Liberation-Lessons Learned In China

Photos By Eric Berger

Zhao Xinlue explained, “It was a liberation, not a revolution,” when the army led by Mao Zedoung finally took control of this northern province of China. It was a lesson learned in 1969, when at the age of sixteen he was sent to live with peasants for reeducation during China’s cultural revolution.

We were visiting a crude museum in a rural area of the Heilongjiang Province, about 200 kilometers from the northern industrial city of Harbin. Mr. Zhao was translating for a local guide, who described how Mao’s army used skis in this snowy region to run out the last of the outlaws and aristocrats who ruled here until about 1950.

The small building has no heat and only a few dim lights. The displays lie on rough wooden tables. A few extremely valuable or fragile artifacts are in glass cases. There are none of the alarms, humidifiers, or fancy placards one expects at an institution like the Smithsonian. However, the collection is of immense pride to the local people, who have saved it as a tribute to the ethnic minorities that inhabited this area for centuries. Our museum guide is a descendent of the Huan people, fierce hunters and warriors native to northern China. It is easy to picture her riding one of the shaggy Mongolian horses that greeted us when we first arrived.

Zhao’s perspective on Mao’s army seemed inconsequential when he said it, but his observation, “liberation, not revolution,” perfectly encapsulated our journey, the sport of snowboarding, and hopefully, life. For our group of five North Americans, traveling the world to ride the snow isn’t revolutionary at all-it’s a liberation of mind and soul that most people only imagine. The point could be made no more clearly than it had been just a few hours before.

Chinese Downhill

Yu Chuen is described as a “local” ski area. The resort is actually a hunting preserve that dates back to the Jing Dynasty. Red deer, bears, and Siberian tigers have been hunted in this area for centuries to satisfy the need for food, medicinal potions, and trophy mounts. Sadly, most of the animals disappeared before a worldwide conservation movement could save them.

The single ski slope is packed by foot. There is no lift, but for 30 yuan (less than four dollars) a resort worker is available, for the day, to carry your equipment for each trip to the top. If there is one thing that there is no shortage of in China, it’s people willing to work.

Small ski areas allow the Chinese to develop more employment and recreational opportunities for the local population. Until now, citizens in rural areas of the North relied almost exclusively on agricultural trades. When the ground froze they practically had to hibernate for the duration of the cold winters.

Only 50 or 60 Chinese were on the hill when we rolled in. Everyone stared as Martin Gallant and Mike Basich unpacked their snowboards. The brave ones, and those who smelled the opportunity to be hired as a board carrier, crowded in. When Chris Engelsman pulled out the first K2 stickers for a pack of kids, it was a mob scene. These people are neither shy nor unfriendly.

It was the first time anyone in Yu Chuen had seen snowboards, but it only took one run for the locals to understand the concept perfectly. Like every kid in America who wanted to try riding when they saw it the first time, the Chinese people jockeyed for position when it was apparent that we were more than willing to let the locals try out our equipment. Little kids, old ladies, and gentlemen in business suits were strapping in for their first ride.

Hooting, hollering, and laughter accompanied each start and the inevitable crashes that followed. Every rider knows the excitement brought on by adrenaline and the rush of gliding across snow. As I watched Martin Gallant helping an old man balance before sending him down the hill, it was clear that this experience was more than another goofy moment at some weird place for a TransWorld SNOWbrding article.

The 25-year-old Canadian made no snide comments about the complete absence of modern resort facilities. There was no comparison to his home mountain of Whistler except in the amount of fun these people were having. Like the other pro riders, Martin made sure that everyone who wanted to try snowboarding got a chance. He didn’t care if someone ran over a rock on his precious board. It didn’t matter that everyone was in vintage 1970s ski boots or street shoes.

Liberation. It’s when the joy of others supersedes your own concerns.

Just Do It

Hundreds of peasants cleared the highway of snow and ice-by hand! Villages along these remote roads are clusters of stone buildings surrounded by frozen fields that become rice paddies in summer. The list of what the people don’t have is endless-no plumbing, no big cars, no McDonald’s. Unlike major cities and select resorts that have been upgraded to Western standards, the Chinese countryside has not yet seen the prosperity of the nation’s economic reforms. The average family income of rural dwellers in this region, sandwiched between Mongolia and North Korea, is about 600 dollars U.S. per year.

