Memories of Harbin’s Ice Lantern Festival

Please go back in time with me about 25 years ago when I lived for two years in Harbin, the cold northeastern part of China. I enjoyed the breathtaking, beautiful sights of the Ice Lantern Festival which happened every January up to Chinese new year. I actually think Astana, Kazakhstan should have such a winter festival as well. However, that would mean the Kazakhs would need to ask the Chinese experts to come help them carve the huge ice blocks.  That won’t be happening any time soon due to sticky political reasons. Let’s just say there is an old, border tension that exists between these uneasy neighbors of Kazakhstan and China.

I do remember what a thrill it was for me, as an American, when the Harbin ice carvers came to St. Paul, MN back in the early 1990s to show Minnesotans how to do the intricate cuts into the ice blocks.  Back then in Harbin, the Chinese workers would take huge frozen ice blocks from the Songhua River and chip away the different shapes of animals and people.  I’m not sure HOW they quarried the ice on such a large scale, what was even more amazing were the intricate designs they chiseled on a micro scale. One of the experts used a little carved wood piece on top of his block as a kind of model.  The carvers needed to work carefully but quickly to make their exhibition ready for the judges.

With all the carvers stationed at their block, the whole park was starting to fill up with huge statues that looked like crystal.  For example, one exhibit was a dragon.  Another was of a pheasant where the artist delicately cut away the slender, fragile feathers.  A marvel to behold.  An owl was represented with outstretched wings and I saw many other examples, even some done by visiting Canadian artists.

One adventure while at the Ice Lantern Festival was our taking a horse drawn sled out to the middle of the frozen Songhua River. My friend and I watched the Chinese men take their daily plunge into the river.  These dedicated swimmers go into serious year round training for this event so their bodies are used to the frigid cold.  It was actually warmer in the water than outside of their carved out area, the size of a pool, where they did laps.

On the particular day we went to see these “walruses” take their dip, the wind chill factor was at an all time low.  None of the native Harbin people were crazy enough to watch this matinee showing of the swimmers.  In fact, it was very difficult for me to get my hand outside of my glove to even take a photograph.  How cold it must have been for these swimmers donning only their swimming trunks and flip flops!  For the high dive, they had blocks of ice atop one another, I have bone chilled photos to prove it!

Thankfully we got back to the sheltered “warmth” of the riverbank to enjoy the other entertainment with brightly lit castles and other structures (made out of ice but with colored lights inside). The whole Chinese family (remember “one-child policy was already in affect) came to enjoy. A Chinese family meant ma + pa + only child. Collectively the children would careen down the twisted slope down to the bottom to continue sliding across the ice of the frozen river.  Gleeful shouts of exhilaration could be heard from the little children who were under the watchful eyes of their doting parents.

We often would see toddlers or older wear a coat with sleeves nearly dragging to the ground.  The idea was that the child would eventually grow into the jacket.  Also the color of choice for young children was red, it was anathema for adults back in that era to wear red. Some Chinese were horrified that I, as a 30 something, young woman wore red sometimes. Although even while I was living in China that fashion trend was soon starting to change from the dour looking Mao jackets the older generation wore.  Perhaps these days you might not see too many dark blue Mao jackets.

(to be continued)

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    havanahyde said,

    i would love to see pics!

    • 2

      kazaknomad said,

      I would love to SHOW photos that I took in Harbin, especially of the men jumping into the Songhua River in the winter time. Alas, they are all on slide format, as in slide carousel for a slide show used back in the late 1980s. I need to figure out how to transfer those images on slides to digital.


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