CHANGCHUN - I attended college in Middlebury, Vt., where on winter weekends I drove to a Nordic ski center in the Green Mountain National Forest and spent long afternoons whizzing across freshly groomed snow. Every winter I still feel the urge to lace up my skis.
When I moved to Vietnam in 2009, two years after graduation, that urge got considerably harder to satisfy. But last year, when I searched the Internet for Nordic ski events within striking distance of Southeast Asia, I discovered Vasaloppet China, the 10-year-old cousin of a historic Swedish ski race.
The Chinese race, I learned, takes place every Jan. 2 near Changchun, a provincial city about 600 miles northeast of Beijing, and is open to both competitive skiers and the general public. Bingo! I registered online for a 17.5 kilometer (10.9 miles) race - an easier version of the 52.5 kilometer (32.6 miles) main event - and agreed to pay my $32 race fee on arrival.
On New Year’s Day, I flew from Hanoi to Guangzhou, a megacity in southern China, and then to China’s sprawling capital, where I met my friend George Henton, an English photographer based in Bangkok.
George and I boarded a plane to Changchun, and when it landed, a taxi whisked us downtown. We didn’t know what to think; the city of 7.5 million was full of buildings, and although the outside air temperature was well below freezing, there was almost no snow on the ground in this dry region of the country.
It was nearly midnight when we checked into a nondescript hotel on an unmemorable street. Staring through my window at the Gotham-like cityscape, I wondered if this event was really an elaborate hoax.
But at 7 the next morning, we walked to the upscale Shangri-La Hotel and saw dozens of tourists wearing colorful spandex and carrying ski bags. We followed them and climbed into one of six gold-colored coach buses. I struck up a conversation with Lasse Hulgaard, a competitive skier from Copenhagen.
Hulgaard, 20, said he is on Denmark’s national ski team, and that the other competitive skiers on the bus - most of whom hailed from Scandinavia - were traveling around northeast China for a week competing in a series of accredited races called China Tour de Ski. The others, I learned, were paying their way for about $150 per day.
“When I told my friends I was going to China to ski, it sounded kind of exotic,’’ Hulgaard said.
Thirty minutes later, when the bus stopped at a forested public park, I saw an outdoor stage flanked by 10-foot balloons and a billboard-sized snow carving of a woman’s face. Hundreds of Chinese and foreign skiers were milling around at a snowy starting line. The sky was perfectly blue, with no hint of precipitation. Most of the powder had been artificially produced, which is usually the case for this event.
As Chinese rock music blared from the stage, someone released pigeons that soared above the crowd. A government official gave a booming speech, in Chinese, to thunderous applause and a flurry of photography. The spectacle suggested a cross between a Chinese New Year celebration and a chilly version of Rio Carnival.
As the ceremony wrapped, I dashed inside a nearby building to rent skis. I hadn’t brought any snowpants with me, and none were available here, so I laced up my ski boots over my black jeans. Hulgaard, the Danish skier, lent me an extra pair of gloves, and I emerged from the building just as the starter’s air horn sounded.
Whoosh. I was skiing again.
Vasaloppet, a Nordic ski race launched in Sweden in 1922, is named for the 16th-century Swedish hero Gustav Vasa who once skied to Norway to rally support for Swedish independence from Denmark. Today the event’s nine races attract more than 65,000 skiers over a week, according to its website, and Swedish skiers tell me it is a national sporting institution.
International versions of the Vasaloppet were launched in Minnesota and Japan in 1973 and 1981, respectively, but China’s race has a unique flavor. The surrounding forest, where many trees are of identical height, looks unnatural, and because Changchun’s climate is so dry, event organizers go to great lengths to create the course. One year, after a heavy dust storm, they hired 5,000 farmers to create a 12-kilometer track by pushing snow into place with shovels.
Fortunately the race, which organizers say included about 6,000 skiers this year - at least three-fifths of them Chinese - makes up for its artificial veneer with heaps of sensory stimuli.
