PHOTOS: Garrett Grove
The sun hasn't yet made it over the dusty city skyline, but human friction offsets the morning chill as businessmen, students, and errand-runners ebb and flow to the singsong commands drifting from the concrete rafters of the Beijing subway station. Three stops down Line 13, a ski bus waits to shuttle groups of giggling teenagers to Nanshan Ski, the closest ski resort to China's capital city. On this platform, I'm struggling to find breathing room amid a city of 21 million.
The hydraulic door pops and I throw my skis into a pod of suits and hospital masks. The stampede follows, and as I hear the doors ding closed behind me, I'm swallowed into a humid mass of crumpled morning newspapers and sour sweat. Caustic overhead lights amplify a sense of claustrophobia.
A week earlier, photographer Garrett Grove and I landed at Beijing's Capital International Airport in the throes of smog so thick it blotted out the air traffic control towers and hung an apocalyptic haze inside baggage claim. A perfume of stale smoke invaded the night air, cutting our breath short as we rolled oversized ski bags through the creamy black of evening murk.
This morning, air dust clung to parked cars as I shouldered my skis through the open-air markets of sleepy hutong neighborhoods. Out from the underground and on the bus—one of the city's two ski-specific shuttles—high school passengers adjust baggy-fitting outerwear and pose for selfies. Outside, urban sprawl clashes with agricultural roots, cranes towering above frozen fields of golden hay as silhouettes of unoccupied apartments rise from sandy soil. Beyond them, Beijing's mountains loom, brown but prominent. Along the ridgeline, the Great Wall meanders from barren peak to barren peak.
And then they appear. Strips of white streaking down a mountainside, impossible contrasts slicing through an earth-tone sea. The selfies stop and eyes glue to the windows. Some of the kids start bumping shoulders, others forget group poses and turn their cameras around. Nanshan is nothing spectacular—a handful of low-lying trails topped with a lone mogul run and a lift tower with an ancient temple façade—but its existence is symbolic, especially in this crowd of young eyes. Fifty miles from downtown Beijing, these slopes are a world apart from the gray stranglehold of urban China.
Stepping off the bus, I peel away from the swarm heading toward the rental shops. I pay the 20RMB, or Chinese yuan (about $3), to enter the resort gates, and drop my skis at the edge of a receding snow line. After a morning of car horns and subway noises, the slopes are marked by an almost eerie silence.
It's early March and most of the February and January ski crowds have called it quits for the season. The lifts spin lazily. The kebab shack doesn't have a queue. Just above the midweek patrons sliding wide-spaced groomers, three skiers work a mogul line. They carve an icy flume down the trail perimeter.
Skiing is not a new phenomenon in China. The sport has been traced back over 10,000 years to semi-nomadic tribes in the country's Tian Shan Range—the first skiers in the world, according to many historians.
Yet it took until two decades ago, and the start of China's free market explosion, for the public to show interest in the sport. After years of poverty and oppression, Chinese skiing began as a symbol of prosperity and status, a Western practice in a country full of newfound wealth.
For this reason, the sport remained at arms length through the 2000s. Ski areas slowly began to appear around urban areas in Eastern and Northwestern China, but China's personal fortunes were more directed toward consumer goods, the product of a spending middle class that became the world's largest in 2014 (nearly 109 million strong making between $50,000 and $500,000 per year, according to a 2015 Credit Suisse report). Instead of ski vacations and lessons, the middle class invested in tangible signs of success like cars and jewelry to fill a void of self-worth created over a half-century of authoritarian rule.
But as the air pollution we experienced in Beijing threatens China's cities and rampant urbanization shows no signs of slowing (the national government hopes to centralize healthcare and education by moving 100 million from the country to cities by 2020), a change is taking root in the country's collective conscience. The focus is no longer quality goods, but rather quality of life—a massive shift that has birthed a new day in China: the Era of Personal Wellbeing. The Chinese are investing more and more in themselves, with vitamin and supplement sales hitting record numbers, and lifestyle sports like yoga, trail running, and downhill skiing finally flourishing.