Ironically, disco karaoke is huge. Even in the countryside, virtually every restaurant and hotel has a VCD (video CD) system complete with laser lights and rotating disco ball. The Chinese have no inhibition about singing along with Western music, whether it’s Elvis or the Spice Girls. There are original tunes and knockoff selections in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. No one in our party except Zhao, however, could tell the difference.

Other imports from the West are equally amusing. The biggest and most modern ski resort, Yabuli, is decorated in a windmill motif (very European!). It has a two-lane bowling alley, miniature golf, and a funky Alpine slide. The television channel that broadcasts in English features professional wrestling from Dallas, Korean imitation MTV, and Baywatch.

Other activities are unique to the Chinese experience. For 45 yuan, you can fire fifteen rounds from an army assault rifle at the resort’s own target range. Blasting away with a machine gun costs 150 yuan a clip, but none were in working order when we were there.

Liberation. It’s when fun is making the most of the moment and your circumstances-not adhering to a standard product packaged in a video game or a slick resort brochure.

Where Do Dead Chairlifts Go?

First-generation chairlifts, those one and two-seat wonders built in the 60s, have been removed from European and American resorts. Not all of them were cut into scrap metal or buried in a landfill, however. Developing countries in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia salvaged many of these lifts that look like monuments to rust.

None of us ventured a guess as to the safety standards that most Chinese chairlifts would pass (actually we didn’t want to know the answer). The primitive machines still work, though, and people have lots of fun. Tickets are about four dollars U.S. a day, and the rental equipment is thrown in. The Deputy Minister of Tourism explained that the Chinese government has a goal of getting one-million kids on the snow in the next ten years. Keeping the price down is a key element of that plan. (It’s a concept many of us wish American resorts would import!)

Yabuli is the largest and most developed resort area in the Heilongjiang Province. The government invested heavily in the resort in order to host the 1996 Asian Winter Games-an Olympic-style sports festival for teams from China, Mongolia, the Koreas, Japan, India, Nepal, Russia, independent republics from the former Soviet Union, and any other Asian nation wanting to compete in skiing or skating sports. We suggested that they add snowboarding to the next competition.

Our visit came during a season of dismal snowfall. The impact of the worldwide El Niño weather pattern resulted in a near drought for this part of Asia. Chairlifts were only operating on two sections of the mountain, each under separate management, a confusing practice that forces patrons to choose which lift to buy tickets for. Zhao explained that it was “The System.”

Smack in the middle of the two chairlifts was a third major trail system under control of yet another independent entity. Despite having the best slope and the newest lift (a modern gondola) it was closed for the season. We spotted huge deposits of untracked snow near the top and wondered why no one opened it. We chalked it up to “The System.”

Like snowboarders everywhere, we have our own “system.” We asked our new mountain guide (Zhao didn’t ski and had been left at the bottom) if it would be okay to hike across a ridge that linked the three summits. We wanted to ride the powder we’d seen from below. He didn’t speak or understand a word of English, so we figured that whatever he said could be interpreted as approval of our plan.

When we finally topped the peak of the closed section, everyone except our Chinese guide broke into wide grins. A huge expanse of unbroken powder lay before us. It was pure white for hundreds of yards. Farther down the mountain we could see tufts of grass, weeds, and other plants that gradually poked their way through the surface. From our vantage point we couldn’t make out the exact snow conditions on the lower trail, but how bad could a little grass be?

It is steep at the top, and the snow was even better than imagined. Nearly three feet deep and the consistency of granular sugar, this section of the mountain was a natural area for wind deposits. The gales that blow across Asia are funneled through this point and drop windblown snow. Once again our vast experience had led us to the mother lode and we gave each other high fives for our good luck. The guide was strangely quiet.

Gallant, Engelsman, and Basich slashed huge arcs from the top. Waves of sparkling crystals were thrown into the air. Had it not been for the fields of frozen rice paddies miles in the distance, the moment could have passed for Utah. The powder was unbroken at first, but gradually the tops of dried grass started to push through the surface. A few more turns and honey-colored weeds started to appear. At first, the plants were simply mowed over by our boards.

Further down, the weeds and grass were getting high enough to slap us at the knees. We were laughing and joking about cruising the sticks. The snow was still plenty deep, but the weeds kept getting taller and thicker. Our Chinese companion wasn’t laughing. In fact, he looked worried. The base was still a long way off.

