Skiing China – Episode 1 – Getting Yabuli Wrong

The Chinese are the most inventive nation on earth when it comes to winter fun, but skiing in China is a very new thing. And, as with other Western imports, the Chinese treat it in their own inimitable style.

Take the ski train. This leaves Harbin every morning during the season, trundles three hours north to Yabuli Nan station, arrives at 10.45, then trundles back at teatime. There are no morning departures.

Why?

Well, the timing is perfect for the typical Chinese ski tripper. There’s time to get to the slopes, hire your gear, get a whole half-day – at most resorts, you can buy 2-hourly, 4-hourly or “all-day” slots – grab lunch, and then head back.

A half-day, for many Chinese, is an absolute tonne of skiing.

In fact, most of our companions on the train don’t look like they’re skiing at all. No ski pants. No gear. I guess they’ll hire it all there…

Or perhaps just take a lift to the top of the mountain to look at the view?

We trundle through frozen Manchurian wastes, endless stretches of white tundra studded with birch and striped by frozen rivers, ramshackle peasant houses forlorn amid this vast expanse.

And, as we trundle through frozen Manchurian wastes, endless stretches of white tundra studded with birch and striped by frozen rivers, ramshackle peasant houses forlorn amid this vast expanse, I really begin to wonder what we’re letting ourselves in for.

This HAS to be good, I think.

Skiing China was one of our main reasons for being in Harbin, so Yabuli has to be good.

Eventually, the mountains hove into view. And…

Well, they’re odd mountains. Not jagged, angular, imposing high mountains. More a set of rounded projections arising from the plains, stubbled with stark, leafless birch in lieu of the dark pines I associate with skiing, a landscape more lunar than earthly.

Yes, OK, maybe Gokyo and Everest – not to mention, for skiing, Chamonix — have left me a little spoilt when it comes to mountains. Maybe I’m being bratty. But aesthetically, Yabuli isn’t quite cutting it.

It’s the birches! In particular, the sapling cover. The mountains look like they really, really need to shave their legs.

It’s crammed with Chinese novices in matching luminous ski wear clinging onto their coaches’ ski poles as they inch down in a terrified snowplough, their coaches skiing backwards behind them.

Out we toddle, from the lemon yellow grandeur of Yabuli Nan station, into the snow – someone could, and probably already did, write a thesis on the propaganda function of station architecture in China, because this thing, despite hosting only the daily ski train, stands approximately four storeys high.

It’s not too cold, a balmy -15 or thereabouts, maybe even -10, so we find our assigned driver and make our way to our hotel.

We pass a standalone nursery slope, a low incline with a T-bar lift stretching all of 300 metres, the size of the slope at the Harbin Ice Sculpture Festival or one of the suburban ski slopes in town. It’s crammed with Chinese novices in matching luminous ski wear clinging onto their coaches’ ski poles as they inch down in a terrified snowplough, their coaches skiing backwards behind them.

That must be Jinghao, I think, the cheaper ski slope that our travel agent warned us against.

Now, Chinese tour groups in matching baseball caps, or matching T-shirts, complete with guide with a flag and often a whistle too, are part of the furniture at places like the Forbidden City, as domestic tourists begin to enjoy and explore their vast country.

But an entire coachload in matching orange ski gear, all trying to learn to ski at exactly the same time on their 200 kuai day trip from Harbin? That’s special.

We pass a set of proper, Eddie-the-Eagle ski jumps for athlete training, a handful of hotels, all of them with random names like Broadcast or Electricity, and not so much as a whisper of apres-ski, or even a hint of a building that is anything other than a hotel.

The staff look at us blankly, clearly utterly bewildered as to what this odd pairing – not only foreigners, but a female foreigner with an ambiguously-gendered child and no husband! — is doing in their hotel.

I, you see, have been looking forward to apres-ski. I’ve even brought my kneeboots.

I’ve also been looking forward to some kids of Zac’s age for him to hang out with.

On arrival at our residence, the Communications Village Hotel, it appears that apres-ski, and, for that matter, any form of socialising that doesn’t involve a group leader with a whistle, might be pushing it somewhat.

It’s a substantial, Stalinist, mid-range affair, lightened by bright lanterns and fairylights, with a vast and echoing foyer that makes my heart sink.

Like most other hotels in town, I’ll learn, it was built by a state-owned company (China Unicom) in the run-up to Yabuli’s moment of glory, a defining point in Chinese ski history, when it hosted the Asian Winter Games last century.

“Oh god,” I say to Zac. “This is like The Shining.”

The staff look at us blankly, clearly utterly bewildered as to what this odd pairing – not only foreigners, but a female foreigner with an ambiguously-gendered child and no husband! — is doing in their hotel.

They are also disconcertingly confused as to why on earth we are staying four whole nights. Still, they do have our reservation, which is handy, as their rack rate is an eyebleeding 500 kuai per night and we’re paying 40% of that.

I manage to communicate that I’d like a ski map. They don’t have one, but there is one out in the lobby.

“Well,” I say to Zac. “THIS looks good.”

