Zoom and board

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2012, 12:00am


What the ski slopes around Beijing lack in quality, they more than make up for in convenience, with up to 10 resorts located close to the capital city, most a mere hour's drive from downtown.

Nanshan Ski Village is one of the most popular spots, and this weekend it stages the annual Red Bull Open, a snowboarding festival that attracts some of the sport's big names, including home-grown star Wang Lei.

Although only 34, Wang is the elder statesman of China snowboarding, admired for his skill, affability and courage. The Jilin native was once a top ski-jumper with the People's Liberation Army team until an arm injury sustained during an awkward landing on late-season snow put an end to his hopes of a professional career.

It took long hours of surgery by a top team of surgeons to save the badly wrenched arm - and a further two years of physiotherapy before Wang fully recovered. But it did not dim his enthusiasm for exhilarating winter sports: Wang taught himself snowboarding, ultimately becoming one of the top practitioners in the country, a showman with an impressive repertoire of tricks.

'The snowboarding community in China is a fun bunch of people and you'll meet snowboarders in any of the resorts around Beijing,' he says. 'Events are happening pretty much every weekend; the best ones are when you can try new gear for free, or get a lesson on the spot. Beijing isn't too far, so you can always get back into the city for an urban apres snow if you don't like to stay in a lodge.

'For competitions, the best spot is the Nanshan Mellow Park; for beginners I'd suggest the Wild Donkey Park at Jundushan, or the park at Wanlong resort.'

This coming Saturday and Sunday, some of snowboarding's biggest names, including up-and-coming Chinese rider He Wei, will vie for the HK$400,000 in prize money, drawing a huge crowd of spectators, including Wang, who has won the event several times, but is not competing this year.

Snowboarders and skiers who want to hurtle down the slopes - rather than watch the maestros in action - have plenty of other options in and around the city. Beijing is the only major capital in the world with 10 ski resorts located within around 90 minutes of the downtown zone, making it feasible to spend a day on the slopes and return to luxuriate in the comfort of a five-star hotel.

'It is not the Rockies or the Alps but as long as your expectations are realistic, it is fun,' says Canadian Justin Downes, a Beijing-based skier and snowboarder who runs a ski-resort consultancy, Axis Leisure Management. 'I can leave the city at 8.30am and be on the slopes by 9.30am and I can't think of many places where you can do that. It is also very affordable.'

The biggest shock for people used to Vail, Whistler or St Moritz is to discover that the Chinese consider the circus-like sideshows to be an important part of the snow-sports experience. A resort trip is widely treated as a fun day out, with time on the slopes, spells spent trying the dog-sleigh rides, snow sauna, ice football and ice bowling and, of course, a period devoted to sitting down to eat.

Bizarre though the off-piste attractions may be to serious skiers and snowboarders, they are by no means the oddest thing Downes has observed during five years in the country involved in the building or running of 10 different resorts.

'In some of the more remote locations in China, it is not untypical to see people skiing in business suits,' he says. 'It doesn't occur to them that they are going to fall over and get wet. I have seen some strange stuff when I worked in Whistler, but certainly not people skiing in business suits.

'But, in general, I think people are demanding better quality experiences. I think prices will go up and the quality of experience will go up.'

Downes says the mainland is good for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. 'You don't get a lot of snow and they are not big steep treacherous mountains. If you are a hard-core passionate skier that wants to ski on 1,000-metre vertical runs then Beijing, or even northeast China, is not for you, but what if not, this is right there on your doorstep.'

Right now, the Beijing area offers some of the cheapest skiing and snowboarding anywhere: a day on the slopes can cost under HK$200 per head, less if booked through an agent - a fraction of day-pass prices in South Korea or Japan.

Beijing can even boast a cultural element in its snow-sport portfolio. The Badaling Ski Resort offers a downhill view that even Whistler, or the Rockies, cannot match: next to the slopes is the world's most adventurous engineering feat, the Great Wall itself. Huaibei International Ski Resort is also located right next to the Wall; skiers riding the cable car can look down and marvel at this extraordinary sight, which is particularly stunning on a blue-sky winter's day.

For more challenging slopes, it is necessary to make the three-hour drive out to the Duolemeidi resort, one of the classiest in the country. Fast lifts take people to the top of the nine slopes, which are covered with snow for 150 days of the year.

Also situated in the same area of Hebei province is the Wanlong ski resort, which has a snowboard park and, from this month, Beijing's Secret Garden resort, funded by a Malaysian casino group, which will ultimately have 82 ski runs with chairlifts and gondolas that can carry up to 18,000 guests per day.

The Genting group, which already has mega-resorts in Malaysia and North America, is planning for the resort to become the mainland's top adventure sports destination, with skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating in the winter months, and mountain biking, tennis and golf in the summer.

Later this year, a high-speed rail line is set to open, putting the region within an hour's train ride of Beijing. The region's military airport is also being adapted to allow commercial charter flights to land.

'Whistler, in Canada, is the model that we anchor our master plan on,' says Lim Chee Wah, who is masterminding the project. 'That took 30 years; here in China we are trying to build it in 10 to 12 years.'

How steep is your love?

While the Beijing area has the largest concentration of easily-accessible resorts for snow-sports, other parts of China have more challenging slopes.

The rugged mountains of Jilin province offer thrilling downhill experiences for people prepared to make the trip out to the Beidahu region; Xinjiang province now has a top notch-resort; while Heilongjiang province boasts a Club Med.

The French leisure giant's first foray into China is located outside the city of Harbin at Yabuli. A faltering 284-room property underwent 'Club Med-isation', with a French designer hired to give a more upbeat mood to the communal areas. A fixed price includes food, drink, entertainment and instruction.

Another alternative is to take the long trip out to far-western Xinjiang province, known for its spectacular mountain ranges. The Silk Road Ski Resort's owner has grand plans that include an ice theme park and snow-cat skiing.

Visitors to Beijing need not venture outside the city to enjoy winter sports. The frozen Hou Hai Lake has skating and ice-chair skating, while Chaoyang Park features mini-slopes for people to hurtle down on toboggans and rubber rings.

Snow business

A selection of resorts in and around Beijing - and beyond

Beijing area Badaling

Ski Resort: www.bdlskiing.com
Huaibei International Ski Resort: www.hbski.com
Lianhuashan Ski Resort: www.bjlhsski.com
Nanshan Ski Village: www.nanshanski.com
YuYang resort: www.yuyangski.com.cn

Hebei province (a three-hour drive from Beijing)

Duolemeidi Ski Resort: www.duolemeidiski.com
Beijing Secret Garden: www.secretgardenresorts.com
Wanlong Ski Resort: www.wlski.com

Other parts of China

Club Med in Heilongjiang province: www.clubmed.com.hk
Beidahu Ski Resort in Jilin province: www.beidahuski.com
Silk Road Ski Resort in Xinjiang province: www.silkroadski.com

Want to learn?

In winter, Wang Lei conducts basic snowboarding classes in English for individuals or groups.

'We do the Learn to Ride system, where you can pick it up in a day,' he says. 'You can start at the age of three. We emphasise the safety aspect.'

The cost for a group of four taking two 21/2-hour sessions spread over two weekends would be HK$3,600. www.wanglei.asia or e-mail office@corepowerasia.com

The Burton Learn To Ride (LTR) Centre at Jundushan offers classes for all ages with certified instructors, while other resorts in and around Beijing and at Hebei ski resorts offer lessons for would-be snowboarders.