No one knows where the word asparagus comes from, but I am absolutely certain how Devil’s Club got its name. The stems have about the same dimension and strength of corn stalks, but there are no leaves. Instead they are covered with thorns from top to bottom-not scratchy little nuisances like a rose bush has, but thousands of sturdy, razor-sharp needles more than an inch long.

You haven’t really experienced extreme snowboarding until you have cruised through a head-high patch of these suckers. Any loser can huck off a cliff in Tahoe, but it takes a real man to charge through stands of Devil’s Club. And don’t think slowing down helps-it’s worse than speeding up (same principal as pulling off a sticky Band-Aid).

If there’s ever going to be a market for Kevlar parkas and bullet proof goggles, it’s here. Now we understood why our mountain guide wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea of poaching this trail. Had we spoken Chinese we would have learned that we weren’t the only ones who figured out that the wind blew lots of snow into this place.

The grass and weeds weren’t a result of someone being too lazy to mow the trail. The resourceful Chinese planted the hillside to capture the windblown drifts and hold them to the mountain. The weeds are allowed to grow, including the dreaded Devil’s Club. In a normal season the plants sia. Chairlifts were only operating on two sections of the mountain, each under separate management, a confusing practice that forces patrons to choose which lift to buy tickets for. Zhao explained that it was “The System.”

Smack in the middle of the two chairlifts was a third major trail system under control of yet another independent entity. Despite having the best slope and the newest lift (a modern gondola) it was closed for the season. We spotted huge deposits of untracked snow near the top and wondered why no one opened it. We chalked it up to “The System.”

Like snowboarders everywhere, we have our own “system.” We asked our new mountain guide (Zhao didn’t ski and had been left at the bottom) if it would be okay to hike across a ridge that linked the three summits. We wanted to ride the powder we’d seen from below. He didn’t speak or understand a word of English, so we figured that whatever he said could be interpreted as approval of our plan.

When we finally topped the peak of the closed section, everyone except our Chinese guide broke into wide grins. A huge expanse of unbroken powder lay before us. It was pure white for hundreds of yards. Farther down the mountain we could see tufts of grass, weeds, and other plants that gradually poked their way through the surface. From our vantage point we couldn’t make out the exact snow conditions on the lower trail, but how bad could a little grass be?

It is steep at the top, and the snow was even better than imagined. Nearly three feet deep and the consistency of granular sugar, this section of the mountain was a natural area for wind deposits. The gales that blow across Asia are funneled through this point and drop windblown snow. Once again our vast experience had led us to the mother lode and we gave each other high fives for our good luck. The guide was strangely quiet.

Gallant, Engelsman, and Basich slashed huge arcs from the top. Waves of sparkling crystals were thrown into the air. Had it not been for the fields of frozen rice paddies miles in the distance, the moment could have passed for Utah. The powder was unbroken at first, but gradually the tops of dried grass started to push through the surface. A few more turns and honey-colored weeds started to appear. At first, the plants were simply mowed over by our boards.

Further down, the weeds and grass were getting high enough to slap us at the knees. We were laughing and joking about cruising the sticks. The snow was still plenty deep, but the weeds kept getting taller and thicker. Our Chinese companion wasn’t laughing. In fact, he looked worried. The base was still a long way off.

No one knows where the word asparagus comes from, but I am absolutely certain how Devil’s Club got its name. The stems have about the same dimension and strength of corn stalks, but there are no leaves. Instead they are covered with thorns from top to bottom-not scratchy little nuisances like a rose bush has, but thousands of sturdy, razor-sharp needles more than an inch long.

You haven’t really experienced extreme snowboarding until you have cruised through a head-high patch of these suckers. Any loser can huck off a cliff in Tahoe, but it takes a real man to charge through stands of Devil’s Club. And don’t think slowing down helps-it’s worse than speeding up (same principal as pulling off a sticky Band-Aid).

If there’s ever going to be a market for Kevlar parkas and bullet proof goggles, it’s here. Now we understood why our mountain guide wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea of poaching this trail. Had we spoken Chinese we would have learned that we weren’t the only ones who figured out that the wind blew lots of snow into this place.

The grass and weeds weren’t a result of someone being too lazy to mow the trail. The resourceful Chinese planted the hillside to capture the windblown drifts and hold them to the mountain. The weeds are allowed to grow, including the dreaded Devil’s Club. In a normal season the plants and snow are trampled and packed down so that the entire layer is bonded to the slope. In a year like this however, the vegetation was left standing.

