Birth of a Ski Nation

Features
Author:
Publish date:

This is what the General Secretary of the Chinese Ski Association said to me: "We will teach as many of the masses to ski as possible. From the masses we will pick the future stars. We will have a strong national team. We will train. And then the champion of the Olympic downhill race will be Chinese. It is the dream of my entire life."

The General Secretary, Shan Zhaojian, is the most important skier in China. He is a tiny man, thin as a coin, with cab-door ears and an unruly mess of ink-black hair. In 1957, he was the winner of China's first-ever ski race. The race was held on a hill that had been established by Japanese troops during their World War II occupation of northern China -- a hill that was hastily abandoned, equipment and all, after Japan's surrender. That is how the seed of skiing was planted in China.

Mr. Shan spoke quietly, at times almost bashfully, but always with an undercurrent of fierce patriotism. He is well aware that China is poised to become the world's dominant economic power, and by his way of thinking, this domination will soon extend to skiing.

I met with Mr. Shan last winter in a pallid hotel room at the Yabuli Skiing Resort, in the rounded hills of northeastern China, the same region that Japan overran 60 years ago. Mr. Shan had arrived from Beijing, 500 miles to the south, to observe the unveiling of the first Chinese-made snow gun. I was in China to witness the birth of a ski nation.

Yabuli, as with every ski hill in China, is operated by the government. (The Chinese Communist government does not permit private land ownership.) Yabuli was the first ski area built in China, in 1980, and it is the only one large enough to be called a resort. There are only six modern ski areas in the whole nation, all of them in the northeast, which is where most of the population resides. As with the U.S., though, the population does not reside where the snowiest mountains are. I arrived in early March, and already there was no snow. Only one of Yabuli's 15 lifts was in operation; the sole open run was a pitiful muddle of ice patches and dirt streaks and scattered hay.

Mr. Shan is in charge of distributing the country's skiing budget. When we met, his budget was about nil. In a manner that struck me as typically Chinese, the country had decided to start out not with a series of modest local hills that would foster a native ski culture, but with a sprawling "firstly-selected skiing and vacationing resort" (this from the brochure), and thus to leapfrog the usual ski-nation progression. This not only depleted the national ski budget but, in combination with a Chinese predilection to ignore all foreign advice, also resulted in a place with an ill-thought-out lift system, with trails cut counter to the fall line, in a province that often receives very little snow. Now, in an attempt to amend Yabuli's most pressing problem, the government was spending its remaining ski-allocated funds to manufacture powerful, jet-engine-type snow guns.

What happened, I wondered, to step one of the General Secretary's dream? By Mr. Shan's estimation, only a couple of thousand Chinese have ever tried skiing. China, drawing from its pool of talented gymnasts, does have some excellent freestyle aerialists, including Nannan Xu, who won a silver medal at last winter's Nagano Games. But in the Alpine events there is currently no skier even approaching World Cup caliber. It is difficult to find champions before there are beginners.

"We have problems," Mr. Shan admitted, suddenly humble. "We are still a developing country." He spoke in Mandarin, which was translated by one of my two travel partners, American Kyle Westgard. Kyle has spent most of the last 10 years in China and is, at age 29, the president and CEO of China Ski, a company that is attempting to inject U.S. knowledge into future Chinese ski-area projects (a delicate task, given China's reluctance to accept foreign guidance). I was also traveling with photographer Chs Anderson.

Mr. Shan said there were plans to open dozens of small hills throughout the country, and that one day there was sure to be tens of millions of Chinese skiers, but for now, with a tight budget, all he could do was ship equipment to the mountains.

I asked him what he meant by "shipping equipment to the mountains."

"In an act of friendship," he said, "the government of Japan has donated used ski gear to the Chinese Ski Association. I have sent the gear to Xinjiang."

"Did you have lifts built there too?" I asked.

"No, only equipment."

"Instructors?"

"No, only equipment. There is snow there, and mountains. They will learn to ski."

Mr. Shan said that he had never been to Xinjiang but he knew the mountains were big and the snow was abundant. He also said that there is evidence the region may have been home to the world's first skiers (a designation usually staked by the Norwegians). Mr. Shan claimed that the earliest known written record of skiing dates from about 2,500 years ago, in Xinjiang. It was clear that he expected this area to be his farm grounds for future champions.