As I glided away from the starting line, I saw giant snow sculptures, groups of Chinese tourists racing ATV-like buggies across a frozen lake, and a life-sized, medieval-looking snow castle with a sign advertising “COFFEE.’’ Chinese spectators whooped as I passed, no matter how slowly I moved, and enthusiastic volunteers handed me tea, bananas, and candy bars at trailside stations.
“We’re doing something we don’t usually do,’’ Hu He Ping, 20, a student volunteer, told me in English at one station, adding that she normally spends her free time jogging, playing Ping Pong, or communicating with friends on social networking websites. “It’s very cold but very meaningful.’’
Nordic and downhill ski venues are cropping up across China’s northern provinces, according to Kris Van de Velde, director of sport for Nordic Ways International, the Swedish company that organizes Vasaloppet China in partnership with local authorities. But although many here still regard skiing as an activity one tries for novelty’s sake - like bungee jumping - young Chinese are beginning to consider it a healthy winter activity.
“China is not on the map of Nordic skiing in the world at all,’’ said Ahvo Taipale, a Vasaloppet USA representative whom I met in Changchun. But then again, he said, it took years for the sport to spread from Scandinavia to France and Italy.
Taipale, who owns a boutique ski shop in St. Paul, said when Chinese Nordic skiers begin winning Olympic medals, skiers across the globe will take notice. “And that’s the key to making China a more desirable skiing destination.’’
I didn’t need any convincing in Changchun. Gliding around the Vasaloppet race course, I stopped every kilometer or so to take deep breaths, admire the views, and recite snippets of half-remembered Robert Frost poems. Skiing made me miss Vermont, but on the other hand, I was thrilled to be doing it halfway around the world.
Other racers were similarly tickled. “Vasaloppet in China?’’ said Susanne Dahl, a teacher from Gothenberg, Sweden. “How crazy is that? That’s why I’m here!’’
I met Dahl at the finish line. She wore a velvet Viking hat, with a Swedish flag emblazoned on the front, that she had purchased in the Stockholm airport. She had researched Vasaloppet China on the Internet, but that didn’t prepare her for all the attention she received from Chinese spectators. At points in the race, she said, she felt like Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish alpine skiing legend.
I knew what Dahl meant. After I had crossed the finish line, a group of spectators demanded that I pose for an extended photo shoot - no matter that my nose was running and my beard was full of ice crystals. One man even asked if he could buy my souvenir race medal for 50 yuan (about $8).
Perhaps he had mistaken me for a competitive skier. Or maybe he just wanted a keepsake of this highly unusual sporting event.
Soon it was late afternoon, and most of the Chinese skiers had gone, leaving about 300 rosy-faced Europeans to finish an epic lunch buffet. Aside from a dentist from Wisconsin, a patent lawyer from Minnesota, and a Shanghai-based exercise-equipment salesman from Maryland, I didn’t run into any other Americans.
George and I bee-lined for the Western-style buffet meant for the Europeans and heaped our plates with schnitzel, salad, and fried potatoes. Then we sat down to eat with Juergen Uhl, 26, from Muehlenbach, Germany, who was wearing a black University of Vermont jacket. Between bites of spaghetti, he said that as a UVM student, he was the 2009 NCAA nordic skiing champion in the men’s 10-kilometer classic.
Like Hulgaard, Uhl had traveled to Changchun as part of the China Tour de Ski. The race course wasn’t perfect, he said, but he had gotten a kick out of the snow sculptures and carnival ambience.
“In Vermont, there’s no buzz around races,’’ Uhl said. “Sometimes you have the national anthem, but compared with this, they’re pretty plain.’’
What to do
Arranges multiday China ski tours coinciding with the Jan. 2 Vasaloppet China cross-country race. A typical trip lasts five or six days and costs $800 to $950, which includes all expenses except airfare. Be sure to apply for a tourist visa before you fly to China.
Where to stay
569 Xian Road
One of the best hotels in the city. Friendly, English-speaking staff. Doubles from $283.