The Rural Chinese Town Becoming a Global Skiing Hub

By Noelle Mateer, February 7, 2018

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Hebee doesn’t like winter sports. 

“I don’t really care for skiing,” she tells me, at the base of one of China’s finest ski slopes. “I’ve only done it a handful of times in my past three years here. I’m too busy.”

Hebee is just here to work. The restaurant manager had originally left her home city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei, after university, to work in Shenzhen. (“It's Chinese-English,” she says of her unusual name, with a smirk.) The opportunities in Shenzhen were greater, the city had a fun, international feel, and it was warmer. She loved it. 

But then Zhangjiakou was announced as the home of the 2022 Winter Olympics, alongside Beijing. Hebee felt the pull of opportunities close to home. And so she went to Chongli, a rural district of Zhangjiakou, where, she’ll admit, she’s kind of bored.      

The Olympic logo is displayed in downtown Chongli

“Are you happy here?” I ask. 

“Sure,” she says with a shrug. 

“Are you looking forward to the Olympics in 2022?”

“Sure… I guess,” she says with a laugh and another shrug.

Hebee stands in the brewpub at Thaiwoo Ski Resort

Hebee pours me a beer from behind the bar where she works, an American-style brewpub at Thaiwoo Ski Resort. Thaiwoo is one of China's nicest resorts, but today, the temperature is -20 degrees Celsius, the coldest of the year. I'm one of three customers.

“What about your friends and family, do they ski?” I ask.

“Not really,” she says. “Well, actually, I do have one friend who likes to ski. She came up here once to try it, and now she loves it. 

“She’s from Beijing though.”

The mountains around Chongli are a ruddy brown, and snow must be produced artificially for them to be skiable at all. Skiing is not native to this region – in fact, the first ski field didn’t open here until 1996. Residents of Chongli did not grow up learning to ski. They grew up, mostly, farming. 

Construction continues at Thaiwoo Ski Resort

Only now, Chongli is in the midst of a jaw-dropping transformation, as China experiences a boom in winter sports facilities. In 2000, China was home to 50 ski resorts. As of 2015, the country had 568, according to China Ski Industry White Book, by industry veteran Benny Wu.

Nowhere has been more impacted by this transformation than Chongli, where a small population of 126,000 now supports seven ski resorts. Before Thaiwoo took over one of its mountains, a tiny farming village existed at its base. The average income there was RMB600 per month, making it one of the poorest regions in China. Since the Olympic announcement, however, Chongli has seen investment in local ice and snow tourism reaching nearly RMB88 billion as of last summer, and last winter (2016-17), Chongli received 2.77 million visitors, according to China Daily

Children learn to ski on Chongli's slopes

The story of fast-paced development is one that has played out in countless towns in China before – except in Chongli, the Olympics will introduce more than GDP-boosting infrastructure projects: They’ll give the town a new identity. Chongli residents, many of whom had never skied before the Winter Olympics announcement, are now the backbone of the country’s finest ski resorts.  

And even those who don't ski are finding ways to profit off the recent push. 

A staffer watches the ski lift at Thaiwoo Ski Resort

Liu Juan, for example, has lived in Chongli for 20 years, but only recently learned to ski. She’s making money from China’s ski boom nonetheless. 

In early 2015, Liu invested in property along downtown Chongli’s main strip, and opened one of the town’s first coffee shops. (Today, there’s a Starbucks at Thaiwoo.) 

“It was a big gamble,” she says. But it paid off, when later that year, Zhangjiakou was announced as an Olympic host.

From her cafe, whose decor looks conveniently similar to popular Korean chain Maan Coffee, she tells me there were hardly any foreigners in Chongli before the announcement. Now, the former vice premier of Croatia is a regular.   

“He’s some sort of ambassador for the Winter Olympics. He came and drank my coffee,” she says. (Ante Simoni was the Croatian ambassador to China from 2008 to 2013, and was quoted by Xinhua as saying: “Chongli boasts of high quality snow and the best skiing coaches, so welcome to Chongli for skiing fun.”)

Photographer and cafe owner Liu Juan holds her photo book, Charming Chongli

Few people know Chongli better than Liu. As president of the Chongli Photographers’ Association, she’s dedicated the past two decades to documenting the county with her camera. She gives me a copy of Charming Chongli, a book of photos that she produced with fellow photographers. 

“See this?” she says, pointing at a photo of a lush, verdant valley on its pages. “I took this photo in 2007. Today, it’s just a highway.” She flips the page: “This one is a ski resort now.”

Since the Olympic announcement, Liu has shifted her focus from nature shots to documentarian ones, focusing on the changes happening in her region. 

“I take pictures of houses being demolished and apartments being built,” she says. “Because I think it’s important to document the changes.”

Residents who’d had their land taken away and given to resorts were, for the most part, compensated generously, as well as given new apartments downtown. According to Summer Zhou, a director of Thaiwoo, these farmers are first in line for jobs on the resort. 

“We offer training for locals,” says Zhou. “We give some free passes to locals, but they often prefer to work.”

According to Liu, that’s because: “Ski culture is something that was introduced to Chongli. It’s not original.” 

To see a part of Chongli’s past that predates its snow sports, Liu recommends something unusual: A Catholic cathedral. 

Chongli's cathedral displays the town's long history of Catholicism

“There’s a Catholic history of this town – it’s been around for 300 years,” she says.

Today, Chongli boasts a sizable Catholic minority – left over from missionary visits that occurred centuries ago. In the 18th century, the town, then known as Xiwanzi, was a hub for Catholicism in Northern China, according to Xinhua. 

