Part 2: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

The Uncertain Quest for China’s Secret Powder Paradise

By Jaime Van Lanen

In mainstream, very urban, eastern China things are starting to ramp up ski industry development-wise, and of course there are loads Chinese who are snowboarding at the many, East Coast-like, lift-served ski resorts. Moreover, Chinese culture even now has caught wind of the joys of powder snow and the lure of the backcountry. Recently a big corporation in Beijing started up a volcano snowcat skiing operation on the North Korean border in Jilin province called Changbaishan (CBS). When I first heard of CBS I became adamant about going there to ride. Its location is near the Sea of Japan and I figured it would receive maritime snowfall. It looked to have a full suite of powder-filled birch forests reminiscent of Hokkaido on its lower slopes and big open snowfields on its volcanic upper slopes. And the top of the snowcat drop was right on the border of North Korea. So nobody needed to drag me there, I was all-in.

But sometimes the things which seem to be the best ideas end up being the dumbest ones and CBS is one of those. The volcano and its beautiful surroundings were a wonderful backcountry skiing area for sure, but the corporate shmucks who run the place, along with their Orwellian Chinese police state friends who oversee it all, make doing anything autonomously close to backcountry skiing impossible. The only way to get to the base of the mountain is take one of their strictly controlled buses, which requires that you purchase your $90 snowcat pass before even getting on the bus. Another way to get to the good terrain would be to cross-country ski the entire way, but this would be an overnight trip really, being that it’s almost 20 miles from the security gate to the base of the volcano. Then, just like Tibet, the snowcat “guides” monitor your every move and freak out if you venture too far off main pistes. I’m usually a master at ditching these types of people but they’ve really got the place on lock-down. Every time I tried to go exploring the untracked areas I would be followed by one or two of these guides, with their radios reporting all of my movements. Albeit I did score a bunch of great low-angle Manchurian volcano powder, but it was hard to thoroughly enjoy because of those Maoist “ski guides” and that was enough of that. I’ll keep the $90 and try to strategize a new plan.

That night back at the lodge I went for a walk and scoped out the security operation at the main gate where the bus picks people up for the snowcats and decided it would be doable to just mingle in with the morning crowd of Chinese backcountry enthusiasts and poach the bus up to the mountain. The next day was a bit stormy and perfect for my plan to cautiously sneak away from the CBS base area into the forest and go enjoy the day doing split-laps in the stellar, pillow-filled birch forests on the lower mountain.

My bus-poach idea worked fine and once at the base area, where the stupid guides meet you at the bus stop to “guide” you, I took a walk to the outhouses with my splitboard and never came back.

The ski across the flats in the boreal forest was wonderful. I glided gracefully in dry powder toward a nice, 1,000-foot pitch of open birch I had eyed the day before. I was living it — putting in track alone in the mountains of Manchuria just west of the North Korean border, about to slay East Asian birch pillows all-day with no Aussie Geijans in proximity to crush my vibe. Several switchbacks and some good grunting and I was up top where the wind was blowing snow — zero vis. No worries, riding trees today anyways. Lap one, two and three. Just like the movies. Yeah, Asian birch is some of the best stuff possible on a snowboard. I’m sure all the Japan vets would agree. But this is China and I’m on the border of North Korea so there is sort of a Double—0—7 vibe going for me on this split session, making it a bit more exhilarating.

I made it back to the base just in time for the bus with the plan to casually mingle in with the crowd again and hop on indiscreetly. But being the only white dude, with a weird looking snowboard that splits in half and decent sized backpack, does make it difficult to be discreet. Despite some strange looks from the crowd everything went smooth and I was back in my hotel room trying to figure out how to tell the lady at the restaurant I want the fired eggplant with my rice. Then, a knock on the door.

