When the Snow Stops

Clearing the roads of the white stuff is a civic ritual in western China

By / March 2014

Urumqi might once have held the title of the most polluted city in China but those glory days are over. It now ranks 20th on the list of the Chinese government’s current major headaches, falling these days way behind Shanghai and Beijing. Not that the rally has anything to do with enhanced air quality here in China’s most westerly and least-developed region, just that spiralling industrialisation and the curse of the motor car have not only enveloped most of the country in thick fog during winter but sent the levels of noxious-pollutant spiraling out of control. 

Thanks to fewer chimneystacks and more natural gas powering the centralised heating system, Urumqi has more blue sky than ever before-or so the daily government propaganda texts would have us believe. The official line reads that we can now go outside without fear on those blue-sky days with no thought of the silent killer filling our lungs.

When we first came here there were no blue skies at all in the cold months. We thought the pavement-lined advertising billboards making pictorial claims about snow-capped peaks ringing the city were fantasies designed to keep our spirits up as we struggled to find our hands in front of our faces in the smoke. But as if by magic, when the ‘central heating’ was turned off on April 15th every year, the dazzling peaks appeared. Back then, in the winter, it was black coal dust that swamped the air. Now it’s just old-fashioned factory smog and car effluent. In honour of the black soot that zebra-striped the snow, there was an ice cream flavor dubbed ‘Urumqi snow,’ with Oreo cookies crumbled into the cream.

Winter in Urumqi is full of surprises. The morning after we first arrived several years ago, we were awakened by lots of tapping outside our window. Looking out we saw the road below filled with hundreds of people, straight out of a Lowry painting, each with some kind of instrument in their hands banging away at the ice or sweeping the street. We could never understand why a country that was planning to send missions to the moon would rally the entire population of its western-most capital to abandon their desks, factories, schools and hospitals to clear the snow every time it fell.

Photograph by Ruth Ingram

It was hard to get a straight answer from most of our friends since the prevailing wisdom was not to ask too many questions. This is just what had been done since as long as people could remember, right from their earliest primary school days. When the snow stopped, lessons stopped, all roads were closed, public transport halted and the city ground to a halt for three or four hours.

Everyone was allocated a patch of land to clear and woe betide the slackers who neglected to sweep the rectangle of space in front of their shop or building, as well as a significant section of main road too. The snow clearing ‘police’ would be after you like a shot. Fines and harsh words would fly. On a snowy day you had to be sure to plan ahead in the event that snow-clearing had halted traffic. To be on the safe side you made your departure from home at the crack of dawn, before the compulsory cut-off time for buses.

Another aspect of this ritual that puzzled us was the lack of specialised equipment to do the job. Again, in the light of China’s industrialization, we could never understand why no special uniforms — not even gloves, let alone face masks — were allocated to the people tasked with clearing snow in severely sub-zero temperatures. Neither were there special tools handed out. Girls would turn out in mini skirts and high heels and chip away at the ice with stuff they had grabbed from their desks or office broom cupboards. They were out there with nail files, scissors, screwdrivers, the occasional hammer or knife, brushes, dustpans, plastic sheets, and once in a while a broom handle with some kind of jury-rigged snow shovelling attachment on the end.

A final puzzle was the mood on the streets. We rarely detected any hint of resentment or protest anywhere. Quite the opposite in fact. Buoyed up by public-spiritedness the atmosphere was almost party-like. Gangs of children throwing more snow than they cleared, young office workers having a break from their routine and everyone out on the streets chatting and serving their city in a spirit of camaraderie and solidarity.

At least that was how it worked until three winters ago, when snowploughs were finally introduced. Now the massive machines, spread-eagled across the highways in convoys of five, have transformed what used to be a morning’s labour by thousands of workers into a five-minute task. Now snow rarely if ever stops traffic on the main roads. But that old spirit of good-hearted toil and cooperation continues to be manifest on the roads where the ploughs don’t roam. On those streets and sidewalks, an army of heroes continues to come out en masse to clear the way of ice and snow several times a week.

Here in Urumqi, we still know that the snow has stopped falling when we hear the banging, chipping and sweeping sounds of a city of patriots keen on serving their country one pair of scissors, one knife, one fork, one spoon — and something that might pass for a hammer — at a time.


Ruth Ingram is a writer living in China. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian.