Northern city of Zhangjiakou dreams of hosting 2022 Winter Olympic Games
Northern city of Zhangjiakou is bidding with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Games, building on the capital's 2008 Summer Games success
Zhangjiakou has the grim complexion of many small Chinese cities. Grey cement complexes loom over crowded shopping malls while its narrow streets teem with German and Japanese cars.
But this little place 200 kilometres to the northwest of Beijing has greater ambitions. Local officials want to welcome athletes from the world over to ski down its slopes in nearby Chongli county. The former military base hopes to join Beijing in hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022.
The bid is part of Beijing's greater quest to foster economic development in the city in Hebei province.
"Our ultimate goal is to develop Zhangjiakou into a world-class tourism destination, a Davos of the east," says Zhang Chunsheng, director of Zhangjiakou's bid office for the 2022 Winter Olympics. As if to echo his words, the city has decorated its streets with snowflake-shaped lights and huge billboards that broadcast the lofty desires of the county: "Chongli: Davos of the east!"
Local officials say the region's ambitions are not so odd. Zhangjiakou once played international roles, first as a gateway to Russia and Mongolia in China's booming horse and fur trade. Later, the city served as a garrison to ward off encroachment from the Soviet Union.
Few Chinese know that the city hosted sports in ancient China, such as the hammer, rope skipping and wrestling.
With a population of 4.7 million people, Zhangjiakou is competing with rival cities which have a more golden winter sports shine. Norway's capital Oslo benefited when the nearby city of Lillehammer hosted the 1994 games. Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, staged the 2011 Asian Winter Games, seen as good preparation for hosting a Winter Olympics.
"Who knows?" Zhang says. "Lillehammer was once unknown like Zhangjiakou. So was Sochi. We have a chance."
Because the 2018 Winter Olympics will be hosted by Pyeongchang in South Korea, some fear that the Olympic Committee will not choose another Asian city.
Qin Bo, associate professor in the School of Urban Planning at Renmin University in Beijing, thinks otherwise.
"Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games has proved the capability of the city and increases the attractiveness of China," he says. "Let's see how Beijing and Zhangjiakou can play with their ambition."
Beijing is an international metropolis with abundant resources. What favours Zhangjiakou is its precipitation. It has mainly snow.
Snowfall is especially heavy in Chongli county between November and April. Annual snowfall is just over 100 centimetres. It often starts one month earlier in the mountains of Chongli than in comparative regions in Japan and Korea.
The ski industry started on "the snow slope of Zhangjiakou" in 1996 when the first resort opened in Saibei.
Wanlong Ski Resort became the most profitable local ski business after it opened in 2003. Foreign investment came later. The largest ski business, Genting Resort Secret Garden, opened in 2012, infused with money from the Malaysia-based Genting Group.
Gary Grant, the Genting resort's chief operating officer, says that naming the city an Olympic host will accelerate the region's booming ski business. The resort hosted the International Ski Federation alpine skiing race last year, and has attracted foreign trainers from Europe, the US, Japan and Kazakhstan this year. Nearby Wanlong Ski Resort has hosted a dozen skiing races, including international events.
The Genting resort has the ability to manufacture snow - crucial when the climate fails to co-operate during sporting events. It is also a requirement that the International Olympic Committee demands. During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the city had to make artificial snow after it struggled through a mild winter.
And the fake white stuff has great training benefits. "Man-made snow this season is more ideal for training because the snow is more solid and consistent under motion and pressure," Grant says.
Richard Boon, 26, started coaching at Wanlong this winter. Originally from England, he has skied in Oslo. So he was surprised to learn that Zhangjiakou was bidding for a Winter Olympics.
"You'd never get a hint from the appearance of Zhangjiakou that it has its eyes on the Olympics," he says "But why not go for it?"
Even though the winning city won't be chosen until next summer, Zhangjiakou is wasting no time getting ready. Wanlong Ski Resort's main hotel can host more than 300 guests and its owners are building another hotel to accommodate 1,000. Many more hotels and restaurants are under construction.
Housing prices have been rising since winter sports arrived in Zhangjiakou and Chongli. A decade ago, apartments sold for 1,000 yuan (HK$1,270) per square metre. Prices have quadrupled. It is said that bidding for the Winter Olympics will drive home prices even higher.
To grow a Winter Games culture - and build excitement for the Olympics bid - Zhangjiakou and local ski resorts issued low-cost tickets to coax local residents onto the slopes. The city plans to start teaching local elementary students to ski, hoping it might identify future athletes.
Despite its enthusiasm, Zhangjiakou has some major hosting challenges. Using current highways and railways, it would take athletes, coaches and spectators about three hours to get there from Beijing and another hour to drive to Chongli county. In late 2010 the government announced it would build a high-speed rail line from Beijing to Zhangjiakou, shortening travel time to 40 minutes. Construction is scheduled to finish in 2017.
As it prepares its Olympic application, due in March, the city is conscious of previous failures. Last year the central government rejected a bid by Harbin to host the Winter Games. Some Chinese officials say Harbin's average winter temperature of minus 38 degrees Celsius is too cold for athletes to compete well. Chongli county's average is minus 18 degrees.
Zhangjiakou must negotiate several turns on the course to Olympic glory. Candidates will be winnowed in July. There will be another evaluation in a year's time and the final vote will take place in July 2015.
Zhang says that despite the result, the process of bidding for the Winter Olympics will help promote the city's businesses and broaden the ambitions of local residents.
"After all," he says, "it is the Olympic spirit to compete."