Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Last week I returned to my hard-nosed journalist roots and broke the news that spring had sprung.

Well you know what journalists say – a week is a long time in (insert topic here). In this case, a week is a long time in Beijing - including when it comes to the weather, sometimes.

In the space of a few days we’ve been slung from the bucolic wonder of fragrant spring blossoms to Beijing’s peculiar, distinctive and really bloody annoying period known as “mao mao” season. It doesn’t last long, so let’s dub it “a mini-season”, because the media also love to dub things.

I’ll explain what mao mao is in a minute. For now let’s just say it involves transsexual trees, so it qualifies easily for the “weird China” file.

First, let’s just have a detailed run-through of Beijing's climatic obstacle course shall we? Historians believe it explains why Kublai Khan chose it as his capital in the first place, thinking any bloodthirsty conquering types would have second thoughts after checking the forecast.

Here it comes - head for the hills everyone!
Looking like a low-budget '80s rock video,
it's mao mao time again.

In the summer, it’s boiling. Beijing sits on a plain surrounded by mountains on three sides, or what topographers call “a big letter C”. This helps trap the heat and makes the place brain-crampingly hot. The lack of wind at this time assists in keeping the pollution confined to this bowl too.

In winter it’s freezing. Temperatures frequently range from just below zero to “Oh-my-God”. This is often accompanied by an icy north-west wind usually rated by the weather bureau as sufficient to blow a dog off a chain. Last January, Evie and I found ourselves out walking when it was minus 15 with a wind chill of minus 23 (that’s five and -10 for fahrenheiters). In these temperatures, Australian children will usually burst into tears. Often it’s because they’ve just seen their parents doing it. Evie and I rushed home to find another Australian, our houseguest Dobby, who had gone out without his hat. He was now home resting his head. On our oil heater.

And it’s dry. Suddenly, we all look like oil paintings, in the sense that our skin cracks up. Simply exiting a car is fraught with danger, and not for the usual reasons of unorthodox traffic flow. The routine is: 1. Brace for the cold. 2. Brace for a static electricity shock (expect several of those a day). 3. Don’t slip on the ice. 4. Then worry about other drivers.

It snows, but not enough to leave a lasting white coat, just some frozen grey/brown stuff. Unless of course the government tries some cloud seeding to spark precipitation. This inexact science sometimes causes huge dumps of snow that catch everyone unaware and send them into a tizzy, like when Beijing airport had to close the day we were trying to leave for a beach holiday.

Not too far back the weather statistics were a state secret. No doubt the government feared if people knew how cold it really was here, they’d all leave.

It goes from freezing to boiling ridiculously quickly. There’s a good week or two between the extremes in autumn and spring. But more wind comes in at those times, often bringing Beijing’s other constant, the dust.

Originating out in the Gobi desert, the dust is incredibly fine and gets everywhere. It blows under doors, which is unsurprising, but also gets in through closed windows, which makes you wonder. It gets on your skin and between your teeth, and it coats cars, bikes and slow-moving pets. It’s like something Dr Seuss invented.

And, again, it usually comes on a formidable wind. When Evie was two she was literally blown over by a gust as we left a birthday party. It's something she will always remember, partly because her party lollies went scattering along the ground.

Considering the weather generally, tourist chiefs could do worse than adopt the slogan BEIJING … At least it’s flat! It would attract cyclists.

And in spring, if it doesn’t blow dust, it blows mao mao (little hair). These are little white seed-bearing balls of fluff which grow on Beijing’s 3.2 million willow and poplar trees (that’s according to the 2005 tree census. There are stats for everything here).

It could look lovely, like walking amidst softly falling snow without the cold. But softly falling snow doesn’t go up your nose, or into your mouth causing coughing fits. Or in your ears, eyes and hair. Or your home, in restaurants, or mounting up in piles on footpaths etc. With other weather terms like El Nino already taken, Beijing environmental scientists call this annual phenomenon “the Tyra Banks effect”, for something that “looks nice” but is “a complete pain in the arse”.

One man shields his son from the mao mao onslaught
in this globaltimes photo. OK that's a bit alarmist.
They don't exactly hurt ...

... but they do cause people to look a bit odd, like these
women I captured out for a stroll near our home, which
happens to be beside a canal flanked by willows. 

This is also by the canal.

The culprit, up close ...

... and seen here playing "catch the mao mao".
At least mao mao gives Evie a new game
each spring. For Lani, however, it brings
hayfever ... 

... and it's also a bugger if your hair is made
of velcro, like mine.

But if you ball it up and put it on a stick, the kids love
eating it! No I'm joking of course. It's fairy/candy floss.
Being married to a doctor, I know for a fact that you
shouldn't eat mao mao. If you swallow the seeds it
makes you pregnant.

When Mao Zedong said "Let a hundred flowers blossom" he probably didn't have this in mind. Rumour has it mao mao is a side-effect of the planting of vast numbers of trees some years ago for a city greening project, which planners did not anticipate would, for a couple of weeks each year, look more like a whitening project.

Whether that’s true or not, Beijing authorities have taken action to limit the “white-bit count” of some the city's air which, to be fair, already didn't have a lot going for it before mao mao came along.

To this end, and I am not making this up, operations have been mounted to give thousands of these offending trees sex changes. The poplars and willows in question have male and female types, and it is only the latter that produce mao mao.

"We have to change all female trees into male ones in order to stop the production of catkins," Li Xuan, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry, told Beijing website globaltimes.cn.

This can be done in two ways: injecting medicine into the trees, and grafting the tops of male willow trees onto females.

The trouble is, Li said that after two to three years the trees start producing mao mao again, with the sex change process apparently wearing off. It seems this is something Beijingers will have to live with for a while.

Mao mao and some raised red lanterns. What Beijing's all
about really.

Unless it's more about mao mao
and statues of lion/doggy type
of creatures.

Or perhaps it's more about mao mao and electrical wires.
See how the white stuff coats the canal. 

Mao mao and a Mandarin duck! Top that, all you
"quintessential Beijing" photographers. This was a real
scene I happened upon. I didn't throw the duck
onto the canal for the purpose, I swear.  This was
taken within 100 metres of my home. In fact,
all of these shots were. For if there's one thing I've
learned while doing this blog it's that the key
to a good photo is you shouldn't have to
go far to get it.

Mao mao is also visible in this shot, which I
had to take with a hidden camera whilst
discovering a major troop mobilisation
yesterday near the corner of San Li Tun
Road and Liang Ma He South Street. 

Moments later the battalion attempted to disguise
itself but soon realised they were fooling
noone and continued their long march.

Thankfully the Americans were onto it,
monitoring the troop movement with
their latest spy craft.


  1. First of all, happy May Day. I hope you started a revolution somewhere (am I allowed to write that on you chinese com-cough-cough-ie site?). Second of all, DOBS! Third-- methinks Beijing has L.A. beat in terms of seasons. We have 3-- fire season (the hills burn after pyros set fire), Santa Ana winds season (blows all the palm fronds off the trees), and every-day-is-75-degrees-and-who-cares-season. But no maomao!

  2. Thank you for a laugh,my day begins with a smile whenever there is a post from you in my inbox.

    I know I've been told that the decadent imperialists filled Beijing with canals and trees to help mitigate the continent-sized desert it was next to, and that the communists took them out. And then discovered the reason they were there was practical, not decadent after all.

    I don't know how true it is, or if it's just democrat propaganda. It makes my semi-arid/sub-tropical sound quite pleasant.

  3. Finally! That American spook vehicle caught on camera. I've seen it circle my compound for months. /Paranoid