woke up on the outskirts of Beijing, feeling like a sick pig had done its business in my head. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m Welsh, so that’s quite normal. But this week there was an excuse.
After a Friday night spent doing that most typical of Beijing expat activities – wishing a friend leaving the city goodbye – my wife and I had woken up early, rented a car and hit the road to go skiing.
Of course I promptly fell asleep, leaving her to negotiate the complexities of Sanyuanqiao’s road system alone.
Our destination was the Hebei Province city of Zhangjiakou, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The resort we were staying at is a venue for the Games.
This fact became hard to ignore, as along with billboards promoting baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol) and real estate developments, were red banners exhorting locals to ensure a successful Olympics by studying the spirit of the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China.
Now while I’m sure a solid ideological basis will be useful to the event, the other main challenge organizers will have to tackle also became apparent as brown mountains rolled by.
Namely, that they were brown.
As every Beijinger who finds themselves slathering their face with moisturizer in the winter knows, North China is a dry place. So snow is usually in short supply.
Furthermore, while this part of the country has a certain down-to-earth charm, it might not be the face chosen to show the world (or at least the countries where sliding on frozen water is popular) when it comes to visit Zhangjiakou for the Games.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like instant noodles. And if all I’ve got to go with them is pink tube of unidentifiable origins, no problem. But I imagine some face-conscious official might decide work be done to the service facilities along the highway before the Scandinavians arrive.
At 4 pm, when we arrived at our destination - which claims it is China’s largest ski resort, that it was designed by a Canadian company that has worked on five Olympic venues and that it cost 20 billion yuan (US$3.1b) – we were told that skiing had finished for the day.
So after a few hours of basking in our room’s weird new furniture stench and polishing off two bottles of mid-range Moldovan plonk, we set out for a hot meal.
We ended up at a bar that served pretty decent German-ish food, sold beer at an acceptable rip-off price and a band played to a hyped-up crowd of boozy middle-aged Chinese.
Middle-aged Chinese people generally don’t go to a lot of gigs. And we all need to unwind from our stressful Beijing lives, especially anxious parents. But these people, slurping down neon cocktails, were having the time of their lives to a soundtrack of competently performed TV theme tunes. It. Was. Spectacular.
The evening peaked when a waiter on a balcony above the bar threw a snifter of burning liquor onto the pre-booze-soaked bar top, where it surrounded with foot-high flames a line of rum shots dropping domino-fashion into cokes singing the eyebrows of the middle-managers standing inches away.
I hope the Olympic opening ceremony organizers were taking note.
The next day, I took a cable car to the top of the mountain, and after enjoying a view of the Great Wall, I asked a member of staff in bright green with a Red Cross armband which of three routes in front of me I should take.
“They’re all fine.”
“My skiing level isn’t very high, are you sure they’re all fine for me?”
“They’re all fine.”
Buoyed by the surety of that in-depth discussion, I took off down a slope chosen at random.
After traveling 100 meters down the slope I realized it wasn’t fine.
I was the only person on the slope, while every other slope I could see had dozens of people. Also, it would soon become so steep I couldn’t see the bottom.
Off the skis came, and I had a fun trudge up the slope with a snow machine blowing in my face. When I got to the top,my beard was frozen and I had to lay on the icy manmade snow for a minute. A close inspection of the map revealed that I had tackled a route described as “professional.”
I hope the Olympic stewards are a little more focused; I’d hate to see cross-country skiers sent the wrong way and get hit by a toboggan, or for any figure skaters to get their ankles broken by stray curling stones.
As we drove back to the land of the concrete box, we stopped to enjoy the view.
Below us was a run-down village, squat brick houses sitting next to dirt roads. On the hill besides them were unmistakable burial mounds. Villages across North China have been as cold as the grave this winter, as plans to install cleaner heating systems were overtaken by plans to remove dirty ones.
But if the reshaping of Beijing before 2008 is anything to go by, the villagers might not have to worry about their heating for long as they might find themselves in the land of the concrete box soon too.