Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Skiing North East China - Yabuli

Being some of the few -- the very few -- foreigners skiing in Yabuli, North-east China, seems  I'd better note down some info.
Summary of Yabuli (亚布立): "Sun Mountain Resort" 2-3 hours by car from Harbin, Helongjiang province, NE China (near the Russian border): Cold, good snow, no lines, limited runs, even more limited après-ski.  Fun for a couple of days and good for beginners....
Yup, it's that.  Maximum temps each day were around -10 C (14 F).  Range each day was -25 to -10 C.  (-13 to 14F).  But for all that we weren't cold. It's a crisp, dry cold.  With your trusty Paddy Pallin under-longies and face mask, you're set to go.  Here's cold: the Harbin ice festival, with a whole city of ice....
Click to enlarge: Ice City, Harbin

Good snow: 
The cold keeps the snow very light.  None of that European or Australian business of melting during the day then freezing at night making for icy slopes.  The snow is smooth, light, well-groomed and the runs well-tended.  The last night before we left it snowed around 15 cm (6") and it was light and lovely -- you couldn't squeeze it into snowballs, it's that light -- and we would love to have hit the slopes again (though off-piste is limited).
The last day: fresh snow, light and lovely
No lines
We were there over Chinese New Year and on the most busy day of the year (Last Tuesday 16th Feb) and even then there were literally no lines.  On other days, you were often the only one on the lift, and you might even hang around waiting for some company... an excuse to catch your breath.  So, you get more skiing per hour than in other busier resorts.
The lifts at "Sun Mountain" are an 8-person gondola and a fast 6-person chair.  Each is new, installed last year, by Poma lifts of France, comfortable and fast.  They are both "heated", though not when we were there because it "wasn't cold enough".  When it is cold enough, they turn on the in-seat heaters; I'm sure they would work fine on this new equipment. As it was, we didn't really need the heating.
Limited Runs
A and B sections, Sun Mountain, Yabuli
There are only about 10 runs, most intermediate or advanced, though the bottom has a "slope" perfect for complete beginners.  You can knock off all the runs in a day.  Vertical drop is only a shortish 530 metres (1,740'), a bit below Buttermilk at Aspen, which at 618 m (2,030') is the shortest VD in Aspen.  On the plus side, you can do each run without stopping and without being buggered at the end (important for we older buggers...).   
No inventive run names here, no "Corkscrews, no "Short Snorts", no "Timber Doodle Glades", no "Widowmakers"; just practical Chinese names: A1 through A7 on the main mountain and B 1-5 on the other slope. A7 run is not open and hasn't been for years.  It may do so, but not for years, we were told.  Note the low elevation, at just a bit over 1,000 m (3,000 ft); the cold is all latitude, not altitude.
Limited après ski: 
Well, none,  to be precise.  There's one hotel -- the Grand Yabuli -- with two wings, known, again in practical Chinese-style, as Building One and Building Two.  You want to stay in Building One, which is nearer the lift and has the only restaurant(s).  I add the "s" like that, because to all intents there's really only one restaurant, a Chinese one.  The other is a buffet place, opened sporadically at someone's whim, rather arbitrarily.  The Chinese restaurant is not bad, specialising in Sichuanese, but you get a bit tired of Siji Dou and Mapo Doufu after a few days.  Weirdly, they don't have Dandan Noodles.  
The hotel is comfortable, claims to be 5-star, but isn't really.  It has an ATM and the ski hire is on the ground floor of the hotel.
There are some places -- including one on top of the mountain (see picture above) --  that would make wonderful spots to sit outside in the sun and have a beer or hot chocolate, but none was open, we didn't know why.  And there was a "Star Bar", which is huge, cold, uninviting and deserted because it was open at such quixotic times and was so hard to find one's way to -- they hid it well.  Also in the places you'd expect them to take advantage of the views to the mountain and to the south, they've instead put little-used banquet halls, or closed them off entirely.  That's a kind of China thing; though they do claim to have had Canadian involvement.