Xiwanzi was designated as a diocese in 1946, and outlawed shortly thereafter, when the People’s Republic was founded. 

“That church is rebuilt,” says Liu. “The original one got burned down during the Cultural Revolution.”

Catholicism is no longer banned by the Chinese government, but the Diocese of Xiwanzi is. Priests in the unrecognized diocese refused to officially register as members of the Patriotic Association – thus rendering their practice illegal. Several priests have been arrested in Hebei in recent years, according to CNN. 

Liu, meanwhile, is not Catholic. She just thinks history is important.  

“The Great Wall was built here during the Ming dynasty, and Chongli also has this religious culture,” she says. “The local government isn’t showing the full character of Chongli.”

Chongli's Ice and Show Museum stands downtown Chongli

Skiing may not be from Hebei, but many claim that it is from China. The world’s oldest documented skiing culture can be found in Xinjiang, where cave paintings in a remote town show ancient dwellers sliding down hillsides on fur-coated planks of wood. 

“You know, we say skiing started in China,” says Benny Wu, chief strategy officer of Vanke Group’s ski resort devision. “But this is not that kind of skiing. This ski culture comes from Europe.” 

Wu is one of the world’s foremost experts on China’s ski industry. He began working in Chongli in 2008 (“During that period, ski resorts were very poor,” he says), and later joined Wanda Group to develop a European-style ski town, complete with two golf courses, in Jilin province, home to what is arguably China's finest skiing terrain. “I had Olympic thoughts for there,” he says, smiling. “But now the Olympics are coming to Beijing.” 

Today, he’s turned his attention back to Hebei. But while Wu is an old hand in China’s ski industry, he only started skiing when he was an adult.  

“I started skiing when I was 30 years old,” he says. “But my children are 9 and 11, and I’ve already got them learning on the slopes.” 

A lift provides a scenic view of Thaiwoo Ski Resort

The China National Tourism Administration expects to see over 300 million people involved in winter sports by 2022. Wu believes China’s young people will make this possible. 

Liu Juan’s son, for instance, is currently studying winter sports management at a sports academy in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital. Unlike his mother, he grew up skiing – Liu sent him to ski camps each winter. 

“He thinks Chongli is great, and would like to come back to work, but maybe after some exchange programs to the West,” she says. “A lot of families here are in the same situation. My friend’s son just graduated high school, and started working as a ski coach.”\

Recently, Zhangjiakou University introduced a mandatory skiing instruction program for freshmen, the first of its kind in the country. 

Wan Bo is a university student who spends his winters in Chongli, in between semesters in Tianjin. 

“All my friends love to ski,” he says. “I want to learn to ski and go skiing with them.”

“The market is largely Beijingers, and increasingly, people from Shanghai and South China, who travel North to ski,” says Benny Wu. “And now many people from Beijing are investing in Chongli. Many have already moved there.” 

Beijinger Cui Bo invested in Chongli property five years ago, before the town was announced as an Olympic host. Cui, by the way, goes by ‘Skymaster,’ because he wears a Storm Trooper costume to Star Wars events in his spare time. “He’s part of the official storm trooper army,” his business partner, Xin, tells me.

Both Skymaster and Xin have been passionate skiers for years – though Xin says that, when he first started skiing in Chongli in 2007, there was just one guesthouse, and only one hot pot restaurant in town. When I ask Xin what he would have thought had someone told him then that Chongli would one day host the Olympics, he laughs. 

But by 2015, the tides had changed. Skymaster opened a store on Chongli’s main strip, and waited patiently for his new home to be announced as Olympic hosts. (If there’s one paradox I come across again and again while talking to Chongli residents, it’s that everyone was surprised Chongli got the Games – but also, no one thought they’d go to the runner-up: Almaty, Kazakhstan.) 

Today, Skymaster and Xin fix ski parts and sell sporting accessories in their shop, Nordica Lounge, one of the most successful stores in the area. “We have more and more foreign customers,” Skymaster says. “But mostly people from Beijing, some Shanghai.” Chongli residents? Not so much. 

Skymaster believes life has improved in Chongli over the past few years, and even mentions seeing traffic jams form on the street outside his shop – a brand new phenomenon. 

Skymaster and Xin stand in their Chongli workshop

Of course, development isn’t always good. On the country road winding between downtown Chongli and Thaiwoo Ski Resort, my cab driver complains about the cost of living. “Everything is more expensive here now,” he says. That’s certainly the case for real estate – housing prices have doubled in Chongli since the Olympic bid, according to China Daily

But overall, people speak positively about the changes. Hebee tells me her seasonal coworkers can still continue farming over the summer, essentially doubling their salaries. “Starting from March, they’ll go back to the field,” she says.  

“In the past, there was nothing to do in the wintertime,” Benny Wu explains. “Now people can improve their income.”

Skis and skiing equipment are displayed in Skymaster and Xin's store

For investors from Beijing, the opposite is true – there’s nothing to do in the summertime, when the tourists leave, and Chongli becomes quiet again. 

And yet, Skymaster tells me that’s when Chongli is best. Liu Juan says the same, and so does Summer Zhou. Hebee had mentioned that she’s from an area famous for its meadows, which I absolutely must visit, in the summertime. And even the real estate pamphlets I’d picked up read: “The average temperature in Chongli in the summertime is 18 degrees.”

It is perhaps telling that everyone in Chongli seems to prefer the summer – it’s when their town is theirs again. But as long as there’s profit to be gained from China’s snow sports boom, they’ll go along for the ride in the colder months. 

Then in the spring, when the city dwellers these slopes were built for all leave, Chongli residents can have their town to themselves, in the nicest time of year.

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