Monthly Archives: January 2017

Harbin: the fun of minus 20 degrees Celsius..




When the list of recommended travel essentials includes a ‘small flask of hard liquor’, you know you are either in for one hell of a party, or going to somewhere cold, very cold…  In my case, it was the latter, although a party would definitely be on the cards too!

As if the frosty temperatures of Hangzhou and Shanghai were not chilly enough, I decided to check out THE Chinese winter destination of Harbin, located in north-eastern China and sandwiched between Russia on the East and Mongolia on the West.   In the firm grip of the icy Siberian High anticyclone, Harbin winters are cold and dry and average day temperatures hover around minus 18.  Definitely a case of getting the extra layers and winter woollies ready to brave some serious subzero mercury… and of course packing generous supplies of hand warmers, foot warmers, body warmers, balaclavas as well as not forgetting the recommended ‘small bottle of something strong’ to add that shot of instant heat!



For the last thirty years, Harbin has hosted the Snow and Ice Festival, an extravaganza of snow and ice sculptures, which from mid January until end February attracts an avalanche of visitors to revel in the impressive accomplishments of its designers and artists.  Starting in mid-December, massive ice blocks hewn from the nearby frozen Songhua River, are sculpted into awe-inspiring buildings and monuments of different architectural styles.  Compacted snow is carefully and delicately carved into grandiose and mind-blowing statues.   In fact, in matter of a few weeks a small city fashioned out of ice rises up providing not only spectacular views for the visitors, but also a range of fun activities.  Adults and children alike spill from the ‘castle doorways’ on massive slides; a ‘cycle lane’ is brimming with ice-adapted bicycles; there are areas for ice hockey games… Awe-inspiring by day, the park transforms at night when the millions of LED lights meticulously threaded through the ice blocks are lit up and set the ice city aglow.







Although most of the sculptures are found in the ‘Ice and Snow World’ and other dedicated parks, plenty of other statues and creations are dotted around the town.  An intrinsically carved train engine stands proud in the pedestrianised main street and a huge ‘frozen chicken’ heralds 2017 as the ‘Year of the Rooster’.


But Harbin is not just a destination for spectators and offers plenty of opportunity for action.  Whereas I had to give the ski slopes a miss on account of my knee (and probably the fact I was never any good at it in the first place…), there was plenty to keep me busy.  The ten-minute long husky ride (which included a full five minute photo shoot) and two circuits on a quad bike on ice set us back more than two hours on the slopes would have cost…   We were  in ‘tourist land’ and the locals had definitely cottoned on how to make the most of it..  Although to be truthful,  after just a short spell of thirty minutes outside, we were pretty glad to escape to the indoors and warm our hands, toes and noses..


More fun was to be had on the Songhua River, frozen solid in midwinter, and turned into an enormous playground at festival time.  Biking, skating, miniature tanks, ponies and even 4x4s set revellers spinning across the Songhua’s frozen surface.


And of course, there were those who literally preferred to take the plunge in the outdoor pool, cut into the frozen river…   Whereas the onlookers on the sidelines were carefully wrapped in thermal layers and covered with heat packs and heat patches to defeat the cold, the swimmers – mainly Russians – appeared from their huts,  scantily clad in bathing suits and bikinis and charming us with displays of bravado before, elegantly or otherwise, diving into the icy water…  Not for the faint-hearted, but after prancing around in the minus 15 air temperature, maybe the water felt pleasantly warm and none of them swam more than a few strokes before retreating back to their saunas …  I do not know, because – to be honest – I was not that keen on finding out…  Some boxes do not need to be ticked…







China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…


About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…


Living in winter pyjamas


And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…


Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…


I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.


(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:

A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

Privacy is such a Western notion, or privilege maybe…

In the Western world, we take privacy for granted: a respectful space between the counter in the bank and the line of waiting customers; a discreet gap and hushed voices when talking to the receptionist in  the doctors’ surgery.  And of course closed bathroom doors..  it goes without saying.  Bodily functions belong in the realm of secrecy: we may not be able to suppress every tinkling and other unfortunate sound accompanying bathroom exploits, but at least there are no eye witnesses…  At least not in the ladies’…

In China, bathroom doors are clearly a recent addition.  Luckily,  living in the affluent Eastern city of Hangzhou, civilisation as I know it, is not too far behind.   Shopping malls and metro stations have cottoned on to the need for privacy and cubicles are neatly partitioned with doors.   Toilets are still mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and no handbag is complete without a generous stash of tissues, but a smattering of facilities now provide huge reels of toilet paper near the washbasins…  Sometimes there is even a soap dispenser!

However, the availability of doors does not mean that they are used and often women just  leave doors ajar or open and get on with their business in full view as if it is everyone else’s business.   Apparently, it is to do with cleanliness: opening and closing doors requires touching handles that may have been touched by hundreds of other people before you; sitting on a toilet seat involves a close encounter with a seat that has been sat upon by possibly hundreds of other people..  you get the drift.  Whereas the Western idea of cleanliness focuses on not spreading the germs we carry with us by cleansing us and all surfaces of those germs we incidentally pick up and leave behind,  the Chinese idea of cleanliness focuses on not touching anything that may be covered with germs in the first place, which is basically everything…



During my travels to far flung Chinese destinations where Western practices and habits have not yet fully penetrated, toilet facilities have been much more primitive.  Of course, doors are completely missing and instead of individual squat or floor toilet pans, a mere gully divided by waist high walls provides opportunities for relieving oneself..  Sometimes even the little walls are missing,.   And flushing toilets??  Building the gully with a slant takes care of that problem…

I have been lucky in my school as the toilet block used by the teachers is pretty reasonable:  three individual toilets of the squat variety, complete with doors.  Not that I ever had a great need of using them, only turning up at school to deliver my lessons and then disappearing back to my flat.  But after my surgery, walking backwards and forwards between flat and school was going to be more problematic and longer days at school would necessitate making use of the bathroom facilities…  Not being able to bend my knee was going to add an interesting dimension to using a squat toilet…

Early inquiries about the existence of a Western toilet at the school, had been greeted with doubtful looks: no Western toilet that anyone was aware of.  But during my week’s absence, a disabled toilet had been discovered, tucked away on the ground floor near the Middle school.  Hooray… surely a disabled toilet would be a Western-style toilet; they certainly  were in the shopping malls.   And indeed, when I wobbled there on my crutches and found it, it was…


but no way was I going to use it…

It would have been bad enough for a Chinese student to have to use it in full view, but can you imagine the stares I would have had as a foreign teacher…     One thing I could be sure of: cleanliness Chinese-style would be fully guaranteed.  This was one toilet seat that had not been touched by hundreds of others beforehand, and as it was not even linked to the plumbing system, had probably never been touched at all…

With a little bit of willpower, some ingenuity and the help of my crutches, I managed the squat toilets and just reduced the number of coffees I had..