One thing expats love to do is talk about the weather – not least in Suzhou. Suzhou’s weather is fairly predictable throughout the year. In terms of climate, it is “humid sub-tropical”, but an expert would add “neo-maritime eastern seaboard”. Sound a bit confusing? Let’s put that in layman’s terms.
Basically, Suzhou’s climate has the four distinct seasons. Summer, autumn and winter are long, whilst spring is so short it is often unnoticeable; winter and summer conspire to take pieces off both ends. This table will help:
May to mid-September
Lot of rain
Mid-September to November
Warm becoming cool
Dec to mid Mar
Little rain, less snow
Mid-March to April
Rain starts to build up
Things are not always what they seem. At the time of writing this article (end of November), there has just been a period of four days with daytime highs around 17-20ºc, whereas a few days earlier there was a four day spell where the highest temperature was 6ºc. One night it dropped to zero. Mist enveloped the city, visibility was down to half a kilometre and temperatures plunged.
The extremes can be quite unpleasant, and take some getting used to. Suzhou’s winter feels worse than the raw data indicates. There are often screamingly cold winds coming from central Asia, the air is damp, and it can be difficult to keep warm. In the summer the humidity makes the heat oppressive; the only escape is into air conditioned interiors. This leaves the brief spring, early summer, and autumn as the only times when life is relatively comfortable.
If you’re a visitor, the ideal times to come are October or April. Autumn provides the best weather and the Tiger Hill festival, but spring is the best time to view Suzhou’s many gardens in relative comfort.
On a day to day, week by week basis, Weather Underground provides accurate forecasts. Admittedly, the data comes from Hongqiao 70 kilometres away, but it’s generally very precise for a couple of days in advance and often even longer. On occasions, Suzhou faces the wrath of a typhoon. Whilst these will not generally present a threat if you’re indoors, loose objects from construction sites can become deadly missiles.These are rare occurrences, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the forecast.
For residents, it’s a matter of adapting as best you can. One way is to buy clothes to suit the weather. In general, many clothes sold here are not cut to fit bigger Western frames. This means that it’s a good idea to bring winter woollies from home when you move, or get them sent over. Having said that, nearly everything can be made here for a similar or lower price than in shops back home. This includes garments made from silk and cashmere that are particularly effective in the numbing cold. The advice, if you’re not on a tight budget, would be to bring clothes appropriate for your time of arrival and quickly arrange to visit a tailors for some bespoke items that will see you through the year’s variations, and to a bedding store for the essential silk duvets.
Two absolute essentials to bring with you are a good quality golf umbrella and mosquito spray. Umbrellas are ten a penny all over China, but it’s difficult to get quality. Mosquitoes aren’t malarial, but they deliver a vicious bite.
Obviously, for the resident, your choice of accommodation will seriously affect your comfort in the seasonal extremes. There is a huge number of apartments available here, ranging from poor to excellent, and a small number of detached houses at the upper end of the scale. Houses are extremely difficult to keep warm in winter, so an apartment is probably a better bet.
A good agent is essential when looking for property in Suzhou, so keep an ear to the ground for other resident’s comments. Whatever your choice, look out for the following:
Double glazing – many of the older properties don’t have this, but it’s a great money saver and will provide comfort in the depths of winter and the height of summer.
Doors and windows that close properly – surprisingly, due to the standard of workmanship in some properties, even small gaps allow icy wind to rip though your apartment. As well as loss of heat in winter, this also makes for less effective air conditioning in the summer.
Water heaters – many properties come with both an electric tank and the more efficient gas fired boilers that provide instant hot water. Ensure there is sufficient pressure to the taps and that all units work correctly, even this means a long wait until the electrical devices heat up.
Air conditioning that functions properly – A/C units are of variable quality. Things to check are:
• whether the remote controls work properly, as using the buttons on the units themselves can result in them wearing out.
• if filters have been cleaned regularly.
• if device functions on both the A/C setting and as a heater.
• If there are units of sufficient size in each room (a large lounge will require a free standing unit – see picture).
Longterm residents do get used to the extremes of Suzhou’s weather, but the first winter, heatwave and torrential rain can be a shock. At least it keeps life interesting!
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