Harbin, the largest city in the Heilongjiang Province in Northeast China, that boasts winter temperatures of -13°F (-25°C) may not appear to be the ideal vacation destination. But don’t tell that to the millions of visitors who brave the area’s frigid weather annually, to experience one of the world’s biggest and most unique snow and ice festivals.
Now in its 33rd year, the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival that will be open until February 28, began as a local ice lantern show in 1963. It was banned during China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and restarted in 1985 to try to attract tourists to the city in the winter. Today, the famous annual festival comprises three large attractions, spread across Harbin.
These include the Harbin Ice Lantern show. Staged at the Zhaolin Park where the original ice lantern festival was held in 1963, it features ancient ice lantern art and play structures. Then there is the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo. Reputed to be the birthplace of snow sculptures, it is home to massive, intricately carved, frozen masterpieces.
Though both are impressive, it is the Harbin Ice and Snow World, also known as Bingxue Large World, that is the biggest attraction. Covering over 750,000 square meters, the dreamlike park is filled with beautiful sculptures, towering castles, and life-sized buildings, all made using over 300,000 cubic meters of “snice,” a combination of ice and snow. Though open all day, the park is best viewed at night, when it transforms into a magical winter wonderland thanks to the thousands of colorful LED lights fitted inside each ice sculpture.
The sculptures, inspired by local folklore and landmarks, are different each year. Among this year’s highlights is a 340-metre (1,115-feet)-long slide that took about 500 builders to carve. Also stunning is a larger-than-life sculpture of Kuanyin, the Chinese god of mercy. Visitors will also be able to step inside a magical frozen castle fitted with a gorgeous ice chandelier.
Those seeking additional entertainment can enter beauty contests, try their hand at ice sculpting competitions for both amateurs and professionals, or even swim in the semi-frozen Songhua River. Traditional winter activities like snowboarding and ice-skating are also available.
With so many options to choose from and the opportunity to admire the craftsmanship of some of the world’s best ice sculptors, it is not surprising that so many people trek to Harbin, aka “Ice City,” every year.