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Harbin, China, is cold – so cold that it’s known as “The Ice City”. Residents find winter fun but also contend with air pollution, a result of keeping the frigid city warm. Writer Darren Skelton explains.
Text by: Darren Skelton
Country: China

ocated in the far northeast of China in HeiLongJiang province, Harbin, has one of the coldest, most brutal winters among major Chinese cities, with a 24-hour average temperature in January of minus 18.4 degrees Celsius (minus 1 degree Fahrenheit). Harbin, which was originally a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets”, grew from a small, rural settlement on the Songhua River to become one of the largest cities in the region. It and its people have had to evolve and grow, to adapt and to survive in this harsh climate! Known as “The Ice City” for its popular winter tourism and recreational activities, the most famous of these is the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival and its beautiful ice sculptures.

There is also plenty to do here in the cold months: skiing, skating, ice slides and playing with old-fashioned spinning tops down on the frozen river. You can take pleasant walks on pedestrian avenues, in parks, and along the river.

I moved to live and work in Harbin some twelve years ago for two reasons: first, because it’s on the Trans-Siberian train route, which was a travel aim of mine, and second, I was attracted to living in the city’s famous, extreme cold.

My plane landed in a frozen, desolate, snow-covered, and slightly inhospitable airport out in the countryside late on a December night. When I disembarked, I gasped at the cold. My clothing was also wholly inadequate to fend off such cold in the first few days.

Living in such a city is not so bad, though, if you are willing to embrace it. If you wrap up in thermal underclothes; thick, heavy coats; scarves; hats; and gloves, then all is well. When indoors, the heating keeps you very comfortable indeed.

Pollution all over

Due to the bitter winters, a coal-powered district heating system keeps buildings and people warm and cozy, but also causes heavy pollution in the city.

As Chinese cities grow –with more cars, more factories, more apartment blocks and more coal used to heat them– the negative effects on air quality are noticeably worse. This is unquestionably one of China’s biggest headaches as it powers forward with its strong economic growth.

When growing air pollution issues were particularly bad in 2013, local government officials simply blamed the dense pollution on the lack of wind, the burning of crop waste in farmers’ fields, and the mid-October start-up of Harbin’s coal-powered district heating system. The pollution even sparked interest in Western media such as the BBC.

No one really knows what will happen next: The coal-fuelled heating systems are not going away, the number of cars is not decreasing, and the migration from the countryside to the city is showing no signs of slowing. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers are pushing for the development and usage of cleaner fuels and more realistic policies to curb increasing air pollution. As with everything in China, we’ll have to wait and see.

The views from the locals and the non-locals

Locals and non-locals alike are hardy souls who soldier through the winter.

“It is very, very cold, yes, but it is not that bad once you get used to it”, said one student at the Harbin Engineering University. “My dormitory is warm and my classroom is warm, so all I really need to pay attention to is having adequate clothing”

“I love the winter up here, as a student I have plenty of spare time to enjoy the winter activities afforded to me in Harbin”, another told me.

“The air pollution is particularly bad in recent years! It concerns me greatly as I worry about the health of my relatives and my friends”, a third student said.

One expat said the pollution is bad enough to make moving away an option.

“The main concern I have about living here is the adverse air pollution suffered in the winter months, and its effects on my life and more importantly my children’s long-term health…. If this does not improve, we may probably have to move away from this city”, the foreigner told me.

Older, long-time residents of Harbin, though, think the younger inhabitants are complaining too much.

“Young people today are too soft and do not know the real cold at all. In the past, Harbin was really cold, really, really cold, day and night. The government now provides good heating for the city and its inhabitants, they can buy good quality clothes to keep warm! The issue of the air pollution is only temporary as the government will soon solve it and make everything all harmonious once more”.

Food to fight freezing temperatures

Great food that can help keep you warm can be had in cold winter months. Harbin is renowned for its culinary tradition, with many dishes featuring heavy sauces and deep-frying.

One of the most famous dishes is traditional Harbin style “Guo Bao Rou“, or sweet and sour pork. The locals (and foreigners) love to eat it, loading up on calories to keep warm. Other popular foods are hot pot and roasted sweet potatoes, eaten outside on the streets.

Facts and Figures for the Ice City
1. Harbin temperatures can and do regularly drop to minus 40 degrees C.

2. In October 2013, smog reduced visibility to below 50 meters.

3. In the same month, the airport, kindergartens, middle schools and high schools were closed for three days due to heavy smog. In addition, hospitals reported a 23 percent increase in admissions for respiratory problems.

4. It is estimated that pollution from the burning of coal has reduced life expectancies by 5.5 years in the north of China.


Bone-chilling, teeth-chattering China

Harbin is a city located in the northeast of China in HeiLongJiang province. It is famous for having one of the coldest, most brutal winters of a major Chinese city. In January it has an average temperature of minus 18.4 degrees Celsius.

Harbin was originally a small rural settlement of fishermen on the Songhua River, but now it is one of the largest cities in the region.

Its people had to adapt to survive in this harsh climate. The city is also known as The Ice City for its popular winter tourism. It is famous for the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival and its beautiful ice sculptures.

The city is not so bad to live in if you embrace the cold, wrap-up in thermal underclothes; thick, heavy coats; scarves; hats; and gloves. Indoors, the coal-powered heating keeps you very warm and comfortable.

But the burning of coal to heat homes and buildings also makes it a very polluted city. More cars, more factories, and more apartment blocks also contribute to the pollution.

The locals feel that although it is very cold, you can get used to it. It is warm inside and there are many winter activities to enjoy outdoors. Older residents think the younger inhabitants complain too much. They say is it not as cold as it was in the past and that the pollution is only temporary, that the government will solve it.

There is also great calorie-rich food to keep you warm during the cold winter days.



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Bone-chilling, teeth-chattering China



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