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January 5, 2010

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Brrr ... Beijing has a winter to forget

BEIJING authorities shut schools, mobilized extra buses and urged hundreds of thousands of residents to help clear icy roads and paths with shovels yesterday, as the capital struggled with its harshest winter weather in years.

North China began the working week after a blast of harsh cold and heavy snow blanketed the region over the weekend, paralyzing highways and forcing the cancellation of many flights.

"Low temperatures and ice-covered roads severely affected local traffic yesterday," Song Jianguo, head of the Beijing traffic management bureau, told Xinhua news agency.

So far there are no signs the cold spell will trigger the weeks-long disruptions and power cuts that hit some parts of southern China in unusually icy weather in 2008.

But the snow and cold could push up food prices by stalling shipments and damaging greenhouses, delay flights, and hold up some business in Beijing and other cities for a few days.

"Vegetable prices already went up yesterday," said Wu Yidong, a carpenter on a building site on an icy lane in downtown Beijing who was riding a battered bicycle.

"It's nothing if you have money, but you notice it if you're just an ordinary resident. It's cold on the bicycle, but even colder standing still," he said before moving on.

The icy snap could also strain gas and coal supplies. Unusually cold weather in the past two months has caused gas shortages as distribution networks struggled to meet demand.

Sections of highways around Beijing, the nearby port city of Tianjin, as well as neighboring provinces, including the big coal producer, Shanxi Province, remained cut yesterday morning, the Ministry of Transport said.

The wave of cold is expected to continue through the first part of the week.

China's national meteorological center warned that temperatures in the nation's far north could fall to about minus 32 degrees Celsius.

Beijing is likely to shiver at about minus 10 degrees in the day and colder at night, touching records that have stood for decades.

The capital has become used to milder, largely snow-free winters in recent decades. The snow over the weekend was the biggest in Beijing since 1951, with falls of up to 20 centimeters in the city's far north near the Great Wall, local TV news reported.

On Sunday, more than 90 percent of flights at Beijing's Capital International Airport were cancelled or suffered long delays.

Many highways out ofBeijing were shut as welland on others stalled cars and jack-knifed trucks created heavy traffic jams.

Many flights out of Beijing were still held up yesterday by the backlog of delayed planes, and cars crawled on ice-covered roads.

The airport reported 690 delayed and 96 canceled flights as of 4pm yesterday.

The three runways at the airport were all open yesterday thanks to the efforts of more than 300 workers who cleaned the snow and ice, according to airport officials.

Railway, airport and road authorities have all announced plans to minimize delays and get transport moving.


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