Snow and ice sculpture in Harbin dates back to Manchu times, but the first organized show was held in 1963, and the annual festival itself only started in 1985. Since then, the festival has grown into a massive event, bringing in over a million tourists from all over the world every winter. Harbin is well known for its beautiful ice and snow sculptures in winter and its Russian legacy and still plays an important part in Sino-Russian trade today.
Most of the sculptures appearing at the snow festival are competitive entries. Each team starts with a cube of packed snow that appears to measure about three meters on a side, and then starts carving away. Teams come in from all over the world - Russia, Japan, Canada, France, even South Africa.
The Sun Begins to Set Behind the Magnificent Entryway Sculpture
The Snow Festival is Actually Separate From the Ice Festival Both at the Sun Island Park North of Harbin's River, Songhua Jiang
A Canadian Team Sculpted a Native American Sitting in the Frozen Northeast of China
Even the sunsets in Harbin look cold. Though only mid-afternoon, the sun was setting over the snow festival and the temperature was falling even further below freezing. But the coming darkness was actually good news, because it meant that the ice festival was about to begin.
The ice festival, a few miles away from the snow festival, is anything but dull and colorless. Crowds flocking to the entrance are greeted by dance music booming in the distance, as if at an outdoor pop concert. And bright neon colors shine everywhere, buried within huge blocks of ice forming structures as high as thirty meters, such as this huge structure beyond the entryway.
The Great Sphinx of Giza
It's like a Disney theme park, with multiple attractions and food hawkers and kids running around and people lined up for bathrooms. The only difference is the extreme cold weather, and all the structures are made out of ice. One of the popular activities at the festival is climbing a wall of solid ice.
All the ice comes from Songhua Jiang, the nearby river, which provides a limitless supply; huge chainsaws are required to cut through the ice, which can be meters thick. The snow festival is mostly a display of art; the ice festival is mostly a display of architecture.
Nevertheless, a number of sculptures can be found at the ice festival. An entire ship constructed of ice, with passengers onboard. Though it might not be seaworthy, the ship would certainly float - after all, it's made of ice Hundreds of years ago during the Manchu days of ice lantern art, the sculptures were lit only by candles.
A Thai temple of ice, complete with hallways and rooms inside. Long ago, Disney made a Circle-Vision 360 film called "Wonders of China" - still showing at the China pavilion in the World Showcase at EPCOT - which includes a brief section on Harbin's ice festival. In the movie, the sculptures are quite low-key, little more than blinking light bulbs inside small globes and ice carvings.
A view from atop that structure, looking back on a Russian-styled building and a mock Great Wall, both constructed out of ice. Making it to the top of this structure is an accomplishment in itself - imagine walking up a stairway of solid ice for two floors with no handrails, with no internal support structure - just lights.
Harbin is situated south of the river, so it's a chilly ride over to the sites. It seems even chillier when crossing the bridge over the very wide and very frozen Songhua Jiang. The temperature in Harbin reaches forty below zero, both Fahrenheit and centigrade, and stays below freezing nearly half the year. The city is actually further north than notoriously cold Vladivostok, Russia, just 300 miles away. So what does one do here every winter?
Hold an outdoor festival, of course! Rather than suffer the cold, the residents of Harbin celebrate it, so join them in their annual festival of snow and ice sculptures and competitions.