In frozen Harbin, China, a festival of ice

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 18, 2014 

— 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.

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