Skiing the Dragon's Back: A look at skiing in China

Skiing the Dragon's Back

After three years of living in China and several decades of visiting for business, I began to think I'd seen and done everything there was to do. I'd had drinks and dinner at the Summer Palace, attended receptions in the Great Hall of the People, cruised down the River Li, viewed the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an and even and welcomed presidents in Tiannmen Square. But then a friend suggested we take a weekend ski trip to Yabuli Ski Resort in China's far Northeast, and I was intrigued. After all, skiing isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of China. Also, I hadn't skied in nearly 30 years, since the days before I went off to war in Vietnam, so I was curious to see if I still had what it took. Yabuli is located near the Russian border in the Heliongjang province in what used to be called Manchuria. To drive takes a long time, but the flight from Beijing Capital Airport to Mudanjiang Airport--100 miles southeast of Yabuli--takes just a bit over an hour.

When we landed, it was snowing and the temperature was several degrees below zero, pretty average for winter in Northern China. In fact, the ski season lasts from the beginning of October to mid-April and the average temperature in January and February hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The drive from the airport to Yabuli is beautiful, and even at a leisurely take-in-the-scenery pace, you can make it to the resort in well under two hours. Along the way you'll see several Chinese temples and old Russian churches. Because of the proximity to Russia, the area was once populated with Russian orthodox style churches before most of them were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Those that remain lend an exotic aura to the region.

Yabuli is China's largest ski area and growing. Since opening in 1994, it has received approximately US$210 million for improvements from both the Chinese government and local investors. This sizable sum has enabled Yabuli to offer downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, tobogganing (Yabuli has the longest Toboggan Run in the World) and various other winter activities. Currently the ski area has three double chairlifts with a capacity of 1,500 skiers per hour. There are 11 trails with a total vertical drop of 1,968 feet. The main lift at Sanguokui Mountain--which at 4,511 feet is the highest peak--offers 1,870 feet of vertical at a gradient of 18 degrees. The beginner area consists of a main lift and several smaller lifts that access green and blue runs where most of the beginner and intermediate lessons are taught. Plans for the future include adding more trails and lifts and expanding the vertical drop from its current 1,968 feet to 2,952 feet.

At the base of the hill, is a fairly substantial mountain village. It is anchored by the three-star Windmill Village and Tinyihu hotels, which combined offer more than 300 rooms. A Youth Apartment Block, also located in the village, holds an additional 300 beds and attracts younger visitors with its lively atmosphere. Finally, there are two large suites that are mostly used to accommodate Chinese businessmen and their families and are often reserved through the height of the ski season.

Also impressive, especially considering the remote nature of the enterprise, is Yabuli's rental facility, which offers more than 700 pairs of skis and boots from Switzerland and other Western countries. Visitors can rent everything they need--from skis and suits to hats and gloves--for just $30, including a full-day lift ticket (prices are 30 percent less if you bring your own equipment). Yabuli also has a fully operational ski school consisting of 60 instructors, some of whom speak English. And lessons cost only $40 for a full day of one-on-one instruction!

Because I had not skied in many years, I decided to brush up on my technique with the help of an instructor. I was assigned to Mr. Zhong, a "senior" instructor at the resort, who hhad been skiing for six years. We skied some beginner and intermediate trails at first, then moved on to more challenging terrain. Mr. Zhong spoke English quite well and throughout the day he filled me in on Yabuli and the status of skiing in China. He told me that I was a rarity there: Although the number of Russian, Japanese and Korean visitors to Yabuli is growing, North American and European tourists are few. He also told me that skiing is a growing industry in China and that nearly a million Chinese have tried it at least once.

That night, my friends and I were invited to dinner by Dr. Tian Yuan, chairman of the Yabuli Resort, and his management team. Over dinner, we learned that though the area is little-known in the West, Yabuli is known throughout China as a beautiful area where a number of movies have been filmed. The resort, which spans just over 2,471 acres, has the potential to expand to include vacation homes and more ski runs. Any expansions, however, will be limited by the area's national park status, established by the Chinese government in 1993. Sustainable development is being built into all the resort plans to recognize and protect this status. Measures include no tree culling, no mining, no building inside the National Forest and no industry in the area.

The dinner was a sumptuous spread that started with raw vegetables and a garlicky dip and included a very exotic dish of snow frogs, as well as chicken and mushrooms, venison and vegetables, fried yellow flower and a host of other dishes. According to the resort manager, most of the items were organic and locally grown. We washed down the pleasing fare with numerous toasts of a clear liquor called Mao-Tai. The resort's Mao-Tai was smoother and had less of an aftertaste than the variety often served in Beijing, but was equally potent.

We awoke early Sunday morning to more snow. After a filling Chinese breakfast at seven o'clock, the mountain manager asked if we'd like to be taken by snowmobile to the summit. Though it was minus-four degrees Fahrenheit, the chance to ski virgin powder on the upper mountain for two hours before the area opened to the public was irresistible. After nearly four hours of skiing, I was amazed to find that my old skiing skills were coming back to me. After each run, I felt a bit more confident and less precarious. Although I had limited the trip to two days, I found myself wishing I'd agreed to a longer stay. I decided then to return with my family for a weeklong vacation the following year. Who knows? Maybe with more tips from instructor Zhong I might even try Trail Nine the next time around, which was about as challenging as any trail in Switzerland or North America. Though on second thought, maybe not.

About the Author:
Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford's Presidential Clemency Board.

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.