HARBIN, China — Amy Chen waited in line for an hour on the long, frigid staircase made of ice, shivering in the subzero night air. When her turn finally came, she jumped onto a hard blue plastic sled for a 30-second zip down a straight, narrow, 1,000-foot luge-like track.
“It was worth the wait,” she said, breathlessly brushing the powered snow from her face and clothes after finishing her frozen ride. “We don’t have anything like this in Shanghai. We don’t even have snow.”
Across the vast frozen park on the shores of the Songhua River at the edge of Harbin, full-sized ice castles glitter in neon as shivering revelers dance to techno music on a slippery stage. Off in the distance, Buddhists bow and light incense before a giant snow carving of the goddess of compassion, Guanyin. A full-scale replica of one section of the Great Wall is carved in the ice while a cross-section of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium is rendered in snow. There is also a European castle flanked by Beijing Olympics mascots here, a giant snow Santa set near a Chinese-style ice temple there.
“I like it because there are so many different things to see. It’s beautiful,” said Liu Yangmei, a young man from Beijing who was working quickly to tick off the sights with his girlfriend over two days in Harbin.
The sheer size of the world’s largest ice and snow festival is breathtaking: The entire festival covers nearly 100 acres with artwork carved by artists from around the world using 35 million gallons of ice and 25 million gallons of snow.
Those who tire of looking at snow and ice carved into buildings and objects head to the nearby ski hill. The bolder thrill-seekers venture to the Siberian tiger park outside the city, where they can buy a live goat or cow and watch it torn limb-from-limb and devoured by the endangered tigers. Others gather to watch swimmers plunge into the frozen river.
This is extreme winter tourism China-style, and it is not for the faint of heart. It is very cold, often exhausting and an overwhelming mass of ice and neon. It is also immensely popular with ever-more adventurous and well-heeled Chinese tourists. An estimated 800,000 tourists, most Chinese, travel to China’s far northeast to see Harbin’s winter wonderland each year, and the number is expected to grow this year.
Recent years have brought headaches. A massive chemical spill in 2005 dampened the 2006 festival. Last year, many blamed climate change and warmer temperatures as the ice melted weeks ahead of schedule and the party fizzled out far sooner than planned. This year, the city’s 25th two-month ice and snow festival, is on track to be the biggest yet.
That fact comes not in spite of the global economic crisis, but perhaps because of it. Chinese tourists have dramatically scaled back their overseas visits in recent months in favor of spending holidays at home, government agencies report. With the Spring Festival, the celebration of the Lunar New Year and the biggest holiday of the year, in full swing, Harbin is poised to benefit.
“It's Spring Festival, people come here to have fun,” said Huang Weiguo, director of Harbin local travel agency. “They don't care too much about what they spend.”