China heat wave: Beware of 'spontaneously' combusting trees and billboards

As China endures its hottest summer in more than half a century, the Monitor's correspondent is still biking around Beijing. 

People sleep on the floor of the Qiaosi subway station to escape the summer heat in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province August 12, 2013. The highest temperature in the city reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Monday. China's top meteorological authority on Tuesday continued to warn of prolonged heat that has afflicted central and eastern China since July.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Now I remember why I normally take my summer vacation long before mid-August.

For the past few weeks Beijing has been either a furnace or a sauna, depending on the rain, as China endures its hottest summer in more than half a century.

The press is full of the most alarming stories as the country sweats through its second major heat wave this year. In the southern city of Wuhan, witnesses last weekend reported seeing a willow tree spontaneously burst into flames, “which rarely happens under normal circumstances,” according to a local forestry expert.

In the eastern province of Zhejiang the same thing happened to a billboard, which presumably is equally unusual.

I myself have sometimes felt I was about to go up in flames recently, and I am not alone. The Chinese National Meteorological Center announced on Monday that temperatures had exceeded 95 degrees Fahrenheit in eight provinces on more than 25 of the previous 41 days.

It hasn’t been that hot here since 1961. For the first time ever the government has declared the heat to be a level two weather emergency – a warning normally reserved for typhoons and floods – amid reports that more than 40 people have died from the high temperatures.

There is not much to be done about it, of course, except stay indoors as much as possible if you have air conditioning, which most city-dwellers do nowadays. Those that don’t have been flocking to malls – not for the shopping but for their cool air.

Some brave entrepreneurs have been profiting from the soaring temperatures. Near the city of Turpan in the far-western desert province of Xinjiang, a stall holder at a popular tourist spot at the foot of Flaming Mountain has been baking eggs in the 108 degree Fahrenheit heat and selling them for 90 cents a pop.

Farmers, of course, are taking a different view of the record-breaking heat, especially in southern provinces where drought is taking its toll. They have suffered losses of $760 million, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as their crops have shriveled.

In the meantime I have been staying as close to home as possible, cycling in slow motion so as not to melt into a pool of sweat, and checking the temperature in Scotland, where I shall be going on vacation this weekend.

At the moment it is a refreshing 61 degrees. This year, that sounds like ideal holiday weather

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