NEW YORK, April 20 — Tucked beneath a shallow outcropping in the rolling lowlands of the Altai Mountains, four men glide along the shadow-pocked rock face, their faint silhouettes stalking a herd of unsuspecting ibex. To their left, a fifth swoops downhill, corralling the beasts with a spear in his hand.
His pigmented frame arcs from left, to right, and back again — a ski turn that may be the oldest ever recorded.
The hunters are part of a cave painting in the northern tip of China’s Xinjiang province, a wedge of territory that pokes up between Mongolia to the east and Kazakhstan to the west. According to Chinese archaeologists, the painting dates back more than 10,000 years — 2,000 more than the next earliest ski artefact on record.
Now, as the popularity of winter sports explodes in China, driven by President Xi Jinping’s decree that his country would have 300 million winter sports enthusiasts by the time it hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics, ski tour companies have begun opening their doors in this remote region. The first heli-skiing and snowmobile-access tours started operating this winter in the nearby village of Khom, offering trips deep into the heart of the Altai.
And while international scholars and historians are slowly coming around to the idea that sliding on snow may have indeed originated here instead of the Scandinavian mountains that were long considered its cradle, a deeper battle over skiing’s origins is already being waged within China’s own borders.
It is a struggle marked by fears that ethnic minorities like the Mongols and Kazakhs who have long lived in these mountains will have their way of life choked off by encroaching modernity — and the country’s ethnic Han Chinese majority, which dominates a government that has had no qualms shaping Chinese culture in its own image.
The ethnic Han “never used these boards, yet they are claiming an attachment to it,” said a traditional skier who flies the flag of Kazakhstan over his family’s log home in Khom, the village that shares its name with the river that runs through this valley. “Maybe it’s a national pride thing, but in reality it’s our ancestors that were doing it.”
Like many in this village in northern Xinjiang, China’s largest region of this area, the skier was hesitant to speak openly about the collision of cultures in his backyard, fearing his words could bring retribution. He grew up on skis, venturing into the mountains behind his home on tall, hand-hewn wooden planks just as his Kazakh ancestors — products of the many nomadic waves that swept Central Asia over thousands of years — did before him. His Mongolian neighbours often do the same, and a handful of Tuwas, a small mountain culture of Mongolian descent, are considered the best skiers in the valley.
The skier considers the Han Chinese to be foreigners who pull governmental strings thousands of miles to the east in a capital he will never visit.
He had barely seen an ethnic Han skier when Shan Zhaojian, a Han ski historian who was led to the cave paintings by Altai herders, announced to the world at a news conference in Beijing in 2006 that China was the “original place for human skiing”.
Shan, 79, had long sought the true origin story for skiing. He has dedicated more than 60 years to the sport — he won China’s first Nordic national championship — and consulted for China’s 2022 Winter Olympic Committee. But it is his obsession with skiing’s roots that has become his life’s work.
The International Ski Federation, the sport’s major governing body, has declared a ski found in a Northern Russia bog as the oldest scientifically dated evidence of skiing in the world. And Norwegian cave paintings depicting skiers dating to 4,000BC are considered by experts as evidence of an early ski culture with Scandinavian roots.
The cave paintings Shan came upon in 1993 are believed to be far older, although they have not been carbon-dated, leading to some scepticism among ski historians that the paintings are truly as old as the Chinese researchers say they are. Two years ago, he organised a conference of leading historians from Scandinavia, North America, and local Central Asian communities to share the histories of skiing from different parts of the world.
There is no consensus that any of the ethnic groups of the Altai can stake a claim as the rightful heirs of the painted skiers — thousands of years of conquest, including when the region came under the rule of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1700s, have left such a determination all but impossible — but the locals here have bristled under the idea that skiing could be claimed as the history of the country to which they owe their citizenship rather than the ethnic bloodlines to which they owe their heritage.
“Education is the way to ease tension,” Shan said. “Ten thousand years ago was still the Stone Ages, there was no minority diversity, no country borders. As a researcher, being tolerant of opinions different from one’s own is the most important thing.”
So far, Shan and his team of ski historians have done this work without much public fanfare. He believes recognition for Altai skiing’s history will grow as the 2022 Games approach, and he hopes that will lead to funding for a ski history museum and a ski history foundation.
Those efforts, and the arrival of new businesses looking to capitalise on the region’s history and bring modern skiers to the mountains of the Altai, would be an economic boon to one of the poorest sections of China. But the looming possibility of cultural appropriation has the traditional skiers nervous. In the past, such recognition has come as a double-edged sword — one that has carved up local communities trying to preserve their cultural identity.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese government started rounding up the most talented musicians from ethnic minorities and trained them to play revised versions of their traditional music. The groups were told the exercise would make the pieces more pleasing to ethnic Han ears.
