Witness the roaring Chinese middle class," my lift buddy says as our quad floats over a crowded green run at Nanshan Ski Village, an hour's drive from Beijing. Below us, a nation learns to ski. On poorly maintained rental equipment, they snowplow cautiously down the slope or, in some cases, beeline it.
Crashes are common. At one point, a man in jeans slams full-speed into a lift line. Thankfully, no injuries. "Duibuqi! Duibuqi! Duibuqi!" the man pleads as his victims brush snow off their coats. "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!"
That scene occurred last winter, my first experience skiing in China. I quickly learned that visitors to the country's winter sport destinations should toss aside notions of Whistler or Banff. The snow is mostly artificial, the runs more crowded than IKEA on a Sunday, and the biggest obstacles aren't monster moguls but nervous newbies on overly waxed skis.
Call it skiing with Chinese characteristics.
First-timers aside, in the past few years several mountains have been transformed into impressive winter destinations, pitched as premier resorts with the hope of capturing the attention - and cash - of China's vast and growing middle class.
Around Beijing alone, there are a half-dozen options. Huaibei Ski Resort has a view of the Great Wall and a ski school co-run by the French Ski Association. Dolomiti Mountain Resort, 220 kilometres from the city, is backed by Italian investors and has the best facilities and lifts in the country. The Hong Kong owners of Yabuli Ski Resort, near Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, have invested $100-million (U.S.) in the area and plan to open three five-star hotels. And in Xinjiang, in China's northwest, the team that developed Breckenridge and Deer Valley in the United States are working on Ping Tian Resorts, billed as Asia's first world-class four-season resort, slated to open next season.
"There's huge growth right now," says Tom Tillotson, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. ski industry who in 2006 founded China Ski Tours, which provides up-to-date information and helps to arrange trips. "The high-end Chinese ski market is still in its infancy, but if you look at the areas close to the city, these businesses are gold mines."
With the rapid development of China's ski and snowboard industry in mind, I brushed off my skepticism and set off to Wanlong Ski Resort, 250 km from Beijing in frigid Hebei province.
At 2,500 metres, with nearly a dozen runs of (mostly) real snow and one of China's longest seasons, Wanlong is considered the best all-around ski destination in China. Each weekend, about 1,000 skiers and snowboarders make the trip to Wanlong, but on weekdays the runs are wide, empty and fast, Tillotson told me before I left.
The nearly four-hour drive to Wanlong is a pleasant one. We pass the rocky hills north of Beijing and twice catch glimpses of the Great Wall. Hebei province in winter is both a miserable and entirely fascinating patch of earth - a world away from the capital where goods can still be seen carried on donkey-drawn carts on the outskirts of rapidly changing cities.
When we arrive at Wanlong, it's minus 23, plus a vicious wind. After checking into the hotel and paying for lift tickets and rental equipment (a weekday day pass goes for $55; weekends $65), I'm ready to hit the slopes. The lifts are painfully slow, but the snow is good, the runs are long and empty, and, as Tillotson said, fast - just like Chinese skiers like it.
At Wanlong, there are signs of what the Chinese ski industry could become. There's a ski school with nearly 40 instructors, a lodge offering new-ish and well-maintained Salomon rental equipment, and three shops hawking top-quality gear. There's even surprisingly decent coffee, a rarity in China. The resort draws visitors from Korea, Japan and Russia, but, more importantly, it's popular with China's snow bunnies, who are not the same beginners I encountered last year.
Like all Chinese ski destinations, finding accommodation at Wanlong is perhaps the biggest challenge. Shuanglong Hotel is the only option on the hill, and it's often booked with tour groups on weekends. Hotels in nearby Congli village are "very small, very cheap and very dirty," a Beijing travel agent told me. Most Wanlong regulars rent apartments in town, and a new development called Alps Town is under construction to accommodate growing demand.
For a weekday visit, Shuanglong does the trick. Après-ski options are limited, but the hotel has three restaurants, including one serving delicious hot pot ($20 for two, including drinks), and it's hard to beat the $18 head-to-toe massage just across the hall.
The next morning, after speeding down the 2,500-metre Jade Dragon piste and warming my hands at the mountaintop café, I sit down in the lodge with a group of skiers and snowboarders from Beijing. Among them is 28-year-old Joe Chung, a Hong Kong native who works in Beijing with eyewear company Oakley, which is sponsoring the China's women's snowboarding team this year, the first time the sunglasses maker has sponsored a Chinese winter sports team.
"Two years ago, there weren't so many people interested in snowboarding," Chung says. "But last year certainly more people were interested, and this year even more. It's all my friends in Beijing talk about. Snowboard. Snowboard. Snowboard."
Li Su, a 39-year-old Beijinger who owns his own sportswear company, first tried snowboarding last year at Nanshan, outside Beijing. This year, he has moved on to the more challenging Wanlong. "The scenery is good here," he says. "It's bigger, and a lot more snow."
While the future of China's ski and snowboard industry will rely on people like Li, foreign visitors are increasingly checking out the country's winter sports options. China Ski Tours' Tillotson says he helps about 60 to 70 overseas visitors annually tack on a few days on the hill, a number sure to grow as the industry develops.
"Will a skier come to China just to go skiing? No," Tillotson says. "But if somebody is a skier and is coming to China anyway, and they want to experience something different, that's what they can do. It's a great way to see the real middle-class China, away from the tourist sites."
Pack your bags
Wanlong Ski Resort 86-10-6553-6830; 86-10-6553-6831; http://www.wlski.com
Shuanglong Hotel 0313-4618888 Ext. 8166; Double rooms: $128 weekday, $171 weekend
Yabuli Ski Resort 0451-5345-6017; http://www.yabuliski.com
Sun Mountain Yabuli Hotel 86-451-5345-8888; http://www.melcochinaresorts.com; Double rooms: $210-$250
Nanshan Ski Village 86-10-8909-1909; http://www.nanshanski.com
Dolomiti Mountain Resorts 158-1099-2506 (English-speaking hotline); http://www.dolomitiski.cn
Huaibei Ski Resort 86-10-8969-6677; http://www.hbski.com (Chinese only)
Ping Tian Resorts 852-2806-3307; http://www.pingtianresorts.com
China Ski Tours Helps arrange visits to various ski areas; 86-15-0311-6227 (China); 603-255-3791 (U.S.); http://www.chinaskitours.com
China Adventure Offers trips to Yabuli and Jilin Beidahu Skiing Resort; 86-10-5166-9102; http://www.cnadventure.com