China—Peaks Pique New Interest

NOTE: In 2005, I became one of the first American journalists to ski in China, writing articles for Ski Magazine and other publications. At that time, ski areas in China were rudimentary: rental shops with long, straight, skinny skis colored like neon LSD hallucinations and with “snowmaking” via peasants paid to carry burlap bags of snow from the forest to pack runs.

A scant 15 years later, China is preparing to host the XXIV Olympic Winter Games (February 4 through 20, 2022). Alpine skiing events (downhill, giant slalom and Super G) will take place at Yanqing, about 50 miles northwest of Beijing. The brand-new National Alpine Ski Center—China’s first Olympic-standard Alpine resort—has a vertical drop of 2,950 feet and seven ski runs.

From the all-out extravaganza of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (2,000 drummers! Airborne acrobats! The Olympic rings in fireworks!), we can count on spectacular shows for 2022, as well as thrilling competitions on the slopes. But I thought it would be informative and fun to take a look back at the beginnings of ski culture in China.

Here’s the article I wrote about skiing in China in 2005, which originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. The content of the story appears much as published 15 years ago, but I’ve clarified points to prevent confusion and updated website links.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse back at history. — Risa Wyatt

Jingyuetan Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

Chen is a Chinese first—the nation’s inaugural ski bum. A slim young man 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, about 10% of whom live at Western standards. That means 130 million people–more than the populations of France and Germany combined. The capitalist decadence decried by Chairman Mao now has become a national norm. Billboards promote Siemens, Chanel, Apple computers, and the first store you spot after clearing Customs and Immigration at Beijing Capital International Airport is a Starbucks.

Nowhere does China’s booming prosperity loom more evident than in the increasing number of ski resorts in the country. In 2005, the country has 200 ski areas—up from zilch a decade ago. About five million Chinese ski, compared with less than 10,000 in 1996.

Huaibei Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

Two factors should help the number of snow-goers 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.

While China’s ski resorts aren’t giving Vail a run for its money—yet—a visit to China’s top areas gives travelers a chance to experience some of that country’s least known but most fascinating sights, and to observe the tidal wave of economic power coursing through this country.

“If you put snow on it, they will come,” seems the philosophy at the dozen or so ski areas developed (and enhanced by snowmaking) within a two hours’ drive of Beijing. Although the capital doesn’t get much snow, it rules as the economic epicenter of the country. Its 14 million residents include the upwardly mobilizing middle class—the engineers and doctors, bankers and marketing executives—with per-capital household incomes that have doubled over the past decade.

Nanshan Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

Surrounded by cornfields and apple orchards, Nanshan Ski Village was founded in 2001 by Lu Jian, an Oxford-trained economist. Down the line he envisions adding motels and time-share villas for enthusiasts.

In the Nanshan parking lot, the scene looks different from a weekend 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 the moguls.

The reason becomes evident inside the concrete-basic base lodge: all gear is for rent, from goggles to the yellow ski suits with Farmer John’s and matching jackets that look more HazMat than downhill racer. Since 95% of China’s skiers are snowplowing beginners, rentals reduce costs in an admittedly pricey sport.

The price of a two-hour lift ticket, which includes equipment rental, is $18—just slightly less than the average weekly wage of a Chinese urban worker. Rental skis and boots are a throwback to the 1970s: rear-entry boots that are so loose, they’re drafty, and long, straight, skinny skis colored like a neon LSD hallucination.

Nanshan offers two chairlifts, nine “drag” (surface) lifts, and ten trails—all snow-bunny boulevards except for a mogul field at the very top with bumps the size of taxi cabs. Bright yellow signs on the lift towers remind enthusiasts, “Don’t Let Skies Fall.”

Slopes throng with the newly affluent: Yuppies and DINKs, adolescent snowboarders chattering 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.

