After the snow festival, it’s on to opening night at the ice festival.  This is the grand three-arch entryway greeting visitors to “The Sixth Annual Harbin Ice and Snow World.”  Like the other structures here, this archway was made entirely of ice blocks cut from the Songhua River just hundreds of meters away.

Despite this festival’s name, snow and ice festivals have taken place in Harbin for decades, primarily in Zhaolin Park south of the river.  However, in 2000, this massive sponsor-driven event began on Sun Island north of the river, overtaking in importance the low-key festivities of the past.  This ice festival is now the main event, and it gets bigger every year: the 2003 festival was huge, but this 2005 ice festival dwarfed even that.  Structures were now larger, more plentiful, more colorful, more detailed, and more stunning.  This is the path beyond the entryway leading into the event, consisting of ice blocks with embedded lights.

The Harbin Ice and Snow World continues to focus on large buildings and structures, but some ice carvings can be found throughout the frozen grounds, such as the life-sized horses shown here.  While each head is carved from a single block of ice, each body is a fusion of many ice blocks.  And unlike the large ice structures and walkways that are lit from within the ice blocks, the sculptures are lit by exterior spotlights below the sculptures.

A key attraction of the ice festival two years ago was a copy of the Great Wall of China that doubled as a long ice slide.  This year’s key attraction was a copy of the Summer Palace in Beijing, as shown here - complete with the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance, the seventeen-arch bridge (reduced to seven arches), and even Empress Dowager Cixi’s marble boat.  This complex also included an ice slide, which was more like a luge track; bodies flew by in a blur and at the bottom thumped solidly into a two-meter-high snow bank.

Candied haws are a favorite outdoor treat throughout China - even in Harbin in winter, where they’re harder than frozen Snickers bars.  A steady diet of these will keep your dentist in business for years.

Janggochum.  A janggo is a double-headed hourglass-shaped drum often used in Korean traditional music, and a janggochum is a dance using that drum.  This is an ice sculpture of Korean women performing a janggochum.

One advantage of attending the festival on opening night was seeing fireworks explode over the ice sculptures.  Unlike most fireworks shows that build to a climax, this twenty-minute barrage was essentially a sustained finale.  In the foreground, four flights of ice stairs lead up to an ice tower tens of meters high serving as the centerpiece to the festival grounds.  The good news is that, unlike past festivals, the icy stairs now had handrails.  The bad news is that they too were made of ice.

An American lawyer’s dream: a maze of hallways with walls and floors of solid ice designed to cause as many spills as possible.  Many people tried it out, and the design appeared to be quite successful.  Here, a father keeps his son on his feet while trying to keep himself on his feet.  Most kids were so bundled up this night that had they fallen, they wouldn’t have noticed.

Fireworks over a Yunnan-style Buddhist temple of ice.  Structures throughout the festival were made to resemble famous buildings in Europe and Asia - including the Louvre in Paris, complete with its pyramids - and the level of care in the model detailing seemed greater than in previous years, with more rounded surfaces and less blockiness.

This wall of ice gets steeper every year.  Pictures I saw from an earlier festival revealed a wall of ice that was little more than a hill; people could run over it if they started fast enough.  Two years ago the hill had grown to about a 45-degree angle, as shown in my previous ice festival photographs, but most people could still make it to the top with the help of knotted ropes.  This year the wall was practically vertical; very few were making it to the top, and many were plunging back into the snowbank below.

Bursts of fireworks over bursts of color.  The ice structures at the top of the stairs here are peacocks.  Other sculptures appearing in the festival included ships, a giant snow Buddha (complete with an altar where people worshiped and planted burning incense sticks in the snow), and of course, snowmen.  A small Chinese automobile company even displayed full-sized ice sculptures of its cars alongside its real cars as a promotion.

The silhouettes of people on the icy stairways of the central tower appear remarkably upright and uninjured.

Unlike the Summer Palace slide, this was an ice slide most people could handle.  The endless, steady stream of people coming down this slide kept it nice and slick, and a few times I almost got knocked over trying to take this shot.

Beyond that slide was a series of European-styled ice buildings - and they were actually functional; grounds crews could be seen inside those buildings drinking tea and warming themselves between their rounds.  Full restaurants constructed of ice could be found at the festival as well, complete with much-appreciated space heaters.

A horse overlooks the festival events at the Harbin Ice and Snow World.

A view of the Summer Palace ice sculpture from the top tier of the ice tower at the center of the festival grounds.  A maze of fluorescent lights encased in ice form the floor here, much like the entryway path shown earlier.  Considering the advances this event has made over the past two years, other cities in the world trying to catch up to Harbin’s festival have their work cut out for them.

