CHINA'S SKIING SYNDROME
by Risa Weinreb Wyatt
Chen is a Chinese first — the nation’s inaugural ski bum. A slim young man of about 20, he has taken a semester off from studying at Harbin University to work at Yabuli International Ski Resort. He knows everything about the mountain, excitedly pointing at the map to show the best bump run, the beginners’ area, the long blue cruiser that flows like a silk robe from top to bottom.
Chen has been skiing for four days.
China has a population of 1.3 billion. Nearly 10% have achieved a “Western” standard of living, which translates into 130 million people — about the same as the populations of France and Germany combined. The capitalist decadence decried by Chairman Mao has now become a national norm. Billboards promote Siemens, Nokia, Chanel, iPods; and the first store you spot after clearing Customs and Immigration at Beijing Capital International Airport is a Starbucks. In fact Starbucks estimates that it will have more cafés in China than in the U.S. by 2008.
China’s new prosperity has snowballed into another boom: an increasing number of ski resorts in the country. Today China has 200 ski areas — up from just a handful a decade ago. About five million Chinese ski, compared with less than 10,000 in 1996.
Two factors should help the number of snow-riders to grow rapidly. Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics Games, putting a spotlight on all things Western. In addition, Chinese skiers and snowboarders have started winning medals in top competitions. Nina Li took the overall 2004–05 World Cup title in women’s freestyle aerial skiing, and Pan Lei won silver in the women’s snowboard halfpipe at the 2005 Winter Universiade in Innsbruck — the 18-year-old has been training in the event for less than a year.
China’s ski resorts aren’t giving Vail a run for its money —yet. But a visit to the country’s top areas gives travelers a first-hand look at the economic tsunami transforming this country. In addition to skiing, visitors can see some of China’s least known but most fascinating sights, from tiger preserves to ice festivals and imperial palaces.
“If you put snow on it, they will come,” seems the philosophy at over one dozen ski areas developed (and enhanced by snowmaking) within a two-hour drive from Beijing. Although the capital doesn’t get much snow, it rules as the economic epicenter of the country. The city’s 14 million residents include China’s upwardly mobilizing middle class — the engineers and doctors, bankers and marketing executives — who have doubled their per-capita household incomes over the past decade.
Located 50 miles from Beijing, Nanshan Ski Village relies predominantly on snowmaking. Its sparkling white slopes stand out against the brown of surrounding cornfields and apple orchards. Founded in 2001 by Lu Jian, an Oxford-trained economist, the area includes the ski area, base lodge, and a restaurant. Down the line Lu Jian envisions adding motels and time-share villas.
In the Nanshan parking lot, the scene looks different from a winter day at Stowe or Squaw Valley: no one’s carrying skis and no one’s wearing ski clothes. People arrive looking dressed for the multiplex rather than for moguls.
The reason becomes evident inside the concrete-basic base lodge: all gear is for rent, from goggles to the yellow skisuits with Farmer Johns and matching jackets that look more HazMat than downhill-racer. Since 95% of China’s skiers are snowplowing beginners, rentals help them learn a new — and admittedly pricey — sport without major cash outlays. Equipment is rudimentary: rear-entry boots that are so loose they’re drafty, and long, straight, neon-colored skis that look like throwbacks to the 1970s.
The price of a two-hour lift ticket, which includes equipment rental, is $18 — slightly less than the average weekly wage of a Chinese urban worker. Nanshan offers two chairlifts, nine platter lifts, and ten trails — all snow-bunny boulevards except for a mogul field at the very top with bumps the size of a Ming tomb. Bright yellow signs on the lift towers remind enthusiasts in fractured English, “Don’t Let Skies Fall.”
Slopes throng with the newly affluent: government workers and software geeks, adolescent snowboarders chatting with their buddies, grandparents capturing kids’ first snowplows with digital cameras. One teenage boy tries three times to help up his fallen girlfriend before they both collapse in the snow, laughing hysterically.
China old and new also comes together at Huaibei Ski Resort, 45 miles from Beijing. From the well-groomed runs, skiers can gaze up at watchtowers and segments of the Great Wall — the 6,200-mile-long ramparts built to keep out barbarian invaders.
