Take On An Icy Adventure At Club Med Beidahu
Fasten your ski goggles.
“And finally Winter, with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.”
– Roy Bean
We touch down at Changchun Longjia International Airport, where our breaths fog up as soon as we emerge from the plane. It’s thrilling for Singaporeans, we people of the tropics, to embrace the cold. We are like children discovering what sour tastes like, and then reaching out for the lime again.
The journey from the airport to Club Med Beidahu in Jilin province takes a little under two hours. So, while the road seemingly stretches into infinity, I’m taking mental images of the picturesque surroundings: emancipated trees sticking out of the fresh, white landscape, an off-in-the-distance snow-capped mountain range, a gauze-covered sun.
As there are many Eskimo names for snow, I should be able to come up with a great number of descriptors for the weather as well. “The sky is a gunmetal grey, with peaks of light streaking in every so often that they illuminate the land in a brilliant white.” “It’s as though the earth pulled a thick snow blanket over itself and retreated into hibernation.” Snow gently falls like dead skin off a freshly scratched scalp.” See, easy?
Soon, the flurry starts to resemble static on a TV screen and I’m caught in its spell. And slowly, I doze off into an unmemorable dream.
When it comes to skiing, no one ever thinks of China as the go-to destination. But, in 2007, the Asian Winter Games were held at Beidahu, and now ski resorts are palmed in the middle of the mountain region with Club Med Beidahu being one of them. What makes Beidahu a dream for skiing is its vertical drop of more than 800m, the highest operating vertical in the country, terrain park and 10,000m-worth of cross-country trails.
This is Club Med’s second ski resort in China (the other is in Yubuli, Heilongjiang) to meet the growing number of Chinese interested in winter sports. Most probably, the attraction to this activity might have been bolstered by China’s winning bid for the Winter Olympics in 2022.
We see the ski lodge as we approach the Beidahu region. With the resort standing four-storeys high, it’s bigger than I imagined. There’s the main structure, called the Botanic Building, and a connected additional wing whose entire concept is an homage to the seventh art: director chairs double as seats, a mural depicts personalities from the Golden Age of Hollywood; studio lights act as illumination for the room. There’s a dedicated children’s room, where for a small fee, your brood will be tended to by a professional, as you, the parent, get out onto the snow and ski for as long as your kids don’t start wondering where you are. The basement holds après-ski facilities like karaoke, video games and a spa.
We get off the bus and enter the lobby where we are greeted by a smiling retinue who applaud, dance and sing some catchy unnameable tune. At the time, the resort isn’t open to the public yet and we’re the first few to check in. A roving camera crew, in the back, is setting up a shot, trying to get B-rolls for their project. We tarry at the Pine Lounge in the lobby, nursing a warm welcome drink while we get checked in.
The bedrock of Club Med is their GOs (Gentil Organisateurs). These are the faces of the resort, ambassadors of fun and concierges like Théo Bérenger, who scurries about tending to a few matters. Tall and sporting close-cropped hair, Bérenger greets a family with a hearty bienvenue. We also meet Jessie Chao, the head honcho of Club Med Beidahu. She’s petite, smiling (is everyone here always this chirpy?) and attired in a pink windbreaker.
She asks if we’re tired from the flight and whether we want to go for a guided tour of the property. For the briefest moment, I look out of the large windows, at a beckoning world. The resort is operational during winter (skiing season lasts from November to April) and, given your limited time here, you’ll want to carpe diem like the average Singaporean. You’ll want to run out and jump into the snow because it looks inviting, like a marshmallow waiting for your body to imprint an angel onto it. You’ll want to ski on the slopes, or ball up snow and throw it at someone’s head. But as they say, when you eat at a restaurant, don’t fill up on the free bread.
“Or maybe you’ll want some lunch,” Chao offers.
At Club Med, what you pay for upfront is the packages, which takes away the stress of coordinating flights, transportation, activities and food. You have the buffet at the Lodge that you can take advantage of. Each day, the amount of food that is brought out for guests could rival Nero’s fabled banquet (without the orgy). If you want something different try a hot pot dinner at Le Petit Bus Rouge, which is a French-style restaurant that serves Chinese. In the other wing of Club Med Beidahu, the place turns into a nightclub, where you can drink and dance at Ula Bar, or watch a performance by the GOs, like we do on the first night of our stay. Not only do the GOs play concierge during the day, they still have to practise for their evening performance. That evening’s entertainment is a song and dance routine, a saxophone performance, and an acrobalance act by Chao and her partner. Afterwards, the GOs lead us to the dance party at Ula Bar. I don’t stay for the entire thing.
While the concierge services are on point, some of the resort facilities are less so. The elevator to my floor is still being maintained as the car operating panel is missing the fourth-floor button. Later on, the missing button is filled… with the number five because the number four sounds like death in the Chinese language. Wi-Fi is also spotty in my room, so much so that I have to sequester myself near the main door to tap enough signal to surf.
