Despite growing up in sunny (Northern) California and now living in even sunnier Southern California, I seem to have a preference for cold places. When I studied abroad in Beijing, I experienced a winter that averaged about -10°C, or 14°F. The year I worked abroad in Seoul, I celebrated one of the city’s coldest Christmas Eve—the temperature was -14°C, or 6.8°F. But Beijing and Seoul seem awfully warm when compared to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. The year I went to Harbin to attend its world-renowned International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which features massive ice and snow sculptures and attracts more than 1 million visitors each year, I faced a walloping -35 °C (-31°F) winter.
Having survived these winters, one harsher than the one prior, I am “Hsieh-ing” with you my ultimate sub-zero winter dress code.
The Golden Rules of Sub-Zero Wear
- Embrace Leggings. Snug-fitting leggings provide better insulation against cold weather than jeans and should be considered your best friend. Opt for fleece-lined leggings. They are comfortable and can effectively trap the heat generated by your body. Women can pair leggings with shorts or skirts for a stylish ensemble. As for men, do not be ashamed of long johns. I have found “stylish,” polka-dotted long johns while surfing the web.
- Layer, Layer, Layer. And I repeat, layer, layer, layer. When I went to Harbin, I wore 3 x 3 x 3 x 5. Roughly translated, these numbers stand for three pairs of socks, three pairs of pants (thermal underwear + leggings + jeans), three pairs of gloves (liner + leather gloves lined with fur + mittens) and five shirts/jackets (thermal undershirt + long-sleeve shirt + thick wool cardigan + jacket #1 + long coat #2).
- Cover your face, and wear a hat. Even if the rest of your body is well-insulated, you will lose a large percentage of your heat if any part of your body is exposed, including an uncovered head or an exposed face. So the best way to keep the heat generated by your body to your body is to reduce any skin or head exposure.
- Wear a pair of good shoes. I made the mistake of going to Harbin in my Uggs because I didn’t know anything about snow boots. Hence, my toes were numb for the majority of the trip. Looking back, if I were introduced to the Ontario, Canada-based (Canadians sure know how to dress for cold weather) shoe brand Sorel before Harbin happened, my feet could have been comfortably insulated in a pair of waterproof, soft, and microfleece-lined boots.
- Leverage your retail experience. I was walking with my friend Huan Huan on Harbin’s Central Street (Also known as Zhongyang Pedestrian Street or Zongyanng Avenue), which is the city’s main commercial hub, when I asked her if Harbin-ren (ren = 人 = person) are just immune to cold weather because I was freezing and she, a Harbin-ren, appeared to be perfectly fine. She laughed and replied that locals are cold in -35 °C weather, they just know how to dress and move about. At this point she steered me into a souvenir store and told me (approximate translation), “See, by adding indoor shopping to our walk, we can take on the cold in piecemeal fashion. That’s how Harbin-ren do it.”
- Eat ice cream. I learned that Harbin-ren love eating ice pops, or 冰棍, in the winter. I tried a butter-flavored pop and found the whole eating-pop-while-walking-back-to-my-hotel experience intoxicating. It was near surreal for me to feel the ice dessert that I was eating inside my mouth—ice pops, when frozen, average -20°C to -30°C—was warmer than the -35 °C temperature outside my mouth. Yup, that sure was an ice pop to remember.
And maybe this habit of Harbin-ren makes sense. According to a paper published in the journal Appetite in 2013, cold stimuli can trigger polar opposite reactions. When cold things are applied to the skin, the reaction is unpleasantness and shiver; when they are applied to the mouth, the perceived sensation is pleasant and thirst-quenching. Additionally, because ice cream is a complex food and your body will need to produce more heat to digest it, you may feel hotter after eating ice cream.
And of course, when all else fails, you can always just go somewhere else… somewhere less cold. Quoting a Chinese proverb ( (because proverbs are supposedly wise), “Those who know when to call it quits are smart, talented individuals / 識時務者為俊傑”. The following winter after my Harbin trip, I went to Rio de Janeiro.