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Harbin, China, known as the “Ice City”, lives up to its nickname every January with the biggest display of ice and snow sculptures in the world. Writer Darren Skelton explains how the show comes together.
Text by: Darren Skelton
Country: China

hen life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

When nature gives Harbin, China, long, cold winters, it makes sculptures out of the ice and snow.

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is an annual winter festival and is the largest ice and snow festival in the world.

Located in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, Harbin is the northernmost major city in China; the average daily temperature is minus 19.7 °C (minus 3.5 °F) in winter. Annual low temperatures below minus 35.0 °C (minus 31.0 °F) are not uncommon.

The festival has been running since 1963, something that the locals in Harbin are extremely proud of. It was interrupted for several years during the Cultural Revolution, however.

Officially, the festival starts on January 5th every year and lasts one month. However, exhibits often open earlier and stay open much longer, weather permitting (regularly to the end of February, sometimes into early March!). One can usually sneak a peek for free before official opening day and after it closes too (one must be careful though, as the sites are closed for good reason–it is getting warmer and the structures are unstable).

I took my daughter on opening day, which is also her birthday. We had a great day out at the opening ceremony, watching fireworks, sliding on ice, sliding down ice slides on inner tubes, drinking warming hot chocolate and eating frozen fruit sticks, admiring and photographing the numerous magical and wonderful ice and snow sculptures.

Ticket prices are now running at an eye-watering 360 rmb (approximately 60 US dollars), though for the main festival site 10 years ago one could enter for only 60 rmb (approximately 6 US dollars).

Sculptors at work

I’d argue that observing the workers who build and form these awesome displays is far more interesting than observing the finished product.

Swing saws are used to carve ice from the frozen surface of the Songhua River into blocks. Chisels, ice picks and various saws are then used by ice sculptors to carve out large ice sculptures, many of them intricately designed and worked on all day and night prior to the commencement of the festival.

I spoke to a worker at the site who was putting some finishing touches to a creation he had painstakingly created, and he said that “it’s a great job to have; it is very rewarding for me to be making such sculptures for others to enjoy”

Ice blocks can be as transparent as glass to make clear sculptures rather than translucent ones. In addition, multi-coloured lights are also used to give colour to the ice, creating variations on sculptured spectacles when lit up at night, the best time for viewing.

Sculptures include buildings and monuments of different architectural types and styles; figures including animals, people and mythical creatures; slippery dips or ice slides and lanterns. It is these exquisitely detailed, mass-produced ice sculptures that are now attracting tourists around the world to the festival. I spoke to a visiting Canadian I saw at the site, and he expressed his views on what he had seen with a flurry of adjectives: “Amazing – Astonishing – Awesome”.

The Festival of Ice & Snow

At first, participants and spectators in the festival were mainly Chinese citizens. However, it has since grown in size and exposure to become an international festival and competition, with visitors and competitors from all over the world attending. The festival displays some of the world’s biggest ice sculptures.

Whilst ice sculptures are erected throughout the city — along normal streets, pedestrian -only avenues, and in public squares and parks — there are two main exhibition areas.

The first is known as ‘Sun Island’, which features an amazing display primarily focusing on enormous snow sculptures. One of the best aspects of this site is that you can walk across the completely frozen Songhua River to get there. A great way to start the day – albeit a little cold as the wind chill factor out on the open ice is considerable.

My wife and I thought the most incredible sculptures were both the astronaut-inspired sculptures and the dragon-inspired sculptures. It is very difficult indeed to choose an absolute favourite as they are all very, very impressive.

A visitor from the south of China said: “It is way more spectacular than I had imagined–it is really wonderful! My hands, though, are incredibly cold from the constant taking of photos.”

The second major location is the ‘Ice and Snow World’, which is an area open only in the evening, and features illuminated full-size buildings made from blocks of ice two to three feet thick taken directly from the Songhua River. This site primarily focuses on ice sculptures that are both large and small, bold and intricate. In 2007, the festival featured a Canadian- themed sculpture, in memory of a Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune. It was awarded a Guinness Record for the world’s largest snow sculpture: 250 metres long, 8.5 metres high, and using over 13,000 cubic metres of snow.

During the winter, there is a third, lesser-known location, which is the ‘Ice-lantern exhibition’ in Zhaolin Gardens. Located in the heart of the city, in my opinion, it is the best of the three sites to visit. It contains both snow sculptures and ice sculptures, it is cheaper, and it is more entertaining. You can go in the late afternoon to enjoy both daytime viewing and the evening night lanterns and luminous ice structures.

Close to Zhaolin Gardens is a pedestrian-only avenue called ‘Walking Street’. During the winter it is lined with endless snow and ice sculptures for travellers to photograph and enjoy for free. Additionally, the street is packed with good coffee shops, small bars, and places to eat, so as one gets colder and colder, one can jump inside to warm up and recharge!

I look forward to the ice festival every winter! Even in the coldest of temperatures, I feel a warm, harmonious glow inside as I enjoy the spectacle of ice and snow. I strongly suggest people include this as a place to visit and experience. I have had both friends and family visit – and everyone loves it! One day, perhaps, I’ll see you out here and see your cold, red, but happy face at the ice festival!

Festival Info

There are other large ice and snow festivals around the world including Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival, Canada’s Quebec City Winter Carnival, and Norway’s Holmenkollen Ski Festival.

The sculptures and creations inside and outside the exhibition grounds require an astonishing 15,000 workers toiling for 15 to 20 days.

In early December, ice workers cut 120,000 cubic metres (4.2 million cubic feet) of ice blocks from Songhua River’s frozen surface as raw material. These are then subsequently turned into massive ice buildings, large-scale snow sculptures, ice slides, festival food stands and ice igloo coffee shops and small eateries.


Icy Delights

Harbin is the northernmost major city in China, located in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. With average daily temperatures of minus 19.7 °C in winter, it is also one of the coldest. But these cold winters make it home to the largest ice and snow festival in the world: The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival.

The locals are very proud of their festival, which started in 1963 and was only interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. It starts every year on January 5th and lasts one month. However, some exhibits open earlier and some stay open longer than one month.

One of the most interesting parts of the festival is watching the workers build and form the awesome ice displays. They use various tools, such as chisels, ice picks and different types of saws to carve out large ice sculptures from blocks of ice from the Songhua River. Sculptures include buildings and monuments of different architectural types and styles; figures including animals, people and mythical creatures; slippery dips or ice slides and lanterns.

At first, participants and spectators of the festival were mainly Chinese citizens. However, it has grown in size and exposure and is now an international festival and competition, welcoming visitors and competitors from all over the world.



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Icy Delights



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