When we finished our meeting and our elaborate good-byes, Kyle, Chris, and I knew precisely where we were headed.

Of China's 22 provinces and five autonomous regions, Xinjiang is easily the most remote. It is in the far northwest, more than 2,000 miles from Beijing. Xinjiang encompasses a vast high-Alpine territory between Mongolia and Kazakstan. It is the Chinese equivalent of Siberia.

Xinjiang's largest city is Urumchi. It is close to nothing. To get there by train from eastern China requires 76 hours of travel. An airplane takes only four hours, but China's domestic flights have a reputation for unexpectedly tumbling out of the sky. Nonetheless, we elected to take the plane. Kyle made the arrangements and was even able to locate a guide who said he was an avid skier and, in the event the plane made it that far, would gladly meet us at the airport.

As we flew west from Beijing, the landscape looked like an endless succession of brick-colored dunes. Where there was wind, the sands of the Gobi Desert swirled and gathered in cigar-smoke forms. Now and again, at an oasis, I saw signs of human life -- tents, cattle -- but there were no cities. Despite its population, China is predominantly rural. One in five people in the world is Chinese; one in seven is a Chinese peasant. Away from the metropolises of the east coast, the nation is exceedingly poor. In fertile areas the fields are plowed by horses; on most roads donkey carts outnumber cars. The average per-capita income is less than $50 per year. Several million people still live in caves.

Shortly before we landed (on the runway, without incident), the geography abruptly shifted. We flew over the Tien Shan Mountains -- "the Heavenly Mountains" -- which rise to nearly 18,000 feet. They are broad and white and stunning, like an assemblage of Rainiers, only with steepled summits and a distinctly unheavenly sense of quiet menace about them. Geologically speaking, they are young peaks and still growing.

Our guide, an effusive 25-year-old named Liu Yu Ling, was at the airport with a driver and minivan. He asked us to call him Philippe. His new girlfriend, he said, speaks French, which had evidently prompted him to become an instant Francophile. Philippe is pudgy, which is rare for a Chinese, and extroverted, which is even rarer, and he possessed the sort of manic grinning energy that I associate with many of my closest ski-bum friends. He spoke only two phrases of English, one of which he utilized as a greeting, shouting across the airport lobby as he saw us coming, ski bags balanced over our shoulders: "I like ski! I like ski!" I knew straight off he'd be an excellent addition to the group.

Urumchi is an ugly city. The skyline is smokestacks and blocky Communist-style buildings, and the air is acrid with the smell of burning coal. There are no trees. But along its wide streets there is also the buzzy, reckless feel of a true frontier land. Urumchi is home to a wild mix of ethnic groups, which is an extreme oddity in China, where 95 percent of the people (including Philippe) are Han Chinese. Here, though, there are significant populations of Uighurs, Uzbeks, Tazhiks, Mongols, Tatars, and Kazaks. The market sells dried snakes and powdered rams' horns and ornate knives and an expressive style of headwear in which the pompom isthe hat. This is actually worn on the streets, and makes the wearer appear as though he has recently put his tongue in a light socket. We could not resist purchasing a few. The price was totaled on an abacus.

Philippe took us out for Uighur (pronounced "weaker") food, which consisted of fatty mutton kabobs over rice. It was a workout for the jaw. Afterwards came several bottles of pilsner, locally brewed and superb. Kyle, demonstrating the advanced level of his Chinese assimilation, deftly opened the bottles with a chopstick. Philippe told us about the local skiing. There are three areas in the region, he said, and tomorrow we would visit his favorite, a place called Ban Fang Gou -- Wooden Shack Gorge. This was Wooden Shack's third winter in operation. Philippe said we would be the first foreigners ever to visit.

It snowed two inches overnight, and in the morning the city suddenly looked clean and inviting. Up and down the block from our hotel I watched shopkeepers sweep clear the sidewalk with straw whisks. Philippe came by in the minivan and we drove south into the foothills of the Tien Shan. Soon there were no other cars, then there were no bicycles, and finally the only tracks on the snowy road were hoofprints. We were in a Kazak region, said Philippe, and at the outer edges of accessible terrain. Any further in and we'd reach the granite walls of the Tien Shan's anchor peaks. The hills here were short and steep and folded into one another, with gorgeous dark spruce forests on the north-facing slopes and skiable meadows on the south. At the base of the hills were mud-brick homes with thatched roofs. Herds of sheep were tended by Kazaks seated on hairy, bowlegged horses.