Although I can’t help noticing, as I step out into the cold and look down the road, that at least half of the lifts don’t seem to be running. Also that a black run from the top appears to be solid, black-scarred ice. Visions of toasty open fires and mulled drinks of various sorts now appear overly optimistic.

Hmmm….

The menu occupies 18 densely packed pages of Chinese script. Depressingly, despite the fact that Zac is soon to start bloody school in China, we can’t read it.

Annoyingly, since we were hoping to meet people, we’re escorted not just to our very own table but to our very own substantial dining room to eat lunch, at a Gulliver-scaled giant scarlet table with an enormous lazy Susan, tailored for large groups of Chinese eating banquet style.

The menu occupies 18 densely packed pages of Chinese script. Depressingly, despite the fact that Zac is soon to start bloody school in China, we can’t read it.

We know our meat characters, and our carb characters, a few cooking method characters and some fruit and vegetable characters, but to string these together into the names of actual dishes on a menu that’s designed for Chinese people?

Nope.

I can’t emphasise enough how very kind the Chinese are to people who struggle with their language. I point at something that contains the characters for mutton, and ask the girl to read it to me, which she does.

Sadly, I remain none the wiser.

Feeling EXTREMELY foreign, we resolve the issue by ordering jiaozi for the boy and mapo doufu for me.

I summon our driver to take us to GaoShan in 10 minutes. Every single second of this conversation will remain seared in my memory as the first time I have EVER managed a Chinese phone conversation without pausing, having to repeat myself or failing to understand the other side. And he hasn’t even taken the pace off! GO ME!

According to our travel agent, there are two sets of slopes in town: JingHao and GaoShan, and GaoShan is the best. Given GaoShan translates as “High Mountain” and the slopes that the internet is fondest of appear to be “Sun Mountain” in English, I am figuring GaoShan must be Sun Mountain. (If you’re interested in skiing Yabuli, all is explained here.)

Behind a plywood partition marked “National Athlete Coach” lurk sixty-odd “coaches” in skisuits that span the colour gamut from lurid through to vomiting rainbows by way of painfully vivid pastel, awaiting their prey.

Our driver takes us a ridiculously few hundred metres up the road to a cavernous glazed hall with all the charisma of a 1980s British municipal swimming pool, approached through nicotine-yellow insulation curtains and carpeted with the same type of depressing woven plastic mat material. This is GaoShan.

It must have been rather impressive in 1996, but it’s kinda showing its age.

There’s a lady who speaks Chinglish and helps me to establish that they don’t do long lift passes here, so we buy two-day lift passes as our most convenient option, and some ski goggles to keep the temperatures out of our eyes. The cheapest available helmet is an eyewatering £70 and too large for Zac.

I decide it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to start with a lesson, something we left a little late in Bulgaria, not only so I can iron out the weird thing my back foot does when I turn, and Zac can fix the arse-heavy posture he’s developed over the years, but because the ski gear supplied with one’s lift passes in China is famously, umm, variable and I want someone who can actually fit it.

Behind a plywood partition marked “National Athlete Coach” lurk sixty-odd “coaches” in skisuits that span the colour gamut from lurid through to vomiting rainbows by way of painfully vivid pastel, awaiting their prey.

“No one coach two person!” says the one who speaks English. “One person one coach! Two person two coach!”

He, and I shall call him Li, would like 240 kuai for a two-hour lesson. Prices are set by the organisation.

A lady capers behind Li. She’s my coach. No, I don’t want a coach. Particularly not a non-English speaking one.

I have never studied Spanish or Italian, nor spent much time in Spanish-speaking countries, or Italy. I have studied Chinese. I would understand a ski lesson in Spanish or Italian. I would not understand one in Chinese.

I grit my teeth and shell out yet more Chairman Maos, hoping to god there’s a cash machine in town.

“Not problem!” says Li, bending Zac’s ankle to such an alarming angle as he forces it into the broken boot that I begin to suspect he wasn’t just a provincial-level skier but actually a Chinese gym coach in a previous life.

Off we head to the gear counter. They have skis and boots in our sizes! Excellent.

Oh. My boots are missing a buckle. Not good. I hand them back. One of Zac’s boots has a broken buckle that won’t open.

“Not problem!” says Li, bending Zac’s ankle to such an alarming angle as he forces it into the broken boot that I begin to suspect he wasn’t just a provincial-level skier but actually a Chinese gym coach in a previous life.

“It IS a problem,” says Zac.

One of my skis is missing the plastic cover on the release. Not a problem, apparently. Still opens with a pole…

But I’d like a matching pair of skis! Not broken!

How very unreasonable and Western of me!

Li gets me a matching pair. Both with apparently functional bindings.

I do not trust this gear one iota.

I am old enough, now, to be more than aware of my fragility. Modern ski boots and ski bindings are designed to protect limbs from inadvertent breakages when you fall. Broken modern boots and bindings, I am fairly sure, do precisely the reverse.

Hey ho! Onwards and upwards.

“This is bizarre,” says Zac to me. “Do they even HAVE intermediates here? Everyone here seems to be either a total noob or professional…” “I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve not seen any other intermediates…”

“I have a problem with my turns, with my back foot,” I say to Li. “And he has a problem that he puts his weight back when he skis, so he skis like this…” (I mime.)

