Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Indoors in Beijing

Ski area sign emerges from the darkness

The winter season 2011-2012 has been opened! About time, too, given that it has already been a month since my last skiing in the summer. This time I did not get to go to some beautiful mountain, however. Only a small indoor ski hall, a two hour taxi ride outside Beijing. Oh well, at least now I have Asia and China in the bag for this new season.

The ski hall is Qiaobo Ice and Snow World, situated in Shunyi, a small town somewhere behind Beijing's international airport. Qiaobo has two ski slopes, a wide and short beginners slope and a little bit longer main slope. In the main slope there are some jumps and rails for additional fun.

Indoor snowcat

I was visiting here in my usual manner: a long day of meetings was over and I headed to the slopes in the evening. Like so often, I was pressed for time. My meeting ended at 6pm, and after a quick change of clothes I managed to find a taxi soon after. But the hotel bell boy thought that it would take three hours to reach the site, and by then the ski hall would already be closed.

Luckily the trip only took two hours. I was also about to lose my faith on the drivers ability to find the place when Qiaobo's sign emerged from the darkness.

Front door


This was my second visit to Qiaobo, so I knew not to expect too much. The slopes are small, the biggest one is 300 meters long at 17 degrees. But the skiing still turns out to be nice, the slope is steep enough and snow forms are varied enough to make it fun. It takes about 20 seconds to ski the slope, but who is counting.

Beginner's slope

A snow cat worked on the upper slope during my visit, so the full length was not in use. But the snow was just right, not hard ice and not too soft snow either. The only downside is that ski lift was very slow, it took about four minutes to go up the small distance. Even if you tried very hard, you could only ski  4-5 kilometers in an hour. This is actually a common problem for many indoor ski areas. In some there is a fast lift reserved for experienced skiers and ski teams that train there, but the main lift is slow. Presumably this is to make it easier for inexperienced lift users and to keep the actual slope less crowded. But it is annoying.

There is obviously other kinds of skiing in China as well. I have only visited another indoor place in Shanghai, the Yinqixing. This is a 380 meter long ski slope, but I found it less interesting than Qiaobo. The slope is divided in two parts, and the lower part is targeted for beginners and is almost level. When I visited this Yinqixing, I had to ask them to start the ski lift on the upper section. The upper section is a little bit steeper, but you will still not be able to make too many turns before you hit the lower section.

Moguls run
There are also some small ski areas within a reasonable driving distance from Beijing, and bigger mountain areas further away. Those await testing...

Important Parameters

Qiaobo evening lift ticket costs 168 ¥ (about 19 €), but for some reason that was not clear to me, every skier has to pay a 500 ¥ deposit. You will get the difference back when you exit, however.

A typical way to spend my evenings on a business trip

Taxis are very, very cheap in China. My taxi driver drove for three and half hours, and waited for me for an hour outside the ski hall. The total cost for this was 330 ¥ (38 €) plus tip.

Chinese decorations
Qiaobo has services, including food and drink vending machines, a restaurant, and a sports shop. I did not try them out, however, so I cannot report on the price level. But for afterski I certainly recommend heading back to Beijing. A very nice place is The Zone, a small bar on the shores of the Houhai. They also serve food through the night. A big bowl of meat and noodles costs less than 50 ¥ (5 €).

Photo credits (c) 2010-2011 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Aliens vs. Lions

The buffalo is dead, but not by us

Can I have some afterski, please? We clearly needed some relaxation. The cold mountains, difficult off-piste runs, dangerous roads, and  assault rifles had their toll. Maybe a safari? We could be normal tourists for a moment, it would be warm, nice, and relaxing. So here we are, on a safari.

Except that I'm starting to feel this was not quite as relaxing as expected. We are on the hills of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi national park in South Africa, close to the border of Swaziland. There are just the three of us, me, Tero, and Samora, our guide. Unlike other tourists we are not in a jeep on a road. We are on foot,  on a hiking trip through the savannah.

A lion

We have just run into two lions. Right in front of us. On a fresh buffalo kill. We stare at each other while thinking about what to do. This might end in tragedy as the lions are still hungry, interrupted just before their first bite. And we are on their territory. This not a zoo, it is unusual for anyone to walk in this 960 km2 park or the lions to see humans. You can feel the tension. But as quickly as the tension appeared, it goes away. We decide not to eat the lions, having already had breakfast. You can hear the lions make a sigh of relief as they retreat into safety. They were spared in this encounter. And we walk to the buffalo to inspect our catch.

