Harbin, China, embraces the cold. And by cold we don’t mean winter temperatures near freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit). In Harbin, a city of 6 million people in northeastern China, winter brings many weeks with high temperatures of 15 degrees or lower. Nearly 40 years ago, city officials decided to use the frigid weather to their advantage. They created an ice- and snow-filled festival.

What’s now called the International Ice and Snow Festival started as a celebration of ice lanterns, according to the festival website. The lanterns, hollowed ice blocks with a light inside, were formerly used to help fishermen on the city’s Songhua River. Later, the lanterns became works of art. The city began to host an art show of the ice lanterns in the 1960s.

China's Harbin Ice Festival offers chills and thrills

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The 38th annual Harbin Ice Festival officially opened January 5 and will stay open until February 28, as long as the weather remains cold. The festival, seen here in an aerial photo, features over 400 activities and events. (Xie Jianfei/Associated Press)

In 1985, the city turned the show into a festival with more exhibits, along with outdoor performances. It’s now known around the world for its huge, glowing ice sculptures. For several weeks, workers pull blocks of ice from the ice-covered river. They stack and carve them to form towers, castles and, this year, buildings related to the Olympics, which will be held next month in Beijing, China. At night, LED lights strung in and around the ice make the sculptures look like the setting for a fairy tale.

The festival also includes activities and competitions, including a series of winter swimming races. If you picture swimmers diving into a heated pool, think again. They dive into what looks like a pool, but it’s actually part of the Songhua River with ice removed. That’s a sport for people who truly love the cold!

The festival, which officially began Wednesday, is scheduled to stay open until the end of February or until Mother Nature turns the ice marvels into a melty mess.