The road turned rough and then very rough and then became little more than a riverbed. Soon we were stuck. Three young men emerged from a nearby home to help us. When they saw we were foreigners, they insisted we meet the rest of their family and share a pot of tea. Their house was squat and rectangular, with the silhouette of a mobile home. The mud bricks of its thick walls had been stuccoed inside and out, and the house had glass windows, both signs in these parts of a well-off family. Ornate tapestries sewn with bright flower patterns hung on the walls. The house had electricity, and there was a radio and black-and-white television. Heat came from a wood-burning stove.

The house had three rooms. In the main one, a middle-aged woman wearing a shawl and a thick wool skirt was carving up a sheep that just been slaughtered. Blood glistened on the dusty brick floor; mutton steaks were laid out on a swatch of burlap. Two young boys played a jackslike game using the sheep's vertebrae.The patriarch of the family, Mr. Kai, was sitting in a side room on an enormous bed, called a kang,made of brick. In China, families often all sleep together in their kang. Mr. Kai said he was 74 years old. He had seven children and many grandchildren, all of whom lived in nearby homes. (China's ethnic minorities are exempt from the nation's strict one-child laws.) I asked him what the secret to a long life was. He jumped up, performed a little jig, and said, "Exercise!"

Shortly, our cultural exchange began in earnest. Mrs. Kai, who had been carving the sheep, served us tea. One of the sons came in and played a song on a donbula,a beautiful, ukulelelike instrument. We talked at length about the relationship between the United States and China. Mr. Kai said it wouldn't be long before the two nations be there is also the buzzy, reckless feel of a true frontier land. Urumchi is home to a wild mix of ethnic groups, which is an extreme oddity in China, where 95 percent of the people (including Philippe) are Han Chinese. Here, though, there are significant populations of Uighurs, Uzbeks, Tazhiks, Mongols, Tatars, and Kazaks. The market sells dried snakes and powdered rams' horns and ornate knives and an expressive style of headwear in which the pompom isthe hat. This is actually worn on the streets, and makes the wearer appear as though he has recently put his tongue in a light socket. We could not resist purchasing a few. The price was totaled on an abacus.

Philippe took us out for Uighur (pronounced "weaker") food, which consisted of fatty mutton kabobs over rice. It was a workout for the jaw. Afterwards came several bottles of pilsner, locally brewed and superb. Kyle, demonstrating the advanced level of his Chinese assimilation, deftly opened the bottles with a chopstick. Philippe told us about the local skiing. There are three areas in the region, he said, and tomorrow we would visit his favorite, a place called Ban Fang Gou -- Wooden Shack Gorge. This was Wooden Shack's third winter in operation. Philippe said we would be the first foreigners ever to visit.

It snowed two inches overnight, and in the morning the city suddenly looked clean and inviting. Up and down the block from our hotel I watched shopkeepers sweep clear the sidewalk with straw whisks. Philippe came by in the minivan and we drove south into the foothills of the Tien Shan. Soon there were no other cars, then there were no bicycles, and finally the only tracks on the snowy road were hoofprints. We were in a Kazak region, said Philippe, and at the outer edges of accessible terrain. Any further in and we'd reach the granite walls of the Tien Shan's anchor peaks. The hills here were short and steep and folded into one another, with gorgeous dark spruce forests on the north-facing slopes and skiable meadows on the south. At the base of the hills were mud-brick homes with thatched roofs. Herds of sheep were tended by Kazaks seated on hairy, bowlegged horses.

The road turned rough and then very rough and then became little more than a riverbed. Soon we were stuck. Three young men emerged from a nearby home to help us. When they saw we were foreigners, they insisted we meet the rest of their family and share a pot of tea. Their house was squat and rectangular, with the silhouette of a mobile home. The mud bricks of its thick walls had been stuccoed inside and out, and the house had glass windows, both signs in these parts of a well-off family. Ornate tapestries sewn with bright flower patterns hung on the walls. The house had electricity, and there was a radio and black-and-white television. Heat came from a wood-burning stove.

