What a crazy few days this was! My friend Johno Verity was supposed to go on this trip but then pulled out and so I took his place. Here is what was written about it on www.wired.com
ZHONGWEI, China — Even in the depths of isolation under Mao, one element of Chinese culture allowed its people to travel abroad and glimpse an alternative way of life: sport.
As capitalism, albeit run under communism, has consumed Chinese life, sport remains a huge part of the national ethos and the country will field one of the largest teams at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. But China has of late increasingly had its eye on traditionally western sports like Formula 1, “extreme sports” and winter games. Four-time British snowboard champion Dom Harington has for example noticed more Chinese competitors on the slopes.
“There are more and more Chinese who are into snowboarding and other adventure sports,” says Harington, who lives and trains in Colorado each summer. “I’ve seen some Chinese guys training in America. They’ve got a really good half pipe team, and they’re really keen.”
“What I would say about the Chinese is that they’re really brave,” Harington says. “They’re not afraid to give something a go, or really go for something. There are lots of tricks in snowboarding which are quite scary to try, and they’re really keen to give it a go.”
Harington is on the slopes as we are talking. But we’re not in the Rockies. Or even on snow. We’re 900 miles west of Beijing, sliding down a piste of sand.
A half-mile-wide wall of desert dunes plummets 600 feet to the banks of the Yellow River. The Chinese have played on the sand for years, but the run at Zhongwei has been groomed as one of the highest sand-skiing slopes in the world. The big daddy of sand runs, at more than 1,000 feet, is Sossusvlei in Namibia, but Zhongwei remains impressive.
Harington is here for Land Rover’s 8,000-mile Journey of Discovery, an expedition from the United Kingdom to Beijing that’s allowed us to explore a secret Soviet submarine lair and hang out with an avalanche control team in Italy. Now the bosses in Gaydon want Harington to race a Land Rover LR4. So here we are, practicing among a crowd of avid sandboarders with Chinese adventure sports nut Simon Chen.
As a parasailer soars overhead and someone on a zip wire flies toward the river, Chen uses one of the toboggans you can rent for little more than a dollar to bat down the 50-degree slope. Harington rides an old snowboard, lubricated heavily to speed his descent on the hot sand. It’s midday on a Thursday, and the slopes are sparsely populated.
“I’ve not sandboarded anywhere like this,” Harington says. “This is incredible. It’s got steep sand dunes so you can pick up lots of speed. There is quite a lot of friction on sand so it’s not as fast as snow, but you can get some speed.
The transition from snow to sand is not tricky. Harington says the trick is to keep your weight back, kind of like surfing. Don’t lean too far forward, and don’t put too much weight on the edges or you’ll fall.
“The technique to sandboarding is really similar to snowboarding,” Harington says. “If you can snowboard, you can sandboard.”
Forget cute alpine cafes with hot chocolate and glühwein to warm you after a few hours on the mountain. Zhongwei is authentically Chinese. A sole parasol at the foot of the slope shields a mask-wearing woman selling warm soft drinks. A small army of men in quasi-military outfits collect toboggans and run the single chairlift. To a man, they all stop and stare as Harington blasts down the hill.
“One of the guys working here just said you are the fastest down this slope,” Chen tells him.
Everyone we see on the slope is using a toboggan, but Chen says the weekends draw a lot guys racing on sandboards. We’re due in Beijing and can’t stick around for that, so Harington races the Landie. The rules are simple. Harington takes position at the lip of the dune. The LR4 needs a running start to avoid bottoming out. Once the truck hits the lip, it’s on. First to the bottom wins.
As the sound of the V8 approaching breaks the silence, Harington is bouncing up and down like a coiled spring. The rest of us are down below, watching. As soon as the car hits the lip, Harington leaps into the air and zips headfirst down the dune.
The car weighs three tons and must churn through, not surf over, the sand. Despite its inertial advantage, Harington’s fleetness of foot quickly has them neck and neck. The driver and snowboarder eye each other for a moment as they barrel down the slope. In the end, horsepower beats manpower, but only by a couple of feet.
“It was awesome. Like a James Bond stunt,” Harington said. “I could see the Yellow River as I was flying down, so it was just incredible. Hopefully next winter I’ll some and snowboard in China. That would be amazing.”
Photos, video: Incworld.com