China's northern-most city is dark and freezing most of the time. But it draws crowds with gigantic sculptures, light and ice shows, even tigers.

You've got to give the Chinese credit for making Harbin a tourism hotspot.

Harbin is a gritty, grubby, bitter-cold outpost of 10 million in China's northeast. It's the country's most northern big city, just 12 hours by bus to Vladivostok, Russia. The temperature regularly hovers 30 below zero Fahrenheit and air pollution is off the charts.

The cold is hard to describe to anyone who hasn't been to Antarctica or in a Siberian labor camp. One can wear UnderArmour leggings, silk sweat pants, quilted down hutong pants, a tee shirt, a cotton sweater, a down inner jacket, an insulated calf-length outer coat, two pairs of gloves, ski boots, two pairs of socks, foot warmers, hand warmers, a hat, a fur-lined hood, a scarf wrapped around your mouth and nose. And. Still. Be. Cold. The cold seeps up through the rock hard ice and snow and penetrates into extremities first, any inch of exposed skin second, until you imagine you'll never be warm again.

Fishermen dig a hole into the partially frozen Songhua River after sunset in the northern city of Harbin. (David Gray/Reuters)

Despite it all, Harbin draws crowds. Today, the city is one of China’s top tourist spots. The main attraction is the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists descend on the city, buoyed by a national love of anything over the top.

The philosophy here seems to be: the bigger, blingier, crazier, the better.  Buildings and structures made from ice soar into the sky. Snow sculptures are the size of glaciers. The festival takes place in a vast complex laid out like a vast frozen amusement park, with enormous and gigantic buildings formed from blocks of white-blue ice.

Images by Debra Bruno

There is a mosque made of ice, as well as a giant ice figure of a bottle of baijiu, the Chinese liquor. There's a huge Buddha, an Orthodox church, an enormous ice slide, a massive Angry Birds replica, and a tall thermometer made of ice that tells you in neon how freaking cold it is.

The stunning beauty of the ice buildings is both enhanced and Las Vegas-ized by the amount of neon and colored lights adorning just about every frozen inch. Blinking, flashing, rainbow-hued lights make the park seem like a Walt Disney park on crack.

Images by Debra Bruno

Besides the ice festival, there's another enormous snow park with sculptures in every theme imaginable: Botticelli's allegory of spring, a bas-relief of gamine women carved into a giant wall of snow; along with a Cinderella's castle, a sphinx, a mermaid, a Madonna, a lizard, and a car that has crashed nose first into the ground.

Animals are also props, somewhat abused ones. The Siberian Tiger Preserve is home to about 500 Siberian tigers. Visitors pile into vans and drive through fenced in grounds where well-fed tigers pace and loll and wait not too patiently for the guests who will pay for a live chicken or goat to be offered up. Those creatures are tied, like extras in Jurassic Park, to end up torn to shreds for the amusement of human onlookers. The preserve also has lions and “ligers” (the result of the mating of a lion and tiger), all huddled in bare wire-bounded cages. One visitor called it a prison camp for big cats.

Elsewhere in Harbin, downtrodden German shepherds pull little sleighs on the ice and frightened Siberian foxes are available for photo ops. At a place called Polarland, Beluga whales perform several times a day.

An employee pulls a dog sled carrying tourists. (Sheng Li/Reuters)
A winter swimming participant dives into a swimming pool cut out on the frozen Songhua River during Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin (Sheng Li/Reuters)

What animals won’t do, exhibitionist humans will. Case in point: The city has carved out a rectangular opening in the river's ice. Visitors pay a fee to crowd around the fenced-in area. Several times a day, well-fed Chinese women of a certain age, wirey Chinese men, and a motley group of Russians dive into the water, swim around, and climb out to cheers from the crowd. One uber-exhibitionist, a Russian woman with gold teeth, howls at the crowd and parades around in her substantial one-piece bathing suit, both before and after belly-flopping into the water. Afterwards, her skin a mottled pink, she poses for photographs with tourists.

It all adds up to a surprising level of success. Harbin tourists, mostly Chinese but with a fair percentage of foreigners, crowd the streets of Harbin on January weekends, packing into Russian restaurants, taking pictures at the ice festival until their cameras freeze up, and sliding down the ice slides that are everywhere.

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