Cold to Death: Surviving the Winter in China

Cold to Death: Surviving the Winter in China
Nov 20, 2009 By Fred Dintenfass ,

"Winter is nature's way of saying, ‘Up yours.’" – Robert Byrne

It’s that time of year when expats in Northern China put away the Halloween costumes, get ready for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa, and wonder why they didn’t move to Thailand. Chestnuts roasting over coals on rusted out oil drums affixed to bicycle carts might be nice, but wouldn’t a tropical beach be a whole lot nicer? Winter in northern China isn’t all bad – Thailand is only a few hours away by plane – and there are ways to mitigate the chill and make life a little more livable.

Dress properly
Unless you possess the genes which seem to allow all the female Russian students in Wudaokou to dress like it’s 4am in a sweaty nightclub when it’s actually 8am on a freezing Monday morning, you’re going to want to be dressed right. While the outdoor temperatures aren’t really that bad in most of China – despite the recent Weather Modification Bureau-induced snow, Beijing rarely gets truly cold and snowy – the temperature indoors is often frigid. Most cities south of Beijing lack indoor heating, and even in cities that have central heat, offices are often kept chilly. Long underwear is a good idea if you sit still all day, although you probably won’t need to go the full Chinese route – wearing long underwear October to May regardless of the weather. It’s easy to find: every supermarket and department store clothing section will feature it prominently for the next few months.

Keep the home fires burning
Even if you have central heat, unless it’s electric (and only some newer buildings have built in central heat) it’s only going to be on for a set period of time – in Beijing, it’s usually November 15th to March 15th. Unfortunately, nature works on a different schedule and there will still be several frigid months without heat. An electric heater will greatly improve quality of life and can be bought at any department store or large supermarket. Getting one with a timer will save your electric bill and make it less likely that you’ll burn the house down. Keep it clean, away from potentially flammable items and make sure you turn it off before you leave the house. Plan your outfit the night before and put your clothes on the radiator (NOT the electric space heater) before you pass out – nothing improves a cold morning like toasty duds.

Eat heat
The vendors selling melon slices on sticks get replaced by vendors selling chestnuts, sweet potatoes and Egg McMuffin-like bread things stuffed with meat and onion. In Beijing, sweet potatoes usually cost 3 RMB per jin. A lot of scales only measure gong jin (1 gong jin = 2 jin = 1 kg) which can be confusing – it’ll seem like you’re being charged twice as much. A good size sweet potato should only cost 4-7 RMB, if it’s much more than that, unless it’s massive, you’re getting ripped off.

Hotpot is another essential winter meal. Not only is it delicious but the boiling broth and accompanying heating unit help keep you warm, even in chilly restaurants. Chinese generally prefer to drink warm water (it’s better for digestion) so restaurants, particularly in winter months, will serve up hot water; of course, you can always order tea. Unfortunately, getting cold beer – always something of a hassle – can take some convincing, or even prearrangement, especially in areas less populated by foreigners. While bai jiu will warm you up in emergencies, make sure to take it easy, you don’t want to end up crashing your Forever bike and freezing to death in a snow bank.

Don’t get sick
Getting sick makes everything worse. Unfortunately, the pollution is already damaging our immune and respiratory systems, and the frequent, dramatic public expectorating makes the communication of germs all too visible. If you spend time packed into public transport you may want to wear a mask or wrap your face in a scarf. Make sure you eat lots of fruit and veg – chuanr alone will not provide your body with adequate resources to fight illness, though the spice does help. Chinese medicine, while not always effective once you’re already sick, can be helpful as a preventative measure – any local pharmacy can hook you up. A cold remedy that this author swear by is to buy fresh ginger (the fresher the better), chop it into tiny pieces and boil it in Coca Cola. Then drink it down. The ginger requires a little chewing but boiling it in Coke makes it more palatable. I happen to think it tastes good and it seems to scare off germs. For the less adventurous, white and green tea bolster the immune system.

Go south
A big chunk of China never gets cold and never sees snow. Plan a weekend trip to Sanya or take Spring Festival in Thailand. Don’t be one of those ridiculous people who heads all the way north for the Harbin Ice Festival.

Winter often gets easier as it goes on – the first time the thermostat dips below freezing it’s a shock – but you get used to it. Develop a hot chocolate habit, order yourself a Snuggy (better yet, convince the local tailor to make one) and snuggle up at home with a stack of DVDs. If none of that works, try this helpful hint from W.J. Vogel, “To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring.”

Related Links
Hanukkah in China
Christmas in China
Harbin's Ice Festival - Chilling Amazement

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