Every couple of years, despite memories of bitter cold, I get the urge to return to Harbin to see its three big winter festival events - particularly the huge Harbin Ice and Snow World.  2009 celebrates the event’s tenth year, and it just keeps getting better and better.  Goodness, look at that ice castle!  Nothing in the past Ice and Snow Worlds I attended - in 2003, 2005 and 2007 - compared to this.  The silhouettes of people walking along its multi-tiered terrace give an idea of its size.  And here’s the amazing thing: this ice castle was not the main feature at this year’s Ice and Snow World.

That honor went to the Flame Castle, a small part of which is shown here.  What made this structure special was that seconds after I took this photograph...

...the scene had changed to this.  Ice towers that were green and blue were now red and yellow.  This year, the Ice and Snow World went beyond the use of fluorescent bulbs and began using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in some of the ice structures, including a number of the towers in the Flame Castle.  Because of the LEDs, those ice structures can now change color!  The towers dissolved slowly through the primary colors while their roofs rapidly swept wave after wave of color upward like a flame.

Top of the Flame Castle’s ice towers, with people standing on its highest terrace.  The new LED lighting promises to change this event in the coming years by making it more dynamic, just as the move from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs years ago allowed for bigger and brighter ice structures.  The scene here was constantly changing, with the outer towers and the tall central tower in the background flowing in colors.

Here is another change, a more modest one.  I first saw trees with glowing buds at the 2007 Ice and Snow World; the few trees on display there all glowed red.  They’ve proven popular: glowing trees now appear in multiple colors, as shown here up close and in the distance, and are displayed throughout the event as well as in areas around Harbin.  Visitors like having their photographs taken underneath them so much that it’s difficult to take a photograph like this without someone wandering into the shot.

Even with the changes, much was familiar from past Ice and Snow World events - familiar, but larger and far more elaborate.  The simple Buddha of two years ago evolved into a remarkably huge and detailed snow structure, shown on the left.  And the pagodas were much more complex as well.

This recreation of China’s Jingshan Octagonal Pagoda, photographed in the last light of day, would have been a highlight years ago; an ice structure 25 meters in height was no small thing then.

Churches, cathedrals and castles from Europe and North America remain popular at the Ice and Snow World as well, such as this stunning 34-meter-high reproduction of France’s Chartres Cathedral.  The selection of structures appearing here was not random.  Just weeks after these photographs were taken, Harbin hosted the 24th Winter Universiade international sporting event; the structures chosen for display at the Ice and Snow World were from countries that hosted the Winter Universiade in the past.  France hosted the first Winter Universiade in 1960.

An octagonal church, also based on one in France.  The Flame Castle’s main tower can be seen in the background, in green.

A carriage horse and driver, best friends forever.  Horse-drawn carriages have appeared at every Ice and Snow World I’ve attended.

No Ice and Snow World would be complete without a lot of ice slides.  It was a long five-story climb to the golden ice structure on top, and a very quick slide down.

The climb, on stairs of ice...

...and the slide, the longest at this year’s event.

The clever fellow on the left tried to shoe-ski his way down this curved ice slide.  He made it this far and then wiped out, somersaulting spectacularly.

Parents assist their child after her ice slide at a replica of Spain’s Segovis Castle.  If I were to enter any of these photographs in a contest, I would choose this one.

Surprisingly, Canada has not yet hosted a Winter Universiade, but the country rated an ice structure in its honor anyway.  This is Quebec’s Notre Dame, doubling as yet another ice slide.

The green slide coming down from the Prague Castle reproduction.

The big bell was back at the Ice and Snow World this year, and just as popular as ever, with visitors ramming a log into it all night long.  On the right is the main tower of the Flame Castle in purple; on the left in the distance is the ice castle.

And no Harbin winter festival event would be complete without candied fruit on a stick - haws, strawberries and pineapple - frozen hard as a rock.  I said in these pages long ago that a steady diet of these would keep a dentist in business for years; sure enough, one of my traveling companions this night crushed a tooth eating one of these.

Front-on view of the full Flame Castle, main tower in blue.

Red tree bud lights with another tree of green lights behind.

The Flame Castle, main tower now in orange, framed by an ice archway.

Turning around from the above shot reveals this maze, inside a replica of Warsaw, Poland’s Church of the Holy Cross.

Green tree bud lights with a tree of blue lights in the distance.

The Flame Castle up close.

Russian dolls for sale at the Harbin Ice and Snow World.  Most Caucasians in Harbin are from nearby Russia, and often the locals tried to strike up a conversation with me in Russian.

From simple to complex: a giant game board, with the ice castle in the distance.  It took 12,500 people to create the Ice and Snow World this year.

Detail of the ice castle spires.

The blue light shining through this ice wall picks up on air bubbles and other imperfections created as the ice froze in the nearby Songhua Jiang, the river from where the ice was cut.

The Flame Castle, with the main tower in red.  The flags of ten nations appear in the foreground and those of a few dozen more in the background.  I don’t know if every nation was represented, but the Flame Castle was encircled by over a hundred of these flagpoles with lights at the top.

A fan sprays mist over the grounds.  With the temperature 25 below zero Celsius (13 below zero Fahrenheit), the mist froze in air and then provided a crunchy, non-slippery path for walking.

Climbing the stairs of the Prague Castle replica.

Ice and Snow World visitors around the base of the Flame Castle.

Skating cycles on ice.

A view of the ice castle from the skating cycle rink.

Replica of a Tatar mosque in Harbin, originally built in 1906 and rebuilt in 1922.

The Flame Castle, main tower in blue.  That tower’s overall height approached fifty meters.

Beyond the green and yellow structures is the Harbin Ice and Snow World’s main entertainment stage; a large crowd is silhouetted center stage for a dance.  The massive ice wall behind the stage changed color in time with the music.  Part of the stage was a skating rink used for a musical production.

Fluorescent lighting within an ice wall.

Blue tree bud lights with another tree of green lights in the background.

Inside the walls of the Flame Castle.

A very cute and furry snow fox, one of a number at the Ice and Snow World.  Alert but tame, they curled up on a table out in the open in the sub-zero weather, with their owner occasionally picking them up so that people could pet them.

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.