Skiing in Nanshan, China: come for the culture, not for the snow

I admit it, there's an element of tick-box tourism at play here. As part of my stint in Beijing, the first stop on my Trans-Siberian trip, I was cajoled into a day out at Nanshan Ski Village. My travel partner-in-crime Normal Matt is a huge snowhead, and couldn't resist testing the pistes in China. What could go wrong?

As green Beijing first-timers, we were pretty pleased to find the right bus towards Nanshan and rope a local taxi driver (read: dude with a car and nothing better to do) into taking us on to the ski village. We even doodled ski boots and skis in a notebook, labelling them with our heights and shoe sizes, to ease the gear hire (Chinese language skill level: laughable).

Suspiciously snowy pistes surrounded by arid hills. And the blue and pink passes,
key to keeping track of your hired gear. Images by Anita Isalska
The kit wasn't a great start – Normal Matt's skis had a big chunk scarred out of them, and both of us ended up with very short skis for our heights. The boots were – to put it politely – thoroughly well loved, with a distinctive vintage vibe. But a poor craftsman always blames his tools, right? Undeterred winter sports enthusiasts that we are, we shuffled towards the lifts – ignoring the greater-than-usual friction under our skis, and the first twinges of forming blisters.

The ski area isn't huge, but it's served by a handful of lifts, has mostly beginner pistes and a couple of highly steep advanced ones. The real delight of Nanshan for a foreign visitor is the local flavour to the ski area: huffs of fragrant steam from dumpling stalls by the piste, temple-like roofs atop the ski lift stations... It's all very refreshing if you're used to ski culture in Europe or North America.

Scenery-wise, it would be unfair to compare it to the Alps. China is cold, but very dry. Artificial snow powers a large proportion of the snow at Nanshan, meaning the pistes are well covered; but from the lifts you're surrounded by fields of bracken and arid brown hills misted in smog.

“It's a bit like the French Alps,” offered Normal Matt as we soared on a rickety ski lift.

“Are those chickens?” I countered. The farmyard below the lift was dotted with clucking, scratching birds. Not to mention the odd stray dog prowling the rubbish bins near the piste-side cafes.

Normal Matt sips a well-deserved latte; and some views around Nanshan.
Images by Anita Isalska
None of this stopped the skiers at Nanshan from having a hell of a good time. Perhaps too good a time. Often on the piste I feel like I'm surrounded by expert skiers, whooshing past me gracefully. Not a problem at Nanshan. The goal for most of the day-trippers seemed to be skidding haphazardly down the slope at breakneck speed, rather than finessing their ski technique. There were a lot of falls, skiers tumbling into other skiers, hurtling down the slopes and falling flat on their faces. The terrain may not have been challenging, but avoiding other skiers certainly was.

The same ramshackle approach applied to boarding ski lifts. Five or six people would pile in front of a four-seater, only to be barked at by the lift attendant before two of them panickedly dived out of the way.

It was hard to gain much speed in our seldom-waxed skis, but we spent a couple of enjoyable hours dodging the more suicidal skiers and sipped a pretty good piste-side latte. A late-afternoon light was penetrating the smog, which could only mean one thing: the approach of rush hour.

Somewhere on the standing-room-only two-hour bus ride back, I felt twinges of regret for our excursion to Nanshan. But if you're a snowhead who finds yourself in Beijing, I suspect you'll be curious enough to try it too.


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