Huaibei Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

Located about 45 miles from Beijing, Huaibei Ski Resort brings together China old and new. From the runs, skiers can gaze out at watchtowers and segments of the Great Wall—the 6,200-mile-long ramparts built starting in 453 B.C. 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 his left pole, then his right, his hat and finally losing a ski before he trickles to a halt from the declining incline.

Yabuli Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

While Nanshan and Huaibei draw day skiers from Beijing, Yabuli International Ski Resort ranks as China’s leading destination ski area. The biggest ski area 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 China’s northeastern limits—a region once known as Manchuria. Inner Mongolia lies a snowball’s toss to the left, Siberia to the right. 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.

Privately owned, Yabuli opened in 1995 and offers up-to-date facilities. Covered by a bubble to protect against the cold, a double chairlift zips 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 harum-scarum bump runs with super-size moguls.

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. Instead of Red Bull, the snack bar serves green tea and baijiu—the local moonshine. In addition to the four snowmaking machines, workers who earn $.70 a day carry in sacks of fresh snow from the forest on their backs.

Yabuli Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

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, dominant design at Yabuli is windmills… 108 of them in fact.

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 rooms offer comfortable, basic accommodations with cable TVs, VCRs, plus 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”) 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.

Yabuli is located a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Harbin, founded in 1897 by Russian engineers constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Prosperous because of resources ranging from coal to soybeans the city today boasts a population of 9.6 million (about 100 Chinese cities have populations of more than one million).

Church of St. Sofia / Peter Schroeder

The most-noteworthy sights date from the Russian era including the onion-domed Church of St. Sofia built in 1907, which has been turned into a cultural center. A cobbled, tree-lined street, Zh­­ongyang Dajie features gloriously restored buildings embellished with gold leaf and cupolas; many of these structures now house swank boutiques and clubs.

Harbin Ice Festival / Peter Schroeder

Winter temperatures in Harbin can plummet to –40  degrees F. 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 you can slide through the icy corridors.

A complete winter recreation area, Jingyuetan Ski Resort offers horse-drawn sleigh rides, dog-sleds, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice boating as well as snowriding. The ski area lies a 40-minute drive southeast of Changchun—yet-another Chinese city of seven million that most Westerners have never heard of.

Jingyuetan Ski Resort / Peter Schroeder

Although the beginners area is packed when our group of Western ski writers arrives, the advanced mountain is empty. In fact, the lift—an aged single with chairs painted yellow-orange-blue in perfect sequence—isn’t even running. Stunned to see a gaggle of Westerners 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— surprised and delighted by us American ski-comers—doles out the equipment. Arrayed by size the ancient rear-entry boots are already snapped into the bindings of the long, skinny skis.

The woman has been skiing for about a year, she explains. Yes, the Jingyuetan gets a few other Western skiers—mostly Germans who work in a nearby Volkswagen plant, plus some tourists from Slovenia and Israel. She helps us to snap the old-fashioned buckles on our boots and carry our skis to the lift

Greeted by the smiling middle-aged male liftie, we load into the one-person chairs. “Ni hao,” we say. “Xièxie ni.” “Hello—thank you”—the only words in Mandarin we know. “Ni hao—xièxie ni,” he replies. Each lap on the chair we repeat the exchange—a desire for contact, friendship, our own little attempt at world peace.

The slow, old single creaks up the hill, which is billed as advanced although it would be an easy green learner-run anywhere back in the States. Ring-necked pheasants scamper through the woods below, and glittery flecks of snow start falling across the scene. A Chinese woman named Stella takes a break from diligently practicing snowplow turns to remark, “Today is so beautiful—the snowflakes are like flowers.”

Apres-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.

Beautifully restored, Puyí’s brick palace is open to the public. Well-written explanations in English relate the history of Puyí, who became puppet-emperor for the Japanese when they seized northeastern China. Visitors can see the royal rooms with their gilded woodwork and coffered ceilings, the banquet rooms with a separate screened area for musicians, the billiards room where guests would pretend to lose to the emperor.

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 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 with 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. — Risa Wyatt