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Let it snow

Let it snow
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First Published: Sat, Jan 12 2008. 12 26 AM IST

Hotspot: A cross-country relay ski race in Hakuba near Nagano, considered by many as the ski Mecca of Japan.
Hotspot: A cross-country relay ski race in Hakuba near Nagano, considered by many as the ski Mecca of Japan.
Updated: Sat, Jan 12 2008. 12 26 AM IST
In Hebei, near Beijing, there are gentle runs for beginners. On Japan’s Hokkaido island and in the prefecture of Nagano, there are Olympic courses to challenge even the most expert schussers.
When you’re not carving your way down a mountainside, there are plenty of other activities at most resort areas to keep you entertained, from winter horseback riding to twilight snowshoeing, plus temples and local ice festivals.
And then there’s the snow.
At Wabuli Ski Resort near Beijing, two weeks ago, a handful of skiers were testing the grounds in light snowfall that already had put about 40cm on the slopes. In Hakuba in Japan, steady snowfall had blanketed the mountains with 1.5m of powder. Further north, on Hokkaido, Niseko ski area had an 85cm base by mid-December.
Hotspot: A cross-country relay ski race in Hakuba near Nagano, considered by many as the ski Mecca of Japan.
John Chang, who works for his family’s export trading company in Taipei, just returned from a ski trip to Niseko. “Even though I went early in the season, the powder was phenomenal, as always. It is the softest powder you’ll find in the world,” he declares, adding that there’s always a lot of it during ski season.
Chang often opts to ski in Hokkaido with his wife and son instead of travelling to North America, partly to “take advantage” of living in Asia, he says. There’s also the added cultural benefits.
“The (ski) facilities in the US are probably better, but the combination of world-class powder and the onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) is just something you can’t find in the US,” Chang adds.
Whether you’re looking for a fun family trip or an intense, adrenalin-packed challenge, here’s a sampling of some popular winter ski spots around the region.
China
Wanlong, Hebei
The best thing about hitting the slopes in China is that it’s relatively inexpensive. A day’s worth of skiing, complete with equipment rentals, will set you back just 460 yuan (about Rs2,500) on a weekday (on weekends, it would be 510 yuan). A meal there can cost as little as 25 yuan.
Trailblazer: Wanlong is less than four hours drive away from Beijing.
But someone looking for an intense, top-notch workout should probably stay away—you won’t find off-piste skiing (ungroomed, off-trail runs that take you backcountry) or ultra-challenging trails. Still, for intermediate skiers, there’s plenty of terrain to explore. And of all the ski resorts in China—a number that’s growing fast—Wanlong is your best bet.
“Wanlong is now, for me, one of the best ski resorts in China,” says Christoph Mueller, a native of Switzerland who has skied for 30 years and now runs a China travel company. Most of the intermediate runs are comparable with intermediate slopes in Switzerland, says Mueller, who used to be a ski instructor there.
And from Beijing, Wanlong is “easily accessible”—a four-and-half-hour trip—and the facilities are well organized.
Getting there: Wanlong is 180km west of Beijing. Arrange for your own transportation from Beijing to Wanlong.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: 310 yuan on weekdays; 350 yuan, weekends.
Other activities: Not much. The resort has yet to develop any après-ski life.
India
Gulmarg, Kashmir
Only the most adventurous and experienced of skiers should approach this Himalayan destination that is a British-built hill station in Kashmir. The area’s largely untouched terrain is revered for its beauty, and those who have been there say the bare-bones accommodations are a fair trade for even a single day on the slopes.
“I actually can’t wait to go back,” says Jill Dunnigan, who runs a ski tour company in Canada.
Gulmarg, which means “meadow of flowers” in Kashmiri, is a mountain shelf that’s carpeted with blossoms in the spring. In the winter, however, a roughly 5km area becomes an extreme-skiing scene that’s nearly all off-piste. The pick-your-own-path runs can stretch for as long as 4km.
You’ll most likely have the place to yourself, or nearly. During Dunnigan’s stay two years ago, she shared the mountain with just eight people. “We could ski all day and never cut over each other’s tracks,” Dunnigan said. “It’s mind-blowing in that respect.”
