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Chills and thrills
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The festival features many buildings constructed from ice.


When Jack Frost comes to Harbin in winter he doesn't just nip at your nose; he chomps on all exposed flesh. But plunging mercury makes for soaring spirits in the capital of Heilongjiang province, and the spirit of the season is now taking shape at the world's largest snow and ice sculpting festival.


An Olympic theme dominates this year's Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival, which includes an ice lantern festival, a snow sculpting festival and construction of an ice city, in addition to smaller events.


Fuwa and rows of rings abound among the more than 2,000 ice-lantern sculptures, chiseled from more than 30,000 cu m of frozen H20 harvested from the Songhua River for the 34th Ice Lantern Festival. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, which can plunge to less than -30 C at night, many festivalgoers burn with Olympic fever. In Zhaolin Park, multitudes of shivering tourists can be seen jumping barriers to sneak snapshots posing with these sculptures.


According to organizers, the ice lantern event has drawn more than 30 million visitors to Zhaolin since it was inaugurated in 1963.


Sculptor Jenny Richter works on Team Germany's snow sculpture on Sun Island.


"Everybody, all of the sculptors say, Harbin is No 1, and there is no No 2," says American snow sculptor Steward Trail. "Putting on an ice and snow sculpture festival - nobody else does it to this magnitude."


Trail was working with Team Germany on a sculpture entitled The Maelstrom for the 20th International Snow Sculpture Art Expo on Harbin's Sun Island. The piece depicts a woman emerging from a spiral, which Trail says is intended to represent the universe. It will take 32 hours of work in the biting cold to finish, Trail says.


"You've got to skip lunch, because it's a lot of work," Trail's teammate German sculptor Jenny Richter says, while carving creases into the woman's blockish fingers.


Russian sculptors Eury Zolotarev, a fourth-year participant, and Vladimir Barsukov, an eight-year festival veteran, say it will take four days to finish their piece. The work depicts a scene in which an old man smokes a pipe on one side of a traditional Russian sauna, while children play with a puppy on the roof.


"I think it's interesting, with the old and young together," Barsukov says. "The old man was young once, too, and he used to be mischievous. But now he smokes and doesn't see the children, while the children repeat history."


A carpet of frost clings to Barsukov's mustache, and Zolotarev's exhalations have clotted in his beard as ice globules. Some crack apart when he smiles.


But Barsukov insists it's worth it. "We learn new things every year," he says.


German Kristina Binder, who came from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, says the scale of the festival amazes her.


"It's much bigger than I thought. It's like a construction site."


On parts of Sun Island, cranes hoist industrial shipping crates packed with snow to the top of multi-story snow structures teeming with crews of shovel-wielding carvers clad in PLA jackets and ushankas.


The 9th Harbin Ice and Snow World, south of downtown, features colossal frozen castles, a section of the Forbidden City and a massive Acropolis. Organizers say it took more than 100,000 cu m of snow and 120,000 cu m of ice to construct the icy cityscape on the 16-hectare site.


"We've been to other ice and snow festivals, but there's never been an ice or snow sculpture that's six stories tall," says American Dave Paborsky, who came with his family of four from Shanghai for a weekend visit.


This year, a team of sculptors set a world record for the largest snow sculpture at the 20th International Snow Sculpture Art Exposition, on Harbin's Sun Island. Entitled Romantic Feelings, the reclining woman is 35 m tall and 200 m long.


And this year's ice lantern festival set three world records, bringing its total to 10.


The world's largest ice flower, chiseled by the Harbin Ice Lantern Art Exposition Center, was years in the planning, organizers say.


Performances will be given by the world's first ice percussion group, whose instruments are modeled after bianzhong (bells) excavated from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) tombs along the Yangtze River in Hubei province.


Visitors can also see the largest-ever ice sculpture of Mickey Mouse, created to celebrate the iconic rodent's 80th birthday and to usher in the Year of the Mouse.


Locals say the tradition of ice lantern making began in Harbin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They were made by setting a bucket of water outside, and, after an ice crust formed, the top was punctured, the water drained from the core and a candle lit inside the vessel's cavity. Today, lantern-makers substitute candlelight with neon, adding color to the craft.


Many of the ice structures take the form of slides, such as those shaped like the Great Wall, mazes and obstacle courses. Visitors can also wander through snow tunnels and climb ice walls.


A large ice bar has been built on the city's central avenue, Zhongyang Dajie, serving warming shots of Russian vodka to patrons seated on tables and chairs made of ice and swathed in animal furs. Even the bar's ashtrays are formed from frozen water.


From the banks of the frozen Songhua River, people can be seen skating, dogsledding and riding in horse-drawn carriages. The city also organizes basketball and soccer games on the river, while plenty of people toboggan, ski and go ice sailing. In places where holes have been chiseled in the thick mantle of ice covering the lake, people fish and even swim in the wintry waters. For 50 yuan ($6.90), visitors can enjoy the entire spectacle from a cableway spanning the banks of the river to Sun Island.


Mexican Leus Barragan, a student at Northeast Normal University, in Changchun, Jilin province, says: "For me, as a Mexican, it's really amazing, because in Mexico, there's no snow."


The festival comes to a crescendo during Spring Festival and reaches a melting point in late March, when all of its frozen features begin to thaw. Organizers estimate 6 million visitors would descend on the city to discover just how nice ice can be.


The world's largest snow sculpture, entitled Romantic Feelings, stands at 35 m tall and 200 m long.   Photos by Erik Nilsson


(China Daily by Erik NilssonJanuary 31, 2008)


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