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Harbin's world-famous shimmering ice festival is truly worth the risk of frostbite, says Mike Peters
There is a crazy man in Harbin, trudging in big boots along a snowy path through a fairyland ice city. His hands are freezing - it's -29 C and it's only 7 pm - and though he has sturdy gloves in his pocket, he won't put them on. The down-packed fingertips would prevent him from taking more pictures.
And what pictures.
There is a miniature Forbidden City - if you can call an ice palace "miniature" when you can climb life-size steps and walk around the colorfully illuminated rooms inside.
There is a Coliseum, bathed in green light and pulsing with a hip-hop beat that the Emperor Diocletian might have enjoyed. To our left is the huge head of the Sphinx, an ice carving as tall as a four-floor building, with ice slides that deliver screaming teens (and more than a few adults) down four slick chutes from the statue's eye level back down to the ground.
I am that crazy man roaming around this Disney-like dream land. I can't stop taking pictures. But nature will save me when my common sense fails. My camera shutter eventually freezes (half open), and I put on my gloves and run to the hot-coffee tent.
Harbin's annual Ice and Snow Festival, which opens the first week of January and ends this year on Feb 28, in Heilongjiang province, is a fantasy of iconic buildings made of ice and folk legends sculpted in snow. Plan a trip and veterans who have been there will repeat two words over and over: "cold" and "beautiful".
Both are true, but the beauty is so eye-popping that it's well worth bundling up against frostbite to see the shimmering spectacle.
"Most visitors can't translate 'minus 30' into 'What should I wear?'," says Dave Hadley, an English teacher in town and editor of The Haerbinger magazine. "You need layers, and lots and lots of socks." Noses, ears and hands need good coverage, too.
Hadley notes that while other ice festivals around the world depend on ice-carving artists to put on a show, many of the works here are local. "The theme is determined, and then designs come together," he says. "Many of the structures are developed by engineering students here in Harbin."
The resulting carnival is dotted with booths selling food and folk souvenirs and a chance to have your picture taken with a huge white yak. A Harbin beer bottle, carved out of ice and nearly as tall as the Sphinx, has a heated pavilion at its base, where hot chocolate, coffee and tea are understandably in demand. If you want to show off your hardiness, have a cold beer.
From the city, there are several ways to get to the festival. If you are trying to do everything in a day, start with lunch and a stroll along Zhongyang Dajie. This pedestrian-only street is the heart of the city's Russian legacy, with interesting shops and food.
About three blocks to the east is the Church of St Sophia, a lovely red-brick Russian Orthodox landmark with a distinctive green "onion" dome. The inside is now an architecture museum.
While there is still daylight left, take a quick taxi ride across the Songhua River to Sun Island Park. Go to the snow sculpture park first (admission 150 yuan, about $21.9) and see the huge and amazingly life-like reproductions of folk musicians, heroes of China, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, temples, gates, archways and other structures big enough to step through and explore. Worth noting: Public toilets inside the park are closed for winter; there are working toilets at the park entrance.
Then at twilight, head for the ice venue (another quick cab ride or a 20-minute walk, depending on how cold your feet are at that point). At night the ice park (admission 200 yuan) glitters in colored lights like a kaleidoscope, and visitors can skate, play hockey or watch a figure-skating show as well as gawk at the huge ice city.