because he was sitting in the corner of a deserted car park.

Mr Sun runs a merry-go-round business at a square in the city centre, but the weather was too extreme for children to go out and play. 'It is where I sleep now,' he said.

Prices for meat, vegetables and candles rose threefold to fourfold, making inflation the most common complaint.

The few hotels with electricity and water became havens for those who could afford at least 800 yuan a day for accommodation.

No rooms were available at the city's only five-star hotel, which was even renting out sauna rooms and foot massage rooms. It was impossible to count how many people it was serving.

'There are at least five to six people in one standard room,' said Nancy Lei, an assistant hotel manager. 'Many people came here to shower in rooms their friends and relatives have rented.'

Thirteen-year-olds Wang Yongxin and Xiao Liwen were two of those who went to the hotel for hot showers. I met the cousins shortly after they had showered. The tea table was full of snacks and they were playing in a heated room. There was no sign that snowstorms had devastated the area.

The cousins told me their mothers had rented the room, and the showers were their first in seven days. 'I will come again when I feel I want to shower,' Yongxin said.

I managed to find a room at a four-star hotel. It had electricity and water, but was unable to provide heat or hot water. General manager Ally Liu said many still visited it for showers and many more for hot food.

As night fell and the city became wrapped in complete darkness, I returned to the hotel and the room that was as freezing cold as the weather outside. But with light, water and a proper bed, and knowing it was only temporary because I would soon be returning to Hong Kong, I could not complain.