At the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, you’ll get into a habit of dropping your jaw—that is until your teeth start chattering. Set in Harbin’s coldest months, this festival features breathtaking temporary works of art, all created with ice from the Songhua River. Between the four primary parks and amusement zones, there are a few thousand pieces, not to mention all the ice architecture created throughout the city for the winter (it’s everywhere you look). The two month Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in January and February is a must-see for families and gives a whole new meaning to the name Winter Wonderland.
Breaking the Ice
The Ice Lantern Festival was the precursor to the current festival, which started in 1963 but was put on hold during the Cultural Revolution. A few hundred years ago, during the Qing Dynasty, local fishermen would hollow out pails of ice and put candles in them for light at night. Over time, lanterns went from being strictly functional to being an aesthetic fixture.
Today it’s a combination of art and science that creates the elaborate and ornate ice and snow spectacle. Deionized water is used on some pieces to produce ice as transparent as glass, and multicolored lights add multi-dimensional depth and beauty. Over the course of a hurried half-month, more than 15,000 people carve (by hand or laser) more than 4 million cubic feet of ice. From scaled-down versions of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall to simpler student-created pieces, the sheer volume of beauty is staggering.
City of Joy
This industrial city near the Siberian Russian border might be named after the Manchu phrase for “a place for drying fishing nets,” but there’s more to this city than the hundreds of 50-story apartment buildings that greet you on your way into town. Known as Ice City across China, Harbin holds delightful surprises in its city center. Here you’ll find a handful of Russian influences (in the 1920s a third of the population was Russian), monumental boulevards, and Beaux Art influenced architecture that has earned Harbin the name Paris of the Orient.
During the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, 800,000 visitors descend on the city, with 90% from China (this is one of the country’s top winter destinations). While there are amazing sculptures nearly everywhere you turn, there are a few amusement zones you shouldn’t miss including Ice & Snow World (opening night only), Zhaolin Park (nighttime experience in the city center) and the Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Sun Island (daytime only, so not as photogenic). The festival starts and ends on a loud note, with a huge fireworks display on the opening and the chance for visitors to smash the sculptures with ice picks when things close down in February.
If you’ve had your fill of ice sculpture, check out crazy swimmers as they take a dip in the frozen Songhua River, or the Siberian Tiger Park, home to the endangered Liger (lion/tiger). They say, “If you haven’t been to Central Avenue, you haven’t been to Harbin,” so take time to stroll this one-mile corridor, lined with 77 ornately designed buildings, half of which are historic landmarks.