Welcome to... Montreal after a snowstorm? No, this is “The 19th Annual China Harbin Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair” in Harbin, China. When I first attended this festival in 2003 and then visited again in 2005, the event was a purely Chinese affair; this 2007 festival was a cooperative effort with the city of Montreal, Canada, making it a very different festival from years past. Harbin’s Sun Island Park - a hundred acres along the north bank of the Songhuajiang, the river separating the park from the city’s downtown to the south - once again hosted the snow festival.
I arrived in Harbin earlier this day not knowing of the Canadian influence, and anxious to see the festival right away, I sped right past Sun Island Park’s driveway entrance without noticing the giant snow sculpture and models of maple leaves there. That would have struck me as odd, as Harbin has no maple trees. So my first hint that something unusual was going on did not come until after I entered the park’s west gate and discovered this series of trees, carved out of snow, sprouting branches of artificial maple leaves in full autumn color.
Past those non-Chinese maples, and then past this non-Chinese cavalry providing security for the snow festival...
...was this non-Chinese village. The road these visitors strolled had the very non-Chinese name of Saint Dennis Street. Clearly something different was happening at the festival from years past, and final confirmation of that came...
...when I noticed that all the village shop signs were in French. A little further along Saint Dennis Street, lines of Canadian flags like those in the first photograph began to appear, and I started to wonder if I was in Harbin at all.
Reassurance that I was truly still in China came with a visit to the village center. These very tall dragons were not made of snow; actually, they appeared to be covered in astroturf. Lines of alternating Chinese and Canadian flags appear on the continuation of Saint Dennis Street beyond. Everything I saw up to this point was completely different from the Harbin snow festivals of years past.
If you’re thinking of buying a home in this quaint village, check out the room sizes first; space appears rather tight. And if you do buy, make sure your home maintenance warranty lasts beyond spring.
Beyond the village, the snow festival appeared more like those of the past. Many snow sculptures celebrated the approaching Chinese New Year, which in 2007 brings the Year of the Pig. This is no ordinary pig year, however. It’s an event that occurs only once every sixty years: a Golden Pig Year. Despite the specialness of the occasion, no golden yellow snow was to be found at the festival. Thank goodness.
Déjà vu. If you saw my earlier sets of snow festival photographs, then this sculpture should look familiar: it’s a copy of the snow maiden appearing at the festival four years ago, somewhat smaller than the original. This one is not made of snow; the original sculpture proved so popular that Sun Island Park erected a permanent version, which must appear somewhat out of place in the middle of a Harbin summer.
This huge snow sculpture is of Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who came to China in 1938, became medical chief of Mao’s army fighting the Japanese, and trained thousands in China to become doctors and medical personnel. Though Bethune died only a year or so after arriving in China, Mao - who noted Bethune’s resemblance to Lenin, as you might have - considered him a hero for introducing modern medicine to China. All Chinese know of Norman Bethune; Mao wrote an essay about him that every child had to memorize during the Cultural Revolution, and Chinese schoolchildren today continue to learn about him. If you pick up a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book during a visit to China, you’ll find the essay there.
More entertaining were the nearby competition snow sculptures. Each year, the snow festival hosts a snow sculpting competition that draws teams from around the world. One reason I recommend that festival visitors come to Harbin in mid to late January - a couple of weeks after the January 5th opening every year - is because the results of the snow and ice sculpting competitions can then be seen. Here’s a simple but fun snow sculpture from the competition entitled “Christmas”. Notice the maple leaf models on the ground, again reflecting the Canadian theme; the park had an abundance of these, and apparently they lit up at night.
The sculptures can be stunning. This is one of two that took third place in the competition, a Russian entry called “Game”. In a garden, a hidden girl watches a boy playing with a dog. The style is wonderful - like characters in an animated movie - and amazingly consistent, expressive and pronounced for a sculpture made of snow. Look at the girl’s feet, one set of toes timidly covering the other.
Some of the sculptures, while remaining artful, tended to focus more on technical feats involving the structural stability of snow. For example, this sculpture, “Frostwork”, is completely hollowed out, with half the face missing...
...which does give an interesting glow to her face when the sunlight is right.
This snow sculpture too, entitled “The Home of Fish”, is hollowed out. Here, fish swim around inside a broken old diver’s helmet at the bottom of the sea. Ice is used to look like shards of broken glass. Some park workers told visitors that this sculpture had caved in due to unusually warm weather - more on that later - but this was not true; the sculpture was clearly designed to look this way, with sea plants even growing out through the broken portion of the helmet.