The house had three rooms. In the main one, a middle-aged woman wearing a shawl and a thick wool skirt was carving up a sheep that just been slaughtered. Blood glistened on the dusty brick floor; mutton steaks were laid out on a swatch of burlap. Two young boys played a jackslike game using the sheep's vertebrae.The patriarch of the family, Mr. Kai, was sitting in a side room on an enormous bed, called a kang,made of brick. In China, families often all sleep together in their kang. Mr. Kai said he was 74 years old. He had seven children and many grandchildren, all of whom lived in nearby homes. (China's ethnic minorities are exempt from the nation's strict one-child laws.) I asked him what the secret to a long life was. He jumped up, performed a little jig, and said, "Exercise!"

Shortly, our cultural exchange began in earnest. Mrs. Kai, who had been carving the sheep, served us tea. One of the sons came in and played a song on a donbula,a beautiful, ukulelelike instrument. We talked at length about the relationship between the United States and China. Mr. Kai said it wouldn't be long before the two nations became each other's most important foreign markets. Even out here, there was a resolute sense of China's imminent greatness.

Eventually Philippe went outside and put chains on the minivan, and we continued to the ski hill. At first glance, and even second glance, it was impossible to tell that Wooden Shack Gorge is a ski area. It looked like a Mongolian herders' encampment. There were four white, round canvas-sided yurts, each with a stovepipe emerging from a conical roof. The yurts bordered a gently sloped meadow that extended for maybe two football-field lengths, lined on both edges with small flags of green and orange cloth. We were at the end of a narrow valley; on three sides of the meadow rose treed hillsides creased with tight drainages. The place appeared deserted.

Philippe knocked on the metal door of one of the yurts. After a moment the door opened. We could see that we had reached the main office.

The mountain manager, Mr. Ma, was grumpy, and understandably so; he had hurt his knee and was unable to ski. Behind him were crammed two beds, a stove, a small selection of cookware, a wooden desk, a television connected to a Chinese-made Micro Genius game system, a red motorcycle helmet, and 100 pairs of skis, boots, and poles. This was the equipment the General Secretary had sent. It was indeed Japanese gear -- Yamaha, Nishizawa, Ogasaka -- and circa 1980. Philippe said that on busy weekends early in the winter, every set was often rented out. We paid Mr. Ma the equivalent of $4 each for one night's yurt rental, a dinner that would consist of mutton and rice, and use of the slopes.

Philippe explained that this price did not include the cost of utilizing the lift system. I said there wasno lift system. He said there was, indeed.By the time we stepped out of the yurt, word had spread that skiers were at the area, and a half dozen Kazak herdsmen had gathered, horses in tow. The herdsmen were dressed in wool blazers and wool slacks and beret-style caps. No one wore gloves. Their faces were weather roughened, with maroon patches on their cheeks that showed evidence of frostbite scars. They had sharper features than the east-coast Chinese-aquiline noses, squared jaws. There was much yelling and arm waving. They wanted us to rent their horses. This was the lift system.

Kyle handled the bargaining. Each horse had a separate owner, and each animal's rental had to be negotiated individually. After much haggling we settled on a fee of about $1 per person per hour.

Several more herdsmen came running out of nearby homes and asked to join us on a ski. Of course, we said. I told them my name was Mike. This caused an uproar. "Mike, Mike," they repeated, rocking with laughter. "Mike, Mike, Mike." Evidently, they had never encountered such a peculiar and funny name. Their names, they said, were Silambecha and Muhemiech and Aslavek and Chuman and Nur and Genghis.

Genghis was clearly the leader. He was taller than the others, and even more angular, with a toughened mountain-man presence about him (a piercing gaze, a missing front tooth, a shadowy mustache) that seemed to suggest he would never tire and never complain. He was 30 years old, I learned, and recently married. He seemed knowledgeable about the skiing options and conferred with Kyle. "His suggestion is to ski the waterfall," said Kyle. It was agreed. The herdsmen and Philippe went into the yurt to borrow equipment. Then we all hopped on horses.With one hand I held my skis over my shoulder, with the other I clutched the reigns. My horse was a huge chestnut stallion named Hong La Ma. Our procession, 11 in all, ambled single file up the meadow and into the dark woods. A woman came down the hill with a stick braced across her shoulders and a bucket of water dangling from each end. The path became steeper, and narrow, as we ascended one of the drainages on an ankle-deep layer of snow atop an iced-over river. After a good half hour on horseback, we came to the waterfall

Related