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Asian Winter Wonderlands

by Karin Chan 19 Dec 2016
Asian Winter Wonderlands

NISEKO, JAPAN

Mention skiing in Asia and Niseko is, almost inevitably, one of the first names to come up. Located in the southwestern side of Hokkaido, Niseko is made up of the six ski areas of Hirafu, Higashiyama (or Niseko Village), Annupuri, Hanazono, Moiwa and Weiss. The first four are the most well-known out of the group and can be skied on one Niseko All Mountain lift pass, with 38 gondolas and lifts connecting 61 ski runs that span over 48km in total. Moiwa can be skied to from Annupuri, while you can ride a snow cat up to ski areas in Weiss.

So what’s so great about Niseko’s ski runs? The secret is in the quality of the snow. Snow falls regularly here from November to April and is typically described as being incredibly light and powdery – mainly because it is said to have a moisture content of just eight per cent, making for silky-smooth runs. This means that it’s easier for skiers and snowboarders alike to speed up and carve! The fun doesn’t stop when the sun sets, either; night skiing is also a very popular pastime around Niseko.

Besides the main ski areas, there are also some back country ski courses for the more adventurous to tackle. Arguably the most famous of these is the idyllically-named Strawberry Fields in Hanazono, where you can weave in and out of the silver birches on smooth snow. There’s also Sannozaka, a region located at the far right of Annupuri with high quality snow but prone to avalanches; meanwhile, Higashi One in Hirafu is similarly dangerous but provides some challenging terrain for intrepid skiers to conquer.

Not a skiing or snowboarding fan? Not a problem. You can also take part in other fun winter activities such as riding a snowmobile, going on a horse ride or taking the kids snow rafting and snow tubing for maximum snowy fun. You can even explore your beautiful surroundings on foot with snowshoes! And when you’re tired, take a dip in any of the 15 local onsen (natural volcanic hot springs), whose mineral-rich waters will soothe your stress and leave your skin soft and smooth. Some baths are even outdoors.

When to visit for winter: Early December to early April – the best skiing is from mid-December to mid-February

Tip: Shoes or no shoes? Here’s a tip – if you see a tatami mat, that means no shoes. Toilet slippers are for the toilet only and inside slippers are to be used everywhere else inside the house.

SAPPORO, JAPAN

What do you do when you’re surrounded by a whole lot of snow? Build snowmen, of course! That’s how the first Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan started in 1950, when local high school students made six snow statues in Odori Park. Since then, the festival has become renowned worldwide for its stunning showcase of around 250 snow and ice sculptures sprawling around the area.

The Snow Festival features three main sites, one of which is Odori Park. It has hosted a skating rink, snowboarding and skiing air shows, as well as the star attraction – snow and ice sculptures! Some of the best are at The International Square, where the traditional International Snow Sculpture Contest is held. Though the snowy creations are majestic by day, visiting after sunset is also highly recommended as that’s when the sculptures will be lit up with coloured lights for a truly magical atmosphere.

Next up is Tsudome, also known as the Community Dome. It’s usually divided into two: one is an open-air venue with slides, snow rafting, zip-lining, snowball-throwing and other snow-related outdoor activities. There’s also a section for ‘welcome snow sculptures’ by the locals! Meanwhile, indoors you’ll find stage performances, authentic Hokkaido food and drink stalls, an Adventure Land with a variety of rides, markets and shops selling unique Hokkaido merchandise and more.

Finally, the Susukino site is the smallest out of the three, but it still hosts an impressive array of 100 ice sculptures and is the location of the Ice Sculpture contest. It’s considered the ‘nightlife’ zone of the festival with its Illumination Street, which presents a world of picture opportunities, as well as the Ice Bar, where you can savour hot drinks. Every year, Susukino holds a beauty pageant to crown a ‘Susukino Queen of Ice’ from hundreds of lovely ladies.

When to visit for winter: 1-12 February 2017 – the Odori and Susukino sites open from the 6th onwards.

Tip: If you’re walking around on surface roads, be careful as they can be extremely slippery – even the local tourism bureau recommends that you buy ice cleats for around 500yen from the local shops.

HARBIN, CHINA

If your child (or you, we don’t judge) has ever wanted to live like Elsa of Frozen in her grand ice castle, your best chance is to hop on a plane to China for the Harbin International Ice And Snow Sculpture Festival, touted as the largest of its kind in the world. Some of the tallest ice sculptures can reach up to 46m high, and it’s said that some 10,000 workers are involved in cutting and hauling the ice blocks, taken from the surface of the nearby Songhua River!

Like Sapporo, the venues of the festival are divided into three. During the day, visitors should head for the Sun Island via cable car from the Sun Island Station, which – as its name suggests – hosts snow sculptures that you can only visit before nightfall. Here is where you can find the entries for the snow sculpture competition – some are so big that most visitors won’t be able to see them all in one sitting. The island also has a Siberian Tiger Park, where you can see these majestic predators and other big cats in their natural element.

