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What's new in wintertime Beijing? Skiing

NANSHAN, China—Chinese are flocking to the ski slopes as never before, and some of them are putting on their best clothes for the occasion.

"I saw some people skiing in suits and ties yesterday," said Remigio Brunelli, the China country director for Tecnica Group, the Italian ski boot and apparel manufacturer.

Enthusiasm—rather than knowledge—is what marks the sudden rise of winter sports around China's capital, where a flurry of ski resorts and an indoor ski dome have opened in the past few years. Some of the resorts are within sight of the Great Wall of China.

For newly affluent urban Chinese, skiing has become chic.

"It's new. It's fashionable. Many Beijing residents want to try new things," said Yang Fei, a 28-year-old avid snowboarder. "Maybe a few years ago people would have thought it was expensive. But now it's all right."

The rise of skiing coincides directly with soaring affluence in Beijing and other urban areas, where people are looking for ways to spend time and money.

"People's incomes have increased. They have money to spend on entertainment. During the wintertime, there are few outdoor activities. So skiing is a great thing," said Wang Shitong, the manager of the indoor Qiaobo Ski Dome in a northeastern Beijing suburb.

European and U.S. manufacturers of ski and snowboard equipment and apparel are looking at the growth with astonishment.

When a public ski slope opened in the Beijing area in 1998, some 13,000 people visited the first season. Last winter, 1.5 million people hit the slopes and this winter the number is expected to surpass 2 million. If present trends continue, industry experts say, China could have 7 million to 8 million occasional and regular skiers and snowboarders by 2010, making it one of the world's top skiing countries.

Today, 13 ski and snowboarding resorts dot the barren, dry hills around Beijing, and projections are for several new indoor facilities to rise before the end of the decade.

Winter sports analysts say their activities may see steadier growth than other leisure sports, such as bowling and golf, despite the brief 80-day ski season.

"It's quite different than golf. You need skills to enjoy golf. But for skiing, you can learn enough in one day to enjoy it," said Martin Wong, a sales and marketing manager for Salomon, part of the German-French sporting-goods maker Adidas-Salomon.

On average weekends, as many as 4,000 people crowd the slopes of the Nanshan ski village, the most well developed resort. Set in sandy mountains about 55 miles northeast of Beijing, the village has 10 ski trails and a 2,000-foot hill. Many of the skiers are part of organized groups from companies, travel agencies or universities. Members pay as little as $20 for rental equipment and lift fees for two hours.

As in most outdoor activities in China, crowds are part of the landscape, increasing the adventure for novice and expert skiers alike.

"It can be dangerous. Some people just sit at the end of the run. When unskilled skiers like me come down, we can hit them," said Li Ran, a Chinese who's home on vacation from her studies in Seoul, South Korea. While on the slopes, "I'm afraid other skiers can hit me from behind."

Longtime winter sports enthusiasts say the boom is readily apparent.

"Three years ago, when I first came here, there were hardly any snowboarders. Now, sometimes they run out of rental snowboards," said Ali Thomas, 26, an Indonesian who's studying the Chinese language at Beijing Language and Culture University.

Perhaps because skiing is so new, unusual skiwear is often on display. People clad in city apparel, even business suits, ski beside people wearing the latest designer parkas and goggles, looking as if they'd be at home in Aspen or Gstaad.

"Most people head up to the mountain and automatically buy the most expensive stuff, even though they can't snowboard," said Ali Waugh, a Canadian working with a subsidiary of Mellow Constructions, an Austrian firm building snow parks in China. "It's sort of a youth-driven sport. Everybody wants to look cool and dress cool."

A core of amateur skiers and snowboarders are rapidly improving their skills.

"Tons of people are looking to go overseas for skiing holidays," Waugh added.

Beijing sits at about the same latitude as Philadelphia or Indianapolis, about 140 feet above sea level, and its winter climate is unpredictable. The temperature often hovers above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, causing snow to melt quickly. All resorts must use snowmaking machinery.

By European or U.S. standards, many of the resorts are primitive, offering bunny hills and tow lines, with apres-ski dining limited to cabbage and rice or dumplings.

"They have to invest money and build new ski slopes or expand the existing ones," said Brunelli, the Italian equipment representative.

Greater Beijing authorities balk at expansion, saying the arid region can't sustain heavy water usage to make artificial snow. Beijing is in its sixth consecutive year of drought.

Last summer, the Academy of Tourism Development at Beijing International Studies University issued a report criticizing ski resort construction near the capital, saying the resorts consumed the amount of water needed by 42,000 people over the course of a year.

"Water is so precious in Beijing," Wang Fude, the deputy director of the academy, told the state-run China Daily newspaper. "Beijingers can afford to live without skiing, but they cannot live without water."

Some investors say the future may lie in indoor slopes, where snowmelt can be recycled, limiting water usage. Since it opened last summer, the Qiaobo Ski Dome in Beijing, which has 650-foot and 1,000-foot slopes, has become an entertainment complex with meeting rooms and saunas. A hotel will be added soon.

"The group of Qiaobo would like to invest in five or 10 more ski domes in China," said Johnny Wu, a business development executive for Cimco Refrigeration. The Canadian company is a giant in worldwide ice rink and indoor ski construction.

Some developers are also looking at building ski resorts in the Changbai Mountains near the remote border with North Korea, and in the Himalayas.

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More information on ski areas in China is available online at:

http://www.4panda.com/special/ski/

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-SKIING

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