Here the runs swoop a bit longer, the pitch a degree or so steeper than at Nanshan. Red-coated attendants hover on the sidelines, ready to drag fallen neophytes out of the rush-hour crowds or retrieve runaway skis (a not-infrequent occurrence since DIN settings seem an unknown concept). One gonzo guy clad in a neon-orange one-piece suit turns into a one-man yard sale, first dropping one pole, then the other, then his hat, and finally losing a ski before he trickles to a halt from the declining incline.
While Nanshan and Huaibei draw day skiers from Beijing, Yabuli International Ski Resort ranks as China’s leading destination ski area. The biggest ski complex in the country, it covers 500 acres with 1,968 feet of vertical and 18 miles of trails. In addition to serving as the training slopes for the Chinese National Team, the mountain hosted the 1996 Asian Winter Games.
Yabuli is set in Heilongjiang Province at China’s northeastern limits — a region once known as Manchuria. Inner Mongolia lies to the west, Siberia to the east. Meaning it’s cold — very, very cold. “The temperature is 20, but will warm up to 12 later,” the receptionist at the base lodge announces — omitting the minus sign, which is understood. Oh yes — those temperatures are in Fahrenheit.
Getting to Yabuli takes some planning: first a 90-minute flight from Beijing to Harbin, an industrial city with a population of 9.6 million (100 Chinese cities have populations of more than one million). Next comes a three-and-a-half-hour drive along a modern, four-lane highway still graced by the occasional ox cart. Both snowplows and bundled-up work crews toiling with shovels and whiskbrooms clear the road after storms.
Privately owned, Yabuli opened in 1995 and offers up-to-date facilities. Covered by a bubble to protect against the cold, a double chairlift loads skiers from the base to the summit of Mountain #3, the intermediate area. The ski rental shop features late-model Tecnica and Lange boots and shaped Volkl skis. Trails include well-groomed cruisers as well as plunging bump runs.
Nonetheless, skiers won’t forget that they’re in China, not Aspen. Jaunty red lanterns — symbolizing good luck — bobble from the chairlifts and pine trees. In addition to the four snowmaking machines, workers who earn 70 cents a day carry in sacks of fresh snow from the forest on their backs. Instead of Red Bull, the snack bar serves green tea and bai jiu, the local moonshine.
Although there’s no restaurant on the mountain, a five-minute drive leads to a traditional rural restaurant called “Little Yard in the Countryside.” Seated cross-legged at low tables, guests enjoy savory specialties such as cabbage and tofu soup spiced with star anise, and lamb stir-fried with scallions, hot peppers and cumin.
Yabuli heeds a different architectural muse from American resorts such as Vail or Taos that incorporate high-alpine Heidi motifs such as half-timbering, gables, and balconies. Instead, the dominant design at Yabuli is windmills — 108 of them in fact. This leads to a lost-in-translation conversation with Lily, a tour guide. “Windmills symbolize good luck in China,” she explains. “Does China have any other windmills?” someone asks. “No,” she replies.
What stays found in translation is the good vibe of apres-ski as snowriders gather around the three-story stone fireplace at the Windmill Hotel, the best of the 40-plus hotels at the ski area. Its 500 rooms offer comfortable, basic accommodations with certain idiosyncrasies: the shower rod doubles as the clothes rack.
Forgot your Advil? The snack shop downstairs sells bear-bile capsules (“to remove heat, have liver calming, improve eyesight,” the label explains) and beautifully decorated boxes that look like they should contain Godiva chocolates but instead carry deer antler (“for nocturnal or early emission”). Indicating China’s new embrace of free markets: the only book in English is Winning the Merger Endgame.
The nearest major city to Yabuli, Harbin was founded in 1897 by Russians constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The city offers several Russian-accented sights including the onion-domed Church of St. Sofia and Zhongyang Dajie, a swank shopping street lined by restored buildings embellished with gold leaf and cupolas.