A visit from the police. Supposedly, I owed them $150 for poaching CBS earlier that day, $90 for the snowcat ticket and a $60 fine for trespassing. What a bunch of fascist jokers, eh? The one cop, speaking broken English, seemed a bit sympathetic to my protests that I had no idea it was illegal to “hike” on my own because in the USA we are allowed to freely do this virtually everywhere. He tells me he understands but that, regardless, I must pay. These two robotic, inflexible Maoist-trained policemen got my back against a wall here. Who knows what will happen if I refuse but the situation does not look good. I throw the money in their face and scream some obscenities. I don’t think they had ever witnessed someone resist them as I did, as most Chinese have been thoroughly tamed by communist law and order. Well at least I didn’t take any chances and try to make turns in North Korea (which I have a heard one guy who visited CBS has tried), then I’d probably be fighting for a whole lot more than $150.

The North Korean border looms on the ridge in the distance.

So the basic lesson for anyone reading this who has a twitch to snowboard in China? Don’t go to CBS, it ain’t worth it at all — total rip-off. And also watch your back wherever you go in China because they have eyes in the back of their heads (not really but they do have a shit-ton of surveillance cameras everywhere) and of the three different ski areas I did check out, all of them disallow out-of-bounds skiing.

Regardless, my long-practiced sneaky poaching tactics were more successful in the far westerly Xinjian province at the Silk Road Ski Area in the Tian Shan Mountains, where I easily ducked ropes into pretty old-growth pine forests and scored a few nice and brilliant pow lines. The snow in this part of the Tian Shan was shallow, however. The cold, dry range hovers above the sands of the Takla Makan and rises to over 24,000 feet. It really felt like snowboarding in the desert. Down below was the northern route of the ancient Silk Road, where 2,200 years ago globalization got started when people started trading goods across the east-west expanse of Asia and the Indians brought Buddhism to China. Riding down the mountain I viewed a massive expanse of frozen sand dunes. I even saw camels milling around in the snow on the Takla Makan one day. In the distance I could see many big glaciated peaks, including an excellent view of the 17,874-foot Bogda, famous for climbing.

To say traveling in China is difficult if you don’t speak Mandarin is an understatement. I wanted to go deep into the backcountry of the Tian Shan but was barely able to get myself to the ski area. I figured once there I could branch out and get deeper into the mountains. Yet I quickly realized my options were limited, as the bigger stuff was a long ways back. Plus it didn’t look good, everything above treeline looked like either pure ice or super-scoured hardpack. Not interested in a Tibet repeat, I decided to give it one more day at the Silk Road and move on.

The next morning I packed my skins and some extra gear and took off walking from the top chair with my board on my pack along a dry ridge (for you Crested Butte locals, think Gunnison Plateau sagebrush style). The air was good to breathe and the skies were clear. The terrain was intricate. Steep mountains separated by deep rocky canyons, soft snow holding on the north aspects, and not a trace of snow on the south aspects. I had scoped a couple of tight, rocky below-treeline couloirs the day before and I wanted to try and reach them. They exited into a tight-looking gorge but I figured I could follow it out and wrap back around to return to the base of the ski area. After a few hours of scrambling up and down this crazy intricate terrain I finally got a solid view of the couloirs — both blocked by significant sized ice-falls. Oh well, can’t win them all and China is a place where it’s tough to win anything extra-easy when it comes to splitboarding.

I returned a ways back up the ridge, strapped-in, and dropped into another tree chute that I had scoped on the hike in. Exciting powder deep in the gully was had all the way to the valley floor. I chilled in the sun for a while and then started skinning back up toward the ridge, startling some local herders on the way. They looked at me like I was an alien, likely never seeing a skier back there before. But they were happy and so was I. Once up top I made my way back to the ski area boundary and rode the Voodoo down what I must admit was a killer long run on fresh groomed corduroy all the way back down to the desert.

The Tian Shan was decently fun and provided a very interesting exploration. But I’m not done yet. It’s the third largest country in the world and there’s gotta be a real-deal, steep, fat pow zone somewhere in China. Don’t lose faith, yet. Stay with me. The quest for China’s powder paradise will continue in Part 3.