The Altai Project


2009-10 – The Big Snow Year- into the Mountains.

January 22nd, 2010

After five days in Altay City I was ready to get out of Dodge and into the mountains. In Burqin we had to do some fast talking (that would be the master of fast talking – Ayken) with the military in charge of border areas just to get the permit to head back to my normal haunts. The big snows, closed roads, and general concern with the ethnic unrest (completely absent from the mountain areas) had the officials being very cautious. On my suggestion we finally signed our lives away with releases – perhaps a first in this region – and took a bus to Chunkor and our waiting friends. A huge relief as it seemed likely that we would not be allowed into the mountains at all. More snow fell as we arrived and we found the road to be completely closed, no horses or sleds had even made it through. In fact, on the steep switchbacks out of the valley a horse and chana had been caught in an avalanche a few days prior to our arrival and the horse was killed.

We drove up the road on our 2nd day in Chunkor to check on the plowing progress. Progress was glacial slow and the snow was piled high, in places way over our heads. They had one large front end loader doing the work and it seemed woefully inadequate to the task at hand.

Ayken and I had lined up Norbek to be our horseman and we had 2 sleds, one belonging to Norbek and one from Done’s family where I was staying. On day three we set out, quickly overtaking the front end loader clearing the road and heading up a steep ramp of snow into the unplowed beyond. We passed a few chanas coming down which made our climb easier and gave us a bit of hope. As we reached the top of the main climb out of the valley the weather deteriorated  and the snow started in again in ernest……

An auspicious sign – ski tracks in the valley just out of Chunkor.

Leaving Done’s early on the 25th of January.

The chana ride through various settlements in the Chunkor valley.

On the plowed section of the road.

This is the end of the plowed road, and the start of more snow.

We came across a few chanas and some Kazakhs taking a string of horses up to their village. The horses and the drivers were a stoic lot, heads down and no chitchat. Steely eyes that would make Clint Eastwood look positively moony eyed.

We moved at the same pace as the horses and drivers for a few hours, with the weather deteriorating as we continued up the trail.

This is actually 1/2 of a  two picture panorama. The wind had reduced visibility and the horses and their minders had reached the spot to turn off the road and follow the trail to their settlement, still miles away. They were just trying to keep there horses together enough to not loose track of them in the snow. We wished them luck – auk jol bolson – literally, a good white road, white being the color of good things and good luck.

A short stop and Ayken produced a small flask of what we had coined on the first trip “Dirty Sneaker Juice”. Not recommended.

Chunkor to Tas Wue (stone house), about 48kms, is mostly uphill but we can cover the distance in a long day. In these conditions we only made it about 1/2 way before we decided to stop. The horses were tired and so were we. In fading light we pulled off at a flat roofed log house with large barking dogs, something Ayken and Norbek are very uncomfortable with. I pointed out that though they were barking fiercely, their tales were doing an occasional wag. They both considered this irrelevant to the issue, but I felt better.

The family was Kazakh and, as is usually the case, things were a bit tense to start with. As soon as mutual connections, friends, and families were established all was well. We had a big dinner of Longman (homemade noodles and meat) and slept well.

We were up early. After numerous cups of milk tea enriched with floating dollops of sour butter  and chunks of bread , we were on our way again.

From our stay here we found little in the way of recent tracks. The snow had stopped but the road and over laid horse trail was increasingly filled in. The horses proved themselves once again, pulling the loaded chanas through deeper and deeper snow and drifts. After hours of this I could tell Norbek was getting concerned. The day was passing and our progress was slowing. We decided to ski in front and break at least a bit of a trail for the horses and chanas. I had my pair of western skis and we had a pair of Altai skis that Norbek had brought along.  Ayken took these after some grumbling and soon found they were easier then walking through the deep snow with his (admittedly) short legs. It was at this point that Ayken finally got why skis were so essential in the winter. An abstraction became a reality.

The horses doing their valiant best.

Ayken the skier, helping to break trail for horses.

Nearing the top of the pass and Tas Wue.

We had been told that the front end loader stationed near Tas Wue was out of fuel so was basically a dead machine. As rumor/news often does, this turned out to be false and  as we neared Tas Wue we heard the sound of a front end loader clearing the road toward us. The 2 Chinese running the machine were a bit shocked to see us. They pulled off and we exited the unplowed road down onto the plowed and quickly make our way to Tas Wue and the widow’s gust house, one we have used as a way station over the years.

Evening and our arrival at Tas Wue.

