Peng Chao (center), a Hemu resident and ski enthusiast, works with the rescue team of the Jikepulin International Ski Resort in Altay, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to conduct a risk assessment following heavy snowfall on January 16 In addition to skiing and snowboarding, visitors to Hemu, Xinjiang, can enjoy many other activities during the winter, including hot air ballooning and sled rides (LI FANGFANG)
Austrian ski instructor Platon Kerau traveled to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region along with more than 100 Chinese skiers on a charter flight from Beijing during the Spring Festival holiday last month. The trip was organized by a Beijing-based ski club known as Idol Club. The main goal of the group was to ski at the Jikepulin International Ski Resort in Hemu Village of Altay Prefecture, a border area neighboring Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
"I'm really impressed by how fast and nicely these kinds of things develop in China," Kerau told Beijing Review when talking about the growth of winter sports facilities.
The resort has a ski season lasting for longer than 210 days a year. It is not windy in winter, and its temperatures during the ski season are more comfortable than those of the ski areas in other areas across China. The powder snow, mild weather, plus the long snow period have gained Altay the reputation of being the country's "snow capital."
Additionally, the services on offer at the resort have greatly improved over the past year. "Last year, as I heard from my friends, there were no cabins or snowboards for rent yet," Kerau said, "One year later, there is a beautiful huge service center with really high quality equipment for rent."
Skiing in the resort comes highly recommended by many experienced skiers. "Once you've skied in Xinjiang, you won't want to go anywhere else," Wu Yihao, a sports graduate and experienced skier who was also the group's guide as well as their interpreter and photographer, said. Outside of his routine office job in Beijing, the sports buff often travels around China in search of great places to ski.
A popular destination
Summer and autumn have traditionally been regarded as the best seasons to visit Xinjiang, but the region's reputation as one of China's top destinations for winter travel has been growing in recent years. During the recent Spring Festival holiday, from January 21-27, sites in Xinjiang received 4.8 million tourists, an increase of more than 30 percent year on year. Of these, the number of tourists from outside Xinjiang increased significantly.
Xinjiang is located 2,000-3,000 km west to and two time zones away from Beijing. Since all of China operates on Beijing Time, ski resorts in Xinjiang often open as late as 10 a.m., offering tourists a relaxed holiday schedule. "Skiers can get a good night's sleep and still be fully geared up before the slopes open in the morning," Wu said.
Peng Yuchan from Sichuan Province in southwest China flew some 2,500 km to the city of Altay with two friends on January 22. The friends had been longing to visit the Jiangjunshan ski resort in the city for months, thanks to its popularity on social media.
"I was planning to go to the warmer and closer Yunnan Province this winter holiday as the pandemic controls were lifted; but my friends said they wanted to go to Xinjiang to ski, so I just joined them," Peng told Beijing Review. The three stayed and skied in the city for two days and then drove some 300 km in a hired SUV to another ski resort in Hemu, the northernmost village in Xinjiang.
Hemu, a small Tuvan village in Altay Prefecture, is hailed as one of the six most beautiful villages in China. In addition to staying in the village, travelers often visit Kanas Lake, a large glacial lake famed for its resemblance to those in Switzerland, some 60 km away from Hemu.
Travel information platform Lonely Planet suggests that May and June are great times to visit Hemu, when the blossoms are thick on the trees, while September is a riot of autumnal colors. But the description needs updating as Hemu's best travel seasons have included
winter in recent years, given the addition of new ski infrastructure has made traveling in winter more convenient and entertaining.
Peng Chao (center), a Hemu resident and ski enthusiast, works with the rescue team of Jikepulin International Ski Resort in Altay, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to conduct a risk assessment after heavy snows on January 16 (XINHUA)
In 2005, the earliest evidence of skiing was discovered in Altay, with cave paintings dating the use of skis to more than 10,000 years ago. This evidence was recognized by international historians in January 2015, six months before Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Despite the early beginnings of the region's ski culture, China's snow sports development lags far behind that of ice sports, probably because skiing requires more funding and infrastructure.
Beijing's winning of the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics aroused people's enthusiasm in winter sports and boosted Xinjiang's development of winter entertainment facilities.
Many Chinese skiers who used to ski abroad now have more choices in their own country. "It is convenient, of course, to ski domestically," Wu said. He learned to snowboard in 2006 when he was a teenager. However, he did not continue to pursue the sport at the time, largely because Beijing didn't have quality slopes or services then.
Wu began snowboarding again in 2016 and has made new friends because of the sport. He enjoys the sport. "When I'm snowboarding, the freezing cold and the speed get me in touch with my inner self," Wu said.
Wu noticed that the hosting of the Beijing Winter Olympics attracted a large number of newcomers to snow sports. "This is definitely accelerating the growth of the industry," he said.
More ski enthusiasts from outside the region have been drawn to Xinjiang, while Altay is widely seen as the first choice for skiing in the autonomous region. Its Spring Festival holiday tourism has grown significantly in recent years. The number of tourists to the prefecture during the holiday week has grown 14 times from about 50,000 in 2015 to more than 730,000 in 2023.
To further meet tourist demand, Altay's local tourism authority this year opened direct flights from Guangzhou in Guangdong Province and Beijing to Altay and a tourist train from Xinjiang's capital Urumqi to Altay to facilitate skiers' journeys.
However, accidents have occurred on the slopes, some of which have exposed a lack of professional instruction and safety measures. This year, Kerau was invited by the Jikepulin resort to help with avalanche testing before new runs opened to the public.
"Fast-developing ski resorts like that need a lot of professionals, qualified instructors, safety staff and many other personnel," Kerau said. BR
(Reporting from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)
(Print Edition Title: To Xinjiang, In Winter)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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