City of Ice

Harbin's Arctic Attractions Lure Cold, Hard Cash

February 15, 2005

HARBIN, China -- It's so cold here, locals don't bother to add "below zero" when they say the temperature.

Ink pens freeze, giving a whole new meaning to the term "writer's block." Cell phones slow down, breath condenses and freezes on your eyeglasses. Any trip outdoors is preceded by 10 minutes of layering on the wool, down and fleece and boots.

With temperatures at about 5 degrees during the day and 25 at night (that's below zero), you'd think no one would want to come here. Think again.

Harbin, the City of Ice, situated deep in Manchuria, has turned itself into one of the most popular winter destinations in the country.

More than 1 million people visited during last year's week-long Lunar New Year holiday, 18 percent more than the previous year.

This city of 9 million used to hate being called the City of Ice. Its preferred moniker was, and still is, the Little Paris of the East, even though its landscape of elegant Russian colonial buildings has long ago been obscured by a sea of smokestacks.

Once home to a large population of Russians, many of them Jews fleeing czarist Russia in the early 1900s, Harbin eventually became one of the pillars of China's industrial northeast.

Locals constructed elaborate sculptures of ice and snow to stave off the excruciating boredom of the long winters. Two decades ago, factories started competing with each other for the grandest designs.

In recent years, with many of the factories idle, the city invested money to restore old synagogues and Russian churches. But officials soon realized tourists were more interested in its outdoor wonders than its bad Russian food.

So Harbin embraced its wintery identity and invented the Ice & Snow Festival, full of exquisite and enormous sculptures.

The success of the festival is a testament to the growing spending power of China's middle-class. Week-long winter holidays in a faraway place, once an unheard-of bourgeois luxury, are now common for many families.

Harbin has capitalized on its tourism with bold abandon.

Everything has been commercialized. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia has been turned into a gallery and costs $3 to enter. Old folks who would start the day with an icy dip in the Songhua River have been formed into the "Provincial Winter Swim Team." Hundreds of tourists pay about $2.50 to see their twice-daily "performance."

There are what the city's boosters purport to be: China's longest ice pool, Asia's only hotel made of ice, Asia's longest outdoor sled run and so on.

The six-lane sled run on the Songhua River is made completely out of ice. The river provides the raw material for other wonders, too.

Thousands of blocks of ice are cut by chainsaws from the frozen Songhua and made into replicas of everything from a Thai temple to the Paris Opera.

Truckloads of man-made snow are sculpted into anything an artist fancies, from a three-story snow rooster (for this Year of the Rooster) to the abstract arch from the "India-Serbia and Montenegro" team in the international competition.

But the festival is out of reach for many locals, with tickets costing $20. The government-set average monthly wage in Harbin is just $44.

"If a family of three goes to the ice show, they'd have to go without food for a month," noted a taxi driver.

Instead, locals like to spend their money on -- believe it or not -- frozen treats. Popsicle-like confections are about 25 cents each.

"It's so warm indoors, eating Popsicles cools you down," explained vendor Liu Huazhou as she stood on the frozen street with several boxes of cream-flavored Popsicles by her side.

No freezer necessary.

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