Our start to Kanas , rabbit (Quoeyan)tracks in the foreground.

The junction-and the halfway point. To the right is the road to Hkom and straight ahead is Kanas. We choose to go to Kanas.

Jaldung Wue (house of Jal), the summer resort for Kanas. Started in 2003-4, it is now quite large and grows every year. Buildings look to me to be some kind of weird euro disney theme and don’t have a context to either the culture(s) or landscape. Clearly my taste run different then the Chinese developers of this rather well appointed resort.  The place is entirely shut down in the winter. Amidst these modern digs there is one set of old log houses, perhaps the original House of Jal……

The Buildings are laid out in fleets across the valley, each with its own town center tower.

Ski tracks on the way to Kanas. On the left is a up track, notice the pole marks on the left. Behind Ayken is a downtrack to the road. The big snows of 2010 had definitely increased ski usage. I saw more tracks in a few days then I had seen in an entire trip on previous years.





A steep and long downhill track. The local skis have permanent skins on the bottom so their skis are a bit slower then our modern skis, but the skier who made this track was definitely moving at a good clip on this run.

Another impressive downhill run.

The Kanas River about 15km shy of Kanas Lake.

2009-10 The Big Snow Year – Altay City

After 4 years of anemic snowpacks in the Altai, I finally lucked out in the winter of 2009-10. Good weather information in the west for the Altai region is sparse, and what I find tends to be macro, covering a very large area that is notable for its microclimates. By mid December of 2009 things were looking good even from my macro viewpoint, and once in Beijing I found reports of heavy snow and cold on China News Service and elsewhere.

Unfortunately it also was the winter following ethnic unrest in Xinjiang province, and since early July
the internet as well as international phone service had been shut down in Xinjiang. I was able to find some work arounds through friends in Beijing who acted as intermediaries but schedules and arrangements were tenuous at best.

I arrived in Urumqi late at night on January 14th and was met by Ayken. He had made arrangements for us to get to Altai City by bus, traveling with a crew of archeologists (including Wang Bo) and museum directors as they were also going to Altay City for the traditional ski race held annually there since 2006. We packed into a minivan for the 10 hour drive north and were met that evening on our arrival by Shan Zhaojian, the founder and organizer of the ski races. I had meet him originally in Beijing in 2006 and saw him again at the race here in 2007. We had become friends with a similar interest, the indigenous skiing of the Altai. Shan Zhaojian has helped me gain entrance to some areas and smoothed the way in contacting certain local officials that I needed to work with in the region. In short, he has been a big help. In return I have offered up what material I have collected, images and videos, for his use in a recently published book, also adding a few written words.

Shan Zhaojian is a leading proponent of the “skiing originated in China” theory, a subset of the current enthusiasm in China for claiming all things emanate from the middle kingdom. He and I have discussed this at length and though there is plenty of evidence that skiing in the Chinese Altai is indeed very ancient, the evidence that it originated there is (from my view)less then ironclad. We have agreed to disagree on this point, and I, in my broader interest of tracing skiings origins, remain a firm agnostic on the time and place where someone first slid down a hill with willful intent.

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The Skiers of the Altai Continued….

As any of you who have visited this blog has noticed, I have been woefully remiss in keeping this updated. In fairness, I was having compatibility issues with my blog format and could not upload images. I have now converted to wordpress and all is well.

My last post was in 2009, and since then I have returned to the Altai twice, in January of 2010 and again in January of 2011. Since I can now upload images with abandon (also improved with an increased speed on my internet satellite connection) I will do some photo essays to bring the blog up to the present. Not sure how this will come up but probably in a mix of time period focused posts and subject focused.

Getting There

All my trips to the Altai start in Beijing, where I spend a few days making connections and visiting with my cousin – an ER doc there – and his family. I find Beijing overwhelming. Its size and intensity – particularly its intensity – easily trumps any city I have visited in the US. It is literally bursting with the vices and virtues of humanity, and my view of cities in general is that their vices far out way their virtues. I find Beijing no exception to this, though there are some wonderful things to see, particularly some of the historical sites.

John being sold a Mao watch in Tiananmen Square – 2006.

Building detail in the Forbidden City Complex.

From Beijing I fly to Urumqi, the capitol of Xinjiang province, China’s largest (by area) province. The province’s rich history dates back thousands of years and encompasses a good portion of the Silk Road. Roads actually. There are a number of different routes to the Silk Road, depending on what the weather, water, and politics were at any given time.

