China kicks off month-long winter festival in northern city of Harbin

HARBIN, China, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Swimming enthusiast Yu Hongtao, 50, trained for months in the freezing water of the Songhua river to compete in a winter ice swimming tournament held annually in China's northern city of Harbin, known for its bitterly cold weather.

"You have to start swimming from autumn so that the body can conquer the sudden icy impact on one's cardio-vascular system," said Yu, a Harbin resident. "The feeling of diving into the water is very cool."

More than 300 men and women, wearing just ordinary trunks and swimsuits, on Saturday braved the bitter cold waters in the ice swimming meet, part of Harbin's annual winter festival, among the biggest in the northern hemisphere.

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Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in China 2019
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Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in China 2019
Ice sculptures are seen at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
An aerial view taken with a drone shows visitors tour the colorful building structures made from blocks of ice at the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival held in Harbin in northeastern's China's Heilongjiang province, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is known for massive, elaborate and colorfully lit ice sculptures featuring animals, cartoon characters and famous landmarks. (AP Photo/Olivia Zhang)
A man walks between snowmen on Songhua River that displays 2019 snowmen as a part of annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
An aerial view taken with a drone shows visitors tour colorful structure made from blocks of ice at the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival held in Harbin in northeastern's China's Heilongjiang province, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is known for massive, elaborate and colorfully lit ice sculptures featuring animals, cartoon characters and famous landmarks. (AP Photo/Olivia Zhang)
Swimmers react after finishing a competition in a pool carved out of the frozen Songhua River during the annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
An aerial view taken with a drone shows visitors tour colorful castle-like structures made from blocks of ice at the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival held in Harbin in northeastern's China's Heilongjiang province, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is known for massive, elaborate and colorfully lit ice sculptures featuring animals, cartoon characters and famous landmarks. (AP Photo/Olivia Zhang)
Visitors walk around ice sculptures illuminated by coloured lights during the annual ice festival in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Members of security stand guard in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A visitor poses for photos inside ice sculptures illuminated by coloured lights during the annual ice festival in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Visitors walk around ice sculptures illuminated by coloured lights during the annual ice festival in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A worker cuts into an ice block in preparation for annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Ice sculptures illuminated by colored lights are seen at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Swimmers shiver after finishing their competition in a pool carved out of the frozen Songhua River during the annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Visitors stand in front of ice sculptures illuminated by colored lights at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Ice sculptures illuminated by colored lights are seen at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A visitor takes a photo in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Ice sculptures illuminated by colored lights are seen at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A worker shaves ice sculptures in preparation for annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A visitor rides a slide in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Visitors walk in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A driver of a horse-drawn carriage for tourists reacts in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A worker reacts in front of ice sculptures at annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A large ice block is lifted in preparation for annual ice festival, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Members of Harbin's ice swimmers club, break the ice to swim before their daily swim at Songhua River, in the northern city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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Temperatures can plunge as low as 35 degrees Celsius below zero (minus 31 F) in the city in China's Heilongjiang province.

The festival, which began on Saturday, has drawn millions of visitors from around the world every year since its inception in the early 1980s.

Highlights include sled rides on the Songhua river, mass weddings, and towering sculptures of ice and snow carved by thousands of artists and workers.

Visitors marvel at the mini ice replicas of the Colosseum and of the Milan Cathedral, particularly in the long evenings when soft, colored lights illuminate the sculptures.

The festival also attracts hordes of domestic tourists.

"The ice castles and sculptures made by workers are very impressive," said Lin Renlong, who was visiting with his girlfriend.

"It's like Disneyland, Disneyland in winter," said the 22-year-old from the northern province of Hebei.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Ryan Woo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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