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Chills and thrills

From top: Wanlong is one of the Chinese ski resorts large enough for skiers to plan or navigate their way through its slopes. More than half of Wanlong's trails cater to the intermediate or advanced skiers. Duolemeidi, run by an Italian group, is well poised to ride on growth in the Chinese ski sector. [Li Dengyun / for China Daily] [Li Dengyun / for China Daily Wang Ping / for China Daily]

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Chongli county near Beijing is gaining a reputation among a growing number of avid Chinese skiers who know their slopes. Alexis Hooi finds out more.

Beijinger Li Zhong has been to some of the best ski resorts in Europe, the United States and Asia. But when he decides to spend his winter breaks closer to home, the 38-year-old business consultant heads for the nearest slopes to the Chinese capital that can adequately give him his "ski fix". "The best way to enjoy winter is to ski," Li says. "And Chongli is the closest ski area to Beijing with slopes that can satisfy serious skiers."

He is just one of a growing number of avid Chinese skiers in Beijing and major cities in the area who swear by Chongli, a county in northern Hebei province.

Chongli residents say vast winds sweeping the area's lower plains come up against the county's northwestern highlands near the Inner Mongolia plateau, creating a front that brings valuable snowfall of more than a meter for the ski season.

Winter visitors to Chongli are faced with expansive vistas of pine-covered mountains, blanketed with snowfall that helps blur the ranges as they stretch toward the horizon.

Still, abundant snowfall is not guaranteed in this dry northern region, and ski resorts typically need to generate more than half of their snow from Hebei's waterways. Cold winters can also see temperatures dropping to lower than -10 C.

But the number of ski options in Chongli, which is about three hours' drive from Beijing, still raises it way above the competition near the capital.

There are now three major ski resorts nestled in the county's mountain ranges that help it boast some of the country's longest and widest trails, fastest lifts and most comfortable facilities.

Wanlong Ski Resort offers more than 20 trails snaking all over its 2,110-meter-high mountain. More than half of them are at the intermediate and advanced levels. The resort is also known for its off-piste options. All this means it is one of the few Chinese resorts large enough for skiers to slightly plan or "navigate" their way through its ski slopes.

Wanlong's boss Luo Li says he built the resort after catching the ski bug in 2003.

"The snow here is good, the mountains are pristine and it's close to Beijing. The higher altitude also means lower temperatures that allow us to open in early November, making the ski season longer than most other resorts. We have Japanese ski teams that come here to take advantage of that to start their training earlier," Luo says.

Wesley Deklotz, who is originally from the United States and now lives in Singapore, was in Wanlong for the first time as part of a weeklong teaching stint at a ski camp in the resort during Christmas.

"This is a great ski area. The snow is beautiful, the people are really nice and helpful, and the equipment is good," says Deklotz, who is 49 and took up the sport when he was 3 years old. The California native has skied in states across the US, Canada and Argentina.

Japanese educator Oba Junji was in Wanlong for the fifth time and was helping to train 19 skiers from Japan's Gifu prefecture.

"The snowfall in Japan is not adequate as temperatures are still not cold enough. Our new snowfall in December is not sufficient for training," says the 53-year-old, who often stays in Chongli for weeks to train his students.

"We get a good variety of slopes here for our training. The facilities, food and service here are also improving, so we intend to come every year."

Wanlong's amenities include a 124-room hotel and new second-story gallery that allow the lodge to help serve more than 3,000 people a day during peak periods.

"We receive no more than 50,000 guests every year. Those numbers are small compared with Japan's or South Korea's. We also cater more to experienced skiers, and that can mean the beginners who come here are fewer," he says.

But the numbers show the Chinese ski industry has been gearing up in the past decade for a boom. There were fewer than 10,000 skiers going to fewer than nine small ski resorts nationwide in 1996. But by the end of 2010, the number of Chinese skiers going to about 200 resorts hit about 5 million, China Ski Association figures show.

The number of ski resorts in Beijing alone now number more than 10, and the amount of time a Beijinger spends skiing has gone up by 20 percent in recent years, association figures show.

Another of Chongli's ski resorts, the Duolemeidi Mountain Resort, is well poised to ride on the sector's rise.

About 30 minutes' drive from Wanlong, the smaller-sized Duolemeidi is operated by an Italian group and offers more than 150 days of snow coverage every season.

It has seven trails, snow and tree parks that total about 8 km in length, and these are served by three lifts, including a high-speed chair. Skiers and snowboarders commend the well-organized layout of the rental facilities, making the resort a cozy weekend getaway for families who want to get their children started on the sport.

A new 105-room hotel is also expected to draw more holidaymakers to the resort, which is made more accessible by regular weekend buses from Beijing.

"About 60 percent of our guests are from Beijing, with most of the rest coming from surrounding areas, such as the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Shanxi province. We also see more people coming from Tianjin this year," Duolemeidi's general manager Xu Hong says.

"The ages of skiers are also going up. We used to see mostly youngsters taking to the slopes, but now older people are skiing. Many people in their 30s and 40s are skiing now, probably because of rising incomes and affluence."

But it is Chongli's latest ski offering, Mi Yuan or Secret Garden, that is gambling big time on China's ski boom. Backed by Malaysian entrepreneur Lim Chee Wah, who is a member of the family behind casino operator Genting Group, the project is expected to boast more than 80 runs, handle close to 20,000 skiers a day and provide about 3,000 hotel rooms in the next few years. The 100-sq-km, billion-dollar resort will also offer golf, horseback riding, mountain biking and other leisure activities in summer.

Located next to the Wanlong resort, Secret Garden started the new year by giving a taste of its slopes to skiers even before its lodge and other recreational activities were ready. Visitors got free rides on two of its Doppelmayr high-speed quad lifts, comfortably equipped with wind shields and heated seats, for about a week.

"Mi Yuan seems to be modeled on the comfort and luxury offered at European resorts. This is certainly going to boost the ski options here," says Tang Lei, a Shanxi businessman who hopped over from Wanlong to try Secret Garden's intermediate slope.

Many skiers are already warming up to suggestions of "integrating" Chongli's ski resorts by offering shared ski passes between the resorts and improving their transportation links, so the county can offer considerable competition to major Chinese ski resorts, such as Yabuli in Heilongjiang province.

As part of its efforts to develop the winter leisure sector, Chongli authorities are already beefing up travel and accommodation facilities in the town's center. The area is being touted as the "Davos of the East", named after Switzerland's famous ski getaway, with a string of alpine-like buildings being constructed along Chongli's riverfront. Annual ski festivals with performances celebrating local culture also hope to draw in the crowds.

For the moment, skiers in Chongli will be able to enjoy the bucolic Hebei countryside by passing snow-dusted fields and foraging livestock on their way to the ski slopes.

"The apres ski options here are still slim compared to those at some major resorts, but they are working on it," Beijinger Li Zhong says.

"The slopes offer a hard day's workout anyway, so you'll need all the rest you can get by sleeping through the cold winter nights."

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