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Marketplace

Olympic Village: A Chinese ski town becomes a boomtown

Rob Schmitz Sep 30, 2015
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The doors to the office for China’s Olympics Bidding Committee in the city of Zhangjiakou are secured with a bike lock. Committee officials sit inside smoking. It’s not a scene you’d imagine for a place that was just awarded the 2022 Winter Games.

“It was a good time to bid,” admitted committee Deputy Director Zhang Chunsheng. “In the end, it came down to just two countries.”

Zhang is proud Team China beat out Team Kazakhstan to host the games. Zhangjiakou, a city of 4 million people in the mountains of Hebei province, will host the games alongside Beijing. The two cities are currently more than a three-hour drive apart from each other, but a planned high-speed train will cut that down to less than an hour.

Zhang admits it was no coincidence there weren’t any developed countries in the final bidding round for the winter games.

“People in more developed countries aren’t sure whether the Olympics will be good for them,” Zhang said, “but people here want change. They hope the Olympics will bring more opportunity.” 

Zhang Chunsheng, deputy director of the Olympics Bidding Committee office in Zhangjiakou, stands in front of a map outlining future development of the mountainous region for the 2022 Winter Games. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

A half hour’s drive through the mountains north of Zhangjiakou in the ski town of Chongli where the Olympic alpine events will take place, it’s clear who’s got a head start.

“We’ve started construction on the four-star Tang Inn Hot Spring Club, the Tangshan Villas, and the five-star Intercontinental hotel,” recites saleswoman Zhao Tierui to a group of potential investors.

Zhao works for a developer that is building Four Seasons Town Dream Resort (no relation to the famous hotel chain). A three dimensional map at the sales office displays acres of ski runs, villas and attractions that appeal to China’s nouveau riche: a luxury spa, a royal Belgian homing pigeon base and an organic canteen.

Out-of-town investors dressed in designer sunglasses and suits hop out of luxury sport utility vehicles to take a look. Zhao Fang is among them. She bought a condo months ago before the Olympics announcement. Its value has risen by 20 percent, so she’s come back to buy another.

“I was thinking that if we got the Olympics, the price would certainly rise like crazy. And that’s what happened! I’m thrilled,” Zhao gushed.

Investor Zhao Fang stands in front of a scaled map of Four Seasons Town Dream Resort, a ski-themed development that is under construction in Chongli. The condo she purchased in March has already risen by 20 percent in value since the announcement of the 2022 Winter Games. She returned to buy another. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

Somebody’s who’s not so thrilled: a pair of local officials who’ve been tipped off that a foreign journalist is in town. They insist on escorting me wherever I go. “We won’t intervene. We just want good publicity for our motherland,” they assure me with nervous smiles.

I tell them they’re about to become the main characters in this story. They think about that for a moment and then split.

There’s a reason why they’re nervous.

They’re worried I’ll talk to people like Lu Wanku, who will be forced to move to make way for the region’s investment boom. Lu herds cattle and has lived in his tiny brick home for more than 20 years. His home is now in the way of a Four Seasons Town Dream Resort ski run.

The home of farmer Lu Wanku stands in the way of a ski run that’s being excavated for Four Seasons Town Dream Resort. The local government is compensating Lu the equivalent of $3,000 for his home. He’s been told he has two weeks to leave his home, where he’s lived for more than 20 years. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

He says the local government plans to compensate him with a paltry few thousand dollars for his house. Lu has two weeks to move out.

“I guess I’ll go further up into the mountains,” Lu said, watching excavators clear a ski run above him. “Who can afford to live here anymore? I’ve never even seen people ski before, but they’re building a resort on top of me. It doesn’t matter. Who can stand in the way of the Olympics? You do what you’re told.”

That’s the attitude in nearby Taizicheng too. It’s a farming village that’ll soon be wiped off the map for the Olympic Village. In seven years, thousands of athletes from all over the world will stay here. But now, in its final days, the only sign of life on the village’s main street is a camel tied to a post, chewing hay. The creature stands in front of a propaganda sign warning villagers about religious cults and drugs.

A camel stands along the main street of Taizicheng village. The tiny village will be destroyed to make way for the Olympic Village, which will house thousands of Olympians in 2022. Local officials haven’t decided yet where the residents will move. (Rob Schmitz/Marketplace)

A farmer on a tractor selling chicken parts drives past. Lu Zhenfang stops to chat on her way home from her cabbage field. She’s lived here all her life. “I hope they build a new village for us,” Lu says. “If they give us land, I suppose I’ll continue to farm. If not, then I’ll have to see.”

Lu seems blasé about the whole affair. One reason is that none of the residents have heard when or where they will move. The other reason might be the local official who showed up as I began talking to her, a different one from the pair at the sales office, but just as jittery. I asked him where everyone’s going to move.

He doesn’t know either.

Up at the Genting Ski Resort where the Winter Olympic alpine events will take place, Marketing Director Isaac Zhao shook his head at all the confusion and the ballooning real estate bubble.

“We’ve told the local government money is not what is needed right now,” Zhao said. “You need a plan. You need to let the world see that in seven years, a small town like ours can host an international event. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Local restaurant owner Hou Manyu agreed. He worked as a chef for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s after returning from China’s brief war with Vietnam in the late 1970s. His red credentials are deep — his communist-themed restaurant is adorned with photos of Chairman Mao. Hou said he’s proud the motherland will host the Olympics, but he hopes the local proletariat gets something out of the deal.

“Judging from the current situation, I don’t think the Olympics will benefit the common people whatsoever,” Hou said. “Land prices will climb sky high. But if you’re a big businessman, you’ll make millions. They’re screwing it up for us locals.”

As he says this, a customer tells Hou to be careful what he says to a foreign journalist. “What?” He yells back. “It’s the truth.”

He keeps an eye on his customer and says: “The Communist Party tells the truth.”

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