HARBIN, Heilongjiang Province, China – The first thing most passengers do in China when they get off a plane is head for the bathroom or light up a cigarette.
In Harbin, they make for a row of booths labeled "Clothes Changing" and throw on long underwear.
Seven layers later, I was still shivering.
|Adrienne Mong/NBC News|
|A cathedral reproduced entirely in ice.|
"It says here that Harbin is below freezing more than six months of the year," said David Lom, our cameraman, as he scrolled through his Blackberry. "That's ridiculous."
David has made it his life's ambition to work only in warm climates.
I was beginning to think that wasn't such a bad goal.
We came to Harbin to film the annual Snow and Ice Festival. And I was looking forward to spending an extra day afterwards to explore this city of three million and its other major sights: the Siberian Tiger Reserve (home to the extremely rare Manchurian tiger); the Germ Warfare Base (where the Japanese conducted controversial experiments on war prisoners from 1939-45); and St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the few Eastern Orthodox churches in East Asia.
But as soon as we set foot outdoors, I was having second thoughts. The taxi driver told us it was 18 below Celsius, which sounded and felt much colder than its Fahrenheit equivalent: -4F.
The snow and ice festival
The festival – apparently one of only four of its kind across the globe – is spread over several park sites on the edge of the Songhua River, spanning what would take up 75-odd football fields.
We, however, were concentrating on just a couple of fields, both on Sun Island, which features what must be the world's largest snow Santa Claus and dozens of other snow sculptures, plus an ice park, where more than 30 structures were gleaming – but not melting – under the bright morning sun.
|VIDEO: Vistors flock to China's Snow and Ice festival|
The sculptures were made from artificial snow, trucked in at regular intervals, and looked from a distance like they were made from Styrofoam. Up close, they were remarkable – especially the giant Santa, which measures 525 feet long and 79 feet tall. Families were sliding down from his beard on rubber tires.
"I do love the smoothness of the snow, it does make you want to touch it and feel it," enthused Lorelie Fox, a visitor from Leeds, England. "And of course it's so very dense whereas the real snow is very powdery."
|SLIDESHOW: An icy city of lights|
32 million gallons of frozen water
But the most extraordinary sight had to be the ice sculptures – although "sculpture" doesn't quite do them justice.
Before us, the spiky towers and spires of dozens of buildings rose up against the real skyline of Harbin. There were Chinese temples, several cathedrals and churches, a mosque, and – wonder of wonders – a pretty good 115-feet replica of the Neuschwanstein Castle ("Mad" King Ludwig's castle) in Germany.
Artists and almost 8,000 workers used 32 million gallons of water to make ice blocks to construct the sculptures. Chipping and hacking away 24 hours a day, the workers took nearly 14 days to make everything – right down to the last detail: steps, banister posts, rooftop figurines.
|VIDEO: Americans in China marvel at the Snow and Ice festival|
We watched as kids sped down giant slides of ice from atop a hill. Dozens of people rode bicycles across a frozen pond as an ice sculpture of Milan's Cathedral loomed above them. Horse carriages drove by, their bells tinkling. Vendors sold fake fur hats, gloves, and whole roasted sweet potatoes.
And as the sun set, the ice city took on an entirely different kind of glow. LED lights encased inside the ice blocks began to flicker in rainbow hues.
We filmed for another hour until the sky was blue-black and the crowds around us grew. By that time, we had been outside for six hours; my fingers and toes were thoroughly frozen.
And I had decided the tiger reserve, the germ warfare lab and the old Russian quarter would have to wait until summer or, at the very least, spring.