Mickey, myth and magic meet in Harbin

Fantasy reigns free at the ice and snow festival

Issue: Feb 2010

Hong Junwu and his wife, Xiaomin, capturing a moment of their honeymoon against the backdrop of Singapore’s merlion icon on DUCKTours.
A translucent Great Wall snakes around a fairyland of colourful turrets & spires

If you have ever been to Disneyland, you can well visualise castles, towers and your favourite Disney characters turning into ice in Harbin and glistening against a clear sky. It is magical, to say the least, and truly a sight to behold.

Frolicking amidst the 26th annual International Ice and Snow Festival there, are Minnie, Mickey and other characters from the famed Disney family, castles, fairyland towers, spires and tunnels made entirely out of ice.

Disney magic aside, other famous international icons from the Japanese manga, video game character Pac Man, Egyptian mummies, Chinese pagodas and mega iconic structures such as the Great Wall of China and the Colosseum complete the scene.

City of Ice

Describing this world famous festival as a mega ice playground is an understatement. In fact, it is an entire city made of ice!

Harbin’s location in Northeastern part of China makes it a perfect place to host this festival. It is under the direct influence of the cold winter wind from Siberia. Its average temperature is -16.8 degrees celsius in winter and it can plunge as low as -38 degrees.

Even as temperatures plunge way below zero, both locals and tourists are already swarming the park to enjoy the dazzling ice sculptures.

The Festival is spread across several sites, each with its own distinctive character and activities. There are artistic, cultural, sporting activities to cater to the young, old and the restless.

For example, Zhaolin Park, located at the bank of Songhua River, is host to the Harbin Disney Ice Festival's ice sculptures of people, animals, birds and mythical figures ever since Disney signed up in 2009.

You can take a tour around the ice castles of Sleeping Beauty and have fun sliding down from the top of Aladdin's tower. You can also climb ice ladders and experience a powerful adrenaline rush as you whiz down the steep ice slides.

Within Zhaolin Park, there is also the Ice Lantern Garden Party. This is the earliest and biggest artistic exhibition of the ice lanterns in the open air in the world, covering a vast area of 6.5 hectares. The quantity of ice used to sculpt totals some 71,000 cubic feet! And if you are wondering where all these ice comes from, they are all frozen out of the water of the famous Songhua River.

The first ice lanterns were a winter-time tradition in northeast China. Back then during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1922) locals often made and used ice-lanterns as jack-lights during the winter months.

Ice lanterns then were made simply by pouring water into a bucket and then pulled out in the open to freeze. A hole was then chiseled in the top and a candle placed in the hollow vessel.

Today, ice lanterns generally refer to a series of ice artworks combined with coloured lights and splendid music. The biggest and oldest one of its kind, this Ice Lantern Fair has garnered 7 Guinness World Records since its inception in 1963.

This year the Festival boasts translucent creations complete with multi-coloured bulbs encased in them. Last year, the festival started to use LED lights, heralding even more dazzling shows to come, as sculptors excited by the prospect of new technologies, take their creations to even greater heights.

Snowy Wonderland, too

Capturing former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's frozen smile with a chisel
Capturing former Chinese leader Mao Zedong's frozen smile with a chisel
Glistening ice sculptures cut fine figures against the night sky
Glistening ice sculptures cut fine figures against the night sky

The Ice and Snow World Exhibition of Ice Sculptures held in Stalin Park is another wonder you should not miss. You can walk on the impressive replica of the Great Wall of China, which is colourfully lit with hues of blue, green and white. As you walk through the exhibits you will see other beautiful ice-hewn Chinese pagodas. They are especially magnificent, standing tall and translucent against the night sky.

Winged horses carved out of the snow are majestic in their flight across the landscape, as they navigate around a snow-carved Chinese pagoda.

A snow sculpture of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong beams among the exhibits. If you are a history buff, the face that smiles back at you will trigger highlights of his reign, and famous quotes of his such as “let a hundred flowers blossom” will come to mind, as you remember the man who brought Communism to China.

Amidst the towering pagodas and figurines, you will also come across a gigantic Egyptian sphinx, fashioned after the great sphinx of Giza – the largest and most famous of sphinxes is located at the Giza Plateau on the west back on the Nile River. It is believed to have been built in 9,500 BC. The precise incisions in the ice sculpture evoke a close resemblance to the original.

Activities galore

During the festival, many events are also held. For example, winter swimming, ice hockey games, football games on snow ground, skiing races, speed skating races, ice sculpture competition, poetry jamboree, and ice and snow cinematics events offer variety to the arts, cultural and sports-oriented visitors.

A prestigious competition, known as the International Ice Sculpturing Competition, is held here every year. Serious ice sculptors flock here from all over the world to compete. This year, the winning sculpture for the 24th International Ice Sculpture Competition is a 5,000-pound, 64-square-foot sculpture of flames with intertwining geometric shapes. It was sculpted by a pair from New York.

Ice sports like skiing are also available. There are ski areas within the vicinity. One of the best known is Yabuli, a former imperial Manchurian hunting ground for feudal lords during the Qing Dynasty. Yabuli is the home of China's first and largest resort and it has expanded into China's first ski town with multiple resorts on three mountains. This is also the biggest training centre for alpine skiers and the mountain hosts of many professional skiing competitions. In 1996, the 3rd Winter Asian Games was held here along with numerous National Winter Games and other national and provincial competitions. Two of the three mountains offer sufficient runs for intermediate and beginner skiers, while the third mountain is now used exclusively by the Chinese national Ski Team. However, it is slated for future development into a 3rd large ski area with advanced terrain

So, whether you are there for just a visual treat of arts and culture, relive your childhood in an icy wonderland or just to pump up your adrenalin with various sporting activities under freezing temperatures, you’ll be sure to agree that at every turn in Harbin’s International Ice and Snow Festival, it is simply magical!

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