Emergency workers are on standby, flights have been cancelled and highways closed as China braces itself for blizzards in its worst cold snap in decades this weekend.
Temperatures are forecast to drop by up to 14 deg C today, hitting 25- to-30-year lows in many areas as China enters "da han", or the "great cold" solar term, traditionally the coldest period of the year.
It will be below freezing point in more than 90 per cent of the country, while snowfall as deep as 20cm to 25cm is expected in some areas, according to Chinese media reports. Weather officials say the last time the country experienced a similar cold snap was in 1991.
Schoolchildren have been allowed to skip classes and many schools have been told to start their winter holidays early.
China has already issued a yellow alert, the third level in a four-tier system, for severe weather. Beijing could see temperatures plunge to -17 deg C today, while regions further north are expected to experience -40 deg C. News reports showed pictures of hot water turning into ice the instant it is tossed into the air in Harbin, the capital of northern Heilongjiang.
Inner Mongolia native Miao Jingchun, 53, told The Straits Times this is the worst cold he has experienced in 20 years. "All the cars outside are frozen and unable to start."
Snow forced Nanchang's airport in eastern Jiangxi to close yesterday morning, while at least 35 flights were cancelled at Hangzhou's airport in coastal Zhejiang. which has prepared 1,000 hotel rooms for passengers who may be stranded. Highways in at least 12 provinces and municipalities were also shut yesterday.
The cold front is affecting even southern China, which is typically spared from extreme temperatures. Hainan Meteorological Observatory forecast temperatures across the island - China's southernmost province - to drop by up to 13 deg C.
The extreme weather has jogged memories of a 2008 blizzard, which killed 129 people and caused 150 billion yuan (S$32.6 billion) worth of damage. But forecasters say a repeat is unlikely as the predicted cold spell is likely to be shorter this time.
Still, businesses are hoping for a swift end to the big freeze. Farmers are expecting crops to be wiped out, while contractors like Mr Li Jiafeng told The Straits Times that projects are on hold.
"My projects are being delayed at least two weeks," said Mr Li, 44, who runs his business in Changchun in northern Jilin. "It's so cold, the cement is frozen."