(The last two overdue National Day entries will be coming soon.)
I hate cold weather. That’s part of the reason I decided to come to Harbin, I guess: some perverse desire to see what one of the famously cold Manchurian winters would feel like.
Truth be told, the cold isn’t really the worst part; it’s cold, sure, but that’s easy enough to get around; all you need is three sweaters, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, heavy boots, a ski mask, and thick gloves. You’ll be both immobile and toasty warm – until the wind starts.
The wind somehow manages to blow from every direction. It cuts through your coat, your sweaters, and your boots, penetrating the two-inch thick layer of insulation around your body and flaying you with cold. At this point, if you are anything like me, you will start to convulse with shivers. If you go inside immediately, you’ll still shiver for about 10 or 15 minutes. If you stay outside, you will get so cold that you eventually stop shivering.
This, even, isn’t so bad, because the wind at least clears the air a little.
They burn coal for everything here – every single apartment complex, every factory, every school, every cornerstore and noodleshop. The smoke pours into the air, and the soot settles on the city, turning it a dull grey to match the sky. Visibility is about 200 metres; anything further than that will be an indistinct grey blur that barely stands out against the smoke in the air. When it snows, you will see that the snowflakes are a greyish-yellow colour. They fall to earth and are immediately trod underfoot and compressed into a half-inch thick layer of dark grey ice.
When I think of Harbin in January, right before I left for vacation, I get a monochromatic mental image: grey danyuan apartment buildings, grey streets, grey sky, grey snow, grey ground.
The sun rises late in the morning, around 7:30, and sets early in the afternoon, around 3:30. This was initially fine with me, but over time, the short days and long nights tapped into something at the lizard level of my brain, and I began to be constantly tired. This, combined with a lung infection that came and went, put me in a crappy mood that didn’t lift until I got back home to Philadelphia, a city which its locals sometimes refer to as ‘Filthydelphia.’
I walked out of the airport with my parents, and stared out the car window on the way home, marvelling at the cleanliness of the pavement, and the clarity of the air, and above that, the sky, and the final canto from Dante’s Inferno popped into my head:
salimmo sú, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
We went, he first and I following,
until we saw the things of beauty Heaven bears,
through a round opening,
whence came we forth, and once more saw the stars.