CHENZHOU, China, Feb 4 (Reuters) - When it snows in the picturesque south China city of Chenzhou, especially around the Lunar New Year holiday, business turns brisk at the photo shop where Li Peizhen works.
This year, though, snow was preceded by rain that froze in thick layers, bringing down trees and power lines, and knocking out electricity to the city of 4 million people for nine days and counting.
Business stopped abruptly and the pulse of Li’s life, and that of most others here in the south of Hunan province, has changed.
“This is normally peak season for us,” she said in the dark of the Xinglong Kodak Express shop. When a man dropped in to ask about prints he had ordered, Li apologized and told him to come back when the power was restored.
“No power, no pictures.”
The lights went out at the shop on Jan. 26. Other places in the city lost power three days earlier, and several people say rural areas have been without electricity for two weeks or more.
Since then, Li has tacked an extra two hours on to her morning sleep, waking at 8 a.m. rather than 6. But, at night bedtime arrives early.
“We eat dinner early, when the sun is going down, because candles have become so expensive,” said the 31-year-old native of Chenzhou, a city that dates back to China’s Han dynasty of 206 BC to 220 AD, and lies on roughly the same latitude as the Bahamas and Dubai.
“I’ve been going to sleep at about 7 p.m. With no electricity, there’s no TV, and not much to do.”
On an overcast day just above freezing, Li, bundled in a long, red padded coat, and two co-workers sat around a green felt covered mahjong table, looking bored. One shuffled cards by the light of an oil lamp.
The knock-on effects of the ice and snow has led to inflation. Li and her colleagues ordered two tanks of natural gas on Jan. 28, but only one ever arrived.
Household coal prices have jumped. Gasoline and diesel have become even rarer commodities than normal in an area that some say has seen lines at petrol stations for months. Food sellers have raised prices sharply.
“I eat noodles for almost every meal,” Li explained. “It was rice with every meal before, but if you cook rice you have to have dishes to go with it ... sometimes we just eat plain noodles in boiled water.”
Stores ran out of instant noodles in the first days of the blackout, she said, but had recently been re-stocked.
Compounding the inflation problem, most banks around town have been closed and the ATMs are all out of commission. A branch of China Construction Bank near Li’s store opened a few days back, she said, but the line stretched down the pavement.
“We had to start borrowing cash from friends two or three days ago,” she said.
With little money to spend and no electricity, she hardly leaves the photo shop.
“We don’t know what’s going on outside. We’re cut off.”
Earlier, a crowd hungry for news at an outdoor market jostled for free copies of the Chenzhou Daily with a picture of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao visiting the city on Saturday.
The city government has been sending propaganda slogan-laden text messages to mobile phones that report on the weather and power grid repair efforts. Late on Sunday, one urged people to go out less “and when you go out don’t drive cars”.
“The hardest thing for me is not having water,” Li said.
The ground floors of buildings have had water throughout the crisis, but people living on higher floors in Chenzhou have had to haul buckets of water to their flats for cooking, washing and flushing toilets.
“People with money moved into hotels,” she said. “I try to find a way to bathe once every three days.”
Li and her co-workers were awaiting the arrival of her boss’s younger brother who drove to the city of Nanning several hundred kilometres to the west to buy a generator so they could get the shop open again and get life back to normal.
“It’s like we’ve gone back to the Stone Age,” said the shop owner, pacing nearby to stay warm.
“The big question is: When will the electricity be restored?” Li said. “When it does, I’m sure we’ll have to work overtime.”
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