Skiing in China

Catching a train in China is more fraught than in any other country I know. Forget just wandering onto the platform and climbing on board. You have to think of it as catching a flight, and only then does it start to make sense. Your luggage – skis, boots and all, if you are heading for the slopes – has to go through a security check similar to the kind you encounter at airports. Then you have to select the appropriate waiting room. At Harbin, the capital of China’s most northerly province, Heilongjiang there are separate waiting rooms for “The Weak and the Old”, a “Luxury” waiting room and yet another for “Army Men” – where indeed we encountered half a regiment of Chinese troops as we prepared for our three hour journey to neighbouring Jilin province.
There seemed to be no waiting room, however, for nondescript passengers like us, so we settled for luxury. Speaking of which, although the trains seem to run on time, and in general work rather better than their British counterparts, it is impossible to book soft-seats on the day you wish to travel. To avoid the hard-seat alternative, where, according to the Lonely Planet guide, you are more likely to be robbed, you have to do a quick deal with a guard before getting on the train – a little like booking a last-minute couchette in Europe.
Once established in your soft seat, you can sit back and watch China go past your window – except that it is so cold the window keeps icing up. Corn-on-the-cob seems a ubiquitous crop, hanging up to ripen on the rooftops of houses from Shuang Cheng to Mishazi. Quite how it ripens in such a cold climate – as cows scratch a meal from snow-flecked stubble – is a mystery.
There are adverts for skiing all over the carriage, and many of the passengers are wearing skiing parkas.It seems to be a fashion statement – skiing is the flavour of the century so far in China. As we chugged along,I was browsing through something Nimng Shimin, Director of Heilongjiang Provincial Tourism Administration, had written:
“China is vast in territory, with an extremely great season difference between north and south. In the past, when winter came, the northern area tended to suffer from a slack season for tourism. In recent years, by fully exploiting its advantage in winter tourism, Heilongjiang has turned winter into a peak season for tourism. Ice and snow has become a marketable product. According to the current rate of expansion, the skiing population in China is to reach 12 million, accounting for one percent of the nation’s total in a few years”
While I am taking all these statistics in, trolleys carrying various commodities trundle by almost every five minutes like a market on a conveyor belt – not just hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, dried fish, bananas and other snacks, but dvd players, videos and who knows what else.
Although China has many mountains – sufficient, indeed, to entertain millions of skiers – there were few to be seen from our window during a disappointing three hour journey to Changchun, to ski at Beidahu. And while there is no doubt that it is cold in them there hills, even the Chinese cannot seem to agree about whether there is sufficient snow to guarantee good skiing.
Herein lies the paradox. Its cold, dry climate is arguably not ideal for major snowfalls (“the time of freeze is long”). Yet Ning Jiming, executive vice-mayor of Heilongjiang’s Luobei County, claims: “With most of its areas in moderate temperature zone, North East China is characterised by a long winter, very cold climate, immense snowfall, long snowfall period (5 months or so) quality snow, with numerous mountains and hills. “
By contrast, Zhao Yinggang, director of sport administration in Heilongjiang Province lists among the problems in promoting “sustainable development of ski tourism” what he claims is an “inadequate volume of natural snowfall, short effective snowing period, scarcity of safe ropeway system or network, low-grade facilities with inadequate transportation capability.”
We would just have to find out for ourselves who was right. After overnighting in Changchun, once part of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, and now famous for its car factories and little else, we headed for Yongji County and “Beidahu Skiing Field” some 90 miles away at Mount Changbai. It was impressive, scenic, and cold. The highest local peak is Mount Nanluoshan is just over 4,600 feet (1404 metres).
Over the last decade, the Jilin’s provincial government developers have spent some £14 million developing an area covering almost eleven square miles high above the Songhua Lake Natural Scenic Spot. There are a dozen lifts, and – surprisingly – more than 1000 pairs of rental skis. Not to mention more than 200 “gust” rooms at the base area hotel.
And the snow? Well, there wasn’t really enough to open the resort properly, but you could see the potential. And to be fair, it was only December, when snow can be scarce in the best of resorts. Snowmaking would have been possible, but so early in the season, with no obvious clientele, it would probably have been counter-productive.
We did note, with some amusement, that among the “Points for Attention” displayed at the base area of Beidahu Skiing Field Cableway Station was the following: “Refuse the person without ticket or drinking excessively, and the person with hypertension, heart disease, neuropathy and simpleton to get on the lift.” Being something of a simpleton for wanting to ski in freezing resort when the lifts weren’t even running, I decided to walk up.