Case against fur follows the mercury


IT WAS cold enough in Beijing the other evening to have to wear a fur hat for the short walk from our apartment to the restaurant at the end of the lane. Many of the cyclists weaving by us in the darkness of the lane way were also wearing hats, the distinctive north Chinese version with wide fur flaps sticking out at each side.

The coat rack in the restaurant was weighed down with the garments of choice for the Chinese winter heavy coats with fur collars.

In China, fur is in. Since fur became fashionable in the early 1990s here, about one third of the world's animal skins are sold in China, and the biggest Asian fur fashion show ever was held in Beijing in the autumn.

In Tokyo women paraded naked recently to protest about the fur trade but there is no similar animal rights movement in China. It's the same in Russia. The anti fur argument loses force the colder it gets.

In the conditions of increased prosperity, expensive fur trimmings have become a status symbol in Beijing, along with the ubiquitous mobile telephone, and even young men on motorbikes like to roar around in bomber jackets with mink collars.

It's not just the temperature, which currently is hovering around freezing or below, but the wind, which makes the Chinese capital feel so bone numbingly cold. A dry, gusty wind blows up almost every day, sending dust and desiccated leaves and plastic bags swirling around our courtyard.

The Chinese weather forecasters don't highlight the wind chill effect, but Beijing bicycle riders don't need to be told.

It gets so dry that static electricity can make human contact an electrifying experience. Paper becomes brittle.

Like most other people here, we have had to plug in a humidifier which puffs out vapour in the corner like a permanently boiling kettle to protect clothes, books and furniture.

Those homeowners careless enough to buy rustic type furniture made from untreated wood in the summer without checking closely for cracks discover that in the dry winter huge fissures open up as the wood loses its moisture.

To protect our home from the dust we have taped up the doors and windows with strips of sponge. This has its disadvantages.

It gets stiflingly hot on unseasonably warm days and we can't turn off the radiators. The blue tiles of our balcony, which is inaccessible now, have disappeared under drifts of yellow grey dust. And even with all the protection, the fine dust still finds its way in almost everywhere.

We've noticed some Beijing people have already started wearing surgical masks to safeguard their lungs from the dust. In April and May, when the yellow wind" blows in from the Gobi Desert, many women will put mesh bags over their heads to protect their skin.

The fine particles sting the face like sandpaper, and change the colour of the sky to yellow.

But I don't want an impression of unmitigated gloom. The cold, dry air is very bracing and most days the sky is blue. There is very little precipitation in a Beijing winter so we don't get the nasty slush of Moscow or the treacherous ice storms of Washington or the sleet and rain of an Irish winter (which I actually miss sometimes).

In January, the temperature can dip as low as minus 20 and dour neighbours have begun" checking the local ponds to see when it will be safe to ice skate. This is the time of year when many make plans to travel to the city of Harbin north of Beijing for the Ice Lantern Festival.

Most northern Chinese cities have ice festivals, but Harbin's is the biggest and best. They have dazzling sculptures of animals, plants and buildings, with crystalline ice bridges and an ice elephant for the kids.

Residents of Hong Kong and Japan who never see snow travels' to Harbin to gaze in wonder at the ice fantasy land.

As for us, we will be heading north to Siberia for the festive break. And I'm taking my fur hat. Happy Christmas.