Starting the Sculptures

Making a snow festival sculpture takes a lot more work than making a snowman; one cannot simply roll around a snowball until it is meters across and start scraping away, because the snow would get too dirty, too inconsistently packed, and too heavy to move.  So how do snow sculptures at the festival start out?  I followed these workers around Sun Island Park, home of Harbin’s Snow Sculpture Art Fair, to find out.

Despite Harbin’s plentiful snowfall, the snow used at the festival is man-made to keep it clean and consistent.  Once the snow-making machines in the park have churned out a small mountain, that snow is shoveled onto the back of a truck and taken to where the sculpture will rest.  Workers then tie together four walls of wooden boards and fill the resulting box with snow, allowing it to settle and form a block as shown on the right.  To make the block taller, they tie together a second group of walls on top of the first and fill that with snow as well, as the workers are doing here.

On this day, blocks of snow were being prepared for a snow-sculpting competition.  Each team of competitors would start with a block about four meters tall and three meters on a side.  Here, workers put the finishing touches on a block, having just completed another one behind them.

The snow-sculpting competition at the Snow Sculpture Art Fair lasts a week; participants have seven days to complete their sculptures, and this was day one.  Here, a team from a local college begins work on its block of snow.  Teams from all over the world come to Harbin to participate in this competition.

The results can be stunning.  These sculptures, started with the same kind of snow blocks as those shown in the previous photographs, appeared along the entryway to the snow festival.

And what about the ice?  Preparing those structures for the festival takes much more work.  Nature provides the ice-making machine in the form of nearby Songhua River, which remains frozen nearly half the year.  Huge saws cut thick blocks of ice from the river, and the blocks are then brought to Sun Island Park just north of the river by truck.  Forklifts are required to move the heavy blocks around, as shown here.  Despite its precarious tilt, the truck didn’t tip over, and the blocks didn’t slide off - not during this trip, anyway.

The ice blocks are then stacked nearby for later use.  Eventually they will be carved into sculptures, or cut into smaller blocks and used to create giant structures either here at the Snow Sculpture Art Fair or over at the Ice and Snow World event nearby.  Because the temperature will stay below freezing for at least two more months, the blocks can be left outdoors.

Some of those ice blocks were needed this very day.  In another section of the park, workers were constructing a large restaurant out of ice, and they needed to cut those huge blocks down to a manageable size to create a wall.  This is the saw they used to cut the ice.

Though it might not look very big after being cut, this block of ice required five people to tug it across the packed snow.  This was going to be one solid restaurant.

In front of the restaurant, an artist sculpts entryway decorations using larger blocks of ice.  His was not an enviable task; making one sculpture takes quite some time, and he had two more blocks behind him to go - and the temperature was well below freezing.  Needless to say, it takes a hearty bunch of workers to put together the ice and snow sculptures of Harbin’s huge festival every year.

Ice Lantern Garden Party 2005

Before Sun Island and its Ice and Snow World became so important, Harbin’s primary ice festival location was in Zhaolin Park.  Despite being overshadowed, this park continues to hold an annual festival called the “China Harbin Ice Lantern Garden Party” - and it is as unusual as its name.  This bemusing sculpture, celebrating the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rooster, greeted visitors this year.  The flowers at the base are made of colored ice; the rooster itself is painted, and while I could not determine its composition, it did not quite look like ice or snow - but it certainly added some color to this gray winter day.

The ice structures in Zhaolin Park are far less elaborate than those over on Sun Island, giving an idea of what it was like to visit Harbin’s ice festival in the past.  Traditional Chinese elements, like these red lanterns, were in far greater use here.

Harbin’s version of a nine-dragon wall is quite different from the one on display in Beihai Park in Beijing.  The colorful dragons here first appeared to be plastic, but like those flowers at the base of the rooster sculpture, they were actually made of ice.  How do I know this?  Well...

...because sitting next to that wall was this group of colored ice blocks, looking like gigantic popsicles, which the park staff used to create those dragons.  It was so cold that the blocks could be left outdoors - for the next couple of months, if necessary.  Hopefully parents were keeping their kids from eating them.

These flowers encased in ice were artificial, but it took a few looks from a few angles to determine that for sure.  In the background, large paper cuttings are sealed behind plexiglass and encased in ice walls, again showing the more traditional nature of this event.

Zhaolin Park contained one giant building of ice, apparently for official events: a banner across its front announced the “Opening Ceremony of the 19th China Harbin International Ice Sculpture Competition.”  However, no competition sculptures were to be found this day.  Dozens of locally made ice sculptures did appear along park railings and walkways, but they were so odd I could not tell what any of them was supposed to represent.  These lanterns lined the front of the ceremony building.

