Ruined bamboo crop deals blow to villagers
As the deafening sound of firecrackers ricochets among the snow-covered hills, and the sun melts ice off frozen roofs, the residents of Dinghu township in Hunan province try to shake off the effects of the town's worst winter in half a century.
Clad in thick, padded cotton coats, they huddle near wooden tables in their courtyards, playing mahjong or cards, or trudge through fields in small groups to their relatives' homes, carrying big bags full of drinks, sweets and biscuits.
'The road was as slick as a steel sheet a few days ago,' says 66-year-old Dahe villager Shen Jinqiu . 'It's much better now.'
The town's children take advantage of a welcome sunny day to wash rusty bicycles in the meltwater. They stopped going to schools and kindergartens last month, when heavy snow stopped them reaching them.
At a glance, all seems on the road to recovery - ducks paddle on the pond and plans are made for feasts. But the wild weather has taken a toll.
'They were the biggest snowstorms I have seen since I was married,' Ms Shen says.
On the worst days, she and her husband spent most of the time simply trying to warm themselves around a fire. When the blizzards hit power lines, resulting in a week-long blackout, she and her husband ate two meals a day and went to bed at 3pm or 4pm.
'Candles were too expensive. I could not afford them. The price doubled to 10 yuan for a pack of 20.'
The storms also devastated bamboo groves that support nearly every family in Dahe. Ms Shen usually earns 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a year from the bamboo, used for furniture and fans. It amounts to about 30 to 40 per cent of her household's annual income, but she will earn little from the plants this year.
'I heard the bamboo being crushed under the weight of the heavy snow, and it sounded like firecrackers exploding,' she says.
Up to a fifth of the plants in the groves behind Ms Shen's house were destroyed. She plans to hold on to the remaining mature bamboo this year as a source of shoots, and to try to sell the damaged plants.
'Maybe I can sell some toppled bamboo after the Lantern Festival, but three crumpled bamboo plants sell for what one normal one does.'
Yu Weisheng , a senior manager at an agricultural technology company, agrees the storm would cut into bamboo production. He runs a business in Jinzhou , Hubei province , and has just returned to Dahe to see his family.
'In winter, bamboo shoots need nutrition from their leaves. If the bamboo is pushed over, where do they get nutrition? I am really curious about why the media keeps broadcasting news about power failures and snarled transport. Yes, they are at a critical stage, but the farmers really suffered. We should pay more attention to them.'
The freak weather has affected other important winter crops. Turnips, cabbages and rapeseed plants have withered in the frozen soil. Standing in his parents' vegetable patch, Mr Yu peels away the leaves of one cabbage to reveal a stunted plant.
'You see, the edible part is quite small,' he says. 'Even plants that grow in winter find it really hard to absorb water from the frozen soil.'
The situation also looks grim in Yueyang , near Dongting Lake. The zone supplies vegetables to major cities like Changsha and Guangzhou.
Farmer Xu Yulin says 90 per cent of his capsicum seedlings died in the deep freeze. 'I lost nearly 1,000 yuan in those seedlings.'