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    Out in the Cold: In Northeast China, a Season of Wild Extremes

    In the secluded northern reaches of China, residents navigate winters marked by temperatures that swing from mildly chilly to bone-chilling extremes, affecting everything from daily routines to major holidays.

    With temperatures ranging from mild highs of 9 degrees Celsius down to chilling lows of minus 40 degrees, northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province has grappled with a winter of wild temperature swings.

    Despite not breaking any extreme low temperature records of previous years, the rapid shifts in weather patterns since December have affected not just daily life but even the Spring Festival travel rush last month.

    Tahe County, a remote region in the far north of the province, has faced the brunt of these temperature extremes, with forecasts on Monday still predicting lows of around minus 25 degrees Celsius before a momentary respite next week.

    But its residents say they’ve seen worse.

    Zhang Yan, a 24-year-old from Tahe, says this year has been relatively warmer. “I remember last year during Spring Festival, the temperature nearly reached minus 50. You couldn’t leave your hands outside for long before they would start to freeze. This year is warmer,” he told Sixth Tone.

    Another resident, Lu Jiatai, a 24-year-old customer manager from Suihua City who was studying in Harbin at the time, vividly recalls a snowstorm in November 2020, which prompted the highest level of snowstorm alerts.

    “All the students went to class holding on to each other,” he says, “because the wind was particularly strong, and the snow was blowing up. We could barely see each other. It was like being in the Long March.”

    In such extreme cold, locals say leaving any part of the body exposed can lead to freezing, turning skin red and swollen. “Sometimes, my ear would swell significantly, I would feel an itch, and suddenly sharp, needle-like pain,” he says.

    It’s why most residents tend to minimize travel, particularly in rural areas. According to Lu, farmers often retreat indoors, passing the time by playing cards or watching TV in a practice known as maodong, akin to hiding from the winter elements like a cat seeking shelter.

    For Zhang, memories of winter are particularly vivid from his junior high school years when he lived in a bungalow nestled in the mountains of Tahe.

    He had two choices to get to school: walk or ride a bicycle, particularly since electric cars were rare due to concerns about battery life in the extreme cold. At around 6:30 a.m., if it wasn’t snowing, Zhang would set out on his bicycle, which he’d wheeled inside the house the night before. If left outside overnight, the grease in the bicycle chains would become viscous and too heavy to ride.

    If the weather was snowy, Zhang would walk the two kilometers to school on a route that typically took him around half an hour, longer if thick snow piled on the road. Sometimes, the icy roads posed additional challenges, but Zhang believes locals have developed a talent for survival.

    “People, especially younger locals, generally have good balance because they’ve had a lot of experience of falling over,” he says.

    At school, the half-hour break for outdoor activities in the morning meant more work: Students had to help clear the snow. “Each class was assigned an area of around 50 square meters to clear. Snow pushers, shovels, and large brooms were distributed among students to tackle the task together. Within 30 minutes, the campus would be cleaned, although students were sometimes permitted to finish their tasks before returning to class,” he says.

    Sometimes, during PE classes, they even managed to play football despite the snow-covered fields and uneven terrain. “There are no special techniques to play soccer there. It’s all about courage, you can play well as long as you dare to run and kick,” says Zhang.

    By high school, his family relocated to a modern high-rise, leaving behind their old bungalow, which has since been repurposed as a warehouse. The new apartment features central heating — an upgrade from the old boiler system that required constant refueling and took longer to warm the space.

    Despite the benefits of modernization, Zhang says an increasing number of locals are leaving the region. Authorities attribute this trend to several factors: the harsh natural environment, the area’s remote geography, declining population fertility levels, and the limited opportunities for economic and social development.

    Official data in 2022 shows that Heilongjiang’s population declined by 7.35 million to 30.99 million over the course of 10 years.

    Amid the demographic shifts, health concerns in northeast China further complicate the situation.

    Research suggests that the region’s inhabitants are at an increased risk of heart and vascular diseases, attributed largely to the cold climate. The local diet, rich in high-salt foods like pickled vegetables that are suitable for long-term storage, alongside significant indoor-outdoor temperature fluctuations, may also exacerbate health risks.

    Zhang plans to leave in pursuit of better employment opportunities too. “There aren’t enough jobs in Tahe County for young people,” he says. He considers Harbin, the provincial capital with direct bus service to Tahe, a practical choice, while also eyeing southern cities like Chengdu and Chongqing.

    But a recent six-month stint in Shanghai has plunged Zhang into a dilemma. The megacity’s rapid pace of life is in stark contrast with the tranquil lifestyle he values in Tahe, leaving him torn between the better job prospects and his more meaningful life in the town he grew up in.

    “I still love Tahe. In Tahe, coming home in winter and cooking a warm meal feels like home,” he says.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A view of the Tahe County, Heilongjiang province, Dec. 27, 2018. VCG)