The easiest ski resort to reach from Harbin is Yabuli, a three-hour trip away on the daily ski train, which is timed to allow you a reasonable half day skiing.
Once considered China’s premier ski resort, Yabuli is now showing its age, with competitors further afield such as Changbaishan, Beidahu and Wanlong offering more runs in better condition – but Yabuli skiing is still a must-do if you’re in Harbin and like to ski.
The best thing about skiing in Yabuli? There are no lift queues, and at most times of year you can have some runs completely to yourself!
The Yabuli ski season typically runs from the beginning of November until the end of March, but never into April: conditions in late February and March can be pleasant, but December and January can be extremely cold (-30 and below, with windchill).
If skiing in Yabuli at that time of year, a full-face balaclava, goggles and serious layering, including multiple gloves, is an absolute must.
Home to the 1996 Asian Winter Games, and a training centre for Chinese ski teams, the Yabuli ski resort town is rather short on character: locals live in Yabuli town proper, about 20k away.
Yabuli ski resort town is a cluster of 3* and above hotels, with a small shop, some dormitories for the “coaches”, at least five independent sets of ski fields and absolutely diddly squat by way of apres-ski unless you’re staying in a high-end hotel.
Kids may well enjoy the tubing slide, with vehicles from toboggans to tubes available for hire at steep prices, and the luge at Sun Mountain, supposedly one of the world’s longest slides.
While there are baby slopes scattered around town — many of the cheap daytrips offered by Harbin travel agents and hotels will take you to these – there are only two ski fields that should be considered when skiing Yabuli.
Yabuli Ski Resort, typically known as Gao Shan (high mountain), is government run and hosts ski training, but is also open to visitors. Sun Mountain Yabuli, typically known as San Gua, is home to the 6* Club Med resort.
The vertical drop at Yabuli Ski Resort is higher, making this a worthwhile day for expert skiers and boarders: Sun Mountain, however, is much better cared for and has more to offer intermediates and beginners, as well as a bit for the experts.
Both Yabuli Ski Resort and Sun Mountain Yabuli have snow-making machines, to compensate for the lack of precipitation during the coldest parts of winter, but the slopes at Snow Mountain are much better groomed, and there are typically more open.
The two fields are only a short drive apart, and on the same side of the mountain range, but neither figures on the other’s maps, and you have to pay for entry separately. For both, food and drink are only available at the base of the mountain – put aside any ideas of skiing down to a charming alpine lodge for some warm mulled wine.
Prices for a day’s skiing in Yabuli, typically around the 500 kuai mark (for more detail, see my pieces on each individual resort) include gear hire, though not goggles and helmets: we saw the cheapest goggles at Gao Shan, and the cheapest helmets at Sun Mountain. Snow gear is available for rent at an extra fee.
Ideally, you should bring ALL your own ski or snowboard gear to Yabuli. The standards of rental gear at Yabuli Ski Resort are abysmal, and Sun Mountain has no skis larger than size 159.
Unless you are a Club Med guest or on a Chinese organised learn-to-ski tour with ski school, “coaching” in Yabuli is available only one-on-one from the “national coaches”, at prices from 200 kuai for two hours.
For beginners, this appears to consist of dragging you down a mountain in the snow plough. A couple of instructors have some English, but the standard of instruction, in whatever language, is dismally low at Yabuli Ski Resort. It seems a bit better at Sun Mountain.
If you actually want to learn to ski in Yabuli you are best off heading to Club Med, which has excellent Asian, European and Australian instructors: even private lessons, sadly, are only available to Club Med guests.
In general, I’d recommend skiing Yabuli Sun Mountain, though expert skiers or boarders with their own gear might well get a buzz from the heights of Yabuli Ski Resort, particularly on the rare occasions when there is enough natural snow for them to open some of their other lifts.