Things to do if not skiing: 
Nothing much other than to walk over to the other mountain to the East of "Sun Mountain", which has one lift serving a few runs, and is the centre of the Chinese olympic training team: has two full-sized ski jumps and a nice-looking cross country ski track which had Olympic parathletes training when were there.  It's owned by the Heilongjiang Sports Commission (体育委员会 or"Tiwei").  Best to get there by walking direct, east from Sun Mountain, heading towards a grand structure on the hill which turns out to be an hotel.  You have a little hill climb up a short ski run, unless you can talk the guy into letting you up on the slow fixed two-chair, which we did.  That's one slope, one lift, owned and run by the Guangdong Power Company, 广 电 (!)
You can also rent a car and driver to take you to the town of Yabuli about 30km away, half hour by car, and wander the town of about 50,000.  We were there at Chinese New Year so there were still fireworks for sale everywhere, but most other shops were closed.  Ground frozen hard.  Had lunch at a Mutan Hotpot (木炭火锅) which was fantastic, a lovely experience while it snowed outside and chatting with Lao Zhang, our driver, who joined us for lunch.  
You can also take a horse-sleigh ride.  Mongolian ponies, really.  Wrap up well, it's colder than skiing.  There's tyre-sliding run, and one in Tiwei, quite fun.  
Oh yes: the Winter Olympics!  China's CCTV 5 covered them well, from Chinese perspective of course, so we saw -- many times -- Wang Meng's gold in the 500 m. speed skating. And we all loved the Curling, especially -- one for the men -- the ladies Curling teams, Japan, China, UK and France being particularly comely...
Prices high
the cost for a day is about $US 100 -- more than Aspen! -- though this does include rent of skis and boots.  They don't do multiple-day hires.  The idea seems to be that people will come up for a short time, kit themselves out with all the gear including clothing, and go off for a two-hour to one-day ski session. 
They plan to join up "Sun Mountain" with the "Tiwei" mountain and open up new runs on both.  That would give two mountains, with about 10 lifts and maybe 30 runs.  Vertical drops would be around 700m on the Tiwei mountain, not at all bad, a bit more than Buttermilk in Aspen.  The plan is over ten years.  Given China's record of doing things they say they'll do, they'll make this one happen as well, so I'd keep an eye on it.
We all spoke Mandarin, but they do have English speaking instructors and the people at the hotel would be fine too.  I'd say that there would be less trouble with English in Yabuli than in Japanese resorts.
Getting there
We took Hong Kong Airways, which flies to Harbin three times a week and is of good international standard, on time and comfortable. We then took a pre-booked car, a journey of about 2 and a half hours, each way.  The road is four lane expressway all the way, not crowded and very safe, even with the car hurtling along at a steady 130km/hour.  It would also be possible to take a train to Yabuli town, though we didn't explore that.  You'd then have to arrange a car to get you to the resort about 30km away to the south.
We were impressed with safety on the slopes.  They've covered all the sticky-out bits like the gondola supports, and they have regular paramedics, good skiers, patrolling the slopes.  
We were also impressed with the fact that along the Harbin to Yabuli road there was none of the filthy coal-smoke emanating from houses, as there was last time we were in China's countryside in winter.  Houses still had chimneys, but they're not belching smoke: they have all been electrified for heating and supplied by a nuclear power station near Harbin, which we passed on the way back.  Result: the skies are clear.   People we talked to were aware of environmental issues.  Surely something China can be proud of, up in the cold reaches of northeastern-most China.
The expressway itself is one impressive example of what China has done throughout the country: joined up all major cities with super-smooth and very high-quality expressways.  Given how the growth of the US was enabled by Eisenhower's freeway projects in the 1950s, one wonders what further economic benefits will be underwritten by China's own dramatic surge of highway building in the past decade.
Culinary "other": Heilongjiang is the production base of some of China's most famous fungi, especially the Black Wood-ear Fungus (黑木耳).  Make sure you pick some up to bring home (that's if you're not Aussie-resident!).  The "Mountain Monkey Head" fungus (山猴头) is also great.  
In sum: 
We did enjoy our time at Yabuli, considering it a bit of an adventure.  We would have preferred to leave a few days earlier; three days is enough, really.  We ended up staying for five days, which meant a day off wandering over to the Tiwei's area, and going into Yabuli town, both fun if you're at a stretch for something to do.  I would recommend Yabuli for someone living in China wanting a few days exercise,  good snow and simple runs.