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Some tips on travelling to Harbin and Beijing.

Coping with the cold in Harbin

When came the time to pack for Harbin, where I was invited by Pr. Y. Wei, I soon realised that I had never faced the kind of temperatures that Harbin suffers most of the winter. A web search was hardly helpful, hence this page.

During the winter, the average temperature in Harbin is about -17 C. Most of the days, we had -20 C or less, down to -30 C. Now, living in England where the temperatures are confined within the smallest range I've ever seen (London: 4 C in winter to 17 C in summer), I had no idea how to get ready for this kind of stuff. -30 C ! do your ears fall off within the first minute ? is my nose going to freeze ?

If you are going to spend anything more than 5 minutes outside, you really need:

Most important, if you don't have any of this (but have enough to survive a few minutes outside !), do not buy anything at home. You will find all you need in most shops for a 10th of what you will pay anywhere in Europe, and most likely only use it there. As far as shoes go, anything above a european 44 (UK 9ish) is difficult to find.

Some tips on prices

While you don't bargain in state-run shops, I'd strongly advise to do so in free markets. Language is not a problem, facial expressions, pointing, etc.. will work fine, most shopkeepers also have a calculator on which they type their price or invite you to type your offer. Although all travel guides will mention the possibility of bargaining, most I've read largely underestimate the amount by which you can hope to reduce items.

While this is not always true, some items can be obtained for hardly more than 1/10th of the original price (whether written or told). As an example, a friend of mine negociated a 196 yuens stone down to 30 yuens, and I got a tea pot from 1000 to 135 yuens. Most travel guides put the bottom line at 1/3 or 1/2.

It can be difficult however to know whether you are really going too low or not. An easy way to find out is to stop bargaining and walk away, if the shopkeeper retains you, he/she will surely accept your offer, and you will walk away with your purchase, wondering if you still haven't paid too much. If he doesn't, you have underestimated and can try in a different shop setting the limit a little higher.

Most hotels now have two prices, one for chinese citizens and one for locals. The practice extends to museum, etc.. and is encouraged by the governement. In the low season or with the help of a local, you may get the normal prices.

In Beijing particularly, all shops tried to overcharge badly. If you don't know that you should pay your lunch 1 yuen, how can you guess that you get ripped off when you are asked for a mere 25 p (4 yuens) ? In a food shop, someone tried to charge me 8 yuens for a single little thing ! 8 yuens is the cost of a DVD over there.

To get ideas about the prices, you can always observe but you can also try to ask someone. While most chinese won't spontaneously talk to you (unless they want to attract you in a shop), they generally are pleased to help.

Scams:

There are few western tourists in Harbin (you will attract attention !), therefore you will not encounter the numerous traps there are in the more 'tourist-aware' Beijing. However, bear in mind that most shopkeepers will propose largely inflated prices just because 'you have lots of money'.

In Beijing, the only 'scam' (not really one anyway and certainly not threatening, though irritating at the 10th repeat) that I had to endure was the 'art students' who try to drag you in chinese painting shops (supposedly their teacher's studio).
Most are very good at it ! Speaking near fluent english, they will come with the same background story backed up with their own idiosyncractic details that obviously required homework ! A 2 to 5 minutes chat will slowly get to the point where they invite you to visit the studio of their teacher, which of course, turns out to be just another chinese painting shop. My understanding is that they get a commission just for getting you there, regardless of whether you buy anything or not. I couldn't get them to confess though !

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