16Mar2013

10 Random Observations on Life in -30

Ice Palace at the Harbin Ice & Snow Festival.

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.

18 Comments

  1. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Here in Sweden we don’t have it as cold as you describe but I recognise a lot of what you say. The shoes indoor thing is a must here and as you say one does acclimatise. When the weather has turned sunny and the ice is gone from the roads I think nothing of cycling to work in temperatures of minus 12. Don’t even wear special clothes. Having reliable/cheap 24 hour heating really helps too. Can’t imagine living in the UK where people only have their heating on for a couple of hours a day!

    I would rather acclimatise to plus 30 though.

  2. been there, being that cold. when we lived in minnesota, the wind comes from across the plains. one time it was -50 (f) and then there was a windchill. UGH.

    • Theodora says:

      Jesus. OK, that’s cold. The coldest we got here was about -35, I think, but that was at night, when we were tucked up in bed. Had NO idea Minnesota got that cold.

  3. Joy says:

    Winters in China are tough! #1 is so true though. Your body really does acclimate – not just to the cold but to everything in China. :-)

    • Theodora says:

      I’ve actually rather enjoyed it, apart from the bits when we were skint, which were absolutely no fun at all. But then we’ve got the ice palaces which reliably raise a smile.

  4. Linda says:

    Er – thank you for the virtual shiver. Seriously, fascinating, but think I’ll stick with my 27º yesterday!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s not something I’d have contemplated doing when we’d just left England. But I’m glad we’ve done it. It’s been, honestly, really interesting.

  5. Kelsey says:

    Reminds me of living in Edmonton, Alberta (canada) and is why I now live in Hanoi.

    • Theodora says:

      I’ve enjoyed it, for the novelty value. Wouldn’t be a routine I’d choose to be stuck in year after year, I must confess…

  6. Interesting observations. I’ve lived in the Middle East for almost 3 decades, and my body still hasn’t acclimatized to the heat. Using an air condition a lot might have something to do with it. I’d love to try the cold, though.

    • Theodora says:

      That’s odd. Maybe our bodies acclimatise well now because of the hideous things we do to them, in terms of sharp transitions. If you’re new to cold, I’d probably start somewhere warmer than Harbin — although the ice sculptures are probably the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. Finally about to get some pictures up.

  7. Joanna says:

    I used to live in different cities across Canada and I find dry colds (like the prairies in Canada), while quite freezing, easier to handle than a real damp cold (eastern Canada) and wind chill is the worst. So is a cold with no sun, just grey which goes on for months (lack of sunlight really gets to you), and cabin fever can set in. Still, of all the decades of Canadian winters I’ve endured I still say this past one in Wuhan was unbearable because, even though the temperature was maybe -10C at the lowest (and usually hovered around freezing) there are no central heating systems in this part of China and our power went off frequently and I have never felt so chilled to the bone and cold in my life. I would rather endure -30 with some heat than +2 with no heat for days on end (despite the many layers of blankets/clothes).

    • Theodora says:

      You’re not alone in this — I have a friend in Shanghai who suffers horribly with the lack of heating. I’m with you on the grey and damp being hideous. I actually prefer the Harbin climate to the British, because it’s light for a long time, the days are bright, and there’s none of the grey drizzle that we deal with.

      I’m really sorry winter in Wuhan has been so miserable for you. It’s -16 here today, but it’s bright, so bearable. Off to Beijing this weekend, where apparently it’s a toasty +14! Which means I have no appropriate footwear. *sigh*

  8. Very interesting observations. Many of them are true. There is truth about the cold, the body gets used to it.

  9. Alex says:

    Layers, layers, and more layers! This winter in Anhui Province, China, I marked the days by the number of layers required. My school just got heaters this year, but only turned them on three days (when it was snowing). Otherwise, you just bundled up and tried to avoid getting chillblains.

    Ironically, I was warmer when I went home to northern Minnesota (where the weather was -30 Celsius) than in China (where the typical temperature varied from -5 to 10 degrees Celsius).

    • Theodora says:

      Winter in China is really bad if you’re in the “warm” south. Flats in the north are kept toasty, toasty warm, in the manner of Soviet Russia, though public spaces are on the brisk side. But there isn’t proper heating in the south. At least your school HAD heaters. A friend of mine used to teach from inside a sleeping bag.

  10. NIce observations!

    I remember my first year in Montreal, It was mid January and I’d already dealt with 4 months of snow, to wake up one morning to what looked like the most beautiful sunshiny day I’d ever seen! I got dressed in a hurry thinking this was a rare winter chance to get some warm sun rays on my cheeks and was horrified when I opened the door to the driest, most bitter cold I’d ever experienced. I DO NOT agree with your point no. 1…. 10 years, I never acclimatized to Montreal winters. :)
    Thanks for a lovely post.

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