In China, a country that once preached, “the shot hits the bird that sticks its head out,” skiing has become a celebration of the individual.
"In the beginning, people think that they will save their money for their sons to marry a beautiful girl…or for buying their children houses or apartments," says Shan Zhaojian, a 78-year-old former Nordic ski champion and national ski historian. "Now they are paying more attention to themselves to have some fun, to ski, to be healthy. The thinking process is changing."
In China, a country that once preached, "the shot hits the bird that sticks its head out," skiing has become a celebration of the individual. For the Chinese skier, the mountains are a chance to live healthier and escape the overbearing stress and monotony of city life. Skiing is no longer just a point of pride for this generation—it is a point of identity.
We arrive at this cultural crossroads with skis in tow, journeying from Beijing, the ground zero of China's young ski culture, into the overlooked volcanic regions of the north, where Japan-bound storms are giving rise to the country's first deep snow destinations. Together with our guide Jeff Oliveira, cinematographer Jordan Manley, and athletes Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots, we have flown 12 hours across the Pacific to see if this newly saturated ski scene is merely a phase in China's free market discovery, or if the latest trend is growing roots in one of the last great ski holdouts on Earth.
In the summer of 2015, China foisted itself onto the international skiing map, taking the 2022 Winter Olympic bid from Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a tightly contested 44-40 vote. Despite having only one gold medal in all Winter Olympic competition history (in aerials in 2006), and being the first host city to rely solely on man-made snow, Beijing 2022 promised to transform China into a winter powerhouse overnight. President Xi Jinping declared that China wouldn't just be prepared for the Olympics ahead of schedule, his country would be home to 300 million winter sports participants and 1,000 ski areas by 2022. (For comparison, the U.S. had 52.8 million skier visits at 463 ski areas during the 2015-2016 season.) In fact, from 1996 to 2016, China has quietly gone from just six ski areas to 568. Though one should be skeptical of any official Chinese statistics, it's obvious this push is well underway.
Taxi drivers told us the Chinese government once rebuilt an entire Beijing bridge in 48 hours. Today, the country's higher-ups have turned that manic force on Chongli, the future site of the 2022 Olympic ski and snowboard events.
Primarily known for its bell pepper yield, Chongli was once one of the poorest districts in the country. In a little over 10 years the government has transformed the region by constructing five ski resorts, a bustling downtown, and over 20 hotels, all within 150 miles of Beijing. By the end of this decade that number will jump to 10 resorts, with a 50-minute bullet train connecting directly to the heart of China's capital city.
Nearly 900,000 skiers and snowboarders visited Chongli's ski areas in 2015-2016, and it feels like every single one of them is on the slopes of Genting Secret Garden, a 35-trail resort that resembles a mid-March Pennsylvania ski hill with a $100 million real estate investment.
Half-finished townhouses box in ski slopes as billboards hawking new skin lotions and Audi TTs loom over us. Crowds gather outside the base lodge with chefs doling out steaming helpings of Szechuan noodles and pork bao. At the lift line, a live pop concert blasts synth and bass in between laser shows. Scores of teenagers in faux-fur collars and kitten-print facemasks treat this as the main event, scattering ski gear, and head bopping closer and closer toward the stage.
A dry wind has encased the entire hill in ice, and we resign ourselves to bulletproof groomers that make us pine for sharper edges and better traveler's insurance. Brightly colored outerwear flashes by us before exploding in clouds of white. Trails are lined with neon nets, designed to keep these unpredictable explosions from flying into the scraggly underbrush just off-piste.
Xiouyuan Wang is accustomed to this crazy human slalom. Known by friends and colleagues as Uncle Cho, he is one of China's born-again skiers. The 38-year-old is the first in his family to ski, and didn't pick up the sport until his mid-20s. Fed up with the corporate life, he went against the traditional path on his 30th birthday, signing on as a translator for a group of Austrian ski instructors teaching around China. The job was a massive pay cut, but it gave him a chance to ski for free, something he said "changed his idea on skiing forever."
