I am a terrible skier. In fact, I would not even consider myself a skier, I am more of a “faller”. Every year, when friends suggest we all go skiing in Japan I first try to avoid the conversation, then politely change the topic and lastly, when all other options fail and the mood starts to build up around “how cool it would be to go skiing in Japan with the kids and some friends next winter”, I cave in and admit that I don’t even know how to put on a pair of skies. Despite being European, I may well learn to ski in Asia so I can return home to Europe and enjoy the weekend snow escapes from Barcelona.
But I am sure I am not the only one in this pickle. After all, skiing is an expensive sport usually left to the wealthy. When the leaves start to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, all the sorry sports-challenged people like me fear the time when friends will suggest a skiing vacation. Like many others, I never wanted to become the asocial friend who stays in Singapore when all the rest are skiing in the slopes of Hokkaido, like Niseko. And here I am, looking for the best places for non-skiers to learn to ski in Asia so I can make it a New Year’s promise to myself. And who knows, maybe I will even join the elites descending effortlessly down the Japanese slopes in style, rather than rolling down in the shape of a snowball.
Where can you ski in Asia
Living in tropical Singapore where temperatures are always hovering over the 30 degree Celsius mark even in the winter means that you never think about snow. There are some places where you can celebrate winter and Christmas in Asia, but it always feels like the slopes must be very far away when, in fact, there are no shortage of options in Asia to learn to ski. You just have to look north or south, away from the Equator.
As I pondered about how to resolve my skiing handicap I wanted to be efficient. You need a few days to learn to ski and I could not do that back home in Barcelona and head for the Catalan Pyrenees mountains or Andorra every weekend to cram in some lessons. I needed to be productive and make the most of a full week to fit in as many ski lessons as I could and go away feeling like I had learned something.
So the questions were, where can I ski near Singapore? What are the best ski resorts for beginners? And, most importantly, where will they teach me to ski in Asia?
With these prerequisites in mind, I did some research and asked a few friends and these are my recommendations for the best places for non-skiers to learn to ski in Asia.
Best places to learn to ski in Asia
Asia is a vast continent covering Korea and Japan in the far East and stretching along to the Middle East in the West. Despite most people’s mental associations, lots of Asian countries experience winter, some of them well below the freezing point. Skiing is possible in places like Iran, Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia, Korea or China among many others. The options are plenty. And if there is snow, there will be skiing and thus, ski lessons. Let’s look at the easiest places to learn to ski and also at the most beautiful ski destinations in Asia.
Hokkaido or Niseko, Japan
Japan is no doubt the best ski destination in the continent. It is also easily the most established place to ski in Asia for all levels, from beginner to advanced, with large amounts of powder snow falling every winter and plenty of slopes in all levels of difficulty. It is also the most obvious choice to learn to ski because of its well connected airport and great infrastructure. What is more, there are a lot of ski packages for Hokkaido and other destinations in Japan which include the whole family or groups of friends, with several alpine-style villas complete with butlers and nearby restaurants for a warm hot pot or sake.
The setting in Japan’s ski resort areas is great because they offer a lot more than just snow and you can easily entertain the whole family. And when you have had enough of the cold or the snow, or need to take a break from too many falls, you can retire to a snowmobile tour or an onsen. Learning to ski in Japan would therefore be the most convenient choice for me and the easiest place to convince friends to join me for some fun in the snow. I already visited Niseko in the summer and I would love to see it in the winter with the magical white powder covering it all from the comfort of an outdoor hot tub (you can see my tendency to avoid snow, cold and skiing). At least, if I didn’t manage to learn to ski, not all would be lost and I could at least enjoy fantastic Japanese food, sake and whisky, all valid enough reasons in themselves to visit Japan in the winter.
Mall of the Emirates, Dubai
Ski Dubai slope from outside
Perhaps not as obvious as Japan but the first place to learn to ski that came to mind was The Mall of the Emirates Ski Dubai. It would definitively be the best option for budget skiing in Asia with group lessons for adults starting at around $50. For less than $100 I could join the class then go down the single slope a few times on my own and I would not even have to worry about bringing the right clothes because you can rent all the gear on site. This would definitively be the easiest and cheapest place to learn to ski but it may not help me overcome my “faller” mentality.
But if all else failed and I did not learn to ski, I could at least fit in some serious shopping. And the best part? You can stay at the Kempinski Dubai Mall and have it all under one roof without even having to leave the mall. So even in the dead of summer when temperatures rise to over 45 degrees Celsius you can still be inside with the penguins (yes, Ski Dubai has penguins, real ones).
Harbin ice festival
China is close to Singapore, at least in relative terms, and I have always wanted to visit Harbin, especially for their winter wonderland ice sculpture festival in January. As one would expect, there are some great ski resorts near Harbin, like for example, Yabuli, one of the best known ski resort areas in China and with mountains only reaching 500m above sea level and 35km of slopes, including the longest ski run in Asia. Learning to ski would be quite easy and also affordable and there are direct flights from Singapore to Harbin.
The powdery slopes of Gulmarg
Yes, you can ski in India. In fact, Gulmarg, in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas, made it onto CNN’s list of the best ski resorts in Asia. The mountain has more than 1,330 vertical metres of skiable terrain and lots of snow in the winter because of its location in the Himalayas. This is not all for the list of accomplishments. The Gulmarg Gondola, the highest ski lift in the world, goes as high as 3,980 metres. I can hear the words “altitude sickness” in my head but how dramatic must the snow peaks be from above? The only difficulty vis-a-vis skiing in Japan or China is the fact that is not very easy to get there and I would need to get lots of permits and make sure I can actually make it to this disputed territory. But worth a consideration as I am sure the slopes are not as crowded as they are in Japan or Korea and I do love off-the-beaten-path destinations.
The winner for the best place to learn to ski in Asia
Of course, the four options above are not all the possibilities for a ski holiday in Asia. There are many more ski resort areas in Korea and up and coming Kazakhstan among others. I also love the passion of the Iranian skiers and the newly discovered ski resorts in northern Azerbaijan which I visited in the summer and are on the border between Europe and Asia on the mountain range that divides the two.
But these were my choices for a bit of adrenaline, adventure and something a bit different. Japan is still probably the easiest place for beginners to learn to ski, simply because the country and the resort areas are well prepared to cater to families and kids, and in skiing terms, I am like one. If I had to go for something more efficient, Ski Dubai is hard to miss. And for the novelty and adventure, the Kashmir seems like a great alternative, albeit with the same risk of altitude sickness I suffered in Tibet.