Your next skiing vacation may (or may not) be in China

This past weekend, Grace, Marc, Stephan, Sven, and I went to Yabuli to go skiing. Yabuli, according to Lonely Planet, is the biggest and best equipped skiing area in China. It is not far from Harbin; it took three hours by train to get there. We left Friday evening to go ski on Saturday and Sunday. The train ride in itself was pleasant. A tradition is beginning to be developed when traveling on train. For the trip to Beijing, I brought a bottle of wine named “Grand Dragon”. Grand Dragon cost a little over ten yuan (about a dollar twenty-five) for a liter and a half bottle. It tastes like grape juice with some alcohol in it. Stephan brought a left-over bottle from the Sinterklaas party for the ride to Yabuli. Grand Dragon, or just “the dragon” as it is affectionately called, certainly makes the train far more enjoyable. Come to think of it, Grand Dragon is present for most all of our gatherings.

We arrived in Yabuli a little after eight at night. Yabuli is fueled by tourists coming for skiing, so outside the train station, there were around ten minibus taxis waiting for trains to arrive. We were recommended a cheap hotel by a fellow teacher and student in Harbin. Since Sven has the best Chinese among us, he was the chief negotiator for our taxi to the hotel. We haggled for a while. Sven was trying to get the price of the taxi down to thirty yuan for all of us. By the time we agreed to take a cab for forty, all the Chinese tourist had long since agreed on prices, and we were the only ones left in the parking lot.

We piled into the little van with all of our stuff. We drove a little ways, and then the lady that was negotiating for our driver insisted that we pay fifteen yuan a person. We were not pleased that she recanted the price we had agreed upon, so we told them to stop the car and got out right there. We were still in the town, and when we got out, more little buses crowded around us and began haggling for our patronage. Stephan slid away from the small mob that was encircling us and bought us some beef on a stick for a snack. This mob became so aggressive that Marc began a counter-attack. He got up in the drivers’ faces instead of the other way around and began speaking English to them very quickly. He just spoke nonsense to them like, “Hi, how are you? What are you doing? Oh really, that’s interesting. What’s your name?” This really intimidated the drivers much to our delight. I encouraged him to switch from English to Dutch. It became clear to us that this situation was not going to yield a price that was desirable, so we just walked away.

We were prepared to just wander the town until we found something suitable in terms of a taxi or hotel when we stumbled upon a toy store that looked like it was closing. With no real plan and nothing better to do, we knocked on the door, and the owner eagerly opened the door for us. We came in a perused the place for a while. Sven explained our situation to the owner who promptly called one of his friends. Grace and I made friends with his two daughters. They were sleeping in a room adjacent to the store, and the commotion of our entry woke them up. I chatted with them for a few seconds, and Grace took a picture with them. The store was filled with the typical set of Chinese toys, dollar store junk and toy guns. There was also an assortment of model America arms such as jets and battleships.

The owner’s friend arrived with his taxi. At the same time, another taxi driver that had annoyed us earlier came into the store. Marc resumed his foreign language tactic, and I lined everyone up for a picture with the driver. This frustrated him enough to where he left the store. Sven was able to successfully get the price of a ride with the owner’s friend down to thirty yuan. We bid farewell to our friends in the toy store and left for our hotel.

Along the way, our taxi driver proved himself to be a very friendly guy. I sat in the front and chatted with him as best I could. Then he shared with us the English words he had learned. It was so cold that night that all the windows were frozen over. The driver would scrape the ice off of the windshield and his side window with a plastic card, and the windows would freeze back up in thirty seconds. Sven asked him how cold was that night; the driver said negative twenty degrees Celsius.

We drove by a hotel, and apparently, one of the driver’s friends was waiting outside trying to flag people down to go to his hotel. The driver stopped, and I was thinking, “This is no good. He is going to leave us here with his friend, and we’re going to have to pay whatever they demand for a hotel.” The driver rolled down the window and started talking to the guy. Our driver asked how much it was for a night, and the guy outside the hotel said over two hundred. Our driver told him that it was too much and kept driving us to the hotel we requested. I was shocked. It was the first time a Chinese stranger in tourist spot looked out for us.

We arrived at our hotel at what seemed like midnight. Our hotel was far away from any bright lights, and there was enough cloud cover to block the starlight. We went inside and looked around the hotel for a minute. The entire place was probably seven rooms. There was a kitchen, a bathroom without a shower, a little dining room with a TV, and four rooms for guests. These rooms were luxuriously furnished with only a raised platform with warm coils under it called a kang. These took up the entire floor of the room.