Resort management never figured that someone would be stupid enough to try the slope unless all the weeds had been packed down. For all we know, there are signs posted that say, “WARNING: It is very stupid and dangerous to ride through the Devil’s Club.” Unfortunately, all the signs are in Chinese.

Liberation. The mind is free when you look in the mirror and accept that an idiot is staring back.

Every Dog Has His Day

It’s funny how often dogs pop up in a conversation about China. They celebrate the Year of the Dog, and of course we felt like lucky dogs for our good fortune in visiting a place like this. We were dog tired at night.

There are also exotic menu selections. It is true that there are dishes whose main ingredients are pets common to the American household. Chinese cooks waste almost no part of any animal, be it bone, claw, or organ, any organ. The fact is, that everything tasted pretty good and none of our riders got sick despite their adventurous culinary experimentation.

There is no better way to honor another person’s culture and make friends than to join them at the dinner table. Forget high-priced Western imitation restaurants with marble floors at the five-star hotels in Beijing. Places like that are generally adaptations to please foreign tourists too spoiled or squeamish to appreciate Chinese tradition.

Americans believe everyone should worship fast-food restaurants. Our norm is sanitized, homogenized, and genetically engineered groceries advertised by urban mega-markets. People in developing countries have come to expect Americans ridiculing local offerings. We didn’t.

There is nothing like a meal at a remote outpost where no one, especially the Chinese, would ever expect an American tourist. The families who build and operate such enterprises are every bit as friendly as folks in rural Iowa. They have the same hopes and dreams for their families.

When five riders from the U.S. and Canada stride through the doors, the proprietor’s first reaction is shock (a reaction similar to that of anyone who owns a restaurant besieged by snowboarders-quick, count the chopsticks!). After that it’s curiosity, “How in the hell did these guys end up here?”

When it’s clear that the new guests are willing to try real Chinese cuisine without turning up their noses or making rude jokes, the locals are stoked beyond all comparison. They practically empty the kitchen in an attempt to present the best offering possible.

In small restaurants the dining room also serves as living and sleeping quarters. The family’s personal possessions, clothing, and bedding are stacked along the walls during business hours. There is no better honor to the host than showing appreciation and respect.

Liberation. It’s the privilege of sharing someone’s home and their history.

Before The Vanilla

The Chinese government is committed to economic expansion, upgrading facilities, and a million other improvements for a nation of more than a billion people. It’s an understandable aspiration, and it’s only logical that many ideas will be imported from North America and Europe.

The process won’t be a quick, easy, or efficient-there are many challenges to be worked out in “The System.” Personally (and selfishly), I hope it’s a long time before Yabuli is on the same resort list as Killington. The dark side of “perfection” is the dearth of trial and error, funky innovation, and making do with limited resources.

Don’t even think about traveling to a Chinese ski resort if you expect anything close to the technical standards of Colorado or California resorts. Actually, you will be disappointed if you are counting on chairlift and grooming systems as sophisticated as the ski areas in Indiana. But hey, you can ride all day for less than the cost of a bagel and orangge juice at Deer Valley.

China is the place to see, the other side of the world, absolutely beautiful people, and a culture so rich in accomplishments and tradition that it makes U.S. history look like preschool. Go to China before it “improves.” There is no revolution in traveling there, the people will welcome you just like the friends who took you snowboarding the first time.

Liberation.

If you would like to travel to China or anywhere in Asia, Canadian Airlines (1-800-426-7000) has direct flights from North America to most major cities. Local travel and interpreter/guides can be arranged through Hong Kong based Lotus Tours 85-22-316-1337, FAX 85-22-721-8823.

Pull Quotes:

It was the first time anyone in Yu Chuen had seen snowboards.

Gallant, Engelsman, and Basich slashed huge arcs from the top. Waves of sparkling crystals were thrown into the air.

Any loser can huck off a cliff in Tahoe, but it takes a real man to charge through stands of Devil’s Club. snow are trampled and packed down so that the entire layer is bonded to the slope. In a year like this however, the vegetation was left standing.

Resort management never figured that someone would be stupid enough to try the slope unless all the weeds had been packed down. For all we know, there are signs posted that say, “WARNING: It is very stupid and dangerous to ride through the Devil’s Club.” Unfortunately, all the signs are in Chinese.

Liberation. The mind is free when you look in the mirror and accept that an idiot is staring back.

