“How long until we start eating each other?” one traveling companion asked. I turned my head toward the back of the bus to see the words “HELP” scratched in the frost on one of the windows.
“Maybe we’ll see a yeti,” the ice carver quipped, sipping a Jack and Coke for warmth. I wondered if anyone would know where to find our frozen bodies on the edge of the Gobi desert if we failed to return.
It was three degrees above zero outside and only slightly warmer inside our 17 passenger bus. We left Beijing in the early afternoon, headed on our weekend ski trip to Chongli District, an up-and-coming international destination and host to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
I was accompanied by my husband, two teenage sons and a group of fellow ex-pats who, like us, had also relocated to China to work for Universal Studios, set to open in Beijing in 2021.
Somewhere around nightfall, our renegade driver decided to take a “shortcut” subjecting us to an hour-long wild goose chase on a windy gravel road filled with potholes. We were close to mutiny. No amount of Google translating or charades could convince our Chinese-speaking driver to turn back.
Finally, after a phone call to the driver of the other bus (our group split into two) and lots of loud, angry protesting, our driver reluctantly made a u-turn and eventually delivered us to our destination, Wanlong Ski Resort.
Located about 250 kilometers northeast of Beijng, Wanlong and other neighboring resorts are the hub of China’s quickly growing ski industry. The government is actively promoting this new tourism sector, seeking to encourage 300 million new ski and snowboard enthusiasts leading up to the Olympics by building 800 ski resorts and offering free lessons in schools.
For us, a weekend at Wanlong offered a chance to escape the frenzy of Beijing, trading pollution and traffic jams for clear blue skies and wide open slopes.
Just like most adventures in China, skiing offered pleasant surprises wrapped in a layer of challenges that required an open mind – kind of like biting into a steamed bun without knowing what’s inside.
The first task (after surviving the 5-hour drive) was renting equipment, a bit daunting considering my Mandarin vocabulary is better suited to ordering food than for explaining that I don’t need to rent a helmet or those silly looking butt pillows that cushion falls.
As we stand in the gear rental line, I’m trying to simultaneously remember our various ski lengths ( for four of us) and boot sizes (in centimeters), translate them into Chinese and sternly practice my new phrase “wo zai paidui,” – which means “I’m in line.” I press myself up against the skier in front of me to show I’m serious.
Success! We gather our gear, swipe a card that keeps track of our rental information and carefully zip it away. We had to leave our passports as a deposit and will need this card to retrieve them. I try not to think of the time years ago when I fell skiing, burying the contents of my pocket deep in the snow, including my car keys.
Now on to the next challenge: navigating a squat toilet in ski boots and multiple layers of clothing without peeing on myself. If you can imagine trying to urinate into a cup while ice skating, you get the picture.
Thankfully no injuries occurred because if I’m going to slip and fall at a ski resort, it certainly has to be a better story than that. (I learned later that the lodge at the top had heated Western toilets and slippers included in the cost of the $12 lunch buffet. Who knew such luxury existed? The food wasn’t great, but I’d go back just for the slippers).
Bladder empty, parka zipped and helmet on, I’m ready to hit the slopes. Shocker: no lift lines and wide-open, uncrowded terrain. In China, if there’s someplace worth seeing, chances are that I’ll be joined by a million or two of my closest friends, so this was surprising.
The first run out we took the gondola to the top. Multiple chairlifts and gondolas serve the same mountain-top destination, so we never waited more than a few minutes to ride up the peak, which meant lots of skiing with little waiting. For roughly $60 a ticket, we definitely got our money’s worth.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the lack of smokers. (Thankfully it’s against the rules on the hill due to the danger of forest fires, but I did catch one snowboarder taking a quick smoke-break mid-slope).
At a little over 6,000 feet, the top of the mountain offered spectacular panoramic views. Being in Beijing surrounded by tall buildings had given me tunnel vision of sorts; standing at the top taking in the views reminded me of the enormity of this country. Unbroken landscape filled the horizon.
Wanlong ski runs don’t have catchy names like “Happy Trails” or “Body Bag” giving skiers some idea of what lies ahead. There are some numbers, a few symbols and characters (partially snow-covered) but like most things here, much is left to guessing.
So we take turns choosing the runs, our 14- and 16-year old sons leading the way. Here we are in China, thousands of miles from home, and they fearlessly navigate unfamiliar terrain without a trail map and beckon me to follow.
”Let’s just go straight. It might have moguls, I’m not sure. But it will be OK, we’ll just go slow,” my 16-year old says.
How did this happen? Weren’t they just toddlers learning to ski? We used to run alongside them down the bunny hill yelling “tips together – make a wedge like a pizza! Arms out front, like you are holding a tray. Don’t spill the hot chocolate!”
Now they are bold, independent, capable teenagers. I’m proud, but a little bit sad. We raised them to fly, and they are spreading their wings, soaring down the ski hill in China, out of my sight. It’s been a year of letting go, and trusting in the unknown spaces. I blink back a few tears and chase after them.
Lots of skiing requires lots of eating. Who needs burgers and chili cheese fries? We refueled on grilled lamb skewers, handmade dumplings, made-to-order noodle dishes, fried rice and fresh tandoori baked naan. The variety was impressive and the quality was good, at a fraction of what food costs in U.S. ski resorts. This place takes pride in its food.
On the bus trip home, I watched the landscape roll by: jagged mountains, luxury chateaux, old factories, abandoned towns, new mini-cities bathed in lights from neon signs, hot pot restaurants, KFC, pig farms and silos. Villagers warmed their hands over open fires in the fields, while drivers stopped at nearby electric vehicle charging stations. I was witnessing a living museum of China’s history as the kilometers sped by.
Getting away from Beijing reminded me of the enormity of this country, the diversity of its people, and the richness of the landscape. Sharing new adventures as a family lifted my spirits and made me feel grateful for the way this experience and all of the others during our time in China is shaping our family.