Zhaolin Park at night during its Ice Lantern Garden Party.  Going to this event after attending the Harbin Ice and Snow World is much like going to a county fair after returning from Disneyworld.  In fact, this event has some of the feel of a county fair, with a Ferris wheel and bumper cars and spinning rides and other things I can’t imagine riding in such cold weather.  This is a detail of an archway near one of the park entrances.

Unlike the internationally inspired structures at the Snow and Ice World, the ice structures in Zhaolin Park are all Chinese.  Surprisingly, a number of tourist publications on China continue to guide visitors to Zhaolin Park for Harbin’s festival, with nary a mention of the Ice and Snow World (or even the Snow Sculpture Art Fair) just north of the river on Sun Island.  Visitors overlooking that far bigger event must walk away from here somewhat impressed but wondering what all the fuss was about.

Colored lights strung over a park entryway.  Kids passing underneath seemed to like this a lot, probably because it looked like sticky noodles tossed onto a ceiling.

On my web page concerning the festival two years ago, I mentioned a Disney film at EPCOT called “Wonders of China” that briefly showed Harbin’s ice festival as it appeared decades ago, with little more than blinking lights inside globes.  Well, here are those same globes.  At Zhaolin Park, little has changed over the years.  That Disney film, on the other hand, has now been updated to include clips from Harbin’s more recent and more elaborate festivals.

A view of Zhaolin Park’s Ice Lantern Garden Party, with the Ferris wheel in the background and city lights atop buildings beyond.  Many of the structures here had a Lego-block quality about them - particularly those in the strange military-influenced section of the park, which contained bulky tanks and ships and old-style submarines, all as green as the walls shown here.

A dragon boat, one of the brightest displays in the park, though not one of the most impressive ice sculptures - only the boat’s hull was made of ice.  Zhaolin Park and its quirky event is definitely worth a visit to see what Harbin’s festival was like years ago - just don’t make the mistake of missing the Ice and Snow World.

Harbin’s History

Dozens of dynasties, hundreds of emperors, thousands of years of civilization... yes, China has a long, rich past.  And practically none of it has to do with Harbin.  This city’s history is very short: the 1958 monument shown here is nearly half Harbin’s age.  The city’s history is also very volatile: the flags of tsarist Russia, Manchurian warlords, Japan, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China have all flown here, giving Harbin a richness all its own.  This view from atop the Gloria Inn looks northwest toward the Flood Control Monument.  The frozen and snow-covered Songhua River lies in the background, with Sun Island - site of the Ice and Snow World and the Snow Sculpture Art Fair - in the distance.

Just 110 years ago, this was desolate territory in the northern reaches of Manchuria (present-day northeastern China), the ancestral homeland of China’s reigning Qing dynasty rulers.  The dynasty had grown weak by this time, which led to a decades-long power struggle between China, Russia, and Japan for control of Manchuria.  China ceded the territory to the Japanese after losing a war against them in 1895, but Russia persuaded Japan to give it back to China soon after.  As payment, China let a Russian-controlled railroad - the China Eastern Railroad - be built across Manchuria.  Russia chose this riverside location as the headquarters of that project and began construction of a railroad bridge across the Songhua River - and thus Harbin was born, in 1898.  In this view northeast from the Gloria Inn, that Russian railroad bridge can be seen in the distance.

Two years later, in 1900, China’s anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion broke out and spread to Manchuria, and the Russian military moved in to quell the uprising.  Once things calmed down, Russia decided it wanted to keep Manchuria for itself, but reluctantly agreed to pull out its troops in 1902 to keep peace with Japan.  Work on the railroad continued; Harbin was like a frontier town in the American West at this time.  Men far outnumbered women, Japanese-run brothels were quite popular, and the nightlife was raucous.  On the other hand, the city had churches, an active arts community, a library, a Russian-language newspaper - even beauty pageants and horse racing, as shown in these old photographs on display in Harbin’s Saint Sophia church.  Harbin’s 15,000 Russians represented every strata of Russian society.  Harbin’s 30,000 Chinese, who took advantage of the business opportunities created by the railroad, remained segregated from the Russians, particularly after the Boxer Rebellion.

Despite their promises, the Russian troops stayed in Manchuria, which upset the Japanese and led to a war between them in 1904.  Harbin, far from the fighting, became a wartime boom town with plenty of business opportunities; its population soared to a quarter-million.  Russia lost the war and finally withdrew its troops, though Harbin and the railroad remained in Russian hands.  Russian influence fell further when China proclaimed Harbin an “open city” in 1907.  Harbin then became international and cosmopolitan, “the Paris of the Far East,” hosting many foreign companies and services.  Western countries, including the United States, even opened consulates.  This model of Saint Sophia appears within the real Saint Sophia in Harbin; constructed the same year Harbin became an open city, it is now a museum displaying photographs from the city’s early days.

