Five of the best Asian countries for skiing, recommended resorts and our top pick for this winter
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang will put the spotlight on slopes in South Korea, but there are plenty of other places in Asia to go for great skiing, including a few surprising locations
It may not have any snow of its own, but Hong Kong is ideally placed to fly off to the best skiing and snowboarding slopes across Asia.
“Hong Kong residents can consider themselves lucky,” says Rupert Orchard, 31, a former ski instructor based in China and Japan and founder of SkiAsia.com. “It’s a great hub from which to explore ski resorts in China, South Korea or Japan.”
With a growing number of accessible and well-developed ski resorts in Asia, these are good times for experienced and novice skiers alike. Here are our picks of the best places to go this winter.
Season runs from late December to late March
Japan seems to be everyone’s favourite place to ski in Asia. Its major resorts, Niseko in Hokkaido and Hakuba, near Nagano in the Japanese Alps, have changed a lot in the past decade to appeal to international travellers.
“In Niseko you can now expect to find luxury hotels and condominiums, Western-style restaurants and international ski schools, many of which are staffed by Australians, Kiwis and Britons,” Orchard says.
Niseko is Japan’s leading ski resort and its main attraction is some of the world’s finest fresh “champagne powder”.
“Niseko offers a ski experience like no other,” says Anna Chaplin, travel consultant at travel agent Scott Dunn. “The powder is unlike any other and there is an impressive selection of off-piste skiing.”
There are more than 500 ski resorts in Japan, with Rusutsu and Furano, both in Hokkaido, also particularly notable. But for those who are a little more experienced and adventurous, Orchard suggests giving thought to places like Asahidake or Kurodake.
“They’re not ski resorts in the truest sense of the word – you won’t find snow schools or beginner runs – and skiers need to exercise some caution, with conditions that can be quite testing,” he says.
Japan is also an excellent place to try guided off-piste cat-skiing, which virtually guarantees you virgin snow, says Fione Poon, ski and snowboard instructor at Slope Infinity in Hong Kong.
“Rather than hiking or using a chair lift or helicopter, skiers and boarders are transported up the mountain in a snowcat [a truck-sized tracked vehicle],” Poon, 35, says. “While guides escort riders down epic powder runs, the cat makes it way to the bottom to pick them up and take them up to the next run.”
Japan Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly between Hong Kong and Sapporo, Hokkaido. Hong Kong Airlines, HK Express and Peach fly between Hong Kong and Osaka
Season runs from mid-December to the end of February
Just a three-and-a-half hour flight from Hong Kong, South Korea is an attractive destination for skiers – and that is likely to be even more so after the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang from February 9 to 25 next year.
“A three-and-a-half hour shuttle bus from [Incheon International Airport] will get you to the doorstep of Yongpyong, Korea’s largest resort and one of the 2018 Olympic venues,” Orchard says. That journey time will be slashed in half when a high-speed railway link opens in December ready for the Winter Olympics.
Orchard adds that Pyeongchang and two other Olympic venues, Alpensia and Phoenix Snow Park, are worth visiting for their superior snow, despite being in the east of the country. If you want to stay close to Seoul, consider the Jisan Forest Resort.
Several airlines fly daily between Hong Kong and Incheon
Season runs from November until the end of March
Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics and in doing so will become the first city to have staged both a summer and winter Olympic Games. It will use indoor ice arenas in Beijing as well as snow sports venues in neighbouring Yanqing district and near the city of Zhangjiakou, 120km away in Hebei province.
Plans to use artificial snow have been criticised, but that has overshadowed the fact that China has an exciting emerging ski scene.
“I’ve only tried to snowboard in Nanshan Ski Resort in Beijing, but I have heard the ski resorts in Beidahu and Yabuli are good too,” Poon says.
Nanshan in Miyun district is a key resort near Beijing, as is the Shijinglong resort in Yanqing and the Yuyang and Huaibei resorts in Pinggu district. Beidahu, in Jilin City in Jilin province, was where the skiing events for the 2007 Asian Winter Games were held, while Yabuli in Heilongjiang province is China’s largest ski resort.
Future Olympic venue Zhangjiakou is home to the Chongli, Saibei, Wanlong and Duolemeidi resorts, which are all about three hours from Beijing. A high-speed train planned for 2022 will cut that trip to just 45 minutes.
Until recently it was possible to go cat-skiing at Changbaishan International Ski Resort in Jilin province, but not at the moment. “China’s sole cat-skiing operation is currently on hiatus due to North Korean nuclear testing in a nearby area,” Orchard says.
He adds that with resorts in South Korea and China relying almost entirely on domestic visitors, you won’t find flourishing ski resort towns or bustling nightlife there. “But they are developing their own scenes, and there’s no doubt the Olympics in Pyeongchang and Beijing will help drive local interest in winter sports.”
Airlines including Cathay Dragon, Air China, China Southern and Hong Kong Airlines fly between Hong Kong and Beijing. China Eastern (via Shanghai) and China Southern (via Beijing) fly between Hong Kong and Changbaishan, Jilin.
Season runs from November to May
If you’re after an unusual skiing experience where you can take to the slopes in sunshine and mild temperatures, head to Kazakhstan. Although it controversially lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Almaty in Kazakhstan is the best known and most developed ski area in Central Asia, and was one of two cities to host the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
The key location is Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Medeu Valley, which is only 25km away from the thoroughly modern city of Almaty, which serves as a base for most visitors. At Shymbulak there are three ski lifts, along with easy ski rental and ski schools.
Aside from Shymbulak, mixed-ability ski resorts include Lesnaya Skazka, while Tau Turan and Ak Bulak are mostly for advanced skiers.
Air Astana and Hong Kong Airlines fly between Hong Kong and Almaty
Seasons runs from December to March, with the most snow between mid-January and late February
Skiing in India? It may surprise some, but India’s western Himalayas host a smattering of basic ski resorts, including Gulmarg in Kashmir state, Solang Valley near the town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh state, and Auli in Uttarakhand state. It is possible to go heli-skiing from Solang Valley, though the most developed ski resort by far is at Gulmarg.
“Gulmarg is the one to watch,” Chaplin says. “While it’s not quite up there in terms of infrastructure compared to ski destinations in Europe and the US, it offers powder comparable to some of the finest resorts in the world.”
Gulmarg is also home to the world’s highest ski lift (going up to 3,797 metres), which gives impressive views of the Himalayas. The resort is just 20km from the “Line of Control”, the de facto border between Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Air India flies between Hong Kong and Srinagar, the nearest airport to Gulmarg, via New Delhi
So where is the best place to go skiing in Asia? According to Orchard, that would be Kiroro, which is close to the Niseko ski resort and not far from Sapporo.
“It has all the hallmarks of a great day skiing in Japan – loads of fresh powder, deep blue skies, and a sumptuous Japanese meal at a restaurant overlooking the resort,” he says. “The resort itself is not enormous, but it is much less crowded than its very popular neighbour, Niseko, and there always seems to be fresh tracks that can be found, even well into the afternoon.”
When it comes to the sheer quality of resort skiing in Asia, it’s hard to beat Japan.