HARBIN, China -- The cab hurtles at breakneck speed along the long bridge over the frozen Songhua River, and a brightly glowing suburb on the northwest bank comes into view. Still a few miles away, some of the town's buildings are discernible from here: a towering skyscraper, a soaring archway, a host of monolithic buildings.
Everything is bathed in green, pink, and yellow lights, and spotlights broadcast the town's presence by flooding the sky overhead.
I can't help but wonder if this is yet another Chinese industrial suburb, the kind springing up outside most of the country's big cities. Harbin, in the forbidding frozen land midway between North Korea and Siberia, is northeastern China's industrial center, so perhaps this is a new subdivision, albeit one that's nicely lighted, devoted to building cars or machinery or electronics of some sort.
As the cab races along, the town comes into closer view and the shocking reality hits me: The skyscraper, the arch, and the buildings -- they are not real. They are ice sculptures. Enormous, exquisitely detailed, painstakingly crafted ice sculptures.
The "town" is, in fact, what I had set out to find, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, yet I had never imagined something of this scale. It's a fairytale winter wonderland, with jaw-dropping works of ice art. I let out an audible gasp and the cab driver, probably accustomed to seeing such reactions, chuckles at my astonishment.
Building projects in China are rarely small. Whether it's the Great Wall or the Three Gorges dam, the Chinese have to make things bigger and grander. It's a matter of cultural pride. So while ice festivals in Sweden, Japan, or Quebec City may boast some extraordinary sculptures, they seem merely quaint compared with what Harbin has to offer.
The festival opens at the beginning of January and runs until it melts, usually mid-March. Even though winter temperatures routinely drop to 20 below zero, tourists flock to Harbin from all over -- though mainly from south China, Japan, and Russia -- and the city is alive with winter activities such as skating and tobogganing.
Ice sculptures are everywhere. Street lamps hang from ice pedestals; advertisements are posted on ice walls; banks have huge ice archways erected in front. While the sculptures are impressive during the day, they're positively magical at night as colored lights are inserted during construction, creating a luminescent glow-in-the-dark effect.
The proper festival is broken into two locations, the smaller in downtown Zhaolin Park. Even this "beginner" park is mind-blowing: A green-glowing, 30-foot pagoda at the southern end towers into the night sky. The park's northern end is a monument to China's military prowess: A 70-foot-long battleship and submarine flank an enormous aircraft carrier. If you pay a little extra, you can climb up the stairs inside the carrier to get a view of the park from its tower. A life-size replica of a Forbidden City temple, meanwhile, graces the park's eastern side.
"This is incredible," says Anna, a teenage Russian girl from Ussuriysk, near Vladivostok. She's here on a tour with her family and friends, and cannot believe the immensity of some of the sculptures. "We have ice festivals back in Russia, but nothing like this."
Back across the river, the cab driver drops me off in the parking lot of Harbin Ice and Snow World, the festival's main venue. It feels like Disneyland, with hundreds of parked cars and tour buses, and hawkers selling postcards and frozen candied crab apples. Bizarrely, ABBA plays from the park's loudspeakers.
I get my ticket and dive into the flood of people pushing in through the main gate, an exact replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. When I pop through on the other side, I am stunned once again. In front of me is a grand avenue lined with pillars -- all made of ice, of course. Red carpets run the length of the avenue, and sculptures of various shapes and sizes -- animals, buildings, even giant fruit -- stretch out in every direction. I don't know what to look at first.
I decide to head straight for the huge tower I had seen from the bridge. Glowing green and yellow, it's the centerpiece of the park and easily 20 stories tall. It looks like a cross between a Cambodian Wat and Taiwan's Taipei 101 tower (Asia's tallest building). A ring of Chinese tourists, along with a handful of Russians, gawks in amazement.
Venturing north, I come across a giant pagoda, reminiscent of Beijing's Temple of Heaven, perched atop a distant hill. People are walking gingerly on a 25-foot-tall Ming-style bridge that crosses an ice lake, then going up stairs that climb to the pagoda. Running down the other side of the hill is the Great Wall, seeming as impossibly long as the real thing.
Tucked in behind the tower is the Louvre, or its fade anyway, complete with a pyramid made of snow. Towering at least 60 feet high and several hundred feet long, it might as well have been transported here from Paris and frozen for all to see.
The sights just keeping on coming as I stroll through the park's spacious grounds: St. Peter's Basilica, an actual Cambodian Wat, a Confucian temple, an ice-climbing wall, a ski hill, and much, much more. It's mesmerizing to say the least.
Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province and about 250 miles south of Siberia, ran its first ice festival in 1985. It has been growing ever since, a trend that is likely to continue with the city's recent decision to create more parks, spaces that are sure to be filled with even more impressive sculptures.
The city itself has a past as colorful as its festival. Initially a small fishing village on the banks of the Songhua, Harbin became a haven for Russians fleeing the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In 1932, it was captured by the Japanese and used as a horrific germ warfare experimentation base during the Second World War. The city returned to Chinese rule after the war and, when relations with the Soviet Union turned frosty during the 1960s and 1970s, most of the native Russians withdrew.
Sadly, over the past few decades of development, Harbin has become more like a typical Chinese city -- dull, grey, polluted, and ugly -- and as such probably doesn't deserve its old "Little Moscow" nickname anymore. The Russian influence, however, still can be felt in its architecture and culture.
The heart of the city is Zhongyang Street, a mile-long cobblestone boulevard lined with shops, restaurants and cafes housed in classic Russian-style buildings. City authorities have realized the tourism value of Harbin's multi-ethnic heritage and have embarked on big restoration projects. Most of the buildings on Zhongyang, with their onion domes, cupolas, and spires, are newly restored or in the process of being patched up.
The street is also home to numerous restaurants serving Western food, as well as the odd Russian eatery, such as the imaginatively named Russia Coffee & Food. While true-blooded Russians scoff at the borscht and beef Stroganoff served up in these places, choosing instead to eat at one of the several
Just a few blocks off Zhongyang is Harbin's best-preserved example of Russian architecture, St. Sofia Orthodox Church. Built in 1907 and recently restored, the magnificent onion-domed church is no longer a place of worship, but the centerpiece of a large public square that houses Harbin's Architecture and Art Center, a museum of photographs devoted to the city's history. Unfortunately, as with most museums in China, the captions are in Chinese only, so a visit is worthwhile only to gander at the interior, which has been restored but left in its original state as much as possible.
Alternatively, you can amble about outside and admire the building while listening to the Zamfir-like pan flute music piped into the square. Strangely, Zamfir and his kin are for some reason equated with Russia in these parts (he is Romanian).
Despite all the Russian influence, Harbin's main attraction is completely Chinese. Standing again on the main avenue of Ice and Snow World, on the other side of the river, it is difficult to fathom the skill, ingenuity, and perseverance needed to create all these massive sculptures. Each is crafted from hundreds if not thousands of ice blocks and infused with dozens of multicolored lights, and most have taken days or weeks to create, all done in incredible cold.
Harbin's ice festival seems proof enough that in China, anything worth doing is worth doing big.
Peter Nowak is a freelance writer in Guangzhou, China.