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Chinese Sculptors Bring Their Talent to US Holiday Ice Show

No matter what the thermometer shows about the weather in your neighborhood - this next story will keep you cool. For the Christmas holiday, a huge attraction at the Marriott Gaylord National hotel near Washington, DC is made entirely of ice. Actually, more than 900,000 kilograms of ice!

Walk inside a massive white tent and the noise hits you first, followed by the brisk air.

You're hearing the sounds of forklifts and chainsaws, slicing through ice.

The temperature is minus 12 degrees Celsius....the air turns a smoky color when someone exhales. But it must be this cold to preserve the 6,000 massive blocks of ice. Carvers are chipping the blocks into life-sized characters from a children's Christmas storybook.

The carvers only speak Mandarin, like Xu Rui who is the art director of the exhibit.

“We learn it since we were really young," said Xu Rui.

For Xu Rui, that was age 9. He, like all the others, lives in Harbin, China, known as the Ice Capital of the World because of its annual ice festival that draws 800,000 visitors. This is Xu Rui's 11th exhibit in the U.S. and, he says, the best - as he gestures to the ceiling of the tent. The tallest sculpture - depicting New York City's Empire State Building - is nearly seven meters-tall.

Xu Rui looks at blueprints and yells out orders to move one of the ice blocks and to carve it into a circle. The ice architects build the exhibit without understanding its theme - "Twas The Night Before Christmas," is an American classic, read aloud on the Christian holiday.

“Now the story is uh…sorry… I can’t recall," he said.

Same with Zhang Haijun who is chiseling windows in the skyscrapers of a Christmas scene in Manhattan.

"I’ve never been to New York, I carve from the pictures people show me. But when I’m finished with this project, I really want to go to New York to see it for real," said Zhang Haijun.

Zhang Haijun wears oversized rubber gloves - he holds a chisel with a long handle - some of the ice equipment he brought from Harbin.

“We can’t get these tools from the store. They are customized and I’ve been using them for years," he said.

The low temperature inside the tent must stay steady because if it's too cold, the ice is too brittle. Too warm and it won't chip properly.

The carvers spend 12 hours a day in this frigid workplace - in a month, they are finished:

The bare brown blocks have become eight lifesized reindeer suspended above the crowd, pulling Santa's sleigh.

Plain slabs have transformed into an exquisite clear ice nativity, the religious centerpiece of Christmas. Visitors stare and are tempted to touch the sculptures, to confirm they are made of ice.

The yellow ice blocks that were carried in on forklifts are now a lifesized New York City taxi. Visitors climb into the real leather seats for a perfect photo.

The slanted plank is now a two-story ice sliding board. Nearby is a floor-to-ceiling green ice Christmas tree with gold garland and vibrant yellow, pink, and purple colored ice presents stacked underneath.

The display, simply called “ICE!” is a Christmas gift for Washington, D.C., wrapped in 900,000 kilograms of ice, from 34 expert carvers from China.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.