, Zhangjiakou, CHINA, Feb 28 – Hao Rui only took up skiing this winter, but the 17-year-oldlooked like a veteran as he perched casually atop a slope outside Beijing before schussing downhill.
“I started my training on November 28. I’d never been skiing before,” said Hao, standing with other young Chinese in brightly coloured ski jackets at a resort in Zhangjiakou, outside Beijing.
For some it is a skill that takes years to hone, but already Hao is teaching others.
“Since the end of January, I’ve been an instructor,” he explained.
China hopes millions of others can follow in his tracks.
Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics and authorities want to leverage interest in that to develop a winter sports culture.
Skiing is in its infancy in China and the powder on the slopes is typically shot out of a snow machine.
Only around 5-6 million Chinese ski regularly, at roughly 200 sites around the country, most of them small and under-equipped.
But China has ambitious plans to raise that to 300 million skiers at 1,000 locations by 2030, eyeing the economic potential of more resorts and greater spending on the sport.
– Fake snow –
The strategy is challenged by issues such as low snowfall — The Yan mountains, the future Olympic arena, barely reach 2,000 metres (6,600 feet) and have received only a few natural snowflakes this year.
And also the fact that the costs for this sport exceed the reach of most Chinese consumers.
Yet new resorts already are sprouting across northern China. Catering mainly to novices, the pistes are as wide as gentle sloping highways and well-groomed.
Safety is a priority — especially after two recent fatal accidents at resorts near Zhangjiakou.
The approach appears to be working, as weekend skiers flock to slopes outside Beijing covered in artificially produced snow.
The wealthiest Chinese can venture to Japan, the United States or Europe, but it is possible to find an international experience at home, with increasing numbers of foreign instructors.
Thaiwoo resort near Zhangjiakou has 16 foreigners among its 60 instructors.
The shortage of natural snowfall is not a huge problem because the artificial kind works well in this region, said Bertrand Camus, a French ski instructor who has followed the sport’s rise in China.
“The weather is dry and constantly cold throughout the winter — the snow remains good,” added Camus who contrasted it with the poor performance of artificial snow in some European resorts.
“It’s not like the Alps, where the snow is always melting and refreezing,” he explained.
A 30-year-old dentist who gave only his surname Wang said he is a regular at Wanlong, the biggest ski resort near Zhangjiakou.
“With (China’s) economic development, a lot of Chinese have made a lot of money. These people are passionate about novelties,” he said.
– ‘The air is clean’ –
Wang frequently rises at 5:30 am for the three-hour drive from his Beijing home, 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.
To make it easier — and to escape Beijing’s notorious smog — he recently bought an apartment in Chongli, a large town near Wanlong.
“It is much better here than in Beijing, the air is clean,” he said, pointing at blue skies on a day when the capital was shrouded in smog.
Wanlong remains too pricey for many Chinese, with a lift pass costing at least 450 yuan ($65), rising on holidays and weekends, when rooms at the few nearby hotels can go for 1,500 yuan per night.
Nine-year-old Tingting spent an entire month with her parents at one of Wanlong’s most expensive hotels during the lengthy Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January, skiiing for five straight days.
“I never get bored (with skiiing),” she said.