Another Russian entry, entitled “Northern Music”, took the other third-place prize in the snow sculpture competition. Honestly, I’m not sure why; it’s nice, but I considered a number of the other sculptures more deserving.
The one impressive flourish I noticed on “Northern Music” was the deer appearing on the player’s fingertips.
Another flute-playing maiden, this one actually made of snow, playing for park visitors. The competition snow sculptures tended to be around three meters - ten feet - in height. Over fifty teams took part in the competition this year.
The second-place sculpture of a Chinese bronze in the shape of a bull, entitled “Ancient Practice”, happened to sit right in front of “Game”. My understanding is that this sculpture was created by a team from a Harbin university that has now achieved second place at this competition three years in a row.
“Ancient Practice” viewed from behind, still looking dramatic. This did not appear to be a particularly complex sculpture in comparison with some of the others here, so I imagine it was the artistic quality that won it a prize.
“Waiting”, a Mongolian entry to the snow sculpture competition.
This absolutely amazing Russian entry, entitled “Fairy Tale of the Forest”, was the top prize winner at the snow sculpting competition this year. Another hollowed-out snow structure, it seems to defy gravity; the thin tree trunk characters surrounding the fairy leave the sculpture completely open on three sides and supported by nothing more than her hair.
“Fairy Tale of the Forest” viewed from the back left, again showing the vast openness of the sculpture and the reliance of the fairy’s hair for structural support. It seems egg-shell delicate, yet somehow remains standing. Notice that the tree trunks truly are characters in this sculpture, with branches like arms outstretched above their tiny heads.
Across a small frozen lake north of the competition sculptures was the largest snow sculpture ever created, a new Guinness World Records entry: 250 meters (over 800 feet) long, 28 meters (over 90 feet) high in parts, using more than 13 thousand square meters (nearly a half million cubic feet) of man-made snow. Though continuous, it actually consisted of two sculptures. The eastern half represented Niagara Falls and was frankly a rather boring sight, just vertical ridges of very static snow representing the wide waterfall. The western half, entitled “Crossing the Bering Strait”, was far more interesting with its depiction of First Nations people on the move. This shows part of that sculpture.
Detail of “Crossing the Bering Strait” viewed from a different angle. The detail is not nearly as extensive as the competition sculptures, but then again, we’re talking about three football field lengths of snow here.
The frozen lake itself, called the “Ten Thousand Person Skating Arena” during the snow festival, had little activity this day. Dogs here wait to pull sleighs of visitors across the ice.
Non-competition sculptures appeared throughout Sun Island Park as well, and though far less complex, some of them were impressive, like this boy with a toy.
The Canadian “Maple Leaf Ice Screen”, with another park sculpture. The blazing sun appearing over that sculpture turned out to be an unwelcome theme at the festival: the weather was unusually warm this year. Temperatures reached just below freezing - or in this case, just below melting - on the festival’s opening day, as it did a number of times in the preceding weeks. The only standing water in the park though came from festival officials nervous with sweat.
That is indeed Santa Claus on the door of this Chinese restaurant made of snow. During my late-January visit to Harbin, temperatures reached near melting again a number of times, though the sculptures and structures I saw seemed to show no ill effects. However, it topped freezing many days in early February, and I can only imagine the many problems that must have caused. Needless to say, warm weather is the worst thing that can happen to a snow and ice festival.
Another park snow sculpture, back near the Canadian village. During winter, people in Harbin often leave food they have stored up outside on their balconies to freeze. So a lot of people were complaining about the warm weather this year, since their food kept thawing out.
This was an unusual find - not the very tame snow slides, but the huge structure behind them. To my knowledge, this was the only replica of an actual site to appear at the snow festival: it’s the Château Frontenac in Quebec City.
The Canadian cavalry shown earlier on this page rides off into the sunset. They’re headed the right direction, because a mile or two ahead of them, just west of Sun Island Park, is the location of the Harbin Ice and Snow World getting ready to begin its activities for the night.
My Harbin winter festival photographs through 2007 have been published as a book entitled “Hot Ice and Wondrous Strange Snow: The Winter Festivals of Harbin, China”. The book, available through Blurb.com, can be previewed and purchased below.