Photos: The icemen behind China’s frozen festival

Liu Yantao and six co-workers start toiling on a frozen river in northeast China before dawn, using hand tools and machines to carve large ice blocks for an annual winter sculpture festival. Liu and his team are among more than 100 people who work on the Songhua River to harvest the 170,000 cubic metres of ice bricks needed this year -- enough to fill 70 Olympic swimming pools. Every year, a worker slips into the frigid water. But that's a risk farmers are willing to take to earn extra money during the harsh winter by harvesting the pieces used to make crystal palaces and sculptures at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Updated On Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST 7 Photos
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Workers use picks to cut ice blocks from the frozen Songhua river in Harbin, China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province. Liu Yantao and his six co-workers toil on a frozen river in northeast China before dawn, using hand tools and machines to carve large ice bricks for the annual Harbin Ice Festival. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Workers use picks to cut ice blocks from the frozen Songhua river in Harbin, China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province. Liu Yantao and his six co-workers toil on a frozen river in northeast China before dawn, using hand tools and machines to carve large ice bricks for the annual Harbin Ice Festival. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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Liu and his team are among more than 100 people who work on the Songhua River to harvest the 170,000 cubic metres of ice bricks needed this year -- enough to fill 70 Olympic swimming pools. Every year, a worker slips into the frigid water. But that’s a risk farmers are willing to take to earn extra money during the harsh winter by harvesting the pieces used to make crystal palaces and sculptures at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Liu and his team are among more than 100 people who work on the Songhua River to harvest the 170,000 cubic metres of ice bricks needed this year -- enough to fill 70 Olympic swimming pools. Every year, a worker slips into the frigid water. But that’s a risk farmers are willing to take to earn extra money during the harsh winter by harvesting the pieces used to make crystal palaces and sculptures at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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Workers guide an ice block onto a conveyor belt on the frozen Songhua river. Liu’s team cuts out 2,000 pieces of ice every day for about three weeks, arriving before sunrise and leaving after sunset. The farmers, who grow corn and soybeans the rest of the year, get paid 2.5 yuan ($0.35) for each of the 1.6-metre-long, 400-kilo (5-foot long, 900-pound) rectangles of ice they produce for the festival, which will open before the New Year. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Workers guide an ice block onto a conveyor belt on the frozen Songhua river. Liu’s team cuts out 2,000 pieces of ice every day for about three weeks, arriving before sunrise and leaving after sunset. The farmers, who grow corn and soybeans the rest of the year, get paid 2.5 yuan ($0.35) for each of the 1.6-metre-long, 400-kilo (5-foot long, 900-pound) rectangles of ice they produce for the festival, which will open before the New Year. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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They each make around 500 yuan per day. “There’s nothing to do in the winter. People play mahjong at home. I don’t like gambling, so I work,” says Liu, a 36-year-old father of one. “Prices of everything are going up. I make a little more money to make life easier,” says the chain-smoking farmer. (Noel Celis / AFP)

They each make around 500 yuan per day. “There’s nothing to do in the winter. People play mahjong at home. I don’t like gambling, so I work,” says Liu, a 36-year-old father of one. “Prices of everything are going up. I make a little more money to make life easier,” says the chain-smoking farmer. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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A worker drags ice blocks on the frozen Songhua river. Liu is the team leader among a group of farmers who drive from Harbin’s countryside to arrive at the river before 5:00 am every morning. Resembling farmers ploughing a field, they use a large motorised saw to cut the icy surface into 220-metre-long, 190-metre wide grids bigger than two football fields. They slice the area into rectangles until the surface looks like a bar of ice chocolate. (Noel Celis / AFP)

A worker drags ice blocks on the frozen Songhua river. Liu is the team leader among a group of farmers who drive from Harbin’s countryside to arrive at the river before 5:00 am every morning. Resembling farmers ploughing a field, they use a large motorised saw to cut the icy surface into 220-metre-long, 190-metre wide grids bigger than two football fields. They slice the area into rectangles until the surface looks like a bar of ice chocolate. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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The workers don’t talk much during the day but they can see their breath when they open their mouths in the -18 degrees Celsius (0 Fahrenheit) weather. They stand at the edge of ice holes several metres deep. Even forklifts have fallen in the river in the past. Orange life-jackets are nearby but nobody wears them. “If you fall down, you will be pulled out by your companions,” siad Liu. (Noel Celis / AFP)

The workers don’t talk much during the day but they can see their breath when they open their mouths in the -18 degrees Celsius (0 Fahrenheit) weather. They stand at the edge of ice holes several metres deep. Even forklifts have fallen in the river in the past. Orange life-jackets are nearby but nobody wears them. “If you fall down, you will be pulled out by your companions,” siad Liu. (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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Despite slaving away on the frozen river, like most ice diggers Liu doesn’t even go to the festival, which is just a few minutes away from the river. Admission is 290 yuan -- more than a half-day’s wages -- so he’ll just watch it on television, proud of the work he has done. “There are years of tradition in building an ice scene in my hometown,” Liu says. “If I don’t do it, I will feel lost.” (Noel Celis / AFP)

Despite slaving away on the frozen river, like most ice diggers Liu doesn’t even go to the festival, which is just a few minutes away from the river. Admission is 290 yuan -- more than a half-day’s wages -- so he’ll just watch it on television, proud of the work he has done. “There are years of tradition in building an ice scene in my hometown,” Liu says. “If I don’t do it, I will feel lost.” (Noel Celis / AFP)

Updated on Dec 19, 2019 10:12 AM IST
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