The coolest show in China

This ice festival started with oil lamps, and now uses computers and neon to create 4,000 sculptures.

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Pull up to the gate of the Ice Lantern Festival here, get out of your cab, and two things will greet you: a blast of freezing air and 300 taxi cabs, all waiting to drop tourists off into the glowing world of ice.

But it's worth the wait for one of China's grandest winter spectacles. One Welsh visitor, burrowing deeper into her wool cape and fuzzy hat, puts it this way: "It's [awfully] cold, but unbelievably impressive."

In this town of 2.5 million where the temperature is known to plunge to -22 F, thousands flock to this eight-week festival to see the world's largest man-made ice and snow show.

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This year's festival has been a balmy affair so far though, with a toasty 10 degrees F. the day I visited this city in China's northernmost province of Heilongjiang, which means "black dragon river."

Started in 1963, the festival has mirrored the growth of China. Designers who used to construct the festival with handsaws and T-squares, now use high-tech software programs such as CAD, 3D Max, and Photoshop.

"Now Harbin is a travel destination, and the progress and development [of the festival] has been fast," says Hou Weidong, who grew up in Harbin and is one of the ice designers.

Mr. Hou remembers a much different festival during his childhood.

"When I was young, I would come to the park, but the sculptures weren't nearly as complicated as they are now," he says. "They didn't have this many colors and the designs were very basic."

Not anymore. This year, more than 4,000 ice lantern sculptures have been chiseled, including a 120-foot-high Disneyland-like castle, several children's mazes, a replica of Rome's Coliseum, and even two fire-bursting volcanoes made of snow.

The festival has now expanded into three parks around the city. One location alone uses 2.8 million cubic feet of ice, 4.2 million cubic feet of snow, and 7 million volts of electricity.

Ice lanterns have a long tradition in Harbin. Originally used for illumination, farmers and fishermen would dig out the center of ice blocks and put oil lamps inside to protect them from the wind.

Located in the heart of Harbin, Zhaolin Park is the original site of the Ice Lantern Festival. Here seven designers work year-round developing the plans and blueprints for each year's festival.

They craft the plans that a construction crew of 3,000 workers - who spends the rest of the year building houses - ultimately assembles in less than a month. The city spends, according to one estimate, $4 million for the yearly event, paying ice companies to fashion thousands of blocks of ice from the city's Songhua River.

"In April, we start with meetings to discuss what sculptures we will make for the coming year," says Mr. Hou, the designer. "Then in May, we spend 20 days traveling to different parts of the country doing preparations for our designs." The team takes photographs of the structures they will build out of ice and sketches them by hand. "The construction team then starts their work around December 5, depending on the weather," says Hou.

Inside the main gate of the largest park towers a life-size, multitiered Chinese ice pagoda lit with yellow, purple, and amber lights. A 108 foot-high rendition of Beijing's new Millennium Monument also looms in the distance, as families scale the slippery steps and pay 10 yuan ($1.25) for Polaroid pictures at the top. Around the park, photographers yell "kuai xiang! kuai xiang!" (instant photo) to Chinese tourists bundled in everything from puffy day-glo parkas to more traditional fur coats.

The spirit of the ice festival extends beyond the ice parks. One Australian couple, sitting by the Songhua River, paid $3.50 for their own block of ice, which they were happily chipping into the shape of a pig.

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