The Mole Diaries: Harbin
Katie is a student studying Natural Sciences, majoring in Chemistry, at the University of Cambridge. She is currently doing a year abroad studying Chinese at the Harbin Institute of Technology through the British Council Generation UK-China scholarship programme where she is blogging about her experiences. Here is her insider guide to living in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province.
Harbin is the capital of HeiLongJiang province, in the snowy North-East of China. It is particularly famous for it's annual Ice Festival, Russian architecture, and cold winters. While many students chose to go to the expat hubs of Beijing and Shanghai, Harbin is a great place to study Chinese due to it's more neutral Chinese accent and fewer numbers of English speakers, not to mention the lower costs of studying in a lesser known city.
1. Top Tips
1. Keep your 学生证 (student passport) with you wherever you go
You can get half price admission to all the main cultural/ historical sites (e.g. museums, the ice festival, botanical gardens, etc.)
2. Make lots of Chinese friends
Although international students will probably be staying in a separate dorm to the local students, you can still meet them through events organised by the university – e.g. language exchange coffee corners. Also, Chinese people tend to be really friendly and helpful – I met several Chinese friends just from looking really lost on the first day, as they realised I needed help finding the dorm and showed me the way. Chinese friends are so useful for practising the language, finding out about the local area, learning about Chinese culture, and calling for help when you need a translator.
3. Get to know a Chinese family
Some universities will have connections with local families looking (usually) for English tutors, or ask the other students in your dorm. Although on the student visa you are not usually permitted to have a paid job, a language exchange type arrangement with a local family is very common and definitely recommended. My Chinese family basically adopted me here and have been so lovely!
4. Don't skip class
Your attendance on courses is quite a significant part of your grade, and arriving late also counts against you. At HIT, if we attended less than 2/3 of the classes we couldn't sit the exams and less than ½ could get us deported (this actually happened to several students) – so take your classes seriously! There were also very frequent exams, so if you want/ need good grades definitely keep on top of the work.
5. When you get here, set up a Chinese bank account
It is so much cheaper than using your UK debit card all the time, and can also be linked up with WeChat to do easy money transfers via your phone.
6. Don't carry your passport around with you
If you apply for a visa extension or residence permit while you're in China, make sure to ask for a paper receipt with all your passport details on. This allows you to travel in China (e.g. trains and buses) without your original passport.
2. Before you arrive
1. Set up a VPN
This enables you to bypass China's firewall in order to access Google, Facebook, Youtube, Gmail, etc. You don't realise how much of westerners' lives rely on Google until you get here! Before you pay up, check if your UK university has a free VPN service you can use. Make sure you download all the required software and get the VPN connection set up BEFORE arriving in China, since the required websites tend to be blocked here. A VPN service many students here use is Express VPN.
2. Unlock your phone
Get your mobile phone unlocked before you leave the UK, then buy a local SIM card here – roaming charges in China will be absolutely crazy on your UK SIM card.
3. Learn some key Chinese phrases
Simple things like saying 'thank you' and 'I'm lost, where is...' will get you a long way!
4. Sort out your visa
If you're a student you'll need either the X2 visa (for studies less than 180 days) or the X1 visa (for longer studies – note, the X1 visa must be turned into a residence permit within 30 days of arriving). Visas can be arranged very easily in the UK using the China Visa Centre. If this is not possible (e.g. if you're travelling for beforehand and don't have time in the UK), go to Hong Kong en route to China – within a week you can get the visa sorted there. Your university should provide you will the required paperwork and guide you through the process.
3. Finding Accommodation
1. Flat-hunt in person
If you're studying at a university, in all likelihood they'll organise accommodation in the student dormitory for you. However, if room-mates and unreliable electricity isn't really your thing or you need to organise something yourself, my best advice would be to arrive early, check into a hostel, then ask your university or employer to recommend a few places for you to look around.
