BEIJING Beijing authorities shut schools, mobilized extra buses and ordered thousands of residents to help clear icy roads and paths with shovels on Monday, as the Chinese 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 are expected to severely affect local traffic on Monday," Song Jianguo, the head of the Beijing traffic management bureau, told the official 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. It's nothing if you have money, but you notice it if you're just an ordinary resident," said Wu Yidong, a carpenter on a building site riding a battered bicycle on an icy lane in downtown Beijing.
"It's cold on the bicycle, but feels 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 on Monday morning, the national ministry of transport said.
The wave of cold is expected to continue through the first part of the week. China's national meteorological office warned that temperatures in the nation's far north could fall to around minus 32 degrees Celsius (-26F).
Beijing is likely to shiver at about minus 10 degrees Celsius in daytime and colder at night, touching records that have stood for decades.
Large parts of the Korean peninsula were also blanketed with snow on Monday that snarled the rush hour commute in Seoul, where the main domestic airport, Gimpo, canceled all domestic flights.
The Chinese 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 (7.8 inches) in the city's far north near the Great Wall, local television news reported.
On Sunday, more than 90 percent of flights at Beijing's Capital International Airport, the country's busiest, were canceled or severely delayed. Many highways out of Beijing were shut too, and on others stalled cars and jack-knifed trucks created long tailbacks of traffic.
On Monday, many flights out of Beijing still held up by the backlog of delayed planes, and cars crawled on ice-covered roads.
The cold spell across southern China last year prompted public grumbling about an initially tardy, fumbling official response. This time, the government appears determined to avoid such complaints.
Railway, airport and road authorities have all announced plans to minimize delays and get transport moving.
(Additional reporting by Yu Le in Beijing and Christine Kim and Yoo Choonsik in Seoul; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Alex Richardson)