Being independent travellers and finding information for the China Vasaloppet so difficult to obtain, this race report will provide lots of information for fellow travellers as well as info on the 2018 race.
Several years ago, when China Vasaloppet first became an Associate Worldloppet race we investigated the possibility of visiting as independent travellers but as we could not obtain any information from the China Vasaloppet race organisers, who seemed to only be interested in skiers coming on the organised trips, we decided not to come. The reason is that an organised trip with only 1 day skiing before the race was not an option for us; coming from an Australian Summer of 35-40 degrees Celsius to Changchun with a temperature of -15 degrees C, we needed to be able to acclimatise for at least a week before the event and also wanted to do some ski training so we didn’t injury ourselves in the race, and could enjoy the race as much as possible.
So fast forward several years and we decided to have another go at trying to ski the China Vasaloppet in 2018. However, despite many emails with the race organisers they weren’t able to give us any suggestions of places near Changchun to ski before the event, as we were told the race course was only available to ski the day before the event. Fortunately, an Aussie skier mentioned he had skied on a frozen lake near the race course. So, with this one piece of information we decided to make the journey to Changchun and ski the China Vasaloppet.
On Xmas night 3 Aussie skiers, Bruce Wharrie, Jim Finnie and myself boarded a plane to Beijing, then onto Changchun. Arriving at Changchun Airport at 10am with the temperature -15 degrees C, we chose to learn how to use the public transport system to travel to our accommodation at the Sheraton Hotel, the closest hotel to the race course (about 3kms). We found the best deal for a room at the Sheraton was via Booking.com (AUS $ 120 pn). If we had known how difficult public transport would be, we would have caught a taxi from the airport (160 yuan approx), which is our recommendation for future skiers. Catching a train for the 15 minute trip from the airport to the city, we were required to present our passport to buy the 8.5 yuan ticket, then once in the city we wandered the streets in the freezing cold, as couldn’t find the light rail station; after buying tickets we weren’t allowed on until we bought an extra ticket for our skis, then after a 1.5 hour light rail ride it was a 2 kilometre walk along a busy road to the hotel. So, catch a taxi from the airport!
In -17 degrees Celsius the next morning we caught a taxi 3 kilometres from the Sheraton hotel to Jingyuetan Nature Park (7 yuan-poke skis through from the back seat to the front seat). The taxi dropped us at the main entrance to the Nature Park and we were waved through the turnstyle, where other users paid an entrance fee. 100 metres further on, we came across Jingyuetan Reservoir (lake) which was frozen solid with just 5cm of very dry powder snow on top. We spent the next few days skiing the lake from north to south and exploring all the little inlets and frozen bays. It was delightful skiing despite the little depth. We stumbled across the start/finish area of the race with the huge snow sculptures being constructed and watched in awe as the huge array of snow carving occurred. The largest structure was 80 metres long by 30 metres tall. There were fields of snowmen, Chinese dragons, mermaids, a herd of pandas just to name a few. All in all there would have been over 50 different snow sculptures. It was amazing!!!!! And would be worth the trip to Changchun just to see the snow carving.
We also came across some groomed trails on the lake so followed these and we were actually able to ski much of the race course in the week leading up to the event, which was an amazing bonus that we hadn’t anticipated. 90% of the race course is in the forest, a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees and the snow surface was entirely man-made snow that was dumped by a convoy of dump trucks and then smoothed into a 10cm deep groomed trail. The 10% of the race course that was on the lake was natural snow that had been scrapped from the surface of the lake and pushed into a pile to be made into a 10cm deep trail. Despite being mostly man-made snow and the lack of depth, the skiing was wonderful. Skiing in so many clothes was a challenge for us, but we got used to wearing lots of layers. Being so cold most days -12 degrees or colder, we would ski for about 4 or 5 hours then retreat to our hotel.
Finding affordable meals for a lengthy stay at the Sheraton was a challenge. On a couple of occasions we caught a taxi to a nearby shopping area and ate dinner, we also found a corner store on the route of our walk back from the ski area as most days we weren’t able to get a taxi back to the hotel. We ventured into Changchun city 1 day and tested out various local restaurants.
Two days before the race, many Swedish, Russian & Norwegian skiers arrived at the hotel. There was also a few skiers from Italy, Poland, American, Canadians and Germans. It was good to finally see some other skiers as before this we had only come across a few Chinese skiers on the tracks and many young beginner Chinese skiers learning to XC ski in a small area near the downhill skiing run.
On the Wednesday a bus was provided from the Sheraton Hotel to the start area. The snow sculptures were all completed and looked incredible with the start occurring in the middle of the snow carvings. The venue looked amazing. It was great to be on the snow with other skiers though most people didn’t really ski much just tested their skis. It was good to meet up with old acquaintances from other countries. The China Vasaloppet is part of the lake based winter snow festival. At the venue there is a huge array of winter activities to try including downhill skiing, snowmobiling, snow sledding, dog and horse sleds and tobogganing etc.
Finally race day (Thursday) dawned, with clear skies and mostly still conditions though a cold -18 C or thereabouts. Anticipation was high as we walked into the start area amid the massive snow sculptures and a huge crowd. We were approached by numerous Chinese families wanting to take our photos as westerners still seemed a novelty here. There was an outstanding Chinese performance with 50 people playing huge red Chinese drums dressed in deep red embroidered traditional clothing. It was an incredible sound echoing throughout the forest. Everywhere there was Chinese young people with skis, in colourful race suits. We were amazed considering how few skiers we had seen all week. We were left wondering, where do they ski? There must be other ski areas around Changchun.
The atmosphere in the start area was electric with lots of people jostling for positions further forward. There was a lot of young Chinese skiers who were skiing the short race that had entered the start area for the longer race. Officials tried to send them back but gave up as the opposition was too great. Just before the start there was an aerial display of red motorised paragliders who zoomed just above skiers heads several times. Very Impressive!
Once the start gun went off it was pure mayhem with the young Chinese skiers skiing over the top of skis and pushing forward at a great pace. Within a few hundred metres the course narrowed to 2 classic tracks wide, but the crowd surged through 5 skiers wide battling poles, skis and wits. It was obvious there were many inexperienced local skiers causing entanglements and crashes leading to obstacles on the track requiring quick step turns to avoid becoming a statistic. Within 2 kilometres though the pack spread out and the rest of the course was a delight. Maybe organisers should consider starting the 25km race 10 minutes later and this would avoid much of the mayhem. The 50 kilometre course involved 2 circuits of the 25km course so you enjoyed skiing between the snow sculptures three times.
Highlights of the race included quality artificial snow and grooming throughout the course despite little depth of snow. The drink stations were frequent and well-manned by friendly young Chinese volunteers, many of whom spoke some English. The bananas were well-received as was the hot tea and blueberry soup. The wafer chocolate bars were a bonus. There were numerous volunteers along the course cheering you on and offering assistance. There were frequent kilometre and warning signs so you could anticipate the course.
After more than 5 hours the volunteers were still chirpy despite the cold temperatures and the setting sun. It was great to finish. Many Worldloppet masters from a variety of nations completed the 2018 China Vasaloppet. Our little group of Aussies was very happy with our achievements. For Bruce, who suffers MS completing the 25km course was a massive challenge on wide slow skis. For Jim obtaining his tenth Worldoppet stamp makes him a Gold Master. For me, completing the China Vasaloppet was the final stamp in my sixth passport so now I am the only Australian to have completed 6 Worldloppet Masters. We are looking forward to the rest of our Worldloppet circuit (11 more races) as we fly to Europe in a few days.
Marg Hayes, Australian, IAWLS board member