We progress several times down a satisfactorily long but alarmingly-icy-in-patches beginner ski run, populated largely by Chinese tourists being towed down in the snowplough by coaches, with the odd one coming down fast from the top entirely out of control.

This is, for those of you who do not ski, not the way to learn to ski.

Off above us, Chinese athletes in speed-friendly lycra are doing runs from the top that culminate in a fast, steep slalom, while a Chinese cross-country team races off into the woods at a speed that’s more running than the waddle I associate with cross-country.

Li’s coaching appears to be limited to occasionally telling Zac to put his weight forward.

Jesus, I think. I could yell at my child to put his weight forward. For free.

What we need is some kind of fun game or exercise that brings the weight back.

And then the lesson’s over.

Would I like a lesson?

No, actually.

Some people tip!

No, having paid roughly £25 for two hours ski coaching, no, I will not be tipping. That’s three day’s rent in a big city, a week’s in a small one, and Zac’s arse remains in the wrong position.

“This is bizarre,” says Zac to me. “Do they even HAVE intermediates here? Everyone here seems to be either a total noob or professional…”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve not seen any other intermediates…”

We’re skiing! We have the wind in our faces, we’re out in the snow – well, the snow and the ice – and Zac’s got his confidence up enough to race me, so he’s happy.

By the end of the day, though, the two of us are skiing quite happily.

There isn’t much by way of signage, and the only other lift that I can see running takes us to the top of the mountain and two black runs that look unfriendly to intermediates like us even if they’re not entirely glaciated. (Yabuli GaoShan, it would be fair to say, appears to be economising with its snow machines: there’s not a lot of natural snow up here, because it’s arid.)

But we’re skiing! We have the wind in our faces, we’re out in the snow – well, the snow and the ice – and Zac’s got his confidence up enough to race me, so he’s happy.

With no helmet and with boots and bindings that do not inspire confidence, there is no question of who’s going to win this…

And, as the boy whizzes off into the distance, I realise I’m genuinely enjoying this.

I figure I’ll do another lesson with Li tomorrow and perhaps that’ll get me up to the top of the lift and down the blacks. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll sort my turns out.

Only three of the seven lifts on our map are running, and the top two both lead onto black runs which are, except when the ski teams are out practising, effectively deserted.

We have lift passes for two days. We have four nights here.

Yabuli, I figure, is not exactly Chamonix, or even Bansko. I put aside all visions of charming alpine huts, steaming mugs of hot chocolate, fine red wine and, for that matter, hawt ski instructors (yes, I’m at that sort of age, I’m sorry).

It’s only our first night, but we’re damn well going to enjoy Yabuli. If it kills us.

Which, given the state of the equipment, it may well do.

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8 Responses

  1. AJ says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I enjoyed it greatly and appreciate your attention to detail! 谢谢

  2. Having lived in China for over 1.5 years now, I can totally picture this and the image is priceless 🙂

  3. Jo says:

    Oh my, what memories this brings back. I “skied” there in 1996. It sounds the same, only more so. And a good reminder that I need to blog about my trip too. It was wild!

  4. Jamie Sampany-Kessie says:

    Dear Theodora,

    I read your blog on skiing in China-and was cracking up! After living there I can totally relate-nothing is ever what you expect it to be there. I love that you travel with your son-keep up the great work!

    I do have a question for you- what do you do when you go to a country where you don’t speak the language?

    My husband and I were English teachers in Xiamen, China for 3 ½ years and when we first arrived, I didn’t speak a lick of Chinese. Obviously, this makes getting around a bit difficult. I recall my husband asking me to go to the market to buy salt and telling me it was ‘yan’ with the third tone. I repeated it over and over again, but by the time I got to the market I had forgotten which tone it was! I first asked the man for ‘yan’ in the second tone. After his confused stare, I switched to fourth tone. Another confused stare. I made it through all four tones until I got it right and he said, “Oh! You want ‘yan’!” Right! Like I’ve been saying all along!

    This experience (along with many others!) motivated us to create Snapsay; an app to help you survive while traveling or living overseas. With Snapsay, you can make your own photo library, or download from ours (photo + English word + foreign language audio). With 7 languages and nearly 500 commonly used items to choose from, Snapsay is sure to be of assistance. I wish I had had this app when I first got to China!

    As a travel blog writer Theodora, you are the perfect person that will find this app helpful. I’m launching the app in a couple of weeks. What do you think about writing a review before it launches?

    http://www.youtube.com/snapsayapp

    If you’re interested in trying it out, please respond to me and I’ll give you the information to download the free test version onto your iPhone. (It can also be used on the iTouch.)

    Sincerely,

    Jamie Sampany-Kessie

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m not sure this is going to work for us – Zac uses Pleco, which is a Chinese-specific suite including character drawing and a block recogniser for the camera, plus a range of dictionaries and audio, for his iPhone, we both speak relatively functional Chinese, and the next place we’re off to is actually Mongolia…

      Cheers,

      Theodora