In compensation for Harbin’s cruel winter weather, the annual Ice Festival (冰灯节, bīngdēng jié), centred on Zhaolin Park, is held from January 5 to February 5 – though with the influx of tourists, the dates extend each year. Sculptors, some of them teenagers, work twelve-hour days in -20°C December weather to help transform the park into a fairy-tale landscape: the magnificent ice sculptures they create are sometimes entire buildings, complete with slides, stairways, arches and bridges. Carved with chainsaws and picks, the creations often have coloured lights inside to heighten the psychedelic effect. Highlights of past festivals have included detailed replicas of St Paul’s Cathedral and life-size Chinese temples, though these days cartoon characters outnumber more traditional Chinese subject matter.
The festivities take place in various places around the city, though the two largest exhibitions are over the river on Sun Island. Here you’ll find the Snow Sculpture Art Exhibition (8am–5.30pm; ¥240) and the Ice & Snow World (9am–midday ¥150; midday–9pm ¥300). Back in central Harbin, there’s the smaller Ice Lantern Garden Party (2–9.30pm; ¥200) in Zhongshan Park. At all venues, festival’s end is marked with fireworks and pickaxes; visitors are encouraged to destroy the icy artwork by hand.