Across China: Enthusiasm for sports vitalizes top ski resort in NE China

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HARBIN, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) -- As the morning sunshine illuminated the snow-capped mountains, hundreds of skiers gathered at the entrance of the Yabuli Ski Resort in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. A steady flow of cars and buses unloaded even more geared-up enthusiasts, all excited to enjoy the frosty atmosphere.

Nearly 200 kilometers from Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, Yabuli ski resort enjoys up to 170 days of snow a year. This venue, which hosts numerous international sporting events, including the upcoming Asian Winter Games, has witnessed countless sportsmen and women dashing down its slopes.

For the skiers and visitors, it might be hard to imagine that 30 years ago, the world-renowned ski resort was but a quiet forest.

"Very few people were coming from outside at that time, and the only thing you saw were trucks loaded with timber," said Jin Honglan, a 50-year-old local, who added that there were no high-rise buildings in Yabuli decades ago.

During that time, her mother worked at the local forest farm. Jin remembers spending seven hours on the train to travel from Yabuli to Harbin. "When we arrived in Harbin, we felt that we were finally in a big city," She recalled.

In fact, Yabuli already had a ski base back then. Chen Changpeng, director of the Yabuli sports training base office, explained that the ski tracks were first built in 1974 by the provincial government as a training ground for professional skiers.

"At that time, Yabuli was chosen because of its abundant snowfall, as well as the high altitude that ensured that the ski tracks extend an adequate length," he said, adding that the highest mountain in Yabuli is 1,374.8 meters above sea level, and a single snow track can stretch up to five kilometers long.

In 1996, Yabuli entered the international spotlight for the first time after it was selected to be one of the venues at the third Asian Winter Games in Harbin. From this point, Chen said, tourists started to come here.

Jin Honglan also remembers the grandeur of the Asian Winter Games. "We were amazed to see so many people arrive at our small town," she said.

In that year she returned to her hometown to work at a hotel, which was the only one in Yabuli at the time.

"There were few, if not no, ski resorts elsewhere in China at that time, so tourists who wanted to experience skiing could only come here. But not many of them knew how to ski," she said.

Jin remembered that many of the visitors then were students who brought no equipment, so they had to rent it. During that time, the equipment available for rent in Yabuli consisted of obsolete equipment from Japan, which had been shipped to China in containers.

Nevertheless, tourism brought good benefits to the hotel where Jin worked, where the parking lot was full of vehicles.

After working there for a while, the woman developed an interest in skiing herself. There were not many coaches, so she learned from local workers and often ended up hitting the fence.

In 2009, when Harbin hosted the 24th World University Winter Games, Yabuli enjoyed another development opportunity.

Prior to the games, investors built the athletes' village and three five-star hotels in Yabuli, increasing its accommodation capacity. Yabuli also upgraded its cable carts and trails, so that skiers no longer had coped with the freezing cold winds as they rode up the mountain.

The event also allowed foreign businesses to seek opportunities in Yabuli. They invested in the ski resort to enhance its popularity among foreign visitors.

For Chinese people, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics ignited national enthusiasm for winter sports. Many people sent their kids to Yabuli, where they can find some of the best coaches and instructors.

Jin Honglan, who is now a financial director at a hotel, said that they have received lots of tourists from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong over the years, all of whom have been eager to take their children on a ski-learning trip for a few days.

The nine-year-old Gao Jintian developed an interest in skiing after watching the Beijing Winter Olympics skiing competitions on TV. He has spent three years learning how to ski. This year he signed up for an advanced class at the Snow Wolf junior camp in Yabuli.

Zhang Yongjian, director of the camp, said that they have seen a steady increase in the number of children enrolling at the winter ski camp since it started in Yabuli in 2016, with the number reaching thousands this snow season.

"Some children even enroll for several courses in one snow season," he said.

Meanwhile, more children are buying their own equipment. Gao Jintian brought his own helmet, ski suit, and snow goggles to the camp.

With the winter tourism boom in Harbin this year, Yabuli, which is now just a three-hour car ride from the city center, has received a record number of tourists. As of February 3, it had received a total of 702,000 tourists this snow season. The average daily number of tourists stands at about 13,500.

Skiing has undoubtedly boosted tourism in Yabuli. In addition to ski resorts, hot springs resort hotels and China's northernmost panda park have been built there in recent years, as the local government hopes the ski resort will attract more people in the summer as well.

Speaking of the upcoming 2025 Asian Winter Games, Wang Keshuai, a local official in Yabuli, said the event will "promote infrastructure upgrades and enhance the ability of organizers to provide services and safety measures."

He said that Yabuli will improve its infrastructure including the resort, slopes, and venues for the coming games, as well as expanding and renovating the local train stations. The local government will also renovate the highway and start the "preliminary work for construction of the Yabuli Airport."

Jin Honglan hopes that such convenient transportation will shorten the traveling distances for tourists and bring more opportunities to Yabuli.

"I always believe this place will become better and better," she said. Enditem

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