Political problems between India and Pakistan have plagued this region in the past, so check for any travel advisories before booking, and be prepared for military patrols and traffic checks.
Getting there: Gulmarg is located in the northernmost region of Kashmir, bordering both China and Pakistan. It is about 50km south-west of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital. Fly to New Delhi, then transfer to Srinagar. Ahead of time, arrange for private transportation by car to Gulmarg, about a two-and-half-hour drive away.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: Access to the highest part of the resort’s gondola, which climbs to about 4,000m and is among the highest in the world, costs Rs1,000. Prices are lower for lower altitudes.
Other activities: There’s not much else to do; people come here just for the skiing. The only bar is in Hotel Highland Park, also the most comfortable hotel there. It’s possible to ski, off-piste, to the Baba Reshi Shrine, a wooden memorial to a well-known Muslim saint.
Japan
Niseko, Hokkaido
“We went there expecting powder and were not disappointed,” says Warwick Dawes, a Hong Kong-based businessman who travelled to Niseko in February.
The resort offers 62 trails and 27 lifts among the three main ski areas, Higashiyama, Grand Hirafu and Annupuri. Plenty of trails are geared for advanced and intermediate skiers. There’s also off-piste skiing. The longest ungroomed run at Higashiyama is 2km long, and the majority of it is classified at the level of “most difficult”.
While this place used to be a hidden gem, it is currently overrun by Australians (it’s summer now Down Under). They are a testament to how good the skiing is in Niseko, and it means a lot of menus are in English.
Getting there: Niseko is about 80km south-west of Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, Japan’s second biggest island. Fly to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. From there, it is a two-and-half-hour bus ride to Niseko.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: For an all-mountain pass, 5,200 yen (about Rs1,800) for adults.
Other attractions: The Sapporo Snow Festival takes place every year in early February. Around the same time, Higashiyama resort creates an annual candle-lit snow maze for skiers. This year, from 1 to 11 February, it aims to create its biggest one ever. That resort also offers a “first-track” service ($160 or Rs6,400 per person through February): Two hours before the lifts open, up to seven skiers are trucked by snow vehicle to the top of a 3km intermediate course for the first run of the day.
Shiga Kogen, Nagano
Size matters, particularly for those skiers looking for challenging runs and varied terrain, and Shiga Kogen is the largest ski park in Japan. Nestled in the heart of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, it boasts 21 resorts, 80km—with the longest at a thigh-burning 6km—and more than 70 lifts and gondolas. Lift tickets cover all runs in the park and a shuttle bus system travels non-stop between resorts.
“Short of Hokkaido, Shiga is the best (in Japan) as you have myriad different level slopes that are long and well groomed, as well as off-piste stuff for boarders,” says Brian Tsai, a computer company executive in Tokyo who has skied all over Japan. Advanced skiers should head to Yakebitaiyama, where the snow can get hard, icy and packed, making it a popular site for slalom races. At Higashitateyama ski area, there’s an Olympic alpine skiing giant slalom course that stretches for 1.6km, long by Japanese standards. Those looking for bumps should try Maruike ski area’s A course, a short, 260m run that’s steep and ungroomed, says local ski school director Kiminobu Sugiyama.
For families, the centrally located Ichinose village is located near the family ski area and has easy access. Beginners will find gentle slopes at the Okushiga Kogen and Yokoteyama ski areas. They’re cordoned off for skiers only, along with Kumanoyu—no boarders allowed.
Getting there: Shiga Kogen is roughly 150km north-west of Tokyo. From Tokyo, take the two-hour ride on the Nagano bullet train (Asama Shinkansen) to the last stop (Nagano). There, buses will take you directly to Shiga Kogen, a 70-minute trip.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: 9,000 yen for adults; 4,500 yen for children.
Other attractions: Check out the Kanbayashi snowboard park, an Olympic site that has a half-pipe. A few minutes’ walk away is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where you can see wild—but sociable—snow monkeys in their environment, sometimes taking a dip in the natural hot springs. There are also a handful of museums in the Hasuike ski area; one of them commemorates the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympic Games.
