The air is so cold it freezes your stinging tears to your face; the sun is so low it escapes to leave you in darkness by mid-afternoon; the trees are so gray, barren, and hard they could be concrete; the river ice is so thick it actually supports entire buildings.  How could I resist returning to such an enjoyable place?  Two years after my previous winter visit to Harbin, China’s northernmost (and easternmost) metropolis, I returned in January 2005 to see how the city’s amazing winter festival had changed.  As this eight-meter-high horse sculpture indicated, the festival has grown in size, complexity, and elaborateness; where the snow festival had a single massive sculpture before, a handful of these now appeared.  This year’s snow festival was officially called “The 17th Annual China Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair.”

Though the events of Harbin’s winter festival officially open each year on January 5th, most displays are completed and the grounds at the various sites are opened to the public days or even weeks in advance.  These wise folks visited the Snow Sculpture Art Fair and its freshly minted sculptures a day before the opening ceremonies, when many thousands of tourists from all over China and the world would crowd the parks.

In preparation for those opening ceremonies, a group of women from northern Heilongjiang Province - the home state of Harbin - practice a traditional dance.  Behind them, a ten-meter-high snow rooster signals the coming Year of the Rooster on the Chinese calendar.  Two years earlier, a snow sculpture of a flute maiden appeared on this site, which appears in my earlier set of festival photographs; the flute maiden proved so popular that a permanent copy of the sculpture, not made of snow, was under construction elsewhere in the park.

Detail of the entrance gate to the Snow Sculpture Art Fair.  Such gates, which fold and retract to one side to allow vehicles through, are common in China, but this one is unusually elaborate, with horse decorations that double as candlesticks.  The flowering plants alongside the path in the distance are quite artificial, with blossoms of thin paper - no surprise in a climate that remains well below freezing for many months at a time, including this day.

By sunset - in other words, by 4pm - visitors leave the snow festival to warm up, have dinner, and attend the ice festival later in the evening.  Unfortunately for them, they leave the snow festival too early.  Few people know it - some of the entrance gate staff didn’t even know it - but just after dark, the snow sculptures are illuminated with colorful spotlights for about an hour until the park closes.  This is a detail of the horse snow sculpture shown earlier on this page.

A restaurant made to look like a Mongolian yurt.  These little restaurants around the park stay busy during the day, since going inside is the closest a visitor can come to warming up.  After sunset though, only the restaurant staff are left inside - which makes me wonder why they bother having floodlights.

The rooster snow sculpture after dark, revealing a hen and a chick I had not noticed earlier in the day.  Snow sculptures look quite different at night, as spotlights reveal greater detail than the whitewash of daylight allows.  Perhaps a dozen snow sculptures in the huge park were illuminated, providing oases of warm light in the cold darkness, but very few visitors saw them this evening.

Another restaurant near the snow sculptures, closing up for the night.  Despite the bitter cold and darkness, the owner was getting ready to ride a bicycle home.

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.