Winter temperatures in Harbin can plummet to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of complaining about the cold, the city celebrates it with a fantastical Ice and Snow Festival that runs from New Year’s Day through mid-February. Streets and parks sparkle with thousands of snow and ice-block sculptures. Inlaid with neon lights, the carvings glow like prisms. Designs range from mermaids to horse-drawn chariots to submarines; the centerpiece is a full-size ice-temple where visitors try to maintain balance as they slide through icy corridors.
Harbin also flaunts the cold at Winter Swimming Club, where members of all ages and girths stroke across an Olympic-length lap cut into the frozen-solid Songhua River. Rubber kitchen gloves and worn canvas tennis sneakers protect extremities from the bitter cold.
Heilongjiang Province remains one of China’s wildest, most untamed regions. At the Harbin’s Tiger Preserve, the world’s largest breeding center for Siberian tigers, visitors can view hundreds of the powerful cats that once roamed these frozen steppes. Coats fluffed against the winds, the 600-pound tigers look cheerful as they pad across snowdrifts and plains.
Like Yabuli, Jingyuetan Ski Resort offers winter recreation ranging from horse-drawn sleigh rides to ice boating, as well as snowriding. Located in Jilin Province, the ski area lies a 40-minute drive southeast of the regional capital of Changchun. Yet another Chinese city of seven million that most Westerners have never heard of, Changchun is an hour’s flight from Beijing.
Although the beginners’ area at Junguetan is packed, the mountain for advanced skiers glistens empty when a small group of American tourists arrives. In fact, the lift — an aged single — isn’t even running. Stunned to see a gaggle of foreigners arriving at his hill, the lift operator — a wiry man in his 50s — immediately starts the motor.
Inside the ski-rental shop the English-language signs have the spare inscrutability of fortune cookies: “Rely on the ticket into the inside” for lift-ticket sales; “Accept the silver set” over the cashier’s desk. A middle-aged woman with a quick smile doles out the equipment. Arrayed by size, the ancient rear-entry boots are already snapped into the bindings of the long, skinny skis. The attendant helps everyone snap into boots and carry skis to the lift.
The Americans greet the liftie with “Ni hao — Xièxie ni” (“Hello — thank you”) as they load into the one-person chairs — sharing the only words in Mandarin they know. “Ni hao — xièxie ni,” he replies. The exchange repeats each lap on the chair — a desire for contact, friendship; a small, personal attempt at world peace.
Après-ski, visitors can delve into Changchun’s compelling history. From 1932 to 1945 the city served as capital of Japanese-controlled Manchukuo (“state of Manchuria”) and home to Henry Puyí, the final Qing ruler who was chronicled in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor. In Puyí’s beautifully restored brick palace, visitors can see the royal rooms with their gilded woodwork and coffered ceilings.
In Mandarin, China is called Zhong Guo — the “center country.” For millennia — first under imperial dynasties, most recently under Communist dictatorships — China fixed its gaze inwards towards this center. Now, the country is looking outwards — towards economic development, towards lattes and MP3 players, and yes, towards skiing.
Skiing in China isn’t about the snow. Instead it allows visitors to see first-hand how this once forbidden and forbidding country is flourishing not just with prosperity, but also with snow sculptures, ice boats, lights, and laughter.
You think you’re coming for the skiing — but the journey soon reveals itself as the goal.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: China Professional Tours offers a wide range of unusual adventures in China, from skiing and scuba diving to golf and bicycling. For complete information: Tel: 800-25-CHINA or 770-849-0300; Fax: 770-849-0301; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.chinaprofessional.com.
TRAVEL TIPS - SKIING IN CHINA
•Aboard domestic Chinese flights the allowance for checked-in baggage is 44 pounds per passenger, strictly enforced. Therefore skiers should not bring their own skis or boots. Besides, part of the fun is trying out the Chinese rental gear.
• Travel expenses are low in China. About $100 per person per day covers hotel accommo-dations, three meals, a guide, and a driver.
• Travelers from the U.S. and other wealthy nations may be surprised to find that pit-toilets are the norm even in elegant restaurants (where you’ll find classy marble renditions). Western-style toilets can be found in tourist hotels.