Diamond in the North

It gets as cold as minus 20 degrees Celsius by December in Harbin, making the capital of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province a hotbed for ice-and-snow-themed activities every winter.

Ice block cutter Huang Wu led seven of his fellow villagers to saw huge blocks of ice on the surface of the Songhua River into 200-meterlong ice floes before breaking them down into 0.8-by-1.6-meter blocks.

The ice blocks were then simply processed, rinsed, and transported to Harbin Ice-Snow World Theme Park two kilometers away, which was opened in 1999.

“Compared to artificial ice, natural ice from rivers is thicker, more resistant to wind, and stronger,” Huang Wu explained. Thousands of ice blocks used for the ice and snow festivals come from the Songhua River. The natural gifts would be carved into various shapes and become a wall brick of a Gothic ice castle or an inconspicuous piece of a giant ice sculpture.

Extremely cold weather makes the environment harsh. But in Harbin, ice and snow culture has become a calling card to promote development of the local economy and tourism. The city is even affectionately referred to as “Ice City.”

An aerial view of part of the Harbin Ice and Snow World at sunset, January 4, 2021. (WANG JIANWEI)

Where East Meets West

Harbin, located in the heart of Northeast Asia, serves as an important hub along the Siberian Land Bridge. Its central position in the region also facilitates cooperation with Russia.

The unique geographical location not only provides favorable conditions for development of the city’s ice and snow economy, but also allows for integration of Eastern and Western cultures, which gives Harbin the allure of a European hybrid city. Harbin was once known as “a critical juncture of Chinese and Western cultures,” and gained nicknames such as “Oriental Moscow” and “Oriental Paris.” It is a heavily European-influenced city that Chinese writer Zhu Ziqing described as “able to endure numerous exotic characteristics without being suffocated.”

The first symphony orchestra, the first cinema, the first ski resort, the first music school, and the first brewery in Chinese history all emerged in Harbin. The city is also known as a “World Architecture Exhibition,” with 415 buildings in Classical, Romantic, Baroque, and other European styles. Major architectural styles that took more than 300 years to form in Europe can all be found in the city. Almost all typical decoration styles from across the history of Western architecture can be seen in Harbin.

St. Sophia Cathedral, built on what is now Sophia Square in Daoli District, is a landmark building in Harbin and one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Built in 1907, St. Sophia Cathedral is the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the Far East and a typical example of Byzantine architecture. It is an important relic for the study of Harbin’s modern history. Its eye-catching green dome forms a unique part of the city’s skyline.

West to Sophia Square is Central Street, which is known as “the First Street in Asia.” Various European-style buildings on both sides of the 1,450-meter-long commercial pedestrian street epitomize Harbin’s European culture, which has penetrated into the daily life of local citizens. Russian cuisine is adored by most Harbin people, and many Russian music and festival customs also permeate the lives of locals.

An ice-and-snow sculpture of a giant snowman at the helm occupies the Youyi intersection of Central Street this year. The sculpture is called “Setting Sail for the Chinese Dream” and symbolizes the dreams of every Chinese person converging into the Chinese Dream, the longterm driving force for common development.

This year’s Central Street Ice and Snow Art Festival consists of two parts, according to Li Long, head of Central Street Management Office. One is displaying ice and snow sculptures on Central Street, and the other is a national college ice lantern and sculpture design contest. A total of 43 ice and snow sculptures were planned for construction, requiring 6,000 cubic meters of ice and snow in total. Among them are seven large-scale ice and snow sculptures designated for public viewing to attract passers-by to the larger show.

Up Close and Personal

Harbin’s snow expo has a long history after running for 33 consecutive years. In Sun Island Scenic Area is a 116-meterlong, 33-meter-tall snow dragon stretching out conspicuously. This ice and snow sculpture, named “Magic Dragon of China,” is the main attraction of the 33rd Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Exposition. More than 100 snow sculptors spent nine days to complete the work.

An ice sculpture at Harbin Ice and Snow World.

“It is not easy to complete a snow sculpture,” remarked Zhang Ningge, chief designer of the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Exposition and one of Harbin’s ice and snow art masters. “The first step is to transform scattered snow into blocks. Workers transport the snow to a designated location in the scenic area to build snow sculptures, then pile the snow according to the required volume.”

Following the direction of Zhang’s fingers, this writer saw a site nearby being piled with snow billets. “Look, workers already used a snow piling template to enclose a large square in accordance with the proportion of the snow sculpture,” Zhang said. “Workers are putting artificial snow inside the square and compacting it while loading it, then removing the template after tamping, which forms a snow billet.” After the snow billets were piled up, the snow sculptors began to work.

Maintaining uniform proportion is the most difficult part of carving. Whether the position of the sculptor on the snow sculpture and the proportion of the carving are perfect depends on experience. Usually, sculptors prepare two pairs of gloves and shoes. When one pair wets completely through, they change to the other pair. And snow sculptors normally work for eight or nine hours at a time.

The average age of the team of more than 100 sculptors responsible for the main snow sculpture this year is 40. This team has many members in their 20s, but also quite a few senior sculptors well into their 60s. About half have more than 30 years of experience.

The Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Exposition spawned China’s snow sculpture art, and is now the largest snow sculpture exhibition in China with the greatest participation. It has hosted a number of events such as a popular science exhibition of snow sculpture art, an “urban snow town” folk village cultural exhibition, the Harbin International Snow Sculpture Competition, the National Snow Sculpture Competition, and a national snow sculpture competition for college students. Alongside exquisite snow sculptures, tourists can also enjoy a series of interactive attractions such as a snow slide, a snow castle amusement park, snow tubing, ice cycling, snow karts, and more.