2. Bring an interpreter
Accommodation in China is rarely advertised online, at least not if you don't speak much Chinese, but there is plenty available if you have the right contacts. However, quality really can vary and you'll need to find out all the details regarding utility bills, internet, etc. so definitely check out the place in person before signing anything. Be wary of any ambiguously worded contracts – it's probably just a translation error, but there have been cases of English 'translations' not including important details from the Chinese original. If possible, try and bring along someone to check the translation.
3. Check in at the local police station
Remember that you MUST check into the local police station within 24 hours of arriving at your hostel (the hostel staff should do this for you) AND again once settled down in your new permanent residence. If you are staying in university dorms, don't worry – the dorm staff should register you (essentially, if they ask to borrow your passport for a few hours when you first arrive this is what they're doing). If you need to register in person at the police station, get your university/ employer to guide you through this process as there are variations between cities.
4. What to Pack
1. Warm clothes
Temperatures drop below -30 degrees in winter! Don't worry if you don't have any though – there are plenty of street stalls selling them and you can buy super warm down jackets in all the malls.
English-themed gifts – this is a great way to get to know your new international or Chinese friends, by sharing gifts from your own country. An easy option is simply postcards – remember to add your name and contact details on the back so they can keep in touch!
2. Passport sized photos
Literally everything here seems to require a passport sized photo, e.g. the university dormitory card, university dorm register, university registration form (for each semester/ course), residence permit application/ visa extension form, etc. Bring at least 5 more than your university/ employer originally recommended.
3. One for the women: tampons
They're really hard to get hold of in China.
5. What NOT to Pack
1. Brand new thermals or down jackets
You can buy them here really cheap!
2. Medical test certificate
There is conflicting information on this online, but it is NOT required for the original X1/2 visa. For the residence permit (which you can only apply for once you're in China) they only accept medical tests which meet certain criteria and the easiest/ cheapest option is to get that test done here.
Most universities here seem to provide this for you, and if not it's really cheap from the local supermarket. Don't waste your baggage allowance!
Your university can sell you these at really good prices, and the classes here tend to really closely follow the recommended textbook so other textbooks/ older editions are no good
6. Useful Websites/ Apps
1. WeChat (app)
The Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp/ Facebook with loads of extra features (check out local film screenings, transfer money, top up your mobile credit...). Literally everyone in China uses WeChat, so it's a must-have.
2. Pleco (app)
Great offline dictionary for iPhone/ Android with options for pinyin input or drawing in characters.
3. 饿了么 Eleme (app)
Really great app for ordering takeout when you can't brave the cold to go to the canteen!
4. Baidu (website)
Baidu is essentially China's equivalent of Google, including a search engine function, maps and online shopping. Be aware that it's pretty much entirely in Chinese.
5. Skype (website/app)
Essential for those calls home. Also buy some Skype credit so when you inevitably get locked out your UK bank account you can call them up to get it sorted!
7. Unmissable Places and Events
1. Harbin International Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界)
This happens every year in January, with the main sites on Sun Island and Zhaolin Park. It's an internationally famous festival, with huge sculptures and entire palaces made of ice – definitely essential to visit if you're in Harbin over the winter.
2. Skiing and snowboarding
Once it hits November, the ski slopes start opening. Don't expect anything like the resorts you find in Europe, most sites consist of only a couple of slopes, but you can get a day trip for under 200 yuan (£20) all inclusive of transport, food, ski hire, lift passes, etc. - this can be organised through the Harbin International Student's Club (if you want pick-up from your university), one of the tour groups advertising in Central Street (a bit cheaper but requires travelling to Central Street in the early hours of the morning), or do it yourself by booking a train direct to the ski slope. Popular ski slopes to visit include Yabuli 亚布力 (the largest, but also most expensive/ busy and a longer journey away) or MaoErShan (small, but cheap, really close to Harbin and great for beginners).
3. Central Street (中央大街)
This is the main shopping street, with some great restaurants, clothes shops, Russian shops, Walmart, as well as the famous St. Sophia's Cathedral and Flood Monument. In the winter, visit it one evening to see the pretty lights and ice sculptures.
4. Unit 731 museum (侵华日军地731部队遗址)
A fascinating, if rather grim, museum covering the Japanese occupation of the area during the second world war. It closes pretty early (last entry: 15:00) so I'd recommend going in the morning to see it all.
