Indigenous Skiing in the Altai Mountains of NW China

The area where Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, and China meet is called the Altai Knot and is in the heart of the Altai Mountains. The Altai area is also  dead center on the Eurasian continent.The area where Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, and China meet is called the Altai Knot and is in the heart of the Altai Mountains. The Altai area is also dead center on the Eurasian continent.
Skiing has long been considered to originate in Scandinavia, and modern skiing, skiing as we know it, most certainly did. But the roots of skiing stretch back through time to the end of the last great ice age and quite possibly originate in central Asia.
We travel in the mountains on horse drawn sleds called chanas.  The horses are extremely tough and cold hardy, and are the mainstay for local travel in the region.We travel in the mountains on horse drawn sleds called chanas. The horses are extremely tough and cold hardy, and are the mainstay for local travel in the region.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

Roads are built into some areas of the mountains and as of 2009 there is an attempt to plow 2 of them that go to the main villages of Kanas and Kom.Roads are built into some areas of the mountains and as of 2009 there is an attempt to plow 2 of them that go to the main villages of Kanas and Kom.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

Avalanches are common and the roads are often closed due to this.Avalanches are common and the roads are often closed due to this.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

The first documentary trip was in 2005 and I was accompanied by Dave Waag, who shot stills, and Naheed Henderson, who had been in the Altai once before in 2003. The first documentary trip was in 2005 and I was accompanied by Dave Waag, who shot stills, and Naheed Henderson, who had been in the Altai once before in 2003.  Photo by Dave Wagg

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.

These are the first skis we saw, launching what has become a long journey of discovery for me. Later that day Aukqoiyan skied with us in a light snowfall, hooking me completely to this unique story.These are the first skis we saw, launching what has become a long journey of discovery for me. Later that day Aukqoiyan skied with us in a light snowfall, hooking me completely to this unique story.  Photo by Dave Wagg

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.

On our first trip to the small settlement of Tubek we found many skiers, and what turned out to be the longest skis I have seen in the Altai.On our first trip to the small settlement of Tubek we found many skiers, and what turned out to be the longest skis I have seen in the Altai.  Photo by Dave Wagg

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.

When using Chanas we hire one or more horseman - usually owners of the horses and chanas - to come with us. Doni has been on many of my trips and is a good friend and guardian while traveling. He is also an incorrigible  drinker and smoker, not uncommon in the Altai.When using Chanas we hire one or more horseman - usually owners of the horses and chanas - to come with us. Doni has been on many of my trips and is a good friend and guardian while traveling. He is also an incorrigible drinker and smoker, not uncommon in the Altai.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

I have traveled to Tubek every trip as it has a lot of skiers and is a beautiful area. This last winter (2010) had the most snow of any of the trips so far and there was a lot of skis being used as a result. We had a beautiful moon while there.I have traveled to Tubek every trip as it has a lot of skiers and is a beautiful area. This last winter (2010) had the most snow of any of the trips so far and there was a lot of skis being used as a result. We had a beautiful moon while there.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

MonkChergul traveled with me for about a week in 2010, skiing and just spending some time with us. He's a great young guy and a pretty good skier, and knows everyone in the area.MonkChergul traveled with me for about a week in 2010, skiing and just spending some time with us. He's a great young guy and a pretty good skier, and knows everyone in the area.  Photo by Nils Larsen

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.

Bater was the first young guy we met in 2005 who was keen on skiing. We stayed and skied with him for a few days and I've visited him on all trips since. He is skiing here from behind his house and into the Kanas River valley.Bater was the first young guy we met in 2005 who was keen on skiing. We stayed and skied with him for a few days and I've visited him on all trips since. He is skiing here from behind his house and into the Kanas River valley.  Photo by Dave Wagg

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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4 Comments

ALGAR
ALGAR

October 06, 2014

The Altai knot is extremely dangerous area and you have to have the necessary skills and supplies to make it in and out of their alive.

Genghis Khan is said to have used this area as did the Romans Visigoths Normans Druids Saxons ect.

It also the burial ground for a lot of the Roman Legions

Abhijit Sarkar
Abhijit Sarkar

August 27, 2013

Very nice picture. Add more pics on mountain & snowy area.

VintageWinter
VintageWinter

December 15, 2012

Hey Verna,
We agree and are constantly amazed at the stunning places around the world. If you are looking for a copy of this film we have them in stock and sell them here – http://www.vintagewinter.com/products/skiing-in-the-shadow-of-genghis-khan-dvd

Verna
Verna

December 15, 2012

I love reading blogs about peoples’ travel and exploration expeditions. We live ;in a huge, beautiful, very interesting world.
Where could I get a copy of your film “Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan,…..”

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