With the summer over and the short fall underway, the dreaded Beijing winter will soon be here. This post explores the seasons in Beijing and how to cope with them.
Technically, Beijing has four seasons, but a hot, humid summer and a freezing cold, dry winter dominate the year. Spring and fall just play beautiful but short interludes.
Still, each season has its charms and its challenges. (If you know me, you will wonder what charm I see in the winter season. Keep reading.)
Spring – Waking up from the cold
Spring in Beijing is rather pleasant, mostly dry, with nice temperatures, but way too short. Within just a few weeks, the temperatures rise from less than 10°C to over 20°C (45 F – 70 F) and the winter grey is replaced with budding green everywhere. Trees and bushes seem to explode with colorful blooms.
As quickly as it came, this magic is over, everything is green, the temperatures rise and rise and rise, and spring is gone.
This time of year can be very windy so sand- and dirt- storms are quite common. But the wind usually brings blue skies and disperses the Beijing smog.
Summer – Enjoying (or suffering) the heat
When the temperatures hit around 30°C, or mid-80’s F, life seems to slow down a bit, at least during the hottest hours of the day. Or I should say, at lot of activity is shifted to the cooler early morning and evening hours, when you will find plenty of people out on the streets. For example, older folks walking backwards clapping their hands loudly at 5 am in the morning, outside your open window.
Once the temperatures have ramped up, summer days are pretty much all very similar, except for the odd thunderstorm here and there. Rain is often short and sometimes heavy, rather than the days of drizzle known in many Northern European countries.
Beijing summer lasts for a long time, so there is a lot of opportunity to wear shorts and flip flops, or summer dresses. If you are like me and love the hot and humid climate, then this season is great. However, many people may find the stifling heat unbearable. Because the heat keeps many people indoors where the AC is running, you may find a quiet spot all to yourself in the shade of a tree in the middle of the day.
Fall (or autumn for the British) – Having a pleasant time
Fall, like spring is a nice but short season in Beijing. First, you barely notice that summer slips away. The temperatures become more and more pleasant, until it starts to feel a bit chilly in the morning. You have to bring out a light jacket, and soon the warmer jacket, the boots, and then the scarf, and the long johns, …
Like spring, autumn in Beijing can be a bit windy at times. Enjoy the blue skies as long as they last!
Winter – Braving the cold
A sure sign that winter is almost there is when the flower beds and some trees get wrapped and covered up to survive the coming cold. Temperatures will dip below zero, and often down to -10°C (about 15 F) at night. You need more and more layers to stay warm, even indoors. At least until the official heating season begins.
The heating season is regulated by the central government. For Beijing, it usually goes from mid November to mid March. Unfortunately, it already is often cold enough in late October to need some heating, and the cold doesn’t stop in mid March, when the heating period ends, but often stays into April. Many apartments have AC units that can also heat.
In addition to extra heating, you may also need an air humidifier, as winter in Beijing is very, very dry. It is also a good idea to stock up on body lotion if you plan to spend a winter here.
In recent years, winter brought the worst smog to Beijing, as those days in January 2013 attest. The smog is partly caused by coal still being used by many people for heating.
The only good thing to say about winter, from my perspective, is that you can actually find some quiet time in Beijing’s public parks. Even though there will always be a lot of people outside (by Western standards) and seemingly undeterred by the cold, the numbers are way lower on a really cold day. You just have to bundle up really well, maybe take a hand warmer and a thermos with hot water or tea, and walk at a brisk pace. The same is true for a really hot day in summer. Of course, different coping strategies apply then.
Best time of the year in Beijing
For most people, April/May and September/October are the best times in Beijing. Temperatures are pleasant. Due to more wind, there is less smog. It is a good time to sit outside to enjoy a coffee, beer or dinner. It is also the time of year when most tourists come, and when many business visitors come. With many official holidays in spring and fall, including Labor Day Holiday around May 1, Mid-autumn Festival in September, and National Holiday/Golden Week in October, it is also a busy season for Chinese tourists, so it is very crowded at major sights.
And worst time of the year in Beijing
I think I speak for many people in Beijing, when I declare winter the least pleasant season in Beijing. You disagree with me? – Well, let’s talk again about this on a freezing cold and smoggy day in February or March, after what feels like an eternity of winter. Or make your case in the comments…