1: Your Body Acclimatises
When we first arrived in Harbin, the cold seemed so biting that I couldn’t believe locals would go out without gloves or hats. But, just as in the Middle Eastern summer 30°C (86°F) comes to feel cool, in the Manchurian winter -10°C (14°F) comes to feel warm, and -5°C (23°F) so toasty that you go out without your gloves.
2: Floors Are Always Dirty
Cleaners fight a Sisyphean battle against grime – in even the poshest malls, Mrs Mops weave their way around the shoppers, day in, day out, as more and more dirty snow trudges in. In all but the very poshest places, floor tiles look like they’ve been grouted black.
3: Going Out Is a Major Expedition
Leaving the house when temperatures are -30°C or below is a major expedition, a morass of snoods, layers, gloves, hats and earmuffs, with compulsive checking that nothing’s been forgotten. I haven’t spent this much time just trying to leave the house since I was wrangling a baby of a few weeks old.
4: Black Ice Can Set Hard as Cement
In Harbin, street clearers sometimes need to use axes and hammers to clear the black ice from the pavements. This stuff is evil. On the plus side, it does tame the, umm, assertive Chinese driving style.
5: Boiling Water Will Unfreeze Windows
Harbiners in old-style Chinese flats always keep their balcony windows slightly open. That way, if temperatures rise enough for snow to melt and refreeze, sealing the window shut, you can open it again with the aid of boiling water.
6: Indoor Shoes Are a Must
In most Chinese households, guests change from outdoor shoes to indoor shoes from the shoe rack at the door. In Harbin, the dirt makes this critical: workmen and meter readers come equipped with plastic boot covers which they don at the door, and even the very cheapest hotels provide indoor shoes.
7: Doors Are a Pain in the Butt
In -30, every public space has heavy insulating curtains behind the doors, often an entire maze of them, sequences of three or four grimy quilts or plastic fringes through which one has to push. Where buildings have a series of glazed doors, all but one will be locked in winter. The challenge is to work out which.
8: People Fall Over
Yes, people do fall over on ice. A lot. So do dogs, particularly when their loving owners have put them into booties that match their jackets, meaning their paws can’t get the purchase that they’re used to.
9: Snow Can Be a Sign of Warmth
In very cold temperatures, the air is typically very dry, so it’s unusual for snow to fall when the temperature is below -25°C (-13°F) or so. Soft, fat snowflakes mean the day is very warm; even glistening powder indicates it’s less cold than it has been.
10: You Don’t Need to Look Like the Michelin Man
Young urban Chinese women manage to look both slim and stylish in temperatures of -30°C and below. The key? Layers of leggings and thermals, topped off with city shorts, miniskirts or skinny jeans.