5. Sun Island (太阳岛)
During the summer months this can be really pretty, if you look past the tourist-y theme park attractions and hawkers. It's really easy to get to by bus or cable car.
Siberian Tiger Park (老虎公园) – a large park home to many tigers, although the conditions they are kept in isn't great so if you're an animal lover give it a miss. For an extra fee, you can ride a bus around the park and feed the tigers.
6. Non-English bars and clubs
The expats often frequent Myst, Russian Size and the nearby clubs, but check out Coco and Cosmo to diversify a bit. Scout around the area near your campus to see if you can find some local Chinese bars – e.g. from HIT if you exit the west gate and keep walking until you're just across the railway lines you hit 'bar street' which is full of both expat and local hangouts.
8. Extra Courses
1. HSK classes
So far, the best I've found are offered by the Harbin International Student's Club, find them on WeChat and arrange a free trial class. The HSK exam is the most widely recognised exam for Chinese language, with HSK 4/5 considered to be roughly equivalent to CELF B2. Universities and colleges also run HSK preparation classes, so ask around.
2. Chinese culture classes
If you're attending a university, chances are they'll offer culture classes for foreign students, e.g. on traditional Chinese martial arts. These are a great way to meet new people and find out about traditional Chinese culture.
3. Modules from other subjects
Depending on the agreement you or your university has with the Chinese university, you may be able (or required) to take modules from other subjects. In my case, I picked several Chemistry modules in order to keep up my UK major subject while focusing on Chinese during my year abroad. Bear in mind that exchange students are probably at the bottom of the pile when it comes to priorities in picking modules, so your desired subjects may already be full, and the subject choice is subject to change until enrolment day (so even if certain modules are listed online, there's no guarantee they will be actually available). If you wish to study in English DON'T pick modules listed as 'bilingual' since the main language of instruction will probably still be Chinese (with some English translations of key words provided to teach the Chinese students new vocabulary).
9. Get around town
Buses are the way to go! The Chinese bus system may seem very confusing and crowded, but it's super cheap – just 1 yuan (approx. 10p) per journey! The timetables are a little confusing to read at first – but once you figure out that you need to read the characters from top to bottom not left to right you'll get the hang of it!
The metro currently consists of only one line and only travels to a limited number of places – although very quick and easy if you want to pop to Central Street or Wanda Plaza. It's a little more expensive than the buses, but a lot less busy.
Taxis in China are very cheap compared to the UK, with the fare starting at just 8 yuan (approx. 80p). However, make sure you get in an official, registered taxi not a 'black cab' and check the meter is on, otherwise you could get ripped off. You should also be aware that Chinese taxi drivers seem to have a terrible sense of direction (seriously, how can they not know where Central Street is???) and might drive around in circles for half an hour with no explanation. If you're in a rush, load Baidu Maps up on your phone and ask the driver to follow it's directions.
There are also great transport links via train/ bus to other cities e.g. Beijing. If you are travelling between cities make sure you have your passport on you.
10. Language Learning
Chinese is NOT as hard as everyone makes it out to be – in fact, in terms of grammar and vocabulary it could be considered simpler than most European languages for a beginner (no verb endings, irregular verbs, gendered nouns, adjective agreements, etc.). The main challenges are the characters (practice makes perfect) and tones (definitely try and get the hang of these ASAP – if you get the wrong tone the meaning of the word completely changes).
If you're just studying Chinese for a year or so, it's probably best to focus on spoken Chinese rather than getting bogged down with characters. Spoken and written forms of Chinese are very different and, unless you're planning to study a degree/ masters in Chinese, spoken Chinese will be the most useful in your travels and work.
Some good resources:
Great for vocab learning, with a really fun layout and competitive element.
Spaced repetition flashcard software, perfect for testing yourself on characters.
A really good app for practising writing characters, although requires a monthly subscription.
Lots of listening and speaking lessons, with free or paid options.
5. The Chairman's Bao
Website with Chinese news/ entertainment articles sorted by ability level)