The problems are rectified eventually, yet you can’t help but notice that maybe, just maybe, Club Med Beidahu had to rush in order to meet the opening deadline. Minor inconveniences. So, the resort is in beta testing. No biggie.
Cabin fever is almost non-existent when you stay at Club Med Beidahu. Yes, you might be far from civilisation, but ensconced within the resort’s warm walls, safe from the weather outside, there are tons of indoor activities to do.
But we want to get out of here, see a small town, or at least, a tall building. It’s a good thing Club Med Beidahu provides transport to the city. Gingerly, we get on an awaiting minibus and head to Jilin City.
After being dropped off, we make our way through the biting cold, surprised at the amount of activity around us. The most common sight is the elderly congregating near the snow-covered carpark, dancing and twirling rainbow-coloured ribbons, or at the foot of the apparently defunct Shiji tower, which looks like a knockoff of Osaka’s Kuchu-Teien Observatory. Even more striking is the group of people gracefully sweeping snow off the walkway. A line from a Lewis Carroll poem comes to mind: “If seven maids with seven mops. Swept it for half a year. Do you suppose,” the Walrus said, “That they could get it clear?” But we’re not here to discuss the mathematics of practical snow sweeping. We’re here for the only meteorite museum in the county.
On March 8, 1976, the skies above Jilin City burnt red accompanied by a roar. A meteorite shower streaked across the firmaments, before exploding mid-flight and leaving a trail of broken fragments before landing in Yongji County, a northern suburb of Jilin. The meteorite shower was recorded to have covered about 500sqkm and 138 meteorite specimens, weighing a total of more than 2,700kg, were collected. The largest piece was called the “No. 1 Meteorite” and it clocked in at 1,770kg, making it the largest stony meteorite on Earth.
As a young guide gives us the rundown of the museum and its history, we see no one else in the lobby despite it being early afternoon. In fact, it almost looks like the security guard is amazed that tourists would brave the cold to look at a couple of space rocks.
Out into the blinding white
Day two, and we cautiously make our way to the ski centre, cocooned in our rented ski gear. Before us, the powdery mountains rise to meet the ever-blue sky; pine trees dot the mountainside. Skiers and snowboarders, looking like colourful marbles, make controlled turns, trailing a gradual “S” on the piste.
Being fitted for snow boots proves difficult over at the rental station. Not only do you have to contend with trying to find a comfortable tightness around your shin, you need to trudge your way out onto the snow. You begin by ambulating like the Tin Man with rusty knees, but once you’re used to the weight and have mastered striding, it gets easier. But still, a dull throb pulses in my shins. Par for the course when you’re skiing, I suppose.
At the bottom of the beginner’s slope, we see our ski instructor, Christophe Bombenger. The Frenchman with floppy hair and a hangdog look calls us over with the enthusiasm of a man marooned on a desert island, excited to see a passing ship. Bombenger hails from the École du Ski Français of Châtel and he dives into instructing us on the finer points of skiing.
The way he handles us adults with kid gloves is endearing. He reminds me of that cool uncle who shows you a magic trick or teaches you a swear word. We aren’t given ski poles so we won’t be dependent on them during the lesson. Patiently, he starts by showing us how to put on our skis, how to walk in them, and how to assume the proper ski posture—all the basics needed—before leading us to the magic carpet, a conveyor belt that pulls us uphill to our starting point.
Bombenger holds out his gloved hands. He touches the tips of his fingers, representing our toes, while parting his palms to form an A-shape. “Like pizza,” he says. “You go down the hill and your feet, you do a pizza.” Which means: when going downhill, create a gliding wedge with your skis to slow down. Then Bombenger positions his hands parallel to each other, before saying, “French fry means go fast.”
So, we take turns. All these journalists trying to glide-wedge to thebottom of the slope while simultaneously mouthing “pizza”, “French fry”, “pizza”, French fry”. My confidence builds. I hop on to the magic carpet and glide-wedge my way down before jumping back on to try again. Eventually, I cut across the slope and turn. I start braving the speed of my descent. The adrenaline pumping through your veins as you zoom past the other skiers is addictive. Chapped lips and wet nose be damned. I sense the chill against my cheek, as I go so fast the wind almost feels like whips.
And, of course, during my run, I fall. My skis uncouple from my boots, and I land on my hip. It leaves me rattled. From a distance, Bombenger looks at me with concern. I stare back at him and give him a reassuring thumbs-up. Then I get up again, step into my skis and make my way back up, trying to ignore the daggers in my legs, knowing that the pain will subside when I’m distracted by the freezing wind caressing my cheeks as I zoom down, past everyone else who quickens into a blur.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, March 2017.