The temperature in Harbin reaches forty below zero, both Fahrenheit and Celsius, and stays below freezing nearly half the year.  This Chinese 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, with an annual festival of snow and ice sculptures and competitions.  The festival officially runs from January 5 through February 15, but often opens a week early and runs into March, since it’s usually still cold enough.  This is the amazing sculpture made of snow greeting visitors to the snow festival in 2003.

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.  The sculptures have become more elaborate and artistic over time; this bear and cub are just one small part of a fifty-meter-wide mural sculpture.

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.  Part of the fun is guessing the nationality of the team, based on their sculpture’s artistic style, before reading the signs.  I believe this was a Russian entry.

The sun begins to set behind the magnificent entryway sculpture.  The snow festival is actually separate from the ice festival; both take place on the wide open spaces of Sun Island north of Harbin’s river, Songhua Jiang.  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.

I was surprised to discover this sculpture of a Native American sitting in the frozen northeast of China; sure enough, I read on the sign that a Canadian team sculpted this entry.  Chinese teams had many sculptures at the festival as well, off in another section, but a vast majority didn’t measure up to these amazing works.

Too cold and tired to walk around Sun Island Park to view the snow festival sculptures?  No problem; these folks are just waiting to show you around.  It’s difficult to imagine sitting outside for hours in this temperature, but these guys do it.  The dogs seemed to take it all in stride; some were lounging about and napping on the ice.

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.  You can just make out people standing atop its blue and red stairway.

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.  The yellow block wall on the right and the balconywork on the lower left are all ice, with no internal support structure - just lights.

The Great Wall doubles as a long ice slide; just sit and go.  You can pick up some serious speed and wipe out spectacularly at the bottom if you’re wearing a slick coat, but you won’t go anywhere if you’re wearing corduroy pants.

An overview of the ice festival from atop the Great Wall of ice.  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 differences are that the temperature is about a hundred degrees colder than the typical Disney park, and all the structures are made out of ice rather than plastic - and slipping and falling here doesn’t result in tremendous lawsuits.

One of the popular activities at the festival is climbing a wall of solid ice.  Amazingly, I didn’t see a single person fall, and most everyone made it to the top.  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, such as this life-sized horse.  Notice the layers of ice in the horse; blocks of ice are fused together to form larger blocks so that sculptures - or huge buildings - can be made.

Agile youngsters with good balance can climb atop the horses to have their pictures taken.  This horse appears to be taking a break from all that.  Notice the see-through horse right behind this one, also grazing.

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.

With all this ice around, it was inevitable that someone would try this.  No, her tongue did not get stuck - it would have taken licking a frozen metal pole to do that - but goodness knows how many people tried this same thing on this same spot of ice before she did; and Songhua Jiang river ice is not exactly clean.

A bridge of ice, spanning ice, leading to more icy ground.  Atop the bridge columns are dozens of intricately carved fu dogs, just like those that would appear on old traditional bridges in China.

A Thai temple of ice...

...complete with hallways and rooms inside. 

Outside the main entrance to the ice festival, called “The Fourth Annual Harbin Ice and Snow World.”  Long ago, Disney made a CircleVision 360 film called “Wonders of China” - still showing at the China pavillion 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.  Things have changed a bit since those days.

Note: These photographs were taken in 2003.  Many, many more photographs from more recent Harbin winter festival events can be found on this site.  The six-page collection from my visit in 2005 starts here, the four-page collection from my visit in 2007 starts here, and the four-page collection from my visit in 2009 starts here.

My Harbin winter festival photographs through 2007 have been published as a book entitled “Hot Ice and Wondrous Strange Snow: The Winter Festivals of Harbin, China”.  The book, available through Blurb.com, can be previewed and purchased below.