Saturday, January 13

Harbin Snow & Ice Festival

For more than a decade I’ve dreamed of visiting the Harbin Snow & Ice Festival in northern China.  This frontier city of more than 5 million people has been hosting this extraordinary event every Winter since 1985. Over the year its grown to become the world’s largest event of its kind.  Until now I’ve never found myself in the right place at the right time to make it north and see this jaw-dropping spectacle for myself.

Garry and I were in China last week for business.  By chance we discovered that our visit coincided with the opening weekend of this year’s festival.  Having travelled for business on New Year’s Day and then again the following weekend we thought it reasonable to take a little time off along the way. We eventually spent two days in Harbin while en route to Hong Kong. 

I’d booked us a private guide and driver to show us around the city.  This ensured we were able to make the most of our time rather than battle our way through the inevitable language barrier. However, getting there was half the fun.  We flew from Ningbo to Harbin arriving shortly after dark.  As we exited the plane we greeted by rather chilling -14C temperatures.  These never rose above -6C the entire time we were there.  If you look at a map you’ll see that Harbin is located at the same latitude as northern Mongolia; and is actually more than 100 kilometres north of Vladivostok.

We’re glad we made the effort. During Winter three separate venues spread across the city become temporary theme parks filled with enormous structures built from compressed snow or blocks of translucent river ice.  Literally, thousands of workers spend several months creating ice versions of globally recognised structures.  In the past this has included the pyramids, the Sphinx and the Taj Mahal. Multicoloured LED lights are also used light the ice at night creating a truly awe-inspiring technicolour spectacle.

The awe and wonder begin from the moment you enter the city. As you exit the airport expressway you’re greeted by an enormous Chinese style ice building. By night it’s a spectacular multi-coloured structure.  By day it's an imposing ice blue monument that towers over the roadway.

Its ice blocks are cut from the frozen surface of the Songhua River every winter.  This river flows through the heart of the city. In places the river is almost a kilometre wide so there’s plenty of ice to go around. Ice sculptors then use chisels, ice picks and saws to carve and construct these incredible ice buildings and sculptures. Deionised water is also be used for some ice resulting in blocks as transparent as glass.

Every year, the festive has a central theme that’s then depicted in ice and snow across the city. In 2007, the festival featured a Canadian themed sculpture, in memoriam of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune. It was awarded a Guinness Record for the world's largest snow sculpture: 250 metres long, 28 feet (8.5 m) high, using over 13,000 cubic metres of snow.

This year’s festive was themed around the Silk Road. Throughout the city dozens of frozen structures depicted buildings and monuments found along this transcontinental route. Highlights this year included the Buddhist stupas of Burma, St Basil Cathedral in Red Square, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Christian cathedrals of Rome.

The largest venue literally covered acres of an enormous island located in the middle of the Songhua River.  Garry and I simply couldn't believe how huge the complex was.  We thought we'd spent an hour or so there. We ended up spending more than three hours and even then I'm sure we missed a few buildings and sculptures along the way.  In the image above the actual venue can be seen as a bright white glow in the middle of the Songhau river.

We were also lucky enough to see the festival's grand opening fireworks display.  We both agreed we saw many fireworks we've never seen before.  In fact, at one point, the spectacle unfolding in the night sky easily outshone the New Year's Eve display we witnessed the previous weekend in Sydney. All I can say is that the images I've posted here simply don't do justice to our weekend excursion.

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