Since then, he has joined a small but growing movement of skiers that have become known as the KOL, or "Key Option Leaders." The term refers to the pioneers and tastemakers in Chinese skiing, mainly ski club managers, athletes, and industry representatives. These skiers, often men ranging from 20 to 45, dedicate every weekend to skiing at places like Genting, Nanshan, and the handfuls of resorts near Beijing and Chongli.
Instead of finding a wife or visiting extended family like most of his peers, Uncle Cho spends his free time chasing speed, arcing GS turns down icy corduroy at Genting, or competing in ski cross and slalom races around the country. He even likes to ski freestyle, starting the country's first freeskiing team—a group of a dozen or so skiers ranging from age 12 to 50 that like to "play in the park" together.
When Uncle Cho isn't skiing, he is posting in group chats and organizing ski movie screenings. He dreams of starting ski expositions in shopping malls, bringing in big names to show off the sport to the masses. But to truly make his ski life the rule rather than the exception, Uncle Cho and a handful of Chinese skiers have turned to the very instrument stifling the domestic spread of new phenomena like action sports in the first place: the World Wide Web.
China has two walls. The first, constructed by the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago, was forged of brick, stone, and earth to keep the outside world from getting in. The second, built amid the expanding informational frontier of the 21st century, intends to serve a purpose much the same. Considered the most comprehensive state-organized internet censorship in history, The Great Firewall, as it is colloquially coined, is a striking reality for the country's 1.4 billion citizens, controlling web access on a scale that is hard to comprehend.
Facebook and Google are not allowed in China. Instagram is blocked, and YouTube and Vimeo don't exist, either. Because a majority of ski videos and media are hosted and spread through these channels, many people in China have never actually seen skiing.
Uncle Cho is working to fix that, bringing European and North American ski media around the Wall and into Chinese living rooms for the first time. His startup—a retail store, website, and mobile app called FreeSkiZone—offers a small stipend to skiers and ski companies in exchange for rights to skip YouTube and Vimeo and host media directly from FreeSkiZone's approved server. Where videos like Candide Thovex's "One of Those Days" were once unavailable to the Chinese public, Uncle Cho and his team are able to present them to skiing's most media-starved market.
It's a segment of the ski industry that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, video 'middlemen' driving China's exploding ski movement. With each edit, Cho hopes he can show his country the possibilities of sliding on snow.
"We need more people to know how we are skiing out here," says the soft-spoken Cho. "Maybe we can't make much money doing this, but we want to do something different."
The influence is seen in the young terrain park scene around Beijing. With the area's most popular park at Nanshan closed by early March, the city's park rats have migrated north to the Duolemeidi—one of the five resorts in Chongli. It's there that we meet Uncle Cho's team member, Haijia Wang, and his posse of park skiers. The crew is dressed head-to-toe in Orage, Line, and K2, giving the whole scene a Breckenridge feel. But, unlike the young athletes that grew up on skis and trampolines, Wang, known to his friends as "Seaplus," began his ski journey two years ago at age 22, when he first found a video of JP Auclair and Tom Wallisch on the internet. He was working as a police officer in Beijing at the time, and had become disillusioned by his lack of freedom within "the system." Through park skiing he saw an avenue to excitement and personal fulfillment.
"When you hit a larger jump and do a 360 or a backflip, each action you complete brings a feeling of success," says the 24-year-old. "It's very interesting, very attractive."
Seaplus left law enforcement shortly after the Auclair encounter, taught himself to ski in Beijing's indoor ski area, and signed on with FreeSkiZone as an operations manager. Now he spends his winter weekends emulating Will Wesson and Thovex, two of the biggest stars in China's sprouting freeski community (a community whose chat-room group grew from 45 to 130 last season, according to Seaplus).
As late afternoon sun thaws Duolemeidi's kickers, Seaplus and his small crew run through the terrain park. He possesses a remarkably calm style, spinning onto rails and grabbing safety through the big jump line. The crew claps poles when somebody throws a new trick, and laughs after kicking a ski or sliding out on a landing.
