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 traveling 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 organized 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 canonize 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.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Xinjiang. It is an autonomous region, not a province. The error was repeated in a picture caption.
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