In a sweltering hot room of a sports school in Beijing’s northern suburb, Lang Enge and his peers diligently practice their skiing on a fast-moving ski machine.
Despite their skills on the machine, they are ordinary farmers who own small farmlands and work a few odd jobs at construction sites or secondhand car markets during the offseason.
Lang, a 29-year-old former shepherd, is now the leader of the Haituo ski team, which consists of 25 villagers from Yanqing district, 74 kilometers away from downtown Beijing.
“We love skiing and gather together for one dream – hoping to work as volunteers at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” said Lang.
Yanqing was thrust into the global spotlight when Beijing and Zhangjiakou in adjacent Hebei Province won their co-bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on July 31 2015.
“My life has changed a lot since then,” Lang said.
Goodbye sheep, hello snow
Born in a village in Zhangshanying town, administered by Yanqing, Lang owned a small corn field and a flock of more than 300 sheep.
“I was a good shepherd,” Lang said. “I could identify the exact sheep even if I closed my eyes and only heard its bleating. I could also help them give birth, and administer an injection or medicine when they were ill.”
Zhangshanying town is set to stage events including alpine skiing, bobsled, skeleton, and luge in 2022. The township government has enforced stricter environmental regulations in recent years.
Sanitation workers repeatedly complained about Lang’s sheep damaging the environment.
“The sheep ate up grass on the mountains and left feces wherever they went,” Lang said.
He made a difficult decision to sell his entire flock in 2016 for just 330 yuan ($48) a head, far lower than the 1,300 yuan he’d paid.
“It was not a good time as there was an outbreak of infectious diseases affecting sheep. The buyers squeezed down the price,” he recalled. “But I dealt with the loss for the sake of the environment, and the government officials told me that they would offer support if I wanted to start a meaningful business.”
An idea suddenly struck him.
Lang and many of his friends are good skiers. In the late 1990s, the Shijinglong Ski Resort was established near their hometown. Some local residents worked in the resort and often secretly took village children inside to play.
“I felt curious about this sport, and learned on my own by watching and imitating the skiers’ movements,” Lang recalled. “I forget my troubles after a day out on the snow, and I rarely get sick due to ski practice. It’s good for the body and the mind.”
He called in his friends who can ski and decided to set up a ski team, hoping to train more locals how to ski and help them enjoy the pleasure of this activity.
Strapping on the skis
His idea was supported by the township government officials. In July 2017, the Haituo ski team, named after a nearby mountain, was established. The team now has 25 villagers with an average age of less than 30.
To help them hone their skills, the local sports bureau offered them opportunities to train with foreign and Chinese instructors. Many team members have passed tests and earned different ski instructor certificates.
China has pledged to have “300 million people involved in snow and ice sports events” while it is preparing for the Winter Olympic Games.
Snow and ice sports are not very popular, even in northern China, because of the high cost and lack of snow.
“We have seen a growing enthusiasm for ice and snow sports since Beijing’s successful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” said Cui Xulong, Party chief of Zhangshanying Township.
Cui said that the event would be a valuable opportunity for the local government to develop ice and snow sports industries, boost employment and increase residents’ income.
“First of all, people should enjoy and master the skills of skiing. Haituo ski team has set a good example,” he said.
With government subsidies, Lang’s team helped train more than 5,000 people including farmers, students and volunteers in Yanqing district last winter.
Students from Yanqing’s primary and middle schools began learning how to ski and ice skate during their PE class in 2015. As of early this year, more than 10,000 students have been covered by this project.
The district plans to teach at least 2,000 residents how to do a variety of ice and snow sports each winter over the next two years.
Lang has a long-term vision. He wants to change his hobby into a profession. A ski instructor can earn at least 40,000 yuan each winter season, which usually lasts around three months.
Currently, he works as a contract worker for a local government agency, helping check villagers’ heating systems and fire protection equipment, to earn an extra income of 2,000 yuan a month.
Changes are gradually taking place to everyone and every village in Yanqing. “Three years ago when I cracked my herding whip, I never expected that one day my skiing dream would come true,” Lang said.