China’s Qing dynasty fell in 1911 and tsarist Russia fell in 1917; meanwhile, Japan’s power and ambition grew.  This all led to a very complicated political situation in Manchuria and Harbin: the Chinese central government, the Chinese regional government in Manchuria, Manchurian warlords, White Russians, Red Russians, and Japanese all competed for power in the region, and control of the railroad passed to a number of these players a number of times.  Harbin’s population swelled with rich White Russian refugees streaming to this relic of prerevolutionary Russia to continue their previous lives.  They spent summers sunning and boating on the Songhua River, and winters skating and sledding; it was like the revolution never happened.  But the economy soured; Russian businesses failed and were taken over by Chinese entrepreneurs, and many previously rich Russians entered poverty - leading Harbin to be called “the graveyard of the white man’s prestige.”  A view inside Saint Sophia.

The struggle for control of Harbin ended in 1932 when the Japanese military rolled in and took control of the city along with the rest of the region.  Manchuria became Manchukuo, a puppet state of Japan, and the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty, Pu Yi, was installed as its emperor.  The railroad was sold to the Japanese, and many Russians left Harbin as a result of the sale and tightening Japanese control.  After 25 years, the cosmopolitan days of Harbin were over.  Conditions were pretty miserable during the occupation; poverty, crime, hunger, cold, and floods were constant problems; and the Japanese conducted biological warfare experiments on live humans at a nearby laboratory, killing thousands.  The occupation ended with the Japanese surrender of Manchuria in 1945 at the end of World War II.  In the wake of their withdrawal, Harbin’s economy came to a halt, with practically no production or commerce.  Shown here is the ceiling and rotunda of Saint Sophia.

With the Japanese gone, power struggles around Harbin began anew.  The Guomindang, rulers of much of China before Japan’s occupation, wanted control over Manchuria, but the Soviets got there first.  This allowed their fellow Chinese communists to move a massive number of their own troops into the region.  When the Soviets were forced to withdraw under Western pressure in 1946, those Chinese communists quickly took over Manchuria, sparking a civil war between the communists and the Guomindang.  Harbin was vital to the communist effort: not only did it serve as its headquarters in Manchuria during the civil war, producing military supplies for its troops, but as the first major city under communist control, it also served as a training ground for practicing communist economics and leadership in cities.  The communist army grew in strength and numbers there, until in 1948 it won massive victories in Manchuria against the Guomindang forces.  Those key victories in Manchuria led to the communist victory over China in 1949, and the People’s Republic of China was born.  A half-century after its creation, Harbin had finally and firmly become a city of China.

Harbin’s history merges with China’s at this point.  The population reached 800,000 by the founding of the People’s Republic, and that doubled over the next decade as the city became one of China’s centers of heavy industry.  The thousands in Harbin’s Russian community, who had stayed for so long and lived through so much, left.  The Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the destruction of many of Harbin’s historical sites; for example, the church shown in the previous photograph was destroyed.  Still, the city retained much of its earlier charm; the wide streets and parks around the provincial museum shown here remained.  What finally removed much of that charm was China’s economic progress these past two decades; the parks here are gone, the streets are narrower, and the museum is nearly lost in a crowd of tall nondescript buildings.  Left from the past are the Russian buildings in the Daoliqu distict, a handful of Russian churches, and these old photographs of city life on display at Saint Sophia.  Today, Harbin is a massive industrial urban sprawl of more than nine million people, and like much of former Manchuria - China’s “rust belt” - its economy remains weighted down by state-owned enterprises.

A café in the Russian district of Harbin today.  Few English-language books are devoted to Harbin’s history, and those that do exist tend to be scholarly studies covering specific periods; a great layperson’s history of the city has yet to be written.  In the meantime, “The Making of a Chinese City: History and Historiography in Harbin” (Clausen and Thøgersen, 1995, M.E. Sharpe) remains the best read - though at $40 for the paperback version, it’s rather expensive.  The photography collection at Saint Sophia has been compiled into a 240-page coffee table book available only within Saint Sophia itself; the captions are in Chinese, but at $15 it’s an extremely reasonable purchase for visitors.

