There’s something inherently appealing about ice sculptures. Artists working with this crystalline medium can create hauntingly beautiful sculptures that capture light and reflect it in a thousand odd directions. The ephemeral nature of ice gives the ice sculptures a sense of immediacy, as if viewers have caught a fleeting glimpse of beauty that is not intended to last.
Every January, tens of thousands of tourists ski, dog sled, skate, and drive ever-so-carefully to the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin to experience the annual Ice Festival. There are restaurants, events, and fireworks, but by far the most alluring feature is the fact that thousands of expert artists worked tirelessly to create beautiful ice sculptures that come alive at night with an almost ghostly glow.
Don’t think of this festival as some small exhibition, because it is anything but. This sprawling festival creates something more akin to an ice city than a mere exhibition. Visitors can tour through entire houses made of ice (complete with ice furniture), zip down ice slides that are longer than football fields, and walk along icy replicas of the Great Wall of China. From these nighttime videos, it’s clear that the shifting colors and icy buildings provide visitors with an experience unlike any other on earth. These images look less like an ice building and more like something you’d expect to see in a Disney movie.
The artists cut the ice blocks from the nearby Songhua river, which provides them with a cheap and nearly endless supply of materials for their subzero creations.
Unlike most things in China, this tradition is a very new one. It began in the 1960s and took off around 1985 after China’s Cultural Revolution. As the years passed and China’s economy grew, the Harbin Ice Festival has reached truly epic proportions with their larger-than-life ice replicas of world wonders, buildings, and cultural images.
As I mentioned, the most spectacular part of the Ice Festival is at night, when they illuminate everything with an array of multicolored lights. These ice lights span the spectrum of technology, ranging from cool-burning lasers to specially designed ice lanterns.
If you are ever lucky enough to visit Harbin in January, you’re in for a treat. Just be sure to bundle yourself up, because the temperature will range from 17° to -13° F (-8° to -25° C).