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Alumni in China: Welcome to Snow City
By:  Edward McCarthy   (2009/02/19)

(All pictures courtesy of Gavin Hamilton)

Gavin and I, along with XC Ottawa racer Alana and the other eight members of Canada's XC ski team for World University Games, arrived in China this past weekend. China? Oh, yes, China! It turns out that the 2009 winter installment of University Games are hosted by Harbin, China - the capital of Heilongjang province in north-eastern China - east of Mongolia, north of North Korea, and more or less otherwise surrounded by Russia. Harbin's a pretty neat city - ever heard of it? No? Don't worry, it's only got about ten million people. Harbin is known in China for one thing in particular: being cold. (Apparently the shopping is also supposed to be good). The benefit to this, since Harbin maintains a constant -10 to -25 degrees all winter long, is that it is an amazing place for ice sculpture. Think Winterlude has some pretty neat ice art? It's got nothing on Harbin.

Gavin being eaten by an ice dragon at the Harbin airport

Some very large ice sculpture in Harbin

Unfortunately for our cultural saturation, the cross-country venue is in fact in Yabuli, a two hour train ride from Harbin. This doesn't give much chance to interact with other sports, though we are with alpine and freestyle skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined. The train ride through rural China, however, was pretty neat. There are small villages scattered all along the tracks (though "villages" here can have over seventy thousand people) and in a textbook case of Communist overemployment there are guards stationed all along the train tracks whose job is simply to stand there all day - in the aforementioned cold - and watch the tracks. Not my ideal career choice.

Part of a village, with Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) decorations on the gates

Guard on the train tracks

On to the actual skiing. Our first race, an individual skate, is on the 20th. We've spent the last few days getting to know the course and the conditions. Conditions are the easy part. They don't change. It's cold and it's dry and it's hardpacked. There is really very little snow here, as it is incredibly dry (think Edmonton), and what there is, is from somewhat to very dirty. The course consists of two loops, each of which can be either 2.5 or 3.75 km. The upper one is pretty much one long climb, followed by a long gradual downhill back towards the stadium. The lower 2.5 seems fairly flat, but the longer course includes a number of steep ups and downs. The stadium, and the way into the stadium, are all gradual uphill, and usually into the wind. Wind, by the way, is pretty much omnipresent here. And it's cold.

Stadium in Yabuli

Team Canada

Despite the distance to Harbin, we did jump at the chance to attend opening ceremonies. These were worth it. Harbin put on a phenomenal show, culminating in a fantastic fireworks display. In a somewhat over the top gesture, there was also what was essentially a private fireworks display greeting the athletes when we arrived back at Yabuli.

A few of us and our sign-carrier for the parade

Team China parades into the opening ceremonies

Opening ceremonies grand finale

Racing is about to begin in earnest - an individual start skate, a sprint (which I will not be starting), a duathlon, a four-person relay, and a long distance mass start classic. If we can find time out of our busy schedule of eating and being cooped up in a five-star hotel under heavy security and military guard, there may be reports forthcoming.
Interesting Reading. . .
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