Take a tour of the Ice City 2012

Every December an ice city appears in the central park of Irkutsk. The theme is different every year, but it generally features various animals made out of ice. This time, as it is the year of the Dragon according to the lunar calendar, a jolly looking fellow welcomes everyone at the entrance to the park:

The center piece of any ice city in Russia is, of course, the Yolka – a Christmas Tree. They used to have an actual fur tree back in the day. Now it’s just a metal construction covered with plastic fur tree branches. But it still brings cheer to the young and old alike.

Christmas Tree in Irkutsk 2011-2012The most important attraction of any ice city is an ice slide. The bigger, the better, of course!

Ice Slide in Irkutsk

Queuing up in the back of the ice slide.

Ice Slide, Irkutsk

Down we go!

The icey animals were a little crude this year. I hear the real masterpieces of ice sculpture are up for display in Listvyanka, which is a small town right on the shore of Lake Baikal, about an hour away from Irkutsk. But for us, city folk, these were still fun:

Bunnies made out of ice, IrkutskAn Owl made of ice, IrkutskA Pig made of ice, IrkutskThe ice was harvested right here in Irkutsk. You can see pieces of lake plants in some of the sculptures.

We even had a maze this year! Here’s something for Bozeman to consider for next year, provided it gets cold enough in Montana:

An ice maze, IrkutskI personally like seeing families out and about in the ice city taking photographs and having a good time:

An Ice Hut, IrkutskA reindeer sleigh made of ice, IrkutskOf course, there should be ponies and horses all dressed up to lure young kids and set their parents back a pretty ruble for a short ride around the park:A horse and a pony in the ice city, IrkutskA word to one of the sponsors of the whole affair:

A squirrel made of ice with a cell phone, Irkutsk

This pugnacious squirrel with a cell phone from the 1990's is advertising Baikal West Com, a cell phone service provider in Irkutsk. Many thanks, BWC!

And last, but not least, a shot with the symbols of the New Year’s Holidays – Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden:

Grandfather Frost and his grandaughter Snegurochka, Irkutsk

My friendettes, Tanya and Vica, posed for me in this -8 F weather.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of winter in Siberia!

Love, YN.

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Ice Garden

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A garden of ice has been cold forged in Ulan-Ude to celebrate the New Year. Several themes that figure brightly in the history of the Buryat people are represented in the shaved sculptures standing in the city center, Soviet Square. Walking toward the arched entry way you will notice two ice-women welcoming you (coldly, he, he!) onto the square. One is Buryat, the other Russian, dressed in their respective ethnic outfits. In 2011, Buryatia will celebrate becoming part of the Russian Federation 350 years ago, which explains our ice-ladies, who echo the official emblem of the upcoming year of celebration. (See emblem below.)

350 years: "Together through time!"

Stealing through crystal arches, you blunder right into the middle of Wild Kingdom! (Shout out to Marlin Perkins, who showed me the world from my television window.) The animals of the lunar calendar, stand paw to paw in ice.  Rabbit is standing in the center, for it is his year to reign the cycle. I first came to Siberia in 1998, and in December of that year rabbits showed up everywhere in the city!  On plastic shopping bags, little figurines for sale, framed pictures, on notebook covers, and stuffed animals. I remember asking someone, “Why are there rabbits everywhere?” Answer: Chinese lunar calendar.

After animal kingdom, two stories of ice samovar, crowned with a teapot, and accompanied by four faithful courtier tea cups sparkle in the sun. No matter what people say about vodka, tea is Czar in Russia. You can easily go a day without vodka, but a day without tea is like forgetting how to breathe, it just doesn’t happen.

The tea road originated in China, passed through Mongolia and on through Buryatia, the Irkutsk Oblast (territory), and west toward to Moscow. Fortunes were made, cities built, intrigues played and perils risked on dried bales of tea leaves.

Tomorrow the square will be filled with fur garbed New Year’s revelers, sliding on the ice-slides, merrily strolling together with family, greeting friends, and at midnight setting the sky ablaze with a veritable arsenal of Chinese fireworks. Happy New Year! С новым годом!

Leaving the year of the Tiger for . . .

the year of the Rabbit.

Siberian Ice Slicers

The crew of "Crystal Swan" ice cutters, stars of History Channel's new hit "Ice Slicers". Wednesdays, 10 central, 9 mountain.

Earning their pay. Note the boats frozen into the harbor.

When I saw the standing columns of ice on the Angara, I was drawn to them like a magnet. Like some crystal Stonehenge, ice columns and ice blocks gleamed in the winter sun. I stopped on the river bank to take in the whole sight: Fishing trawlers and sailboats frozen into their winter rest, hundreds of blocks of blue-glow stacked ice, a silhouette team of ice cutters toiling against the frozen surface of the river.

An ice "stele", transient monument to an enduring Siberian winter.

The photographic possibilities seemed endless, and I set about capturing this strange benumbed world. Stretching out on a bed of bright snow for half a mile was what looked like an ice graveyard, frozen snow capped monuments a silent memorial to some cold-blooded race.

The "graveyard' effect is actually for safety. The cutters mark holes with ice blocks to warn anyone venturing onto the ice.

Ice sawyer Sergei wielding his blade.

A small shack, shelter for ice cutters, stands on the shore. Andrei, one of the crew appears and I introduce myself. Andrei gladly answers my questions, taking me over to the working crew.  Vapor lifts off the surface of several 10 by 10 foot windows into the deep.  The sound of shovels scrapping snow from ice accompanies the gas engine’s low growl as it powers the two foot chainsaw blade. The engine and blade are fastened to a rail which moves in roughly 8 inch increments along a steel frame anchored in the ice. Sergei the “blade runner” lifts the rail one notch over, saws a ten foot slit into the ice, lifts and slides the rail over 8 inches and saws again. When he reaches the frame’s edge, they lift and rotate the rail ninety degrees and our ice sawyer duplicates the process. The results are uniform 8 inch by 1.5 by 1.5 foot ice blocks. Sayan the hauler, then fishes out 120 kilo’s of ice with huge ice tongs. One block weighs 40 kilo’s or about 88 lbs. (They measure in metric here.) The process was a bit mesmerizing, and I watched for some time.

Harvesting the current batch.

Sayan hauls the frozen payload.

The boys of Crystal Swan Ice Harvesters had been cutting ice for over a month now, the boss, Slava Maksimov told me. Nothing stops these boys, not even last weeks – 40’s temperatures.  With the stove stoked, the whole pack packs into their shack for the night, (with plastic sheeting for windows) and in the morning load ice despite the weather.

Next stop, central square.

Slava has been harvesting ice for about thirteen years. In 1997 when he started his business, all ice was harvested with hand saws. Ten years ago Slava realized using a frame to cut from would be more efficient, faster and easier. Each December Crystal Swan harvests between 30,000 and 40,000 blocks of ice.

Dinner in the cutters shack. Sergei, Slava the boss, and Sayan.

Stacked and carved, the ice is transformed into luminous fairytale kingdoms on central squares of Siberian cities to celebrate the New Year. In December, elaborately carved, colorfully lit kremlins and stately buildings spring up around Irkutsk. Ice slides, sometimes two stories tall send young and old alike pell-mell into the pile of “recently slid” at the bottom. Crystal Swan provides ice for Irkutsk, Angarsk and Cheremhova’s New Year celebrations. Thanks to the crew at Crystal Swan, the city is bedecked in holiday cheer!

The hard work behind sweet childhood holiday memories.

Keep a sharp eye, you may find aquatic plants frozen into ice blocks.