The Harbin Ice Festival

Ian Robert Knight, Travel Photographer, Canada

On the day that I am writing this, much of Canada and the USA is in the middle of a deep freeze. Every year, it seems to get colder and more winter storms take place – all over the world. But in some places, the cold weather and low temperatures are an opportunity to celebrate the wonder that is winter. Harbin, in China’s northern Heilongjiang province is one of those places.

The cold weather we’re experiencing now, reminded me of the time I had the opportunity to attend the Harbin Ice Festival a few years ago. The festival, which goes by the official name of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, bills itself as the world’s biggest winter festival. I can’t be sure that that is an accurate description, but I can tell you that what I experienced was something I’ve never seen before. It was spectacular!

A building made from large blocks of ice.

Photograph by Ian Robert Knight

The event takes place in January and February every year, when the temperatures can dip down to -30°c or lower. Although the cold can be quite challenging to deal with, you get used to it eventually. Naturally, given the purpose of the festival, when it’s that cold, it adds to the experience.

The annual festival started in 1963, but took some time off during the Cultural Revolution. It resumed in 1985, and has been growing ever since. Initially, participants were all from China, but now it boasts an international reputation, and attracts sculptors from all over the world. Believe it or not, the teams from Thailand have won the snow sculpting competition every year for the last 8 years.

There are carnival rides and ice slides and costumed exhibitors, making the festival fun for everyone.

There are two main components of the festival – Sun Island, and Ice & Snow World. All of the snow sculptures are exhibited on Sun Island, which people visit during the daylight hours. And at night, Ice & Snow World comes alive with illuminated buildings created from meter-thick blocks of ice pulled from the nearby Songhua River. There are carnival rides and ice slides and costumed exhibitors, making the festival fun for everyone.

All the ice buildings are lit up at night.

Photograph by Ian Robert Knight

We found that we were able to withstand the low temperatures for about 30 or 45 minutes at most, before we had to warm up for a while. Luckily, there were many heated buildings around where we could have a hot chocolate and snacks, and thaw out. We wore three layers of everything. For instance, I had thermal leggings, jeans and snow pants on. And I had fingerless gloves on, covered by fingered gloves, and further covered by mittens. I had three hats on. You get the idea. It was cold.

Can you really take photos?

As a photographer, there were some pretty significant challenges to work around. It’s understandable that if the temperature is too cold for humans, it’s also likely too cold for camera equipment. And indeed it was.

Cameras are capable of working in very cold temperatures, but the batteries are not. We had to keep a spare battery in an inside pocket close to our body, so it would stay warm. And every once in a while, we’d have to switch out the cold, exhausted battery, with a warm one to give the camera some more life.

The other problem was condensation on the lenses. Whenever we took refuge in the warming huts, the lenses could fog up, due to the dramatic change in the temperature. So to combat that problem, we would put our cameras into large plastic zip-lock bags before we entered the warming hut. That way, the same cold air as the outside would surround the cameras, while inside the bag. Once we were back outside, we could remove them from the bag, and it would be still cold, and ready to work.

Given a chance, I’d love to return to the festival. Despite the low temperatures, it was completely worth it. If you ever have an opportunity to be in northern China in January or February, you should really check it out. Maybe you’ll see me there.


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Ian Robert Knight Photography

Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.

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