Being famous for having one of the most bitter winters in China and most likely the world does not sound like a good way to market a city. However, it works for Harbin. That's because for the residents of the capital of China's Heilongjiang Province it means a chance to stage a spectacular winter festival.
The annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival whose origins can be traced to a simple garden show started by city residents in 1963 is today world renowned for its fabulous snow and ice structures. The official opening is not until the first week of January. However, work begins in earnest in late December when sculptors and artists from all over the world descend upon the region. Using ice pickers, lasers, and chisels, they carve out large chunks of ice from the nearby frozen Songhua River and haul them to the festival grounds. Though the carvings are mostly inspired by Chinese fairy tales and myths, they do have an international influence as well.
The 2016 festival that opened its icy doors to visitors on January 5 has four theme parks. The most popular is the Harbin Ice and Snow World. Encompassing an impressive 750,000 square meters, it features a number of colorful, illuminated structures as well as massive snow sculptures, all made entirely from over 300,000 cubic meters of snow and ice or snice!
This year's highlights include a huge ice castle, an enormous ice pyramid inspired by Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza and an impressive looking set of buildings featuring the onion domes that dot the skyline of neighboring Russia. Like always, icy slides carved alongside the stairways provide kids and adults a fun option to descend the tall buildings. Though the park is open all day, the best time to visit is at night when it transforms into a colorful winter wonderland thanks to the thousands of bright LED lights fitted inside the sculptures.
Also fascinating is the Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair. Though not as grandiose as the Harbin Snow and Ice World, it has equally impressive icy recreations of iconic buildings, world-famous figures as well as interpretations of ancient legends. At night, they are lit up with colored lights to create a magical effect.
The Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair that is touted as the birthplace of massive snow sculptures is open only during the day. Though the exhibits do not light up, they are pretty spectacular.
Those seeking something a little different can head over to the Ice and Snow Happy Valley. Situated on the frozen Songhua River, it offers visitors the option of 50 fun activities including snowmobiling, skating, snow cycling, sliding and dog sledding.
With all these fun options to choose from, it is not surprising to hear that over a million visitors are expected to visit the festival before it closes at the end of February. Not bad for a place that is nicknamed 'Ice City' a tribute to its bone-chilling January temperatures that can dip as low as -13°F (-25°C).
Resources: theatlantic.com,cnn.com,chinahighlights.com,harbinice.com, cnn.com