Every Dog Has His Day

It’s funny how often dogs pop up in a conversation about China. They celebrate the Year of the Dog, and of course we felt like lucky dogs for our good fortune in visiting a place like this. We were dog tired at night.

There are also exotic menu selections. It is true that there are dishes whose main ingredients are pets common to the American household. Chinese cooks waste almost no part of any animal, be it bone, claw, or organ, any organ. The fact is, that everything tasted pretty good and none of our riders got sick despite their adventurous culinary experimentation.

There is no better way to honor another person’s culture and make friends than to join them at the dinner table. Forget high-priced Western imitation restaurants with marble floors at the five-star hotels in Beijing. Places like that are generally adaptations to please foreign tourists too spoiled or squeamish to appreciate Chinese tradition.

Americans believe everyone should worship fast-food restaurants. Our norm is sanitized, homogenized, and genetically engineered groceries advertised by urban mega-markets. People in developing countries have come to expect Americans ridiculing local offerings. We didn’t.

There is nothing like a meal at a remote outpost where no one, especially the Chinese, would ever expect an American tourist. The families who build and operate such enterprises are every bit as friendly as folks in rural Iowa. They have the same hopes and dreams for their families.

When five riders from the U.S. and Canada stride through the doors, the proprietor’s first reaction is shock (a reaction similar to that of anyone who owns a restaurant besieged by snowboarders-quick, count the chopsticks!). After that it’s curiosity, “How in the hell did these guys end up here?”

When it’s clear that the new guests are willing to try real Chinese cuisine without turning up their noses or making rude jokes, the locals are stoked beyond all comparison. They practically empty the kitchen in an attempt to present the best offering possible.

In small restaurants the dining room also serves as living and sleeping quarters. The family’s personal possessions, clothing, and bedding are stacked along the walls during business hours. There is no better honor to the host than showing appreciation and respect.

Liberation. It’s the privilege of sharing someone’s home and their history.

Before The Vanilla

The Chinese government is committed to economic expansion, upgrading facilities, and a million other improvements for a nation of more than a billion people. It’s an understandable aspiration, and it’s only logical that many ideas will be imported from North America and Europe.

The process won’t be a quick, easy, or efficient-there are many challenges to be worked out in “The System.” Personally (and selfishly), I hope it’s a long time before Yabuli is on the same resort list as Killington. The dark side of “perfection” is the dearth of trial and error, funky innovation, and making do with limited resources.

Don’t even think about traveling to a Chinese ski resort if you expect anything close to the technical standards of Colorado or California resorts. Actually, you will be disappointed if you are counting on chairlift and grooming systems as sophisticated as the ski areas in Indiana. But hey, you can ride all day for less than the cost of a bagel and orange juice at Deer Valley.

China is the place to see, the other side of the world, absolutely beautiful people, and a culture so rich in accomplishments and tradition that it makes U.S. history look like preschool. Go to China before it “improves.” There is no revolution in traveling there, the people will welcome you just like the friends who took you snowboarding the first time.

Liberation.

If you would like to travel to China or anywhere in Asia, Canadian Airlines (1-800-426-7000) has direct flights from North America to most major cities. Local travel and interpreter/guides can be arranged through Hong Kong based Lotus Tours 85-22-316-1337, FAX 85-22-721-8823.

Pull Quotes:

It was the first time anyone in Yu Chuen had seen snowboards.

Gallant, Engelsman, and Basich slashed huge arcs from the top. Waves of sparkling crystals were thrown into the air.

Any loser can huck off a cliff in Tahoe, but it takes a real man to charge through stands of Devil’s Club.bagel and orange juice at Deer Valley.

China is the place to see, the other side of the world, absolutely beautiful people, and a culture so rich in accomplishments and tradition that it makes U.S. history look like preschool. Go to China before it “improves.” There is no revolution in traveling there, the people will welcome you just like the friends who took you snowboarding the first time.

Liberation.

If you would like to travel to China or anywhere in Asia, Canadian Airlines (1-800-426-7000) has direct flights from North America to most major cities. Local travel and interpreter/guides can be arranged through Hong Kong based Lotus Tours 85-22-316-1337, FAX 85-22-721-8823.

Pull Quotes:

It was the first time anyone in Yu Chuen had seen snowboards.

Gallant, Engelsman, and Basich slashed huge arcs from the top. Waves of sparkling crystals were thrown into the air.

Any loser can huck off a cliff in Tahoe, but it takes a real man to charge through stands of Devil’s Club.