The safer safari option

Seriously though, this was a dangerous moment and the lions might have attacked us. Our guide had a rifle, but had the lions attacked, I'm not sure he would have had time to shoot both. We were lucky that the lions wanted to retreat. Such an encounter was also unusual for our experienced guide, Samora had only seen lions this close here two or three times. And seeing a fresh kill by the lions was also unusual. So unusual, in fact, that he wanted his picture taken next to the buffalo. So we stayed around the buffalo for a few minutes, wondering if the lions are anxious about getting back to their meal.

Our guide

On the safari

Reporting the lion sighting back to base

It was also interesting that we did not see the buffalo immediately. Samora felt the smell of fresh intestines and followed it to the carcass. I smelled nothing. This is a different world, different people...

One of the buffalos staring at us

On the Move

The lions worried us even after leaving the buffalo, as we were staying the same area. But we soon got other things to think about, as a herd of buffalos was staring at us 50 meters away, trying to decide whether they should run in our direction or not. We stayed quiet and we were upwind from them, and eventually they walk away.


A few moments later we stare at a rhino behind some trees. He does not see us, but his ears move when we make the smallest sound. We move quietly forward and avoid yet another attack.

Rhino shit in the making

Am I seeing everything in double?



Our hut. Note the mosquito net.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi is the oldest game park in Africa. It is located in KwaZulu-Natal area, 250 kilometers from Durban. It is the only park in KwaZulu-Natal with a possibility of seeing the "Big Five" (rhinos, elephants, lions, buffalos, and leopards). It is also the park with the largest number of white rhinos in Africa. And many black rhinos, as well. By the way, I'm proud to have learned to recognize black rhino dung from white rhino dung. The former has think, diagonally cut vegetation.

Our accommodation in rondavels

The recommended place to stay in the park is at the Hilltop camp, a set of luxury apartments and small cottages (we stayed in the latter). The camp center has a small shop and an excellent restaurant. The restaurant serves dinner in buffet style every evening. Reservations are required, which is somewhat funny because there is nowhere else to eat and even driving on the roads is prohibited except during the day. The waitresses in the restaurant put on a music show in the middle of the dinner time. Recommended!

Safari avec skis

It is possible to walk around the small camp area on your own, though there are signs that warn the fence around the camp is not lion proof. And the camp is full of apes that undoubtedly will steal everything left lying around. 

Monkeys next to our hut

The park itself can be toured by your own car, but it is mandatory to stay inside your vehicle. A couple of picnic spots in the park allow you to eat lunch and use the restrooms. Guided safari tours are organized in the evenings and mornings on jeeps, and on special request, on foot. Our on foot tour was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (And would have been even more so, had the lions eaten us.) Our evening car tour was cold and wet, with no sighting of any animals in three hours. Our morning car tour was wonderful, we saw many animals up close. 

Early morning departure for the hiking trip

Our accommodation

Gas station a la Africa

The Most Dangerous Beast ...

We also see a lot of elephant dung during our hike. In fact I still have some of it on the bottom of my hiking shoes. We would like to see an elephant, but despite two days in the park, we see none. Maybe this is for the good, as the elephants are the most dangerous animals in the park. Samora tells us that they can be very aggressive.

The devil

Relaxing moment

... Not Counting the Aliens

Did I mention that our hike was within the premises of the "Invasive Alien Species Programme Office"? Pretty clever to hide these super secret agencies here in the middle of the wilderness, much better privacy than at Roswell or Area 51...


We did not run into any aliens, however. That we know of, at least. But now I must finish this blog, I'm not feeling well. There is this weird feeling in my stomach.

A bird. Or a disguised alien? You tell me.

An eagle

A meeting

Move away!

Our well used car after the trip. Exhaust pipe is broken.