Hakuba, Nagano
Some enthusiasts call Hakuba the “skiing mecca of Japan” and it’s where many hard-core skiers and boarders make their pilgrimage every year. Renowned for challenging, rough terrain that lends itself to jumps, Hakuba is also known for its beauty.
“It’s more picturesque” than other Japanese ski areas, says Anton Winston-Wada, a project manager for amusement parks at Sega Corp. in Tokyo. Happo-one ski area hosted the men’s downhill skiing and slalom events in the 1998 Olympics, and offers towering views of the 3,000m high surrounding mountains, some of the highest in Japan.
The area, home to 12 resorts, also attracts lovers of off-piste skiing. Ungroomed trails are accessible from almost any resort via lift ride and a short hike into the backcountry, “where there’s no other skiers and no patrol and no rules,” says Canadian James Robb, a ski instructor at Hakuba.
Getting there: Hakuba is roughly 150km north-west of Tokyo. From Tokyo, take the Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano, and then get on one of the hourly buses into Hakuba. Total travel time: three and half hours.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: At Happo-one, 4,600 yen for adults.
Other attractions: Many of the hard core skiers these mountains attract are young and single, which makes for a hopping nightlife. Other activities include snowshoeing, tobogganing, heli-skiing and snow tubing. There are daytime sightseeing tours to nearby landmarks such as the Matsumoto castle.
Yuzawa, Niigata
The charm of this area: You can hit the slopes and be back in Tokyo the same day. Yuzawa town is just over an hour from the capital by Shinkansen, or bullet train. Better yet, you can head straight for the slopes from the train: The Gala Yuzawa station also doubles as a stop for the resort’s gondola, which will take you to the top of the mountain.
There’s a fair mix of beginner to advanced courses here at the 20-plus resorts, large and small. Some are geared toward first-timers and families. Mt Naeba snow resort, for instance—the biggest in Yuzawa—has a kid’s snow park and a beginner course called Hiuchi Snowland, as well as a Family Snowland with runs for inner tubes and sleds. Other resorts are suitable for more advanced skiers, such as Kagura, which is known for backcountry skiing, and Gala Yuzawa, which has a challenging terrain park, a half-pipe and a mogul-and-jump course.
Getting there: Yuzawa is about 200km north of Tokyo. From Tokyo, take the 80-minute Joetsu Shinkansen to the Echigo Yuzawa stop. The Gala Yuzawa station comes after Echigo Yuzawa; make sure your train stops at it.
Price of a one-day lift ticket: Naeba and Kagura ski resorts cost 5,000 yen for adults. At Gala Yuzawa, 4,500 yen for adults.
Other attractions: Take in an onsen—Yuzawa was originally a town of hot spring baths—or taste the top-quality rice that makes this area irresistible to sake companies. And, of course, there’s plenty of sushi available for dinner, fresh from the nearby Sea of Japan.
South Korea
Yongpyong, Pyeongchang
Skiing in South Korea comes with several caveats: For starters, the crowds are horrendous on weekends. “You can wait over an hour for the lift or the gondola,” says Sharon Kim, a Hong Kong-based banker. “And there are too many people on the slopes.” What’s more, skiers there tend to have a take-no-prisoners kind of style: It’s like “kamikaze skiing,” says Kim. If you’re still interested, South Korea’s top ski destination is Yongpyong. It was home to the Winter Asian Games in 1999. It has 31 slopes, a sledding hill and terrain park. Expert-only runs include a 15km cross-country course and a mogul course that reaches a 45-degree tilt in some places. There are six beginner and pre-intermediate courses.
Getting there: Yongpyong is about 200km south-east of Seoul. From Seoul, arrange for a car to the resort, a two-and-half-hour drive.
Price for a one-day lift ticket: 61,000 won (about Rs2,600) for adults.
Other attractions: If you’re a fan of the hit Korean television drama, A Winter Sonata , which is set in Yongpyong, you can sign up for a tour that visits landmarks seen in the show. Other non-snow activities are spas, saunas, karaoke, billiards and bowling.
(Write to wsj@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Jan 12 2008. 12 26 AM IST
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