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A white sheet of trouble and tussle
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Cleaners. Policemen. Soldiers. Party cadres. Students. Everyone has a reason, and a justifiable one, to sweep, dig and clear the snow and ice piling up on highways, rail tracks, sidewalks and every nook and cranny of public space in central, eastern and southern China. There's a crisis out there - at bus terminuses, airports, railway stations and roads - a crisis that has disrupted almost every aspect of life, from transportation to power supply.


Media commentators have already begun debating whether people should at all return home for that all-important dinner on Lunar New Year's eve, given that the bad weather and unprecedented snow has made traveling so difficult.


Sure, there are those who are vehemently opposed to even such a suggestion.


Zhu Jingyan is not part of that debate. She is not even aware of the passion people are wasting on it. She is not waiting to return home either. She is at home - the most natural place for someone like her to be because she is all of 96 years and a resident of Changsha, capital of Hunan, the hardest hit province.


But if you thought home was the safest place for Grandma Zhu in these snowy times, think again. Hunan being south of the Yangtze River has no central heating system. But can't her children or grandchildren close all the doors and windows, switch on the air-conditioner and maintain a room temperature of 25-plus C? No, because her home doesn't have an air-conditioner. Even if it had, it would have stopped working from Tuesday afternoon because of a power outage. The matriarch lay helpless and frozen in her bed, with burning candles providing light and heat both.


Children in the family were delighted, though. The candles created an atmosphere that they had never been witness to before. Overall, the feeling for them was dreamlike. Hasn't that always been the difference between the old and the young?


Elders being elders, they realized the dangers that night would bring. So they began boiling water - thankfully LPG was still flowing through the pipes - and filled it in the only thermo-bag they had.


As the family tried to shiver its way to some sleep and the clock ticked toward midnight, electricity supply was restored. Cold and tired the next morning, a couple of members went to buy three more thermo-bags - all for Grandma Zhu. "It's not snowing today; that's good," one of Zhu's grandchildren said yesterday. "But forecasts say it's going to snow again tomorrow."


The Zhu family is fighting it out at its home, but Yu Fangyuan can't even reach his. The 33-year-old sailor has been desperate to get to Hefei, capital of Anhui, since landing in Beijing from Chicago on Sunday. On the job for nine years, he has been working abroad for nine and half months. The only reason he returned to the country now was to celebrate Spring Festival with his family.


But Yu had never reckoned the weather could be such a monster. Hefei airport was shut down on Sunday because of snow, no flights from Beijing to his city on Monday and tickets for the only flight on Tuesday had been sold out before he even queued up. He was happy yesterday morning, for he had already boarded a plane scheduled to leave for Hefei at 8 am. But then came the voice over the passenger address system: "Visibility is poor over Hefei airport."


After 90 minutes, the airline's officials told Yu and more than 100 other passengers in the plane: "It's impossible to land in Hefei. Your flight can take off only around noon." Noon came and went. "1:30 pm,"said the airline. The clock kept on ticking. "Takeoff at 7:30 pm", he heard.


Finally, the flight was cancelled at 8 pm.


But the words of the spokesman for General Administration of Civil Aviation of China must have been reverberating in Yu's ears. The spokesman said on Tuesday that all the airports forced to close because of snow had been reopened. Perhaps that explains why Yu was so adamant when he said: "No matter how late it is, I will wait... as long as I can be home in time for the festival."


Yu's and the Zhu family's experiences have been shared by 105 million people across the country, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) finds itself in the thick of things.


The snow has been falling for more than a fortnight. It has caused deaths, damaged and destroyed houses and crops. But the threat to human life has been minimized, as MCA Vice-Minister Li Liguo says: "Since rain and snow have been forecast to add to the problems in the next few days, our primary goal is not to let the weather or hunger claim a single life."


(China Daily January 31, 2008)


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