We went to Harbin and Yabuli, China last December 26-30, 2019 and had one of the most unique and unforgettable experiences in our lives. This place made me come out of my comfort zone and pushed me to try a lot of things I’ve never tried before, such as skiing, riding a horse-drawn sleigh ride, walking in the snow for hours in subzero temperature, playing with snow, eating inside an igloo, and more. 🙂 If you’re thinking of having a vacation in Harbin during winter, planning ahead is very important. In this post, I’m sharing the top five survival tips and lessons we learned from our trip.
How to Survive Winter: Harbin and Yabuli Travel Tips
From the airport, we were already all dressed up and thought we were well prepared for the cold. The flight attendant announced that temperature outside was -24°C. What I wore: [top] Uniqlo’s heat-tech long sleeves turtle neck shirt + North Face windbreaker jacket + H&M thick coat with fleece-lined hood; [bottom] Uniqlo’s heat-tech leggings + Uniqlo fleece-lined jeans; [hands] Uniqlo gloves; and [footwear] winter boots from Amazon. But heck, all these were not enough!
Our tour guide, Helen, met us at the Arrivals area in the airport. We made short casual introductions, then walked straight to the bus. The grounds to the bus were covered with snow and were quite slippery. It was hard to carry our suitcases and carry-on luggage despite the short distance. Thankfully, Helen helped us lift some bags to the bus. Upon settling in, she told us the most important things to remember to survive winter in Harbin.
1. Dress in Appropriate Winter Gear from Head to Toe
The first and most important tip is to dress for the weather. Layering should not be overdone because piles of clothing can weigh you down, thus making it harder to walk and achieve a good balance in snow. Helen recommended the following:
- [top] thermal + windbreaker jacket + waterproof coat made of fur, wool, or other insulating materials (longer than waist length)
- [bottom] thermal + windbreaker pants + waterproof pants
- [hands] thick, waterproof and well-insulated gloves
- [face, eyes, and ears] face mask to cover the entire face except the eyes, polarized sunglasses or ski goggles, and ear muffs;
- [head] jacket hood or winter bonnet
- [neck] woolen scarf
- [feet] thermal socks and thick, waterproof quality snow boots with a slip-resistant rubber sole
We stopped by a winter clothing store in Harbin and bought all the necessary items we didn’t have. Since we purchased in bulk as a group, the store manager gave us a good discount. We all ended up looking alike (only the eyes are exposed)!
2. Plan Ahead for Internet Access
Some apps, platforms, and sites like Google, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Youtube are blocked in China. The Chinese government does a fairly thorough job censoring websites and traffic from sources it deems potentially unsavory or damaging to the ruling Communist Party.
To connect, you must purchase and install a virtual private network to “mask” your location into a country or city with more internet freedom. I got a free trial of ExpressVPN. It’s easy to use and it’s the #1 VPN for China. It’s essential to set it up before actually going to China because once you’re there, downloading any VPNs will be blocked. That happened to my husband so he wasn’t able to access these sites when connecting to any Wi-Fi at the hotel, restaurants, and cafes.
3. Winter-proof Your Phones and Cameras
Exposure to very cold temperatures (below 0 degrees Celsius) can permanently damage components. If you have gadgets, make sure to protect them from serious cold. Check the lowest temperature your cameras and mobile phones can withstand or how they can last when being used. My Fujifilm XT2 body is weather-sealed however my lenses aren’t, so I decided not to bring my camera to Harbin. I used my phone instead to take photos.
When taking photos, smartphones shouldn’t be out in the cold for more than 10 minutes. Otherwise, the battery will die down easily and before you know it, the phone will be shut off automatically or worse, damaged. That was experienced by one of our tourmates, and she wasn’t able to take photos until the end of our trip.
It’s best to keep your mobile phones inside a warm coat’s pocket or in a padded or furry bag with heat packs to maintain heat. Bring extra mobile chargers since phone batteries also easily drain when in freezing temperatures. To conserve power, switch off background data syncing, lower display brightness, and turn on power-saving mode on your device.
4. Carry Cash in Harbin and Yabuli
The easiest ways for foreigners to get yuan are simply to use bank ATMs or go to Bank of China outlets. However, if there aren’t accessible ATMs near the hotel you’ll be staying in, it’s very difficult to get cash. Most stores don’t accept credit cards, debit cards, or foreign currency. Locals use their phones to transfer money. WeChat Pay and Alipay are the most popular mobile payments systems in China. Try checking how you can open these accounts linked to your credit card if possible, for convenience.
5. Drink Enough Water (even when the cold weather will make you want to pee more often)
Fight winter dehydration by drinking lots of water to regulate your body temperature. This allows blood to keep the body warm and carry oxygen throughout your body. Drinking water will also help improve your skin, reducing the risk of chapping and peeling. The dry and often stagnant air during winter can take a toll on your skin.
Remember to bring a tumbler that can withstand sub-freezing to boiling temperatures. Water bottles made in plastic can easily freeze or break (or burst). Carry a tumbler inside your clothes or pack it next to a heat pack to help keep it from freezing. The stopover places we visited usually had dispensers of hot water, so tourists can refill their tumblers.
The best time to visit Harbin and Yabuli is from November to February, and it’s their winter season. The average daytime temperature in December is -9°C (16°F), and the average night temperature is -20°C (-4°F). During this time, the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is held with various snow-related activities. If you planning to go, make sure to take note of these travel tips because their winter is really bitterly cold. Also, you might want to pack some first-aid medicine. 😉