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Skiing the Highest Pass in South Africa

Road leading to Sani Pass in Lesotho
We are now committed, even if not fully equipped for this trip. Our rusty pickup truck is no longer climbing towards the Sani Pass, our exit from Lesotho to South Africa. It is descending. Even if Sani Pass is the highest pass in South Africa at almost three kilometers, it is still at a lower altitude than the highlands of Lesotho. The truck has big wheels and lot of room for passing over rocks. But it has no four wheel drive. We are going down muddy roads. Snowy roads. Steep roads. There is no turning back, this car would not be able to climb out. We hope that the rest of road is only going down, and that the border patrol on the Lesotho side is as lenient about letting two wheel driver vehicles pass. On the South African side they do check.

Falling in the no-fall zone

After my earlier tours in India, this is going to be an interesting road. It is listed as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. And even if Rothang Pass in India was scary, it was nothing compared to Sani Pass. Rohtang Pass was still a road... this road is more like following a bulldozer track. Literally. The road is extremely steep. Perhaps in reality not as dangerous as Rohtang Pass, as there is very little traffic here. There is no real danger of going off the cliffs, as we have to drive so slow. Except when the car starts to slide in the mud and slippery rocks... but at the end of the day the grip is good, given that we are mostly driving through a boulder field. Too many rocks to go anywhere too fast.

A difficult pass.

Skiing South Africa

But we are not here for the road experience. We are here to because it is a bad year to go skiing in South Africa. Earlier this year, South Africa's only ski area, Tiffendel, closed up business. Bankruptcy. If I want to collect South Africa as one of the places that I have skied in, it has to happen outside ski areas. And since we are at the highest road in South Africa and there's just a little bit of snow at the top part of the road, this is probably the only spot in the entire country to do that.

Road down the Sani Pass

And the spot is not looking particularly easy. There is very little information in the Internet about off-piste skiing in this area, but the one web page that we had seen marks the beginning of the road as the "scary bits".  Indeed. And as mentioned, the road is steep. Steeper than anything I have ever seen, including Himalayas, Norway and the Alps. But while the road is making tight switchbacks, the skiing will be straight down. Literally, in some cases. I do not want to go off a cliff. Route finding is difficult, as we are here for the first time. We can't see what is behind the next curve, and given our vehicle we cannot return if go further to check.

The road

The Scary Bits

The start of the "ski run" at the top of Sani Pass, at 2900 meters.

Its time to put the boots and skis on. And helmet. My ski run is short, under 100 meters in altitude difference. But I manage to fall three times.

And get more scratches to my skis than I have gotten in the entire season so far. I would normally carry my skis over a pile of rocks, but in some places there was not enough space between the canyon walls and the road to break before hitting rocky ground. Oh well. Skis are made for skiing, not for preservation.

I wish I had started from the very top, and not from the first turn, but we did not realize that early enough to stop the car right after Lesotho's border post. From the top I could have made some additional ski turns, as they are rare here. Most of my way further down is either narrow passages or steeps that I have to take very carefully.

In the very end I get problems with finding a safe way down. I can see one way down that ends in side stepping and climbing on foot, having to take off my skis. Tero is watching from the road on the other side, and he suggests a different route, but its not easy for him to see how steep the other route is. I decide to opt for the safe but not so good alternative, skiing as far as I can and then take off my skis to climb down. Probably for the best, when we see the other way it would have been quite steep at the end.

I have skied in South Africa!

No-Mans Land

Part of the reason why I stop here and do not explore further or try to climb to the top is that we are in a hurry. It is half an hour before the border station on the South African side closes, and we might have to spend the night behind the gate if we don't make it. We are already in South African soil, but the actual border patrol station is further away, at the bottom of the Sani Pass road. I can understand that the police do not want to stay in this precarious spot.

Deserted pieces of trucks on the road between Oxbow and Mohotlong.

We start driving down the road. We are still high up, and the drive is challenging. The road is narrow and when we meet vehichles coming up its hard to find the right spot to pass. Particularly when our car refuses to go back even a centimeter. Luckily the other cars have four-wheel drive and they can find their way around us. I'm thankful that Tero is driving. He has driven the whole road, and both the way up from the Lesotho side as well as here in Sani Pass is a real challenge. I've driven in weird places, but I'm not sure I would have survived this drive on my own.

