Skiing Red

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Travel 1205

Jaunty red lanterns dangle from the chairlifts and pine trees. Though the expert runs are empty, the novice slopes throng with beginners frozen in hunch-shouldered snowplows—or merely frozen, since the temperature is minus 15 degrees. Red-coated patrollers hover on the sidelines to drag novices out of the roadkill lane. At the base, those looking for a Starbucks-style jolt will have to be satisfied with a mug of green tea.

"We must not indulge in wastefulness and extravagance, Mao Tse-Tung proclaimed in his revolutionary Little Red Book. So what would the Chairman think about Yabuli International Ski Resort—or the 200 other ski hills flourishing behind the former Bamboo Curtain? China has a population of 1.3 billion, 10 percent of which enjoys a first-world standard of living and aspires to capitalist pastimes like skiing. Today, the country claims about 5 million skiers, up from less than 10,000 in 1996.

Yabuli, China's biggest ski area, sits at the northeastern extreme of the country. Hang a left and you're in Inner Mongolia; turn right and you're in Siberia. Yes, it's cold. Handwarmer packets give up after an hour, digital-camera batteries after 20 minutes. Bring your warmest clothes and expect to wear all of them at the same time.

Yabuli is also where the Chinese National Team skis. But you can't join them. Mountains No. 1 and No. 2 (the Chinese didn't put too much thought into names), with the most expert terrain, are open only for competitions (they hosted the 1996 Asian Winter Games). But visitors can pursue on-piste detente at two other areas: Mountain No. 3 (advanced) and Kang Le (novice). The efforts of four snowmaking machines are augmented by workers who carry sacks of snow in from the forests on their backs.

But thanks to those Siberian temperatures, the snow stays squeaky fresh, and skiers can sample plenty of seamless cruisers and chaotic bump runs that look as if they were the scene of a Mongol battle. Trail 9 is the steepest, with a 32-degree pitch; Trail 5 is the longest, at three miles.

Down in the base village, the operative architectural motif is windmills—108 of them dot the base area and mountains (a nod to the long skiing traditions of the Dutch?). The best place to stay is the Windmill Hotel, where basic rooms are enlivened by certain, shall we say, eccentricities: The shower rod doubles as your clothes rack. At breakfast, soupy congee (rice gruel), seaweed jelly and, oddly, spaghetti with meatballs, get the ski day off to an unusual start. But if that doesn't prove satisfying, bear-bile capsules ("to remove heat, calm liver and improve eyesight) are available at the base lodge.

December 2005

DetailsYabuli International Ski Resort offers 11 lifts and 1,968 feet of vertical over 500 acres. The mountain is about 700 miles northeast of Beijing. Contact China National Tourist Board; 888-760-8218; cnto.org