We chose a room. There were two rooms available. One was larger with many windows, but the windows made it pretty cold. The other room was about the size of a tent, but it didn’t have any windows. Our neighbors were eating and drinking very loudly next to us. They sat next to a table with short legs on top of their kang. They warmly invited Sven in for a beer shot, and Sven obliged them. We began bargaining for the price of the room. The price started at two hundred but almost immediately dropped to one hundred and fifty. Our driver once again swooped in on our behalf and told us in front of the lady running the hotel that he could take us to a place where we could stay for twenty yuan a person. Once again, I was shocked. The price promptly went to one hundred. At this point, our crew smelt blood and went in for the kill. We demanded eighty for the night. Sven calmly pleaded our case while some of us jumped up and down in the room chanting, “Eighty! Eighty! Eighty!” Our techniques ultimately proved fruitless; we settled for one hundred. Impressed with our driver, we paid him and got his phone number, so we could call him for a ride back to the train station.

That night we ate at our hotel. One of the workers there told us he would take us to the slopes for free in the morning. We snuggled up with the blankets the hotel provided for us on our kang and went to sleep. There was much debate about who got to sleep where because everyone wanted to sleep next to me. I think we all slept pretty well that night. Marc turned around and slept with his head at everyone’s feet. I only woke up once or twice. I only woke up because when I went to roll over in my sleep, my back hit the cold wall.

We got a later start than expected the next morning. We got a mediocre breakfast from our hotel and piled in a van. The guy that told us the previous night that he would drive us to the slopes in the morning told us over breakfast that that day skiing would cost four hundred and ten yuan. Marc had done quite a bit of research before the trip, and he had talked to the people who run the slopes in Yabuli. Initially, they told Marc that there was a package for rental, a day of skiing, and a night in their three star hotel for two hundred and eighty per person. Later in the week, Marc talked to them again, and they told him that their promotion had ended and it would cost over three hundred for a day of skiing.

The hotel employee drove us to the lift, and we wandered off. We looked around for a little while and just played in the snow. There was only one lift going to the peak and four slopes coming out to the left of the peak. The mountains were slightly more impressive than those of Wudalian Chi, but not by much. The mountains and the skiing facilities were small even by North Carolina skiing standards. Still, it was very pretty and nice to be out of the city. The fresh air was refreshing. While we were goofing off, a friend called Marc. Luciano, a Brazilian friend from our soccer team, was meeting us in Yabuli to come ski. He took an early train and arrived at the three star hotel owned by the same company that owns the slopes. He told us that the package for two eighty was still available. We told the guy from our hotel that was trying to rip us off goodbye and took a bus owned by the other hotel, the Windmill Inn, down the mountain to talk with their management.

When we arrived at the other hotel, Luciano and the managers of the hotel were waiting for us. One of the managers confirmed what we had expected; the guy from our hotel was trying to screw us. We agreed to take their promotional offer, but we asked to have the day of skiing split over two days since it was already getting close to noon. Sven and I rode over to the hotel where we stayed the night before to pick up our bags. One of the vans from the Windmill Inn gave us a free ride. Sven went in to handle paying our outstanding bill from dinner and breakfast, and I started grabbing our bags. After I came outside with our bags, our ride had left. I guess there was some kind of misunderstanding. I called Marc and had him send another van over. Sven settled the price for the meals, and it ended up being fifteen yuan more expensive than the room. We loaded up the van and bid adieu to our cozy, little kang.

Sven and I returned to our new hotel just as money started changing hands. We were told that we had to put down a thousand yuan deposit on the room and a two hundred deposit per person for skis. Grace, Sven, and I all had to rent ski pants, so I inquired about those. They were fifty yuan a day to rent, but we had to put down a three hundred yuan deposit per pair of pants. Our deposits totaled nearly three thousand yuan. For the rest of the trip we joked about the absurdity of the deposits. We would ask each other if we had paid the deposit for the plates at breakfast or for the mountain while we were skiing. We signed away the rights to each of our first-born children, and then, we were allowed to go to our rooms. Our rooms were certainly the nicest place I could have hoped to have stayed in China. It was a completely standard hotel room, and our rooms even had a little, electric heater that was made to look like a fireplace. There were two beds in each room, and no one had to share!

