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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

World's largest indoor ski park attracts China Olympics hopefuls

The general manager of the park says skiing in China is now 'hip' - and Beijing is hoping to take advantage of the trend to win medals in 2022

Visitors snowboard at the Dalian Wanda Ice and Snow Park in Harbin, the world's largest indoor ski park, on August 22, 2017. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
Visitors snowboard at the Dalian Wanda Ice and Snow Park in Harbin, the world's largest indoor ski park, on August 22, 2017. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP

It was a hot summer afternoon in Harbin and tourists strolled cobblestone streets with the Chinese city's famous milk popsicles in hand. But indoors, it was perfect weather for skiing.

At the city's new Ice and Snow Park, chilly winds blew snowflakes around skiers zipping down the manmade slopes of the world's largest indoor ski park, a potent symbol of China's ambitions to turn itself into a winter sports powerhouse ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Kept at a chilly -5°C by fans and an underground cooling system, the sprawling 80,000-square metre facility boasts six runs, the longest stretching 500 metres.

"Skiing here is just like skiing in a big refrigerator," Kane Li grinned beneath his neon goggles. The 10-year-old has his hopes pinned on competing at the 2022 games.

A student at a private ski academy in the capital, Li and his fellow young Olympic aspirants used to spend their summers training in New Zealand, but the opening of Dalian Wanda Group's indoor ski park this summer means they can now stay closer to home.

"China's skiing is still not so great [compared to other countries]," Li said, adding: "We must train hard every day. Train more."

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Not long ago, skiing was considered a luxury activity in China, inaccessible to the average person.

The country is currently home to roughly six million skiers, but president Xi Jinping hopes that number will rise to 300 million in the coming years.

China has had great success at the Summer Olympics, but its few Winter Olympic victories have been centred on speed skating. The country has won just six skiing medals, all in freestyle, including one gold.

There are currently about 200 ski resorts in China, but officials are aiming to increase that number five-fold by 2030.

"We didn't have anywhere to ski when I was growing up," said Yi Li, the general manager of Wanda's indoor park.

The Beijing native first tried the sport 11 years ago while working at a ski resort in northern Hebei province's Zhangjiakou, which will host the Olympic alpine skiing events.

He picked up the sport quickly, becoming an instructor and even training in Switzerland.

Now, he says China is ready to make skiing a national pastime.

"Skiing is hip," Mr Yi said. "From the apparel to the equipment, there's a lot of freedom."

He recalled that when he first discovered the sport, most Chinese people were unwilling to try it because the equipment was expensive, and they needed a car to reach the mountains.

But after the country's economic reforms, people had more disposable income and more time to take vacations, he said. They bought cars and stopped viewing skiing as "dangerous".

There were about 40 people on Ice and Snow Park's slopes on a recent Tuesday. Some carved through the firm and "sticky" snow with ease, while others struggled to get their skis on.

An agile snowboarder helped a stumbling skier to the bottom.

The slopes are equipped with a chairlift, a sledding area and a bunny hill, not to mention a ski lodge bedecked with faux wood.

For average visitors, the cost to ski for an entire day, including all rental equipment, is 488 yuan (Dh273). The most popular package is a three-hour visit at 300 yuan.

The average disposable income in China was 23,821 yuan (Dh13,345) last year.

According to Mr Yi, 13 professional teams from across the country have also been coming to train in the mornings since the slopes opened.

And then there are groups like Li's, which trains with the Beijing-based International Ski Academy and hopes to make it to the Olympics.

The young athletes planned to spend nearly a month in Harbin, skiing four hours a day at the indoor park.

"At the moment the government is very supportive of skiing," said Zhao Quan, the principal of the ski academy. "They're vigorously promoting the development of the sport in primary and secondary schools around the country."

"Also, for a child, skiing is a 'heroin sport'," the principal added. "It's very addictive."