Too cold? Head for the hills

Snowboarding is big on the slopes outside Beijing, says Helen Gilchrist

Flat, generally snowless, and one of the most polluted cities in the world, Beijing may not seem like the most obvious – or desirable – place to go skiing. But for those finding themselves here in winter, when the biting cold can prove just too much to bear for wandering around the city's famous palaces, temples and gardens, donning the skiwear and venturing beyond the city limits to check out China's budding snow scene can be a great day out.

Flat, generally snowless, and one of the most polluted cities in the world, Beijing may not seem like the most obvious – or desirable – place to go skiing. But for those finding themselves here in winter, when the biting cold can prove just too much to bear for wandering around the city's famous palaces, temples and gardens, donning the skiwear and venturing beyond the city limits to check out China's budding snow scene can be a great day out.

Weaving through the donkeys, buses, bicycles and trucks on the edge of the city, it hardly feels like being on the way to the slopes. Flat, wide roads, brown fields, factories and gleaming new blocks replace the winding mountain passes, hairpin bends and distant snow-covered peaks that characterise the start of a more conventional ski trip.

An hour north of Beijing, the gleaming white slopes of Nanshan Ski Village come into view amid the surrounding bare, brown hills. Like the handful of smaller, "resorts" scattered in the hills around Beijing, Nanshan uses artificial snow. The region's extreme cold and dry winter climate means there is very little precipitation, but the conditions are ideal for making good quality artificial stuff. And here, outside the city – near the Great Wall of China – the air is fresh, clear and almost smog-free.

But don't expect any deep powder turns – or, in fact, much of the scenery pictured in the resort's publicity material. Rules on such descriptions seem to go out the window in China, as miles of high, powder-covered peaks and Alpine log cabins cover the brochure's pages. "From the cafeteria with French windows made of glass, one can look far into the snow-capped mountains," it says. Well, maybe if you've just eaten the "magic cake" served in the Terrace Restaurant and Pub...

Nanshan opened in 2001. The resort's facilities are some of the most advanced in China, with fast, efficient lifts. There are eight different trails; the two longest combine to offer a mile-long run. As most Chinese skiers are novices, the beginners' slope and easy runs make up most of the resort. Although there is a short "expert" trail, advanced skiers would get bored before too long here.

But boarders have it made. Nanshan leads the way in China's budding snowboard scene and boasts the country's first international-standard halfpipe, a mini snowboard park, China's first snowboarding school (lead by an Austrian instructor), and an incredibly friendly atmosphere. Boarding has taken off in China only this winter, so the vibe on the slopes is fresh and attitude-free. Nanshan recently hosted a "slopestyle" competition, the first in the People's Republic, which had never seen such high standards and enthusiasm in the sport before. Anything goes: riders eagerly attack the jump and see what happens.

Whooping, screaming, and laughing echo across the slopes as Chinese skiers struggle with the drag lifts, tie themselves in knots and bomb down the hill wobbling, while others demonstrate a smooth style – impressive in a nation where skiing is still in its infancy. Ten years ago, only an estimated 200 people had ever skied in China; now, about a million take it up at the country's resorts each winter. Next season, starting at the end of November, is set to be bigger: in April, construction begins on new runs, a four-person chairlift, and extensions to the snowboard park.

A day pass at Nanshan (00 86 10 6445 0990, www.nanshanski.com) costs about £30 including ski clothing and equipment (40 per cent less if you have your own gear)

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