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Ox Tales

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Sweetcorn seller in Qinhuangdao: "I make the same money, I just have to stay out longer"

It's time to go to Beijing; having spent ten days in the ice box that is Beidaihe – a small town (by Chinese standards) on the northern coast of the Bo sea, 280km east of Beijing.  Every year at this time I plan to do what every sensible bird has already done – fly south to warmer climes.  And every year the charade falls flat on its face and, instead of donning shorts for Hainan or Yunnan, I add layer upon layer of the thickest clothes I can find and head to Beidaihe to spend the Chinese New Year.    

  This year it was particularly cold.  Not only was this year’s Spring Festival – as the Chinese New Year period is called – very early (blame the moon); it coincided with the arrival of a blast of exceptionally cold air from Siberia (not sure what was to blame for this; perhaps global warming, which seems to be get the blame for all of the world’s climatic ills – even cold weather). 

  Whatever the reason, this unfortunate alignment conspired to turn an already cold sea into a frozen wasteland.  If you haven’t seen a frozen sea, you may be thinking “how wonderful”.  It isn’t.  In such conditions, a walk on the beach is a lot more than bracing, it’s downright painful.  And, more to the point, if you’re interested in wildlife and perhaps keen to see lots of interesting birds (not that I imagine this would be high on many people’s agenda), it could – if you’re in the wrong frame of mind – bring with it a grey depression. 

  But, funnily enough, I had a great time.  The warmth of the family helps a lot of course.  But even the birding was excellent.  Not by Yunnan standards needless to say.  No, the province that is literally yun nan or “south of the clouds” would have been good for close to 300 species of birds this time of year.  In Beidaihe, I had to make do with 42 species.  And I had to work really hard for them – going out every day but one for at least a couple of hours.  The day time high of minus six centigrade (and night time low of minus 16) had driven even the hardiest of seagulls away from the area. 

  As is often the case, however, hard-work and perseverance were rewarded.  Each day at least one – and sometimes a couple of quality birds were found that raised the spirits, and kept my camera-trigger-finger warm.   If you're interested, some of the fruits of my labour, including a photo of the frozen sea, can be found in the "wild side" section of this site. 

  I digress.  The connection – albeit a tenuous one – with the title of this piece, is that I could see a connection between my experiences and expectations in Beidaihe, and the way people are dealing with the downturn in the economy in the Year of the Ox.  Think of the good old days of 2007 (and perhaps the first half of 2008, the Year of the Rat) as analogous with a trip to Yunnan where, if you’re a naturalist, your very large drinking vessel is overflowing with vintage wine (or whatever tipple takes your fancy).  But, even though you fondly remember the good old times in Yunnan, the cold-certainty of a trip to an ice-bound Beidaihe makes you reassess your expectations.  Or at least it should.  If you spend your time here dreaming of Yunnan instead of working hard searching for rare treasure then, whatever the result, you’d be disappointed.  The disappointment would affect the will to get up early; which would then mean fewer things would be found, resulting in more disappointment.      

  And so on and so forth.  A vicious cycle to be sure.  But once your goals are realigned; and the criterion of success is reappraised, then the discovery of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings, a Chinese Grey Shrike, or even a Water Rail [now 'split' as Brown-cheeked Rail] amidst a frozen reed bed are suddenly things to write home about.  In a similar vein, people are rethinking their goals for the Year of the Ox.  They are reappraising the definition of “success”; and reworking their values and life-plan.  As the situation changes, and the ice starts to melt, then people will change with it.   When it comes to the crunch – credit or otherwise – success, status, reward, and optimism are movable feasts.  As one street-hawking sweetcorn seller told me the day before yesterday in the city of Qinhuangdao: "I make the same money [as last year] I just have to stay out longer".      

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New Year Lanterns in Beidaihe