On the west side of Sun Island Scenic Area is Harbin Ice and Snow World, the world’s largest ice-and-snow- themed amusement park, known for ice lanterns and snow sculptures. Founded in 1999, Harbin Ice and Snow World has been held for 22 consecutive years and now welcomes more than a million tourists from all over the world every year, according to Kong Qingbin, chairman of the organization.

In the 600,000-square-meter park, you can climb a Gothic castle to enjoy beautiful scenery, scale a Chinese pavilion for a distant view, or dive into a “sea of roses” with Bulgarian style. You can tap the keys of a giant ice piano with your feet to produce both sound and light, and you can hurtle down a nearly 400-meter-long ice slide.

In recent years, Harbin Ice and Snow World has promoted the intelligent transformation of ice and snow tourism, with more technological elements making traveling in the snow and ice more convenient and pleasant. LED lamps produce softer light and are more energy-saving and environmentally friendly. Free Wi-Fi reaches every corner of the park, and you can enjoy hot pot at minus 30 degrees Celsius in an igloo.

Polar Animals

Harbin Polarland is located midway through the Sun Island Scenic Area. It features live penguin performances in which they walk out of their house, dance with penguincostumed trainers in an outdoor square, and stretch out their necks to listen to melodious violins. “Antarctic penguins seem happy here. Is the weather similar to home?” quipped a tourist.

“What good luck!” exclaimed a woman from Daqing, a city in western Heilongjiang. “I didn’t expect to see penguins here. I only brought my youngest child to Polarland this time because my eldest is still in school. When he goes on winter vacation, I’ll come back with both of them because I heard phase two will open soon.”

Harbin Polarland Planning Manager Zhang Jiwei called Harbin Polarland China’s largest polar themed park and birthplace of several world legends: For starters, it is the world’s first white whale-shaped polar park, and its main building resembles a giant beluga swimming in a glacial sea. Its exterior attracts numerous tourists eager to get an early glimpse.

Second, it has the world’s first polar beluga performing underwater in which two beluga whales form a heart shape, called “Heart of the Sea.”

Third, its Arctic walruses have amassed more than a million followers on short video platforms for their funny movements.

Fourth, it boasts the world’s first polar bear themed hotel. Polar bears can be seen from each hotel room. On a starry night, you can spy on the majestic creatures.

Fifth, penguins, which can now be seen outdoors every winter, attract many tourists from the south to venture to Harbin to meet the honorary guides of local ice and snow tourism.

A Booming Industry

Drill through the ice, cast a net, and a fatty fish will come. The coldest winds herald annual winter fishing events in many places in northern China, including Harbin.

The 7th Changling Lake Winter Ice Fishing Tourism Event kicked off at Changling Lake in Daoli District, Harbin, on December 26, 2020. Atop the icy surface, the leader of a fishing team led fishermen to break ice, cast nets, and pull them out. Thousands of fresh fish leaped from beneath the ice, drawing cheers from the on-lookers.

The 70-year-old leader of the fishing team, surnamed Li, has been a team leader at Changling Lake for more than a decade. His job involves choosing the location on the lake, identifying the movement of schools of fish, and directing dropping of the nets. The harvest was pretty good this winter. The first net on the first fishing day brought in tens of thousands of kilograms of fish. “The biggest fish we brought up that day was a silver carp weighing nearly 35 kilograms,” Li said.

A girl rides an ice slide at Harbin Ice and Snow World. On January 4, 2017, Harbin Ice and Snow World received nearly 200 children of migrant workers and offered them free admission to ice and snow recreation facilities. (WANG SHU)

On the day of the opening ceremony, a grand sacrificial ritual for winter fishing was also organized to showcase the authentic fishing culture of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). At the same time, the winter fishing operation on the lake commenced, which usually yields 50,000 kilograms of wild lake fish. Winter fishing on Changling Lake has helped the fishing culture of northern China become a hip and fashionable cultural experience. It is now one of the top tourist activities.

Since 2009, the Daoli District government has invested nearly 300 million yuan (US$46.4 million) in ecological restoration and infrastructure construction around Changling Lake. Now, the vegetation coverage rate of the scenic spot has reached more than 90 percent, with average water depth in the lake at 2.5 meters, and more than 30 kinds of freshwater fish found in the wild. Among them, carp and silver carp are pollution-free wild fish and thus labeled as National Green Food. The Changling Lake Visitor Service Center offers “Changling Lake fish feast” featuring a variety of delicious fish dishes.

In recent years, Harbin has seized opportunities created by the coming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. It is leveraging its unique ice and snow cultural tourism resources and convenient transportation advantages to vigorously develop the ice and snow economy, turning the freeze into a booming industry. The ice and snow economy has maintained a sound development trend. From January 1 to 3, 2021, the 11 tourist attractions monitored by the city received more than 530,000 tourists.

According to the report China Ice and Snow Development 2021 released by China Tourism Academy, China’s ice and snow leisure tourism resorts are expected to welcome 230 million visits from 2020 to 2021 and take in revenues of more than 390 billion yuan (US$60.39 billion), driven by strong tourist demand and steady supply of high-quality ice and snow tourism resources. Harbin has exceptional geographical advantages to foster ice and snow tourism products and development modes. It is quickly becoming a world-class ice and snow tourism city.

“Over the next five years, Harbin will deeply explore our advantages in ice and snow resources,” said Wang Zhaoli, secretary of the Harbin Municipal Party Committee. “We will use ice and snow as the medium to conduct extensive exchange and cooperation, promote highquality development of the ice and snow economy, and strive to build a world-famous ice and snow cultural tourism city.”

By Wang Xiang 

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