Skiing in China
Though she was a relative latecomer to the sport of cross-country skiing, Amy Xu has become an avid proponent of its benefits.
"It's a lifelong sport," says Xu, who co-owns Waubun's Rainbow Resort along with her husband, Mike Schumann and his brother and sister-in-law, Doug and Linda Schumann.
"I just love the beauty of nature and being out in the quiet (atmosphere). Then you have the fitness part of it, staying healthy.
"Some people like to run all year round, and I used to do it too, but that's so hard on your joints."
Skiing, on the other hand, is a gentler form of exercise -- and a good way for bikers, runners and other athletes to stay fit in their sport's off-season.
Xu considers herself a "friendly ambassador" for the sport, not just in Minnesota, but also in her native China. In fact, she is now a family ambassador for the Vasaloppet International Exchange, a network of cross country ski racing events held in Sweden, the USA, Japan and most recently, China.
"I never saw snow until I came to Minnesota," said Xu, who made the move from China to the U.S. after enrolling as a transfer student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Not that China doesn't have its share of snow-covered peaks, but Xu grew up in Shanghai, where the climate was too warm for the white stuff.
Once she was introduced to the sport of skiing by some college friends, however, she was hooked.
"I loved it," she said. "I loved the snow, I loved the northern woods, so I just kept skiing and met more people ... I started competing in it as well, including some races in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and at our own resort."
Back in 2002, a friend of Xu's from Sweden told her that China was starting up a new marathon cross-country skiing event as part of the Vasaloppet International Exchange.
It is modeled on the original Vasaloppet, held annually on the first Sunday of March in northwestern Sweden -- which is the oldest, the longest and the biggest (in terms of participants) cross-country ski race in the world.
The inaugural Vasaloppet China was held in March 2003 -- and Xu traveled as part of a contingent of nine Minnesota skiers who competed with Team USA.
"I still remember clearly Vasaloppet China's inaugural year," Xu says. "The most impressive thing I recall was the strong will and spirits of the race organization and the local Chinese people.
"I remember that two weeks before that race, there was a huge dust storm, and with the sun and unusually warm temperature in March, the race course was wiped out almost entirely. There was NO snow on the race course! The dream of having this Vasaloppet China International event almost came to an end.
"But the organizers decided to proceed. They acquired special snow-making and grooming equipment and hired almost 500 local workers to push the man-made snow onto a 12-kilometer loop, man-made ski trail for the race. It was one of the longest man-made snow belt I have ever seen."
That year, Team USA had nine skiers from Minnesota who participated in the inaugural event. She said. "All of us really enjoyed the experience, beautiful scenery, and the behind-the-scene spirits."
Since then, Xu has participated in six more Vasaloppet China events -- including last year's 10th anniversary celebration.
The race is now held annually on Jan. 2, at Jing Yue Tan Park in Changchun, China, and is actually part of a spectacular winter festival.
"They have snow sculptures like you won't believe -- they're huge!" Xu said. "It's a month-long winter celebration, like our Winter Carnival in St. Paul -- only on about 10 times the scale."
Xu had planned to take part in this year's race as well, and actually made the trip to China for the event -- but when temperatures plummeted to 40 degrees below zero, she opted not to enter.
"They did have the race, but it was dangerously cold," she said. "Only about 60 people finished the race."
She does hope to get back there to compete someday -- but for now, she's concentrating on Rainbow Resort's last big event of the winter season, the Rainbow Rendezvous, set to get underway March 2.
"I love to work to bring more people out to this area to ski -- it's so beautiful out there," she said. "In the Detroit Lakes area alone, you have Maplelag, Itasca, and Rainbow."
And then there are the ski clubs that have developed trails in the Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Fargo-Moorhead areas, Xu said.
There's even a website, Skinnyski.com, that maintains data on all the available trails for cross country skiing in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"Do a little research, talk to people in the ski shops -- you'll find some trails," she said. "And then there's the back country, where they don't groom the trails -- you can just go and ski.