“Many members of China’s minority ethnic groups perceive that their cultural heritage is not respected, and that they are treated as second-class citizens by the dominant Han Chinese,” said Ben Hillman, senior lecturer of comparative politics at Australian National University who has written about ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. “This leaves some members of minority groups with a feeling of identity insecurity.”
Nils Larsen, an American ski historian, writer, and documentarian who has made 10 trips to Xinjiang since 2005, was more blunt.
“They are very worried about getting exploited,” he said.
In recent decades, Han Chinese have flocked to Xinjiang to tap its abundant reserves of natural gas and fossil fuels (the vast region — one-sixth of China’s total area — is home to a significant portion of China’s coal, natural gas and oil reserves).
The rapid influx of Han newcomers has caused varying levels of tension with the region’s predominant ethnic groups. The worst manifestations of those ill feelings — knife assaults, suicide attacks, and car bombings — involved ethnic Uighurs to the south of the Altai Mountains, but the consequences of that violence still reverberate into its valleys.
Along the desert highway connecting Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, to Altai City, armed guards patrol the fences surrounding gas stations, a precaution against suicide car bombers. Law enforcement checkpoints are set up sporadically along stretches of open road.
The mountain villages have been isolated from violence, but they are not isolated from commerce.
A road that winds its way along the steep walls of the valley links Khom with the outside world. Although its lone defence against frequent avalanches is a single bulldozer — a machine that arrived only in 2008 and must sometimes clear miles of snowy debris — the maintained road has lured away many young men from Khom and to the economic opportunity of far-off city centres.
That has left behind a troublesome age gap for a tradition that has long been passed down from generation to generation.
Larsen called it “a narrowing circle”.
“Less and less people are skiing, and less and less are teaching their kids to ski,” he said.
During Larsen’s early excursions, the hills surrounding Khom were full of ski tracks.
“My last trip, it was just a couple,” he said. “The difference is stunning.”
Connecting with the past
A few hours by horse from Khom’s pair of provisions stores, tailor, and wood-fired sauna, Meyrbek Halaobek, another ethnic Kazakh, works diligently outside his cabin, halving a spruce log with a few mighty swings of his axe. Short, calculated cuts follow, carving from the log a pair of thick, flat boards.
Halaobek knows the traditional ski-building process well, having learned it from his father, who learned it from his father before him. After buffing out the plank with a belt sander and drilling holes for the leather binding straps (two modern changes that have found favour), he pours boiling water on the tips of the planks to make them pliable. Using a string wrapped around the tip, he wedges the ski in between the rungs of what looks like a narrow wooden ladder, and pulls.
When the wood dries in its new shape, it is strung with leather to form a foot strap, and hide from a horse’s leg is cut and stretched to fit the bottom, with the grain of the coat running from tip to tail. When a skier is travelling uphill, the hair provides traction on the snow to keep him from slipping, while still permitting a free-flowing descent. The skis will be paired with a long wooden pole that will be used as a sort of rudder for downhill turns.
Halaobek rarely builds skis anymore. The traditional skis of his ancestors were primarily hunting and trapping tools, allowing tribesmen to catch and kill prey that struggled in the deep winter snows. But hunting and trapping were outlawed by the national government in the 1990s.
So, too, was cutting down trees. Halaobek must now collect deadfall in order to make his skis.
Securing a future
The old ways have not dwindled away completely, however.
In 2006, Shan, the ethnic Han historian, helped create the Old Fur Skis Race, a traditional ski competition in Altay City that brings together Kazakh, Mongol, Tuwa and Han Chinese skiers. Even as fewer young people have taken up traditional skiing, the event has attracted nearly 100 athletes of varying ages each year since its inception.
The locals organised their own spinoff race, too. Every January since 2008, two weeks before the Old Fur race, Mongols and Kazakhs vie for village supremacy in a race that incorporates a series of stops for archery shooting. The event is akin to a stone-age biathlon, and in line with the region’s hunting ancestry — an authentic representation of what these handmade tools were meant to do in deep powder snow.
“Ten thousand years ago, the only way our ancestors could eat was because they could ski,” said the traditional skier in Khom. “If they didn’t eat, we wouldn’t be here, so there is a strong connection to the past.”
But with the modern world eating at the roots of that past, it may be outside forces like Shan and his team, rather than the efforts of locals, that canonise Altai’s ski history on a global scale. With the 2022 Games on the horizon and downhill skiing rising in popularity, China’s next steps will ultimately determine the survival of ancient ways that could have very well birthed a modern sport.
“The ideal plans for the Altai skiing,” Shan said, “is to preserve its history.”
Back under the rock outcropping, the painted prehistoric skiers of the Altai Mountains are still making their descent.
The plaque nearby that explains their history is etched in both Chinese and Kazakh, with parts of the latter haphazardly scratched out. Tibetan prayer flags hang at the cave’s entrance. The skiers themselves are behind bars — a steel cage that is meant to protect them. — The New York Times