They lap Duolemedi's high-speed sixer until valley shadows deepen and the sky burns orange. When the bullwheel stops, we grab a couple of Tsingtaos to share and let the evening chill sink in over the now-vacant resort. Monkey, the posse's tallest member, hands me a screen-printed T-shirt with the moniker Two-C. He hopes to start a freeski clothing line like Armada or Saga someday, and this is his original print.
After a few high fives, the group packs into their Toyota, chasing the sunset back to gray skies and weekday realities in Beijing.
Along with the indoor ski area, a trampoline and ramp training center within Beijing city limits offers China's first generation of freeskiers 365 days of skiing a year (a second will open this winter). The government hopes that a $1.5 billion investment in venue infrastructure over the next half-decade will pave this path to progression in Olympic gold. But, for those like Seaplus, it represents something more important: An opportunity to write their own narrative.
"Within the last 15 years we're seeing expression and creativity for the first time," says our guide, Jeff Oliveira. "I just hope that skiing can be the conduit for that."
Oliveira first came to China in 2003 for a university international business program. A strategy consultant that spends most of the year living on his sailboat in Long Island, he grew up skiing in New Hampshire's White Mountains but says he saw the opportunity to ski in Western China, a place he called "the frontier" of skiing.
With little ski beta coming into China and even less getting out, it was that unexplored aspect of the sport's biggest gray area that brought Oliveira back with his skis in 2011. Since then, he has made it his mission to develop SkiChina.com, an online database of ski areas and backcountry zones in China similar to that of On The Snow in North America and Powderhounds in Japan—the first of its kind in the Middle Kingdom.
The 34-year-old's skiing is rough and unrefined, forged from tight New England glades and frozen bump lines. His demeanor is much the same, a combination of street Chinese and a cowboy-dirtbag mentality manifested in a long, oily beard and an impressive log of night buses, red-eye flights, and snowy peaks across China's ski frontier.
"So…are we in North Korea right now?" The call drifts back down our frozen traverse. "Honestly, guys," starts Oliveira, letting the gravity of the situation consolidate, "there's no way of knowing."
Far from the armed guards and demilitarized zones of the TV screen, the only real distinguishing barrier between North Korea and not North Korea is a rock and white picket fence. With eight feet of snow now caking the windy ridgeline, neither of those markers will be providing much guidance.
We're standing on one of the volcanic fingers of Changbaishan, a once-prominent volcano until a 946 AD eruption transformed its visage into an atoll of skiable peaks now forming the frozen border between North Korea and China. According to North Korean legend, Kim Jong-il was born at the quasi-range's highest point. Even though the day started in China, we're not entirely sure whether or not we're side-stepping through his backyard.
"I think people are realizing that you can buy all the crap you want, but if you can't breathe in Beijing, what's the point? They want to feel healthy, they want to live differently than their parents."
Though only separated by a two-hour flight, Changbaishan couldn't feel any farther from the nation's capital. Unlike the arid climates to the south, it sits directly in the path of Siberian systems spinning toward Japan, picking up buckets of wind-whipped, dry snow from December through March. A popular national park during the summer, the area started running a small fleet of snowmobiles four years ago, shuttling China's most adventurous skiers and boarders up a thin flank of the sprawling volcano. This year the operation introduced China's first cat skiing for 1,200RMB a day (about $200).
Yet, despite its expanse of skiable terrain, Changbaishan's boundaries remain limited to a groomed strip and pair of high alpine bowls, something the area's general manager assures us will change "as demand increases." That move is likely years off, as adventure skiing, and powder skiing in general, are new here. For the most part, skiers stick to their netted slopes and there isn't any managed avalanche control, much less any off-piste skiing, at any of the resorts we visit.
It's only a matter of time before the freestyle scene challenges these boundaries, moving from the park to the backcountry, but for now it's just us skirting empty ridgelines into deep tree pockets that echo Hokkaido rather than the Chinese hardpack to which we've become accustomed.
