In frozen Harbin, China, a festival of ice


McClatchy Foreign Staff

For 30 years, Harbin in the far northeastern corner of China has hosted an increasingly famous winter extravaganza – the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Each November, workers start hauling massive blocks of ice out of the frozen Songhua River. Using cranes, chainsaws, picks, lasers and LED lights, they use these blocks to construct a colorful fantasy land that becomes more astonishing each year.

An estimated 1 million people visit the festival each winter, but all those bodies do little to warm up Harbin. The average winter temperature in Harbin is less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and can drop as low as minus 31 degrees F.

The buildings and figurines at the lit-up Ice and Snow World change each winter depending on the artists’ whims. This year’s display includes pagodas, bridges and the Roman Colosseum.

The tallest structure at this year’s festival is a replica of Iceland’s Hallgrimskirkja Church. Many of the structures have sponsors, hence the logo for government-controlled ICBC, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the largest bank in the world based on assets and market valuation, on the church.

Some 10,000 workers were involved in extracting, hauling, assembling and carving the ice and snow this year, according to festival organizers. But aside from the muscle power required to haul 590,000 square feet of ice, the sculptures require a delicate touch, as seen on an ice statue that commemorates the Year of the Horse.

Not far from the Ice and Snow World are the snow sculptures at Harbin’s Sun Island Park, where visitors can gawk at massive figurines that in daytime are slightly less frosty than at night.

About 492,000 square feet of snow is needed to make all the snow sculptures in Harbin. In recent years, festival organizers have had to manufacture the fluffy stuff to deal with uneven and decreasing snowfalls, which some attribute to global climate change. For a low-carbon mode of transportation, the festival offers dog sled rides.

To entertain tourists, the winter swim club in Harbin carves a pool out of the frozen ice of the Songhua River, and members of the club jump in to demonstrate the health benefits of swimming in near-freezing water. First, some swimmers pose for photographers. Tourists are invited to join in this therapeutic exercise, but on this particular day, there were no takers.

Harbin’s attractions aren’t limited to ice sculptures and daredevil swimmers. The city is known worldwide for its Russian architecture, the product of Russian control of the area during construction of the Trans-Manchurian Railroad to Vladivostok. Many of these buildings – particularly the Russian Orthodox churches – were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. But several remain, most notably the Church of St. Sophia, preserved as a museum space in the heart of the city.

Harbin, a city of roughly 6 million, is fairly easy to reach by air and a cold blast to explore in winter, enjoyed best with the right clothing and, most importantly, the warmest winter boots. The festival starts each year on Jan. 5 and ends when the sculptures melt.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Thailand's junta adopts interim constitution

    Thailand adopted a temporary constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the slow return of electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the ruling junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office.

  • German court: chronically ill could grow marijuana

    Some Germans may soon be able to grow their own marijuana to relieve chronic pain after a ruling from a court in Cologne.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Kerry has returned to the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to bolster regional efforts to reach a ceasefire and sharpens its criticism of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

    Egypt calls for Israeli, Palestinian peace talks

    The U.S. and Egypt sought Tuesday to find an end to two weeks of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, and officials raised the possibility of restarting stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities as a necessary step to avoid sustained violence.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category