Finally, we were prepared to go skiing. We geared up and waited outside the front of the hotel for the next bus running to the slopes. Our hotel was in the central hotel area for skiing in Yabuli called Windmill Village. All the little hotels had Chinese conceived windmills. They did not make the Dutch feel at home. Even though this was the biggest part of the skiing area, it still seemed bare. Just before noon, a bus came and took us to the lift. We were fitted up with skis and snowboards, and we were ready to go. Even though I normally snowboard, I chose to ski. Grace had never skied before, and I had only been skiing once. I thought that it would be more fun for me to do something I wasn’t that good at if I had to hang out with Grace while she was learning. The bunny slope would be more fun that way.

Marc spent a winter in Austria working as a ski instructor. He gave Grace some tips and exercises, and she looked pretty comfortable right away. We watched her for a while and then decided to make one run while she did the exercises Marc gave her. We took the lift up the mountain. Instead of just having a bar that pulled over the chair lift, there was a retractable bubble to help block the wind. It was so cold that it was almost necessary. We made it to the top and snapped some pictures. I selected a blue route for my first trip down. We started out, and it was great. I felt more confident and comfortable than could have expected. I made it half way down the mountain smoothly when we can to another part of the lift. You could get back on the lift and forgo the second half of the run. I opted to cruise right by. There was a slight incline to the next run, so I picked up speed to make it over. Just past the peak of the incline, I hit powder. The tips of my skis went under the snow, and I busted face-first into the snow. It wasn’t particularly painful, but when Marc came up over the hill, he had a good laugh at me sprawled out in the snow with my face heavily powdered. At this point I was thinking that I was pleased with my performance thus far, and a fall had to be expected some where along my first run.

From there on out, things got much rougher. I began to fall at least every fifty feet. The slope was really narrow, fairly steep, and had about four feet of powder. In those conditions, I was not good enough to either snow plow or cut back and forth. It made me feel like less of a goof that Marc also fell once or twice, but surely, I was a goof. On my fourth or fifth fall, I was picking up speed, and my knee hit a big rock. I left out a few choice words. I took a couple minutes to gather myself, and got back up. After taking another couple falls, I decided just to go straight down. I think I just got too intimidated at that point to ski with any confidence. I let my legs go loose to absorb the bumps and just zoomed straight down. The plan proved to be effective. I made it down the rest of the slope, which at this point was a conglomeration of snow and grass, without falling.

We reached Grace at the bottom after what had felt like two hours. Marc and Grace admired the amount of ice I had on my face after my many falls. Marc said I looked like a yeti. Grace showed off her new skills. She was beginning to turn and could slow herself down and stop. However, one of her exhibitions didn’t go as well. She lost her balance, fell on her side, and rolled to her back. Her skis stayed attached the whole time, so they flailed about while she rolled over. Again, observing someone else fall made me feel better about myself. This time it wasn’t so much about someone falling; it was about how it looked like the stereotypical, awkward, beginner skier fall. I needed some comic relief. All-in-all, I was impressed with how well she picked up the basic principles of skiing.

All three of us took the lift back up. On the top of the mountain, there was a bunny slope with a rope lift. Marc led Grace down and gave her instruction; I attempted to regain my confidence. Marc went down again, and I stayed with Grace for another run. After we finished the run, Grace said her hands and toes were freezing. We had gone to buy gloves for this trip earlier in the week, and much debate centered on what kind of gloves we should buy. Contrary to my nature in terms of shopping, I pushed for better, more expensive gloves, but Grace didn’t care for the way they fit. We ended up buying cheap gloves because we didn’t want to make an investment in something we may not use again while we’re here. Her gloves had gotten a little damp, and the fingers on them froze. Her hands had to be frost-bitten. There was a little restaurant at the top of the mountain, and we retreated there to warm up.

We entered and found that Stephan and Sven were also taking a break. They were displeased with the quality of the slopes. The black slopes were too icy and too difficult for Stephan. However, there were not really any other runs to chose from that were more appropriate to his level. Luciano was not far behind us, and he had the same complaint as Stephan. Luciano had only learned how to snowboard the year before, so the slopes were not enjoyable. He decided that he would not stay the night and went back to Harbin that night. Finally, Marc trickled in a little later also dissatisfied with the iciness his latest run. We all hung out for a while and eventually decided to get back out there. When I went to get back up, me knee had gone stiff. I reached down, and it had already started swelling. Grace and I went back out to the bunny slope, but we only made one more run. My knee was uncomfortable, and my gloves started freezing this time. We went back into the restaurant and played rummy with the cards our hotel had given us for about an hour. Then we took the lift back down the mountain, and our crew returned to the hotel.