Higher up, a Roladex of sheer fins drop into Changbaishan's volcanic crater—1,500-foot exposed faces built for dreamy dorm-room posters—but wind loading and an uncertain snowpack force our party to more stable terrain and the promise of deep turns.
As we skin along the buried border, the steps become a little more calculated. On one side of the ridgeline, cornice drops and endless bowls beckon; on the other, we're tempted by 1,200 feet of steep, shaded birch. Half enthralled, half terrified, we decide powder skiing just isn't worth becoming an international headline. After a few minutes munching fish-flavored rice cakes, adjusting packs, and taking one last look over our shoulders, we drop toward the forest, back into China and the welcome thwap of untouched powder turns.
Deep in the folds of the north-facing fall line, Coots and Sayers throw shimmering rooster tails into the mid-afternoon sun. Low-lying birches cast gnarled shadows across the slope, the only contrast along an uninterrupted pitch of fresh snow. It's hard to believe that something like this exists after a week of manmade chaos around Chongli, but here we are, 625 miles from Beijing, scoring face shots on China's North Korean border.
Despite warnings of skier fines and jail time for skiing out of bounds along the volcano, the worry is washed away with a fist bump from the snowmobile operator scoping our line from below. His smile is stuck wide open. We are the first he's ever seen "ski the trees."
Just across the valley, Wanda Changbaishan Resort stands a stark foil to the wilds of our untapped volcano skiing. Operated by Wanda Group, one of the largest real estate companies in the world, the resort is a volcanic blip no bigger than your small community ski hill, but features eight hotels (including three Holiday Inns, two Hyatts, and a Westin), a resort village, a separate spa resort, and an indoor water park.
In just four years, Wanda has turned this small farming community into a bustling Western-style destination. Justin Bieber bumps from the heated six-pack chairlift speakers as we check our email on the mountain's complimentary wifi. The village offers KFC, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut while guests rest in VIP ski lounges replete with couches, hot water machines, and flat screen TVs. Wanda has even overhauled the airport to prep for the forecasted flow of winter sports enthusiasts from Beijing and Shanghai, including a shuttle bus directly to the slopes.
The skiing here is an unwelcome return to the usual—short, icy shots with bone-chattering leg burn and piles of granular moguls. We start to understand why base lodges are packed and slopes are empty, and only last a few laps before the comforts of American fast food and hot tubs win out.
As Chinese skiing slowly begins its push into bigger and bigger terrain, resorts like Wanda and those around Chongli are the packaged "ski experience" selling the country's ski explosion. They are the entry point, an escape from the stresses of city life and the long workweek, and a necessary step in a country rewriting its script from the ground up.
"I think people are realizing that you can buy all the crap you want, but if you can't breathe in Beijing, what's the point?" says Oliveira. "They want to feel healthy, they want to live differently than their parents."
While many agree that ski fervor will die down after the Olympics, the new Chinese mentality of personal fulfillment and wellness might be enough to give skiing the platform it needs to succeed.
In the end, it will be the country's first generation of lifelong skiers—the likes of Uncle Cho and Seaplus—that will ultimately determine the staying power of skiing in China. By spreading the sport behind The Great Firewall and evolving from Beijing parks to Changbaishan and beyond, they are moving those around them to pick up skis and hit the slopes themselves.
Seaplus' parents worried when their son left a steady job to go skiing. Per China's one-child policy (recently abolished in October 2015), he is the family's only heir and its sole chance at a future. In spite of these parental and societal pressures, the 24-year-old is unfazed. He knows he has a long life ahead of him, and, whether he stays in the ski industry or moves into a more traditional profession someday, Seaplus believes he has found the path to a better tomorrow in something besides material wealth.
"We know we're behind the rest of the world," says Seaplus. "But we have no fear. We're trying to better ourselves."
This story originally published in the December 2016 issue of POWDER (45.4). Subscribe to the magazine here.