Harbin for Visitors

So after seeing all these photographs, are you ready for a winter trip to Harbin?  Then perhaps some of the information on this page will prove useful.  It’s not meant to be comprehensive; it’s just some advice based on my own experiences.  Thoughout this page are photographs of the Gloria Inn, which I highly recommend as lodging for winter festival visitors planning their own trip.  This is the lobby of the new north wing of the Gloria Inn; the series of huge glass dishes hanging from the ceiling is actually a fountain, with water flowing from dish to dish.

The new north wing of the Gloria Inn, which is the section where visitors should stay; it rates four stars on China’s five-star scale, whereas the old part of the hotel rates three stars.  It’s difficult to justify flying all the way from another continent for the sole purpose of seeing the winter festival here; however, Harbin does makes an excellent side trip for tourists already planning to visit other parts of China during the winter.  As mentioned on another page, the festival in Harbin officially runs from January 5 to February 15 each year, typically soft-opening a week or so early and running into March.  Tickets are about $10 for the Ice and Snow World (the nighttime ice show), about $8 for the Snow Sculpture Art Fair (the daytime snow show), and about $5 for Zhaolin Park’s Ice Lantern Festival (the old-style ice show).  In my opinion, the best time to visit is mid-January; by then, the Snow Sculpture Art Fair competition has completed and visitors can see the final results while they’re still fresh.

One room of the huge presidential suite at the Gloria Inn.  Because many foreign tourists start their Harbin trip from Beijing, that is what I’ll be assuming for my suggestions here.  A quick trip to Harbin from Beijing would last two days and one night: that would entail flying to Harbin on the first morning, visiting the Snow Sculpture Art Fair (at Sun Island Park) that afternoon, visiting the Ice and Snow World (on Sun Island, just west of Sun Island Park) that evening, visiting the old Russian Daoliqu district and Saint Sophia on the second morning, and flying back to Beijing later that afternoon.  Staying a second night, which I do recommend, allows a visit to the old-style ice festival (the Harbin Ice Lantern Garden Party, at Zhaolin Park).

The atrium in the new wing of the Gloria Inn.  Harbin is a quick 90-minute flight northeast from Beijing, and flights between the two cities are frequent.  For tourists already in Beijing who decide at the last minute to visit Harbin, flights are easy to arrange, even a single day in advance.  Just visit the travel agency of any major hotel in Beijing, and they’ll book the flight and give you the airline ticket right there.  A ticket costs around $100 each way, and does not vary in price between airlines.  In China, there’s no price advantage to booking tickets in advance, though promotional discounts are occasionally available.

Another of the nicer rooms at the Gloria Inn, showing some of the hotel’s mix of Chinese and Russian styles.  One reason I recommend the Gloria Inn is its location: it’s at the north end of Zhongyang Dajie (the main Russian street) on the banks of the Songhua River.  This means the Flood Control Monument is outside the front entrance, the start of the walk south through the Russian district to Saint Sophia is outside the front entrance, Zhaolin Park is only a couple of blocks east, and Sun Island is less than 15 minutes away by taxi.  In other words, it’s in the best possible location for visitors to Harbin.  Another reason I recommend it is the food: the hotel houses very good Chinese and Japanese restaurants, and there’s even a McDonald’s at the southwest corner of the hotel for the less adventurous.

The older south and west sections of the Gloria Inn.  Despite the frigid weather, photography in Harbin is generally not a problem - though of course some care must be taken with cameras.  Hang your camera around your neck and keep it inside your jacket so your body heat will keep it warm.  Batteries in digital cameras run out more quickly in the cold, so a spare set might be needed just to get through a few hours of photography - which is the most one can stand outside in a Harbin winter anyway.  Keep the spare set in a place where it’ll stay warm, like a pants pocket.  Fingers go numb pretty quickly in Harbin’s cold, so it’s best just to let the camera handle all the settings automatically in order to get the camera and your hands back inside your jacket to warm up.  Only once has a camera of mine shown effects from the cold, and even that was minor and cleared up after about ten minutes back inside my jacket.

The western facade of the Gloria Inn at night.  The Inn, like much of downtown, is a 45-minute taxi ride from Harbin’s airport, which costs around $10.  Room rates at the hotel start at around $100 during the festival, but some negotiation (or booking through a well-connected travel agent) can bring that price down.  The Inn has its own web site with more information, but note that some important information is left out.  For example, the festival at Zhaolin Park (the Ice Lantern Garden Party) is mentioned, but the much bigger and much better festivals on Sun Island (the Snow Sculpture Art Fair and the Ice and Snow World) are not - don’t make the mistake of visiting only Zhaolin Park.  Finally, dress warmly; I’ve found that L.L. Bean’s heaviest parka and insulated boots work extremely well in this environment.  Have a great trip!


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