“Harbin isn’t that cold”

Last summer I visited Hailaer 海拉尔 to scout out a project on the development of the northern corridor along the Russian border. The trip was useful, and Hailaer was charming–a quiet yet visibly wealthy city that people call the “pearl of the grasslands.” (Note: everything in China is the “pearl” of something.)

I knew that I would want to come back to conduct some proper research and interviews, and figured that non-summer would be a good time to do it, since the growing season is very short and very busy. When you have 18 hours of daylight, you tend to want to use all of them, and not waste time talking to a pesky historian.

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So back I am, and despite having grown up in snow country myself, have to say that Hailaer is cold. Damn cold. Today was 30 degrees below zero. Yesterday I was chatting to a team of old men and women who were clearing ice from the streets, and said that this might even be colder than Haerbin 哈尔滨, a city that annually builds six story buildings out of ice, and then lets people walk around in them. They just laughed and said “peh, Haerbin isn’t that cold.”  Pretty impressive.

The difference between here and Hong Kong, where I am staying this semester, and which also had a fairly damaging cold snap, is that this place is built for cold. People suffered (and died) in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan because nobody expects the temperature to drop–when you have palm trees in your courtyard, you might be forgiven for not thinking to install good windows or heat. Not so Hailaer, which is beautifully heated. My hotel is heated, taxis are heated, stores are heated. So much heat. Unfortunately, they are heated with coal, which you can smell, and eventually taste in the air. And here’s the paradox: go outside and start to freeze, and you start to crave the smell of burning coal. It’s Pavlovian–you follow the fumes, because that is where the warm is.

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