After the sun sets, the place to be is the Grand World of Ice and Snow, which is basically the Elsa-wannabe’s dream: a giant city of ice. Lit up by sophisticated coloured lights, the ice sculptures tend to be recreations of real structures and are so huge that visitors can even walk on or into them. Slides and mazes are also common features of these edifices – a 2014 replica of Iceland’s Hallgrimskirkja church had a 240m-long slide down to reward visitors who made it to the top.

Across the Songhua River, Zhaolin Park is the smallest of the three venues and specialises in ice lanterns. A local tradition that has endured for centuries, ice lantern-making is now a competition in the festival and over a thousand are put on display every year. At night, the 21-acre park comes alive with lights glowing within the lanterns. It doesn’t quite compare to the brazen brilliance of the ice city, but think of it as akin to a candlelight dinner in the cold – a quieter, more romantic way to enjoy the festival.

When to visit for winter: 5 January-25 February 2017

Tip: With so much snow and ice around, it’s better to wear colours other than white so that you stand out and don’t get mistaken for a sculpture!

DEOGYUSAN NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH KOREA

A sprawling reserve that spans four counties, the Deogyusan National Park encompasses the Baekdudaegan – the mountain ridge considered to be the ‘backbone’ of Korea. It is surrounded by five mountain peaks and hosts eight large valleys, which in turn house over a thousand plant species and hundreds of animal species. Though not as famous as Seoraksan and Jirisan, Deogyusan is no less beautiful – especially when the snow falls.

One of the park’s best hikes is a 6km trail that starts at Gucheon-dong, which follows the river and the valley to the beautiful Baengnyeon-sa (White Lotus Temple), named after the white lotus that is said to have bloomed here. Continuing on will see you ascend to the top of Hyangjeok-bong, the highest peak in the park and the fourth highest in Korea at 1,614m. The two to three-hour climb can be quite steep, but the spectacular winter views from the top will make it worth it! Just take care to bring crampons.

Out of all the valleys, the 25km-long Mujugucheondong Valley is said to be the most beautiful, with 33 must-see spots in the valley lauded for their natural beauty such as Eunguam Rock and Haksodae Falls. Structure-wise, besides Baengnyeon-sa, Jeoksangsanseong Fortress is also worth a visit. It overlooks Jeoksangho Lake and once served as a civilian refuge in the Goryeo era. Legend has it that General Choe Yeong found his path blocked when visiting the fortress, so used his sword (jangdo) to slash down, creating Jangdo Rock beneath the West Gate.

Deogyusan Ski Resort, formerly known as Muju Resort, is one of the most famous ski resorts in South Korea and is also located in the park. There are 34 ski and snowboard slopes, with the longest of them being the 6.1km Silk Road and the steepest is the 60 degree Raiders slope. However, the resort caters for beginners as well and even has a ski school with one-on-one lessons. If skiing isn’t your thing, try snow sledding, riding on a snowmobile or admiring the scenery from a gondola ride.

When to visit: 17 October (for autumn), 5 December to late February (for winter)

Tip: Though it might add some extra weight, it’s advisable to carry fresh water with you when hiking as Deogyusan only has two places to get water on the main ridge – from springs near the Anseong crossroads and the Satgatjae shelter.

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN

This former capital city of Kazakhstan is rapidly gaining appeal as a winter tourism destination and offers an excellent balance between winter in the city and in the mountains. There are plenty of things to see and do in the city – known as the country’s largest and wealthiest – with hotels, malls and museums galore, yet prime skiing slopes and facilities aren’t so far away.

A 2011 co-host of the Asian Winter Games and one of the final two bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Almaty is recognised as a prime skiing destination. Shymbulak (also Chimbulak), which was an Alpine Skiing event venue, is one of the most popular in the country. While the terrain is steep and the facilities are still being developed, the virgin snow makes for thrilling skiing and even the likes of Prince Harry have been seen whizzing down the slopes. Best yet, the city centre is just a 25-minute drive away!

Not far away from Shymbulak is Medeu, which hosts the highest ice skating rink in the world at 1,691m above sea level. Only open in winter, many speed skating world records have been created here, though simple pleasureseekers who want to just glide along on 10,500sqm2 of ice are equally welcome. You can also take the cable car or the steps (just so you know, it’s 900 steps) for stunning views of the surrounding area from the mountains – do grab a bite at some of the restaurants at the stations.

A worthy visit within the city itself is Panfilov Park, named in honour of the 28 soldiers of General Ivan Panfilov’s Almaty infantry unit who perished while fighting Nazis just outside Moscow, buying time for the capital’s defenders to prepare. A well-kept green lung in the summer months, winter lends a cold, dignified beauty to the park and the monuments within – one of them a giant black sculpture of soldiers, in front of which burns an eternal flame to commemorate the fallen of the Civil War and World War II.

When to visit for winter: December-March

Tip: Directions are influenced by the mountains; if you’re told to head ‘up’, it means towards the mountains, and ‘down’ means to head away from them.

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