07 February 2007

A Day On The (Indoor) Slopes

In keeping with my effort to do as many things as humanly possible here in Shanghai, I headed to the indoor ski slope for my first skiing adventure ever. My Swiss friend Erich, who grew up in a small ski village in the Swiss Alps, came along to help. The venue was just a short (not actually short) subway to bus to taxi ride away, though the building was visible from about a mile out. It looked like a giant, half-mile long metal tube propped up on enormous braces. This tube was clearly the shape of the slope inside, and you could actually see THROUGH the braces. Safety first, right?

We paid our $25 for an all-day pass (that included skis, boots, “lift” pass, and all the necessary clothing) and hit the changing room. I was fortunate enough to get a reflective orange and black outfit that made me look 50% cool, 50% parking attendant. Sadly, Erich was stuck with purple and black. After getting “fitted” for boots and skis we hit the slopes to find that there were only about THREE different outfits, which meant everyone in attendance was wearing the same thing. For some reason the purple uniform was particularly popular.

Lets just say it’s not that easy to walk on flat or slightly inclined snow with ten-foot rails attached to your feet. Of course the Swiss is just whisking about at the speed of light thanks to his youth on the slopes. “I first skied when I was four,” he told me. I being a southern California beach bum had never even seen skis in person. Lesson begins. “First we gonna climb up the mountain on the skis,” he tells me. Now, I’m all for huffing it if you’ve got to but why the heck would we struggle UP a mountain when there is an escalator taking people to the top? “What if there is no escalator,” he tells me. “Then I wouldn’t have gone in the first place,” I protest. Nevertheless, as I was the amateur I obliged and began learning the two different methods for climbing up a mountain on skis (neither of which were to simply take off the skis, put them over my shoulder, and walk up the mountain in boots). Instead I was “criss-cross upward snow-plowing” and “side-step left-right skip-back over-the-topping.”

Our practice distance was about 100 yards long. We’ll just say I was pacing myself to ensure I had the proper technique. By the time I made it to the top Erich had gone up and down the mountain five times and he wasn’t even out of breath. Meanwhile, I was taking pit-stops to take a hit from the oxygen tank ever 20 yards or so. Again I ask, why climb up a mountain on skis when there is an escalator to take me to the top?” The Swiss gave the usual response: “That is so American.” Yes, yes it is. Simultaneously I’m have hot flashes, going into cardiac arrest, and wondering why people think skiing is fun.

Ok, so I’ve got the mountain climbing portion of DOWNWARD skiing under control and Erich tells me it’s time to actually go down the mountain. We hit the escalator (thank god) that is labeled with an enormous sign that reads: “Do not wear skis on escalator.” What, might you think, the Chinese people are doing? That’s right, they’re wearing skis on the escalator! This made for quite a scene at the top, where a rather hilarious traffic jam was forming. On the escalator we met two girls wearing matching outfits, matching skis, and matching eye shadow who were dead set on taking a picture with us. They were, of course, wearing their skis. We obliged, which led to a fifteen-minute photo shoot complete with about a dozen shots in different poses from “The Heart” to “Peace” to “Pouting Teenager” to “Magnum” from Zoolander.

Ok, finally time to go DOWN the mountain, but first we have to ride the plate system up to the very top. For those who are unfamiliar a plate lift consists of a spring-loaded pole attached to a small plastic “plate” that is supposed to be placed between your legs. Because it is secured to a larger pulley system, you essentially just coast up the slope effortlessly. I’ll be the first to admit that hooking oneself into this contraption was no easy task. Again, feet strapped to ten-foot long rods. Ski poles in hands. Chaos. Still, after some careful observation of a few French know-it-alls I had planned my approach.

The same cannot be said for my Chinese counterparts. There was obviously no line to get on in the first place, which meant there weren’t just people pushing of shoving, but there were people attached to skis pushing and shoving. When they finally reached the front it took at least three or four tries to actually latch themselves onto the plate. It doesn’t stop which makes things a bit more difficult, but why in the world might you think it’s a good idea to zip the plastic disk into your jacket or slide it up your coat sleeve? Some people just held onto it with their hands and let it pull their torso forward until the back of their skis came off the ground. At this point they would lose their balance, let go, and fall to the ground right as the bar came swinging backward, just missing their head. This song and dance got even more intense when the person was “riding” a snowboard instead of skis. After all, those don’t even point forward!

Twenty minutes later it was my turn. Thankfully, I managed to figure it out on the first try, which saved me a great deal of embarrassment. It was during this ride to the top that I was able to really “see” what indoor skiing in Shanghai, China is all about.

For whatever reason it seems Chinese people don’t really take the time to fully learn the proper way to do certain things, like Yoga or skiing. We in the west tend to take this too far in the opposite direction, but there is something to be said for understanding the proper technique. After just one time down the mountain many of the Chinese had upgraded themselves to the jumps, which ran just parallel to the lift. This allowed for maximum exposure (and several near-death collisions). They would come hurling straight down the mountain, hit the jump, fly into the air, get scared, throw their poles (which, at this height and speed more resembled speasrs than ski poles), and come crashing to the ground in a number of less than pleasant positions. The first woman landed skis out, pulling her legs out around her body and up to her head. The next guy (on a snowboard) hit the snow on his knees, flipping the board backward so far that it actually made contact with his neck! Then came the glee twins, our photo-op buddies. They came racing down the mountain (right beside one another, holding hands, obviously), hitting the ramp just out of sync with one another. This sent the first girl spiraling in a circular motion, with the second girl following close behind. As they hit the ground their skis came off, firing like bullets into other skiers, children in sleds, and people on the lift. It was a dramatic scene.

What made each and every one of these disasters so incredibly odd is that there was no emotional sadness or pain in the aftermath. Instead, everyone I saw lifted his or her head out of the snow laughing and smiling! I could never imagine anyone I know recovering in the same way. It seems that a staple of the Chinese people is their incredible flexibility, that actually allows for such gut-wrenching incidents to occur with little to know consequences.

The rest of the day went quite well. Erich told me I had great form and did incredibly well for my first time on the slopes. I believe his exact words were: “You’re a natural.” Unlike the Chinese, I will keep practicing. After all, I can’t even touch my toes; much less twist my body into a human pretzel after launching off of a ski ramp!