Winter came to Beijing as usual with howling Siberian winds. The cold current whistles through the alley and the ring road, into your door, into your clothes. It was early December. The solar term named "heavy snow" has come, it is time for heavy snow.
But there will be no snow. It almost never snows in Beijing. The last days of 2018 were clear, with the city's orange dome pierced by starlight at night. Snow is not important. The important thing is the cold. Now, people here can do things.
It was Saturday and the nanshan ski resort opened. It is one of 10 ski resorts an hour's drive from Beijing. The ski resort was packed with people. For the past four days, 32 snow cannons here have been firing true-form fluffy crystals that workers have pushed over several hillsides. The loudspeaker urged beginners not to go up the intermediate course. Couples lounged on a sunny terrace in bright blue rented ski suits. The kitchen is steaming, sending out bowls of spicy, scalding soup.
Man, it's a little late in the season, said huang xuefeng, whose English name is Marco. He was in his early 40s, a burly man with a recent eye scar from a skiing accident. As the lead creator of a company called Mellow Parks in south hill, he spent the morning setting up little skips and setting up picnic tables just right for double - and single-boarders to play on. "It's too warm, man," he said in his office. "A week ago, I couldn't see anything here. I mean dirt."
In this part of China, it only snows once or twice a season, and it's usually just a little bit of snow dust. But with the 2022 winter Olympics coming up, neither the weather nor the trade war will stop the world's most populous nation from fostering the biggest snowsport craze in human history. Multi-billion dollar ski resorts are springing up at record rates, with all the snow-making visible from a cable car. Many groups organize group training to promote the fun of skiing. It's part of the party's plan to train 300 million "winter sports enthusiasts" before the games begin. That is twice the population of France, Germany and Switzerland combined.
Much of the excitement took place in chongli, an unusually cold place in the dama mountains, about 150 miles northwest of Beijing. There will be some skiing events, and at least six new resorts will be built on requisitioned potato fields. For Olympic spectators around the world, their first impression of Chinese skiing will come from the ceremony. Few people pay attention to nanshan.
However, after a 13-hour flight from the Pacific northwest with a friend, we saw something even more exciting than the Olympics: a southward peak, less than 270 meters high. On the opening day, more than 4,500 double - and snowboarders will slide down the slopes to a vertical height of just 90 meters. The slope is so short that the slide only lasts a few seconds. During the busiest holidays, more than 9,000 people crowd into nanshan, and equipment rental shops are rented out.
The Olympics mean a lot to China, and it's good to have more ski resorts and more events, but what we do here is so different, Mr. Ma said. He made a sign out of the window where he was marking his place with a line. "We want to tell people that snow sports are not sports. No training, no seriousness. Just skiing with friends."
Skier boy goes to China
For the past nine winters, John Ostendorff and I have spent most weekends skiing in bachlor, a ski area in our hometown in Oregon. We plan to go to Beijing for a week in early December. Some companies will arrange everything for you, but it feels better to do it yourself. In addition, I hope the ski kid trip will provide the best opportunity for us to meet other skiers. We take buses and trains, use Chinese travel apps like baidu and didi, and post our photos on Chinese social media app WeChat.
I'm in, said John.
On our first full day in Beijing, the early morning temperature was 10 degrees below zero, and the wind was blowing like a sheet of metal. People on electric scooters, wrapped in quilts, bypass carts loaded with scallions. John and some of the locals played shuttlecock, a game akin to kicking sandbags with feathered shuttlecocks. Then we see a flock of pigeons trained to fly in circles, their tails whistling ethereally. The art called "pigeon bells" is dying out, but it still exists in hutongs.
John and I hurriedly laid out the ground in shijinglong, Beijing's first ski resort to open near the city proper, which opened in 1999 amid a cluster of dull skyscrapers and farmland in yanqing, about 80 kilometers northwest of downtown Beijing. There were about 20 ski resorts in China then. Today there are more than 700. It has 10 1km long ski runs, covers an area of 20 hectares and has a 200-metre vertical drop. On the plains of northern China, you can ski facing the sun. As people came, the streets began to jam. Since then, snow has been of little importance: shi jinglong has the country's first artificial snow-making system.
Today, to get to the ski district in a poor way, you have to head to Beijing's ancient deshengmen archery, a brown, rectangular behemoth with upended eaves that sits atop a 500-year-old tower on the side of the second ring road. It was through this gate that the emperor's army had come back from the war centuries before. Today, it is a busy bus stop.
We clumsily squeezed into the crowded 919 and grabbed the last two seats, thankful we hadn't packed our heavy skis. Apartment blocks disappeared behind them, and brown hillsides faded in front of them. The bus sped through the tunnel under the Great Wall.
After backing out, we lost our way, and after three hours and about $3, we trotted all the way to the entrance to shi jinglong at the foot of daqingshan. "I see the skiers!" John became excited. A wide ski trail, like a cream tongue, cleaves through the brown foothills of van dyck.
When the Olympics come, you'll hear a lot about yanqing, but you probably won't hear about shi jinglong. That's because skiing events, sledding and ice sledding will all be held elsewhere in yanqing, five miles away, at xiaohaituo, the brand-new national center for alpine skiing. Vanke, which plans to operate xiaohaituo after the Olympics, has also been investing in shi. Here, a cluster of small shops, a ski center and the outside area have been properly restored. Pictures of people hanging around the walls near the ski school. Huge rows of new apartment buildings rise from the mountains.
Many ski resorts in China can rent equipment and buy lift tickets by the hour. The trick to getting a discount is to buy everything up front on WeChat, but we can't use WeChat's payment feature. After some Google translation and some scrambling, we were able to get tickets, including ridiculously short skis and poles, for about 130 renminbi, or less than $19. "Let's go! 'we got on the cable car and soon skimmed the bare ground,' says John.
We skied a few times from the mountainside, the maximum height we could ski, until they dropped more snow. The edges of the skis hissed as I skied on a surface that felt smooth. The pistes are lined with orange fences, and in the middle are mostly novice skiers interested in the clumsy stance of the plows. At its peak, there are about 1500 people here.
What nationality are you? Asked the man at the top of the slide. Jin wentao, whose English name is Daniel, studied English in southern China before coming to the north for skiing. He was already an excellent skier and is now at the forefront of the government's project to create 300 million skiers. Several afternoons a week, school children would come to hear him talk about basic subjects.
Do you like it? I asked. I love it," he said. To realize his dream, he doesn't mind sharing a dorm room with three other people at the age of 29. "Skiing sets you free."