When we got back, Marc and Sven went to go look for a place to eat dinner; the rest of us stayed at the hotel to clean up and change clothes. The bathroom in our hotel had a bathtub, and I was really excited about taking a nice, hot bath. I turned on the water, but there was nothing but cold water. A minute later, Stephan called and asked if we had hot water. Given that I was half-naked already in anticipation of a bath, Grace went down to the front desk, and with a combination of hand signals and broken Chinese, she finally got to speak with someone who could tell her in English that there was only hot water between six and eleven at night and six to nine in the morning. In the meantime, Marc and Sven found a restaurant that they deemed acceptable, so they called us to come meet them. I had to settle for just a change of clothes.

Dinner that night was at another hotel that was a little like the one in which we stayed the previous night except this on was larger and nicer. Sven and Marc had already been seated in a room with a kang. There was a short table with little plastic stools on the kang. The floor was lined with a Hawaiian vinyl print, and there were newspapers that served as wallpaper. The plastic stool I sat on was not strong enough to hold my big American butt, so it cracked underneath me. The food and beer were probably the cheapest in the town, and the food was really good. We hadn’t eaten much since we got Yabuli, so we ravaged our meal. With our bellies full, we just laid down on the floor in our room and relaxed.

On the way out, Stephan bought a big box of fireworks for twenty yuan. When we went outside, we crossed a bridge, and Stephan set the fireworks off right there. He certainly found quite a value; there were four or five big, multi-colored fireworks that shot out staggered over a twenty second span. We were all surprised about what came out of the box. On the walk back to our hotel, there was an old train turned into a restaurant. We went in to have a look, and bought some coffee. It was a neat little place, but it was overpriced. We didn’t stay long.

Grace got in the shower when we got back. While she showered, I laid down on the bed to wait for my turn and was asleep in a few minutes. The next morning, Grace and I woke up to a knock on the door from Marc for breakfast. We went to the hotel restaurant, but their breakfast buffet had already ended. We ended up ordering off the menu, but by the time we were done, the hot water was shut off again. I was a little desperate for a bath at this point. I took a water jug used to boil water for tea from each of our rooms and began to fill up the tub with hot water one liter at a time. I put a little cold water into the tub just so there would be enough water to bath, and after about twelve liters came to a boil, I decided that the water was warm enough. The lukewarm bath didn’t satisfy the desire for the hot bath that I had hoped for.

Grace, Stephan, and I decided not to ski again that day. Stephan took a bad fall the day before as well. He was wearing a backpack, and when he fell, he crushed a stainless steel water bottle and broke his camera. While Marc and Sven went skiing, we found the hotel’s bowling alley. There were four lanes, and they probably hadn’t been waxed since they were built. The shoes I rented were torn in the back. Things were really slow there. While we bowled, three employees attended to us. A bartender, a employee who was writing our scores, and another employee who was just hanging around sat at the lane next to ours. The lady who was keeping our scores didn’t know how to score spares and strikes, so I tried to teach here. It was probably the most challenging Chinese experience I’ve had thus far. She didn’t understand, but I think the bartender figured it out. I found it strange that this woman’s job was to keep score, and no one taught her how to do it.

After we finished a very expensive game of bowling, we decided to walk around. It was warmer, so it was difficult to find the right amount of clothes for the temperature. When we were walking, we would be too hot, but if we just stopped to look at something, we would be too cold. Somewhere along the way I took off my hat and dropped it. I never found it, but luckily I brough a spare on the trip. On our walk, we found a frozen pond, a dam, and one of the beginner slopes. It was a clear day, and the views were really nice. We walked up the mountain to the lift and had a cup of coffee there. Stephan called Marc to see when they were leaving, and we decided to go ahead a start checkout. We went back, put all the bags in one room, and checked out of the other two. We called the taxi driver from our first day to come pick us up, and he beat Marc and Sven to the hotel. Marc and Sven got back; we got back all our deposits, loaded the taxi, and headed back for the train station.

Our driver took us by a supermarket that he said would be the cheapest in town, and we stocked up for the train ride. Then when we got to the station, he came in and helped us buy our tickets. We tried to offer him an extra ten yuan for the ride and his help but he wouldn’t take it. If any of you ever find yourself going to Yabuli, I can get you the number of a good taxi driver. One the train we had our dinner, and we bought some peanuts to use as poker chips. Several older Chinese guys gathered around to watch us play. The ride back went as quickly as the rest of the weekend.

