The temperature in Harbin, China reaches forty below zero, both Fahrenheit and centigrade, and stays below freezing nearly half the year.
The city is actually further north than notoriously cold Vladivostok, Russia, just 300 miles away.
So what does one do here every winter?
Hold an outdoor festival, of course!
Rather than suffer the cold, the residents of Harbin celebrate it, with an annual festival of snow and ice sculptures and competitions.
This is the amazing sculpture made of snow greeting visitors to the snow festival in 2003.

 

Snow and ice sculpture in Harbin dates back to Manchu times, but  the first organized show was held in 1963, and the annual festival itself only started in 1985.  
Since  then, the festival has grown into a massive event, bringing in over a million tourists from all over the world every winter.  
The sculptures have become more elaborate and artistic over time;  this bear and cub are just one small part of a fifty-meter-wide mural sculpture.
 

Most of the sculptures appearing at the snow festival are competitive entries.
Each team starts with a cube of packed snow that appears to measure about three meters on a side, and then starts carving away.  
Teams come in from all over the world - Russia, Japan, Canada, France, even South Africa.  
Part of the fun is guessing the nationality of the team, based on their sculpture's artistic style, before reading the signs.  
Below was a Russian  entry:

 

The sun begins to set behind the magnificent entryway sculpture.
The  snow festival is actually separate from the ice festival; both take place on the wide open spaces of Sun Island Park north of Harbin's river, Songhua Jiang.

Harbin is situated south of the river, so it's a chilly ride over to the sites.  It seems even chillier when crossing the bridge over the very wide and very frozen
Songhua Jiang.
 

It was surprising to discover this sculpture of a Native American sitting in the frozen northeast of China.  Sure enough, a sign said that a Canadian team sculpted this entry.  
Chinese teams had many sculptures at the festival as well, off in another section, but a vast majority didn't measure up to these amazing works.

 

Even the sunsets in Harbin look cold.  Though only mid-afternoon, the sun was setting over the snow festival and the temperature was falling even further below freezing.  But the coming darkness was actually good news, because it meant that the ice festival was about to begin.
 

The  ice festival, a few miles away from the snow festival, is anything but dull and colorless. Crowds flocking to the  entrance are greeted by dance music booming in the distance, as if at an outdoor pop concert.  Bright neon colors shine everywhere, buried within huge blocks of ice forming structures as high as thirty meters, such as this huge structure beyond the entryway. You can just make out people standing atop its blue and red stairway.

 

A view from atop that structure, looking back on a Russian-styled building and a mock Great Wall, both constructed out of ice. Making it to the top of this structure is an accomplishment in itself - imagine walking up a stairway of solid ice for two floors with no handrails.
The yellow block wall on the right and the balcony work on the lower left are all ice, with no internal support structure - just lights.
 

The Great Wall doubles as a long ice slide; just sit and go.  You can pick up some serious speed and wipe out spectacularly at the bottom if you're wearing a slick coat, but you won't go anywhere if you're wearing corduroy pants.

 

An overview of the ice festival from atop the Great Wall of ice.  It's like a Disney theme park, with multiple attractions and food hawkers and kids running around and people lined up for bathrooms.  The only differences are that the temperature is about a hundred degrees colder than the typical Disney park, and all the structures are made out of ice rather than plastic  - and slipping and falling here doesn't result in tremendous lawsuits!
 

One of the popular activities at the festival is climbing a wall of solid ice. Amazingly, hardly anyone fell, and almost everyone made it to the top.  All the ice comes from Songhua Jiang, the nearby river, which provides a limitless supply. Huge chainsaws are required to cut through the ice, which can be meters thick.

 

The  snow festival is mostly a display of art; the ice festival is mostly a display of architecture.  
Nevertheless,  a number of sculptures can be found at the ice festival, such as this life-sized horse.  Agile youngsters with good balance climb atop the horses to have their pictures taken. Notice the layers of ice in the horse; blocks of ice are fused together to form larger blocks so that sculptures - or huge buildings - can be made.
 

An entire ship constructed of ice, with passengers onboard.  Though it might not be seaworthy, the ship would certainly float - after all, it's made of ice. Hundreds of years ago during the Manchu days of ice lantern art, the sculptures were lit only by candles.

 

A Thai temple of ice, complete with hallways and rooms inside.  Long ago, Disney made a Circle-Vision 360 film called "Wonders of China" - still showing at the China pavilion in the World Showcase at EPCOT - which includes a brief section on Harbin's ice festival.  In the movie, the sculptures are quite low-key, little more than blinking light bulbs inside small globes and ice carvings.  Things have changed a bit since those days!  Pictured below is the ice castle.
 

Narration and photos courtesy of R. Todd King.