Chinese city tries to draw tourists after toxic spill

This northern Chinese city opened a winter festival Thursday with Russian folk dancing, pushing ahead with a major tourist event six weeks after a toxic spill disrupted running water to millions of people. Local authorities have assured visitors the city of Harbin has rebounded from the benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River. They want to keep the disaster from ruining the festival, which usually attracts millions of visitors to the region's most popular event of the season.

The spill forced Harbin, a major industrial center, to shut down running water to 3.8 million for five days and strained relations with Russia, where the chemical flowed through the Far East city of Khabarovsk last month.

At a Russian-themed opening ceremony Thursday, folk dancers and singers performed as 1,500 guests including the Harbin mayor were seated by women in sashes that said, "Miss Harbin Snow Princess." Tourism doesn't appear to have been hurt by the spill, with Chinese travel agencies reporting few cancellations.

"The pollution has passed. It's not the same water," said Alexi Kuzminykh, a 24-year-old tourist from Russia's Chita region who said he was visiting Harbin for four days.

"There are many ice cities in Russia, but they are nothing like Harbin," Kuzminykh said. "It's wonderful." On the Songhua, about a dozen men swam in a pool cut through the thick sheet of ice coating the river. People rode sail-propelled sleds in sunny, -20 degree centigrade (-4 degree Fahrenheit) weather.

The centerpiece of the festival is a display of huge sculptures cut from blocks of river ice. This year, they include full-size replicas of pagodas, ships and scenes from Chinese literature, lit from within by red, pink, yellow and green neon tubes.

Officials say the ice used came from tributaries of the Songhua rather than the main river.

The government says benzene levels in the Songhua at Harbin fell back to safe levels in early December. But experts are watching to see whether any chemicals are released when the ice melts in the spring, reports the AP. I.L.

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