In 2005 I [Nils Larsen] traveled with two friends, photographer Dave Waag and expedition veteran Naheed Henderson, to the Chinese Altai Mountains. This remote range is right in the center of Asia and sits at the intersection of China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.
Deep in these mountains, indigenous skiing survives to this day, still used as a tool for travel and hunting during the long and brutally cold winters. The skis and skiing style in the region are direct descendants from the skis used thousands of years ago, giving us a window into one of man’s most ancient – and effective – tools. The three of us spent a month in the mountains documenting skiing use and traditions as well as the day to day life of these hardy people.
Since that first trip in 2005 I have traveled to the region six more times , each trip revealing more about the ski culture in the Altais and expanding my understanding of the traditional use of skis - in the Altai but also in a broader sense too. The history is indeed rich and the skill involved in making and using these is truly impressive. My first impressions of rather crudely made skis with limited functionality have been replaced by a deep respect for the skills and versatility of these skis, so perfectly adapted to this environment over thousands of years.
In 2008 I completed my first film on the project - Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan, TheTimeless Skiers of the Altai - As with the first trip in 2005, I thought I would have completed the project with this film. But I have returned twice more and am planning a trip for this winter as well.
The following are images collected over the last five years accompanied by brief descriptions that will give you some idea of the skis, skiers and general culture of the area.
At long last I am getting some information up about my ongoing project on indigenous skiing in the Altai Mountains of NW China. Since completing the film in January of 2008 I have returned once to the Altai, leaving on December 15th and returning on January 15th. The weather was cold and dry while I was there, something that has been all too common in my visits. It did start snowing two days after I left though, and ended up being quite a big winter.
Despite the dry weather I did get some excellent footage (I have now switched to HD). I also met with Shan Zhaojian, the Chinese ski historian who has been promoting the traditional skiing in NW China and has organized the local (Altai) ski races for the last few years. This year there was a first time race in Hkom that featured a hunting format. Skiers raced pulling a skin sled (Suderga) and made 3 loops on a 2+ Km course. The race was also part biathalon, with racers having to hit a target with a bow and arrow on each loop.
Racing were two skiers from the film, Bater (from the Kanas area), who unforunately broke his tiak (pole) part way through so he finished back of the pack, and Tursen, who finished 6th. He was handicaped by the archery as he is missing two fingers on his pulling hand and consequently missed a target, forcing him to ski and additional penalty leg (Tursen finished 2nd in a later race in Altai City). The winner was Mulchen, a very strong skier and son of Tuntek, also in the film. A few racers traveled from Kanderghat, a small town near Altai City and the home of all the good racers from that area. The top finisher from this crew was 2nd and another placed in the top 5.
Prize money is substantial by local standards for the races, which gives added incentive to race, but there is a fierce competition amoungst the young men that gets them out training and generally skiing a lot. My initial skepticism with the races has changed, and I now see the races as a way to keep traditional skiing alive in the Altai.
I had a couple of days skiing with Tursen and Ashatu (from the film) as well as a few other locals from Aukkorum, near Hkom. There was one young skier of 11 who joined us and did great, very keen despite some impressive falls in the below zero snow. The area is tucked in the mountains and has a lot of snow for the region, and seems to have a high density of skiers - perhaps all the men. On a tour we saw lots of other ski tracks as well as a cache of skis - kind of a winter camp. Tursen also pointed out a small snare, the first I had seen in the Altai, and undoubtedly used for squirrels (tien). We also had a great sighting of a large woodpecker, called Tokoldoe. SIzed about like our Pileated, it had a minimal crown and was predominantly black with a bit of white.
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