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The big world of ice and snow

Ice castles like this are not hard to find in the "Big World".
Ice castles like this are not hard to find in the "Big World".

The glow in the night sky could be seen on the approach by road from about a mile away. Even though I had looked at pictures of prior Harbin ice festivals on the Internet, I was not adequately prepared for what I was about to experience, as my mind was momentarily confused when arriving at the entrance. For a brief instant it told me that what I was looking at couldn’t be part of the actual attraction, but rather an elaborate promotional marquee of some sort, comprised of real buildings, some being as high as four stories. The real attractions were behind this, right? Then upon closer examination, the reality set in as the eyes opened wider and the jaw dropped. Yes, it’s all ice. The one word I found myself repeating for the next 90 minutes was, “Wow”.

An overview of a small portion of a recent ice festival in Harbin, China
Bill Cain

In the far northern city of Harbin, China in the province of Manchuria, they don’t gripe about the winter. They celebrate it.….big time. Modest ice festivals here have a tradition going back hundreds of years, but in 1985 someone decided to start pushing the envelope, so to speak, and the modern era of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival began. Since then it has grown each year in size and complexity to where it has become world renowned and an international destination for those willing to brave the intense cold. The festival now has three separate venues for fans and other aficionados of frozen water – two devoted to ice, and one to snow.

Every year thousands of tons of ice are harvested from the Songhua River, which flows through Harbin. Heavy equipment and machinery employing hundreds of laborers is required to cut and transport the ice to the construction sites. Then elaborate scaffoldings and cranes, much like you’d find in a construction zone in the center of the city proper, are used to erect the incredible structures. The term “ice sculpture” is terribly inadequate when trying to describe what’s created here. “Architectural engineering in ice” more closely defines this concept, and the imagination and ingenuity behind these efforts is truly staggering.

In 2000 the ice portion of the festival outgrew the central city park in which it had originated. Now, what’s called The Big World of Ice & Snow, occupies an area equivalent to that of about four football fields across the river on the other side of town, and requires a drive from all the city’s hotels. It’s here where most of the major ice architecture now resides. But instead of abandoning the city park, festival organizers have retained this venue, now called the Lantern Festival, within convenient walking distance, along with a separate admission fee, where the smaller ice buildings and ice sculptures are housed. This is where the ice art gallery can be found – dozens of sculptures, including those created during an international competition, and depicting a variety of subjects from the familiar to the abstract.

Over in The Big World, scale replicas of world famous buildings have become the forte of the master ice craftsmen. Recently, the theme reflected a cooperative effort between China and South Korea, and many of the ice attractions featured replicas of Korean sites. One perennial favorite is China’s own Great Wall, on top of which is fashioned a long ice slide full of twists and curves just like the actual Great Wall. The line waiting to slide on the evening of my visit was easily a 15-minute long wait in zero degree temperature. Various other temples, cathedrals, palaces and pagodas topped with domes, parapets, spires and cupolas, as well as bridges, igloos and a hexagonal ice maze were some of the other entries.

All of this ice architecture in and of itself would be considered a major accomplishment for the artisans involved in its creation; and wondrous to behold by the light of day. But then there are the imbedded lights of every color and hue, whose intensity has been expertly calculated, and distribution perfectly balanced to add an additional sense of awe to the entire spectacle - rendering it exclusively for night time viewing. Comparisons to the neon of the Las Vegas strip beg to be made.

After spending several hours over two evenings taking in all this ice, I still had plenty of daylight time for the separate area dedicated to the snow. In a nicely maintained park reached by gondola cable cars across the river can be found more gigantic and elaborate structures and sculpture, including those from a snow sculpture competition. Because Harbin is known for its bitter cold - and not for large quantities of natural snow – all the objects in this part of the festival are composed of the man made variety, but still require the same transportation and preparation logistics as that of the ice.

Just as the Big World’s ice theme had been a collaborative effort with South Korea recently, the snow festival was similarly co-opted with Canada. In addition to the many Canadian-influenced subjects of study were various storybook characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Old Woman in the Shoe and the Three Little Pigs. The major snow attraction, though, turned out to be a 30 – 40 foot high scale model of Niagara Falls, complete with an accompanying snow version of the Maid of the Mist skiff.

If all this wasn’t enough, there are countless other individual ice carvings that are visible on sidewalks, street corners and smaller parks as one drives around the inner city, which individually would be considered attractions and accomplishments in most other municipalities. But in Harbin at this time of year, they’ve just part of the atmosphere and are, sadly, rather passé in relation to the entire festival.

No three month celebration would be complete without the performing arts and live entertainment, and Harbin’s festival is no exception. In addition to numerous winter-related activities and shows, perhaps the most unusual among them are the ice swimmers. Several areas along the edge of the Songhua River are kept from freezing over and are turned into near-Olympic size swimming pools. Each morning a collection of hardy souls don bathing suits, and frolic in the icy water for a rapt and incredulous audience, whose members, by contrast, are bundled for temperatures which can reach 40 below.

Harbin is a long way to go from most parts of the US for the purpose of attending an ice and snow festival. But if the cold isn’t a problem, and an extended itinerary through other parts of China, Mongolia or Siberia can be arranged, then start planning now for the next festival, which, if present trends continue, promises to be that much bigger and better than this year’s.

To plan and organize a custom winter trip to Harbin and this part of the world contact Sokol Tours.


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