Trail of the unexpected: Cold comfort in China

Temperatures of -30C mean Harbin is the perfect place for an ice festival.

On the face of it, winter is not the ideal time to visit the northern Chinese city of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province. A biting Siberian wind batters the region, and temperatures regularly dip as low as -30C. Nevertheless, each year thousands of visitors descend upon the "Ice City of China", as Harbin is known. The reason? Its annual Ice and Snow Festival.

The festival is extraordinary, focusing on ice sculptures that are amazing feats of engineering and craftsmanship – and it's a spectacle that can be enjoyed on a short break from Beijing. The overnight train takes about 10 hours, but there are also regular domestic flights that take you from the capital to Harbin in less than two hours.

I arrived by train, emerging out of the central railway station into the freezing cold just as dawn was breaking. I was immediately plunged into the general noise and chaos of a city on the move: men wrapped up in thick coats walked by selling newspapers, others pushed carts with large metal vats balanced on top, weaving in and out of the heavy traffic.

It felt incredibly cold, even wearing winter boots, two pairs of thick socks, Arctic mittens and my mother's big fur hat. Just as the long winters and icy temperatures influence what people wear, it also has an impact on cuisine, with dried, salted and pickled vegetables being more available than fresh vegetables. As for coping with iced-up windows on buses and cars, drivers appeared to make do with looking out of scarily small areas of ice-free glass, or produced blow torches to deal with major de-icing.

In the centre of the large square in front of the station were massive, glistening ice sculptures of towers and temples, showing off the art of ice carving for which the city is renowned. And that, if I may, was just the tip of the iceberg.

The annual festival takes over the whole city. Labourers haul in blocks of ice from the Songhua River, which runs through Harbin; engineers figure out the calculations for the colossal ice replicas of famous buildings; and then sculptors set to work chiselling and carving. Ice sculptures of cellists and other musicians lined the road to one of the city's main concert halls, while frozen cherubs strumming harps brightened up the central reservation of a major highway.

The highlight of the festival is Ice and Snow World, a park covering an area the size of 80 football pitches, and which is filled with ice and snow sculptures. I walked up the ice steps and through the ice columns and towers that formed the entrance. On my left was a massive replica of the Colosseum; one my right stood a pair of huge Egyptian sphinxes, plus a bottle of Harbin beer the height of a tall building. Further ahead were ice reproductions of European castles, pagodas and Buddhist temples. Last year, a Chinese newspaper reported that the park's Dreaming Castle was the largest ice sculpture in the world, standing at 50m high. It took 2,000 workers 15 days to build.

Almost all of the 2,000 or so sculptures in the park are lit up in pinks, greens, oranges, blues and yellows, often changing from one to another in a spectacle of gaudy extravagance. As you wander around the complex, or in my case gently jog around in a vain effort to keep warm, you almost forget that everything has been constructed from ice.

The ice sculptures are now a tourist attraction for Harbin. However, their origins lie in a practical way of life for the people in the region. To prevent their sources of light being blown out by the winter wind, those living in the far north of China used to hollow out ice blocks and make protective lanterns from them. The sculptures are still called "ice lanterns" by the locals.

With average temperatures remaining below zero for about half the year, it's little surprise that ice is part of the local culture. One young woman I met, Di Zhao, explained that making ice sculptures was a collective activity encouraged by the local government when she was at primary school in the 1990s.

"We would put water into a pot or other container, and then put the container outside, as not many families owned fridges at that time," Zhao recalled. "The following day, the water would have turned to ice and you could put anything inside to make the ice colourful and beautiful. Then you'd take the ice from the container and carve it."

Since the first ice lantern festival in 1963 in Zhaolin Park, the celebrations have developed. The festival is now spread across several sites in this city of 10 million inhabitants. Zhaolin Park now hosts a Disney-themed ice and snow festival, while Ice and Snow World focuses on the great architecture of China and other countries around the world.

As Zhao put it: "We may not have the polar lights or sunshine, but we have the ice sculptures as compensation. They provide us with a world of dreams."

Travel essentials: Harbin

Getting there

* You can reach Harbin from Beijing Central railway station using an overnight train.

* Beijing is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air China (00 800 86 100 999; airchina.co.uk)

More information

* The Harbin Ice Festival runs until 28 February, with the official inauguration on 5 January

* A single-entry tourist visa to China costs £65.25. Apply to Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (020 7842 0960; visaforchina.org.uk), which has offices in London and Manchester.

News
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
newsBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
News
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
films
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager - Bristol

    £31000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the UK, the major project fo...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Account Executive - Hotel Reservation Software - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly growing Hotel ...

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game