Harbin ice festival a feast of fancy, lights

/ Source: The Associated Press

A cold snap in northern China has thrown daily life into confusion, but is ideal for fairy tale palaces, towering pagodas, and even a sphinx — all carved from ice — that make up the sights at this year's Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

The annual event in northern China, now in its 26th year, pulls crowds from across China and even a few visitors from overseas, drawn to the unique visions of an international roster of sculptors who illuminate their creations with multicolored electric lights encased in the translucent ice.

Tuesday night's opening ceremony featured a fireworks display, lighting up the sky above the festival's main site on Sun Island alongside the frozen Songhua River running to the north of Harbin, a metropolis as far north as Toronto that styles itself China's "ice city."

Past festival themes have included the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, while perennial motifs include famous Chinese tourist sites such as Beijing's Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Tired of looking at the sculptures? Take a ride on the ice slide, but be sure to get out of the way quick as other thrill seekers zip down on you from behind.

Visitors pose near giant sculptures made from ice and snow before the opening ceremony of the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in Harbin in northeastern's China Heilongjiang province, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010. Ng Han Guan / AP

Other hazards include elbow-to-elbow crowds at popular times of the night and intense cold temperatures that dipped to 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) on Tuesday amid light snow.

A recent cold spell has benefited the festival, but has caused havoc in other parts of northern China. Heavy snowstorms caused the cancellation of 756 flights at Beijing's Capital International Airport and closed highways and rail lines.

Millions of commuters also struggled to get to work for several days, although most transportation lines were back to normal in major cities on Wednesday. Primary and middle schools were also reopened in Beijing and the nearby port of Tianjin.

Away from the festival, Harbin also features varied architecture pointing to its close Russian historical links, dumplings and other tasty northern Chinese eats, and the prospect of skiing at Yuquan, about 65 kilometers from the city, and China's premier Yabuli resort, 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the east.