SKI and China. Those are two words you don't often hear used together.
Mention to people you're off to hit the snowy slopes of China and they look at you like you've taken one too many hits to the noggin with a toboggan.
But that may be about to change with next month's opening of a Club Med snow resort at Yabuli, about 200km southeast of Harbin city in the northeastern Heilongjiang province.
And when you arrive there, with snow-laden mountains visible in every direction, you realise just what everyone's been missing.
Snow-crazed tourists always seem to be looking for new, interesting places to show off their ski skills once our mountains have closed for the summer, and Sun Mountain at Yabuli presents a great opportunity to travel further afield in China than the standard city destinations of Beijing and Shanghai.
And going the Club Med route is also a good idea if it's your first time out of the cities in China - it means transfers will be straightforward and there are no obstacles such as language difficulties to deal with.
A cluster of resorts are nestled among the mountains at Yabuli, already making the most of the increasing Chinese interest in snow sports, and when Club Med opens its doors here on November 27 it will be among the swishest of them.
The "four trident" premium resort is all elegant luxury on the inside - spa, swimming pool, fitness centre, 284 suites and rooms, two bars and three restaurants - and a giddy array of ski options on the outside.
The ski area includes some 18 trails covering more than 30km over a vertical drop of about 500m.
Venturing outside the palatial resort, the first thing you notice as a fair-weather skier is the cold.
Winter doesn't muck about here, with temperatures in the peak January-February ski season averaging around -10C, occasionally dropping as low as -30C. At which point you head inside for a stiff drink.
It all makes you very appreciative of the heated eight-seater gondola and six-seater chairlifts that carry you up the mountain. Yes, heated.
Once you're at the top, though, and the sky is a clear sheet of blue as far as you can see, you stop bothering about the cold and start excitedly strapping on skis and snowboards.
From the summit you can head down a steep zig-zagged black run, or go with more leisurely and more popular "A1" blue run, nicknamed the Trail to Happiness.
It's the longest trail on the resort, meandering more than 3km around the ski domain and branching off into plenty of other black and blue runs.
At the bottom, the whole resort opens out into a massive beginner terrain - the largest in China - with a network of magic carpets moving everybody around and teams of Club Med ski instructors keeping the learners as upright as possible.
And it's all right at the door of the resort buildings.
That means you can slide off the snow straight into the vast, superbly equipped rental hall, stow your gear, and stroll off to the bar, restaurant or steaming outdoor Canadian bath.
As with all Club Med resorts, there is a huge range of facilities to also keep the kids, aged 2 to 18, busy - on the snow or off - from lessons and excursions to games and activities.
That means mum and dad can hit the slopes with a clear conscience.
If skiing or snowboarding is not your thing, you can try a horse-sled ride, ice-skating or, for something a little racier, take the gondola to the summit and ride the luge-like alpine slide for 2.2km of twisty-turny fun.
And if the cold or the ski boots start to bite, head inside to the spa for a traditional Chinese foot and leg massage.
As you lie there, with the therapist beating your feet back to life, you wonder why on earth anybody would ski anywhere else.
IF YOU GO
Paperwork: New Zealand passport-holders must apply to the Chinese embassy for a visitor's visa before travelling to China. Allow 10 working days.
Getting there: New Zealanders can travel from Auckland to Harbin via Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing with Air New Zealand and partner airlines. Air New Zealand operates daily services via Hong Kong to Harbin with economy class fares available from $2,092 per person return. Air New Zealand operates three services a week via Shanghai and two services per week via Beijing to Harbin with economy class fares from $2,079 per person return. airnz.co.nz.
Go further: Consider combining your Yabuli ski trip with a stop in Harbin for the spectacular Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, in January. The next festival starts on January 5, 2001 and runs for at least a month, longer if the weather allows. During that time the city becomes home to a mind-blowing collection of palaces, temples and sculptures - all made of ice and brilliantly lit. It should be on everybody's bucket list. Even if the festival's not on, Harbin, China's 10th largest city, is worth a visit. Known as the St Petersburg of Asia, its architecture has a strong Russian flavour because of its proximity to the border.
Hot deal: Club Med has eight-night Harbin/Yabuli holiday packages from $5875 an adult and $4049 a child, including return airfares Auckland to Beijing, one night in Beijing, two nights in Harbin for the ice festival, five nights at Club Med Yabuli and all transfers. The deal includes all-day dining, open bar, ski and lift passes, ski/snowboarding tuition, sports, activities, entertainment and kids' clubs at Club Med Yabuli. Terms and conditions apply. Valid for sales to October 31, for travel January 1-28 and February 5-15. clubmed.co.nz or ph 0800 258 263.
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