When we went to Wudalian Chi, Sven, Marc, and I hatched a plan to try to visit some companies in China and develop some connections. Luciano works for a Brazilian airplane company called Embraer, and Marc arranged with Luciano a trip for some of us to go to their factory here in Harbin. On Monday, we got the opportunity to pay them a visit. The CEO of Harbin Embraer gave us a presentation and answered questions. Then, Luciano gave us a tour of the factory floor. I had a lot of misconceptions about how an airplane factory would look. I assumed that the company would make their own materials and assemble them, but they simply assemble parts manufactured by other companies. There were no heavy machines to assemble the planes; the floor was very open and clean, and it was really quiet. Since the plane is essentially put together by hand, it seems like there would be a lot of room for human error, but I was assured many precautions are taken to eliminate human error. In fact, Luciano’s job is to preform exhaustive quality checks on the planes during each step of assembly. I asked him how labor laws differ between Brazil and China, and he said that they are completely different worlds. He said that people just walk around on top of the planes here, and if they did that in Brazil, that employee and his supervisor would be fired on the spot. He also noted that the attitude of the workers on the floor is totally different in China. There is no questioning of authority; employees just do what they’re told. It was a really interesting trip, but unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures for ourselves. However, one of the employees took some pictures for us, so hopefully, I’ll have them soon.

Eve (if you don’t recall, Eve is a student that invited me to her home for dinner) is the president of the English Social Club on campus, and she invited Grace and I to come to one of their meetings. On Tuesday, we were special guests at one of their meetings. First, we introduced ourselves and fielded questions. We lead a couple classic American games. Grace taught them a game I had never played before called “Captain’s Coming.” It is a lot like Simon Says, and they all enjoyed it. We played telephone as well. I started and said, “Hello Mother, I love you very much,” to keep it simple for them. It came out as, “I don’t know the name of the foreign girl that I love.” Chinese students are easily amused, so they got a big kick out of that. The games that Eve led were like charades and Taboo. For the Taboo game, a student would be given a word in Chinese, and Grace and I would have to guess the word in English from their descriptions in English. For the final round of the game, they made us describe English words in Chinese. It was difficult for me, but Grace found a more efficient method. She would say this or that in Chinese and point; it worked really well.

Eve and her boyfriend, whom she cleverly gave the English name Adam, invited us to dinner on Thursday to thank us for attending the meeting. We went to a good restaurant and had a porktastic feast. My favorite part was being given these round, paper-thin, translucent pieces of bread that resembled tortillas. We wrapped one pork dish inside of them and had Chinese fajitas; it maybe my new favorite Chinese dish. Over the course of dinner, Grace and I were asked about our pets. I told them I have two cats at home; Grace said she has a dog. Eve replied, “My mother would never let us have a pet because she was worried that they would drop… (ah, how do you say) drop mao.” Grace and I started cracking up. She asked us what mao means in English, and I told her poop. After giggling for a while longer, I had a realization. I asked, “Is mao the same mao as maoyi (wool sweater).” She said yes and rained on our parade; she meant shedding. Nevertheless, I still like the expression “drop mao” better than “take a poop.” I’m only going to call it mao from now on.

This week we are losing two more of our foreign friends. Sara returned to Portugal on Sunday morning, and Marc leaves Harbin on Monday. Marc is going to Beijing to get his visa for studying there next semester. His girlfriend will arrive on Thursday in Beijing, and they will travel around the country. Then he gets to go back home for Spring Festival to go skiing in Switzerland and celebrate Carnival. He’ll come back to Beijing in March to study for another semester at Qinghua University. I’m very jealous of his plans. On Saturday, we had dinner and went out to send them off. After dinner, only the same crew that went skiing was left. We roamed the streets looking for a different bar than normal, but it was the coldest night of the year thus far. It hit negative nine that night, so walking turned to running to say warm. We assumed military cadence and started shouting revolutionary phrases. When we got tired, we found a pool hall and arcade, so we played pool and a Dance Dance Revolution-like game until it was time for Stephan to DJ. We went to Box, danced to Stephan’s choice of music, and had a late a wonderful evening.

I have put up many pictures from recent events up on my picture site, so take a look. I should have captions on the new pictures shortly. I really hope to hear from all of you soon.

  • Adam Green

    Ryan, I’ve enjoyed reading all of your entries these past few months. You and Grace should know that all of your friends back here are frequently reading and discussing your many adventures. Little anecdotes like this one about your ski trip actually teach us a lot about those little particularities of Chinese culture that we otherwise would never know. Try to stay warm over Xmas!