On Christmas Eve, I went to a party in Hong Kong hosted by Swedes. As we sat sweating in their garden eating gravlax quickly, before it cooked in the heat, we joked about it being Swedish Midsummer Night and not Christmas, which, if not always snowy, in Norway and Sweden is always miserable.
When I left Norway, in 1988, I called myself a climatic refugee and I was only half joking. Eight months of winter with a cold, persistent, grey darkness - even during the few daylight hours - cast me into a deep depression. And yet now, when the calendar clearly said December but it was 28 degrees Celsius, I felt a need to be in some kind of cold. Not to be cold, by any means, just to not be sweating, and maybe be in need of sleeves.
So what could be more natural than to get on the train on Boxing Day and leg it up to the foothills of the Himalayas? I knew, of course, that China cold is a special kind of cold. My first winter in Beijing was spent in a dormitory that had hot water only between 6.30am and 7.30am, the temperature outside was minus 15 degrees and the bathroom windows were cracked or missing. Bracing! Especially when the hot water was abruptly turned off mid-shower.
China's cold comes in through your feet and goes straight into your bones. There is no respite - not only do many buildings have nothing in the way of insulation or proper windows, not even in the brutal north; most of them don't even have walls or doors.
During our trip through the Himalayan heartlands, my constant cry at dinnertime was: "Let's find a restaurant with all its walls!" But there weren't any. On street level they all had three walls and the rest was open to the elements. The only source of heating was a cup of hot water. It was one of the few trips on which I haven't wanted beer.
In Shangri-La (a county-level city in Yunnan province that used to be called Zhongdian), where it was so cold at night we couldn't even stand still on the ground, we eventually found a second-floor place, seemingly with doors and walls. The staff were burning charcoal (a suicide method in Hong Kong) in the middle of the room, coughing but not dying, because the walls were too flimsy to keep the fumes in. Our breath rose like cartoon speech bubbles inside the cavernous, strangely deserted restaurant while the staff hawked and spat.
So that's why I don't want to go to Harbin, where the temperature drops to minus 30 degrees - not because I have no sense of adventure, as my "friend" F outrageously suggested.