Top Tips for Surviving a Cold North-Eastern Chinese Winter

By: Crashing A Bike In China

"Your thickest coat will not be thick enough. Just buy one when you get here."
"…………………" was my answer to this bold statement from my prospective boss during a second-round Skype interview, aimed at finding suitability for future employee and employer. I'm not sure anyone- having not met the person they are talking to- can make such an assertion without being really rather sure of themselves. I reached for my tiger onesie. 'This,' I thought, 'has seen me through even the deepest, darkest winters in Swansea. And it has a two-inch hole in it.' Impressed as I'm sure he would have been, what good does a blatant brag do in an interview situation? ** Spoiler alert ** I bought a coat.
I'm sitting here today, after just awarding myself a gold star for keeping quiet. Outside, it's around minus 10, and winter begins in earnest in January. Tomorrow's weather forecast is showing highs of -7, which I have literally zero interest in as a concept. Coming from England, the mere idea of minus 10 chills me to my bones- I dread to think what the weather will actually do to me...

To this end, I’ve come up with some top tips for avoiding the worst of the cold, secretly hoping my own recipe can get me through it too!

Layer up.

In fact, dressing is a pain in the proverbial as it is a 10 minute operation before leaving the house each time. Coats upon jackets upon layers upon under layers make up an entire city of Michelin Men. It will soon reach the kind of temperatures where bare skin is a no-no. Further north in Harbin, the annual International Ice Festival intrigues thousands each year, so there’s certainly no need to stay inside for 6 months of this unusually long winter. Why? Quite simply because preparation is the key- a throwback to my boy scout days where ‘Be Prepared’ was the motto. The locals are understandably experts at this, and they are happy enough to spend entire days fishing in (or rather on) the frozen lakes in a way that may be considered Eskimo-esque. If not, skating on frozen lakes proves a popular pastime for those who like a bit more exercise. The cold hard fact- excuse the pun- is that layers are essential when visiting the area, but it’s nothing a good dose of common sense can’t solve!

Monkey see, monkey do.

So how do the Chinese get on then? Seemingly my city- Changchun- is part of the minority, as it is one of the furthest north and suffers from the really chilly stuff that comes from Siberia. As a result it becomes a bit of a ghost town, with only the most necessary of trips being taken during the harsher months of January and February. A more 'do I need' as oppose to 'do I want' attitude being taken to outdoor ventures.

It seems that the rural workers have something right, they shut up shop for 6 months a year to protect themselves from the cold and to socialise with friends and family during the winter period. Lashings of Baijui, a fiercely strong liquor, and traditional songs and dances see them through the tougher times, before returning to work in the late springtime.
Nevertheless, city life is somewhat an all year around affair. With military precision, I often clamber into my green cocoon of warmth- looking more like an out-of-shape Hulk than anything else, to discover what the city has to offer. One of the more sensible methods is digging down, which creates a fascinating underground community for shoppers and restaurant goers alike. It would take a special effort to pretend that any of the products found in these cheerful underworlds are legitimate, but I'd certainly like to believe it. I'd like to quite simply because it would be possible to find virtually every materialistic thing anyone could hope to find! If anyone wants to take up a challenge on that- within reason- pop an email into the comment box!

Getting around.

The subterranean melange of sights, sounds and smells is as entrancing as the daily test of walking to work via the network of ice ways. (Editors note: Simon, they are in fact the same roads you walk on all the time, just with a 4 inch layer of ice to top it off). To be honest, I should be saying that we could keep the underground theme by using the swanky new subway system that has been in use since last year. However, if this piece had been written in 2009 instead of 2013 the preceding sentence could have still been used! It’s that far behind schedule…

We have to stay on the surface, then. People-watching is quite a hobby of mine, as most days people take tumbles- in fact my Bambi on Ice impression has improved no end during the time I've been here! Unfortunately, everyone has a fall at some point, it seems, so I have got my out of the way sharpish (is that how it works?). With conditions that provoke serious discussion about one’s ability to skate to work, traction becomes more of a talking point here than most. A good pair of boots and the balance experience of a trapeze artist is a must.

Spending longer than needed outside is foolhardy and this extends to taxi rides, too. Why not, considering that they start at a minuscule 5 yuan and rarely exceed 15 all in? For the more adventurous, you might enjoy a bus for a paltry one yuan, so no excuse for not keeping in the warm whilst on the move!

Winter warmers.

Food takes on a more significant role, too, forming a staple of social life. Instead of battling boredom with a film and less-than-Super-Noodles, a night out with friends served with a warm welcome seems time better spent. Noodle soups comfortingly fill a void whilst chilli consumption goes through the roof in order to clear out 8 million snotty noses a day. The hearty dishes, containing a wide range of unidentifiable vegetables- to the average western eye, at least- and 'what's this' style meat contribute to a veritable feast for the famished freezing. Although there is a wealth of options here- most intriguingly a whole roasted lamb Mongolian style or local favourite guo bao rou- sweet and sour crispy pork, sent from heaven itself, to you and I- it’s unlikely to burn hole in the wallet. Hotpot is a dearer option, but is unbeatable for range and experience. You can choose what you like- from frog to silkworm, lotus roots to tofu- which sauce and how long it is cooked for, as you become the chef! Blending a wide variety of ingredients to cook gives a great pick-and-mix for friends to enjoy, whilst each individual can control their own dipping sauces to make a taste sensation that suits everyone. Not to lower the tone too much, but stomachs are tested shortly after eating hotpot on occasions, so bear this in mind as you load up a plateful of chillies! But for a warming experience that is taken seriously here in the north, eating out will neither leave you disappointed nor penniless.
It’s certainly interesting that, even in the depths of winter, there is a hive of thriving activity within the population. Being accustomed to it is certainly helpful, yet adapting is easier than you may think with a bit of preparation. I suppose that's what I'm getting at- if you want to come to Changchun then I'd wholeheartedly recommend it.

But don't bring a coat.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingCrashing A Bike In China is a British expat living in China. Blog description: Hi all, This will be my blog for the next year in China and first of all I'd like to say how humbled I am for taking an interest in my travels, emotional. For those who have this as fresh information, and know nothing of
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Contest Comments » There are 6 comments

Rendle wrote 10 years ago:

What a great blog! I'd love to go to China and I'm so grateful for all these tips. In fact what I really love about this blog is that there's always personal experience and an open-minded insight into what its really like to live there. Keep it up and keep warm!! All the best!

Daniel Birrell wrote 10 years ago:

A Palin-esque charm and humour, very interesting look at an interesting part of China! Would love to see pictures of these underground ventures in a future post! Must be bloody cold if they had to go that far! Also Google'd Guo Bao Rou, Truly this is some Mana from Heaven.

El Robinator wrote 10 years ago:

It makes me want to go to China which I guess is the biggest and best compliment I can give it, especially as it sounds so bloody cold!!

Pierre-Antoine BUNEL wrote 10 years ago:

I love the way you write, is it the famous Britain humor? Read your words make me think that I need to learn English a litle more, to understand all your bad jokes... Besos!

Adam Jones wrote 10 years ago:

Informative, easy to read and with plenty of humour - my kind of blog. 5 stars

Kyle Lowther wrote 10 years ago:

Really enjoying this blog, gives a great insight in to China from a different perspective to many of the online articles. Some unexpectedly great humour. Would love to visit one day, sounds brilliant. It would only be a little exaggeration if I said reading it makes me feel hard... done by, as I am unable to get such an experience... YET.

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