Sani Pass turns

We Made It

We reach the border station ten minutes before closing time. Twenty minutes later we see the first sign for accommodation, and after a ten hour stressful drive, the temptation of  a luxury hotel (with heating!) is irresistible despite their incredible price of 90€ per person. We are at the Sani Pass Hotel, a large golf resort and we appear to their only guests. Oh well, they have a warm shower, Internet, and dinner is included in the price. If you golf, I can recommend this place. The surroundings are surely different from any other golf course, as the Sani Pass mountains are still towering around us.

Road to Sani Pass, Lesotho.

Sani Pass is also home to the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro, Thabana Ntlenyana. At 3482 meters, it would have been an attractive hiking destination. Another accommodation option for Sani Pass is to stay at the top in Sani Top Chalet. They organize guided tours to Thabana Ntlenyana, and the round-trip takes about 8-9 hours. If we had had more time, I would have tried that, possibly trying to take my skis with me. They also offer horseback tours to the mountain, which might have made it easier to drag the heavy ski equipment to the top and still make it back during the same day.

Ski area parking

But staying at the bottom of Sani Pass definitely has its advantages. Electricity and other modern amenities are in short supply at the top, and I'm guessing heating would have been limited as well. In the Sani Pass Hotel we enjoy can the restaurant and the bar and all the other comforts. For comparison, soup of the day costs 32 Rand (3.2€) here.

Views at the bottom of the Sani Pass road, South Africa.

There are further accommodation and food options in the nearby town, Himevelle. We've heard reports that the best after ski and food is at Himeville Arms.

One of my three falls on this short run

23 Countries

My goal was to ski in South Africa, and that's why the scary bits was the place to put on the skis. However, there is better skiing around the Sani Pass at the Black Mountain. This is few kilometers from the top of Sani Pass towards Mohotlong, in the Lesotho side. We drove through this bowl-shaped area, and there was plenty of snow. You could easily hike up for some skiing.

While Sani Pass appeared to be the only place with snow on the South Africa side, it is possible that there would have been snow on some other mountain areas. Access to Tiffendel would have required four wheel drive again, so never explored that direction, but it would have been interesting to find out if the closed ski area has snow, or if they were running entirely on man-made snow. The dry climate makes it likely that even cold and high places can be without snow. Interestingly, later on our trip big parts of South Africa got a snow cover for a short duration due to a freak weather occurrence. The owners of a hotel we stayed at near Johannesburg had constructed a snow man (or a cat, really) on their lawn.

But I had no time for additional skiing in Lesotho or anywhere else for that matter, as my mission was just to collect South Africa as yet another country. My 2010-2011 winter season is now done, having skied in 23 different countries or states:
  1. China (Beijing, indoors)
  2. Finland (Kauniainen, Peuramaa, Vihti, and my garden)
  3. Switzerland (Zermatt)
  4. Italy (Alagna, Cervinia, Valthorens, Gressoney, Champoluc, and Sicily if you count sliding down on my boots from the summit of Etna)
  5. Belgium (Ice Mountain, indoors)
  6. Oregon (Mt. Ashland)
  7. California (Mt. Shasta)
  8. Austria (Zillertal)
  9. Connecticut (Sundown)
  10. Vermont (Mad River Glen)
  11. New Hampshire (Bretton Woods)
  12. Maine (Sunday River)
  13. Massachusetts (Nashoba Valley)
  14. Sweden (Åre)
  15. Czech Republic (Horny Donkey
  16. Poland (Zakopane)
  17. Slovakia (Strbske Pleso)
  18. The Netherlands (Snow Planet)
  19. Slovenia (Češka Koča)
  20. Norway (Stryn and Galdhøpiggen)
  21. India (Manali)
  22. Lesotho (Afriski)
  23. South Africa (Sani Pass)
These countries are in four different continents, and a 110 000 kilometer trip for all of this.

6 Continents in 12 Months

If I take the last 12 months as the season then our last year's round the world trip through Chile and New Zealand is also included. That is 6 continents in 12 months. Skiing in 25 different countries. A 156 000 kilometer trip. Four times around the world.

Winter 2010-2011 travels

Overall, I've now skied in 36 different countries. Plenty of major destinations left: Japan, Russia, Alaska, Argentina, Spain, Bulgaria, Iran... I'm only missing one continent though. But that is too far, too costly, and probably also too dangerous. Hmm...

The exit from the ski run

Route finding
Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko, Tero Kivinen, and Great Circle Mapper