Map of Asia showing (circled in green) Beijing, Urumqi, and the Chinese Altai region.

Urumqi is the largest city in Western China with an excess of 2.5 million inhabitants, the majority of which are now Han. The name is Mongolian and means ‘beautiful pastures’ as I’m sure it once was. It is now a large smoggy city that uses a lot of coal for heat and electricity, suffering the accompanying black grit and foul air. That said, some beautiful peaks are visible on most days from Urumqi, and there is a rich, if not always harmonious, ethnic mix in the city. The Uyghur’s, who make up the majority population in the province, have a strong presence in Urumqi and I find their food to be exceptional. Of particular delight would be the handmade breads and sheep kebabs seasoned with a cumin, garlic based mix that I often dream of back home.

Traditional flat bread in an outdoor market.

Urumqi in winter – a cold grey city with an air quality problem.


Outdoor markets are common with the locals seemingly unruffled by subzero temperatures.

From Urumqi north to the Altai can be done by vehicle in 8-10 hours or nowadays by plane in a bit over an hour. This gets you to Altay City, located east of the area I generally spend most of my time. Altay City is also home to the original traditional ski race in 2006 and has several small downhill areas for modern skiers. More on this later.

The main street of Altay City decked out for the winter festival.


Altay City in the midst of a large snowfall in 2010

Map of the Chinese Altai  and border region with significant towns.

My normal route takes me from Altay City to Burqin, a few hours drive and the last major town before heading into the mountains. Burqin is also the government headquarters for the mountain region I do most of my travel in so there always is some checking in here for permits and renewing of contacts each year.

From Burqin we usually hire a car or bus on to Chunkor, truly in the foothills and what I would call a transitional town between the modern China and the old ways that date back … well, a long time. Chunkor is a mixed town but seems to be predominantly Kazakh with an added mix of Hue (Chinese Muslim) and Tuwa, the smallest minority in this region. The name Chunkor, I believe, refers to the small basin that is attached under a traditional crib to collect the pee. The locals have a good sense of humor.

Chunkor sits in a basin in the Altai foothills where the Irtysh River drains south out of the Altai Mountains before turning in a westward arc to start its route north to join the Ob, the world’s 4th longest river, emptying eventually into the Arctic Ocean. It’s a fertile spot, well watered and farmed both with local crops and for hay. There are a number of small settlements in the basin serving as a winter home for many of the semi nomadic people that live in the region. In the spring they pack up their yurts and animals and move up into the mountains for the summer.

Downtown Chunkor. Image John Seibert

The mixed bag of street life in Chunkor. Image John Seibert

When one arrives in Chunkor in the winter the first impression is that it’s very cold. Being in a basin, all the cold air drains downhill and collects here with no place to go. Locals are out and about in all conditions though, often on horseback or with chana, the local one horse sled that is ubiquitous in the mountains here. There are cars too, jostling for space with the wandering cows, pedestrians, horsemen, chanas…. Cows walk through town eating scraps of cardboard and and frosted horses stand idly at hitching posts or in harness. Dogs are everywhere and love to harass the horses but have not yet learned to go after the cars. Kids play in light jackets in  subzero temperatures – one morning on the way out of town with a temperature of -35 we passed a stream of  kids on foot and horseback heading to school, some without hats or gloves.

Chunkor, until 3 years ago, was the end of the road in the winter. We hired our horsemen and chanas here on our first trip and I have done the same ever since. Doné was the head horseman on our first trip and has since become a good friend, traveling with me on a number of other trips and offering his house up whenever I pass through. He’s rascally in a good sort of way and protective to a fault. Norbek was also on that first trip and most of the succeeding trips. He is quiet and steady,  with a keen interest now in petroglyphs and local history. Both have patiently helped me with my garbled kazakh and clued me in to many local customs and quirks. They have generally kept me out of trouble in the mountains and been the best of companions.

Doné and sons Khanat and Janat

Norbek on a cold morning near Hkom

 I don’t want to I give the impression that I am a competent speaker of Kazakh. I am not. I have a pretty good word list but when it comes to constructing sentences or even understanding a conversation I am most often completely in the dark. I generally get the gist of the first few words of a conversation but soon fall farther and farther back as I try and untangled the sentence to something approaching comprehension.

Kazakh is a Turkic language closely related to Uyghur, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Turkish… there are many more. Turkic languages, and by extension Kazakh are all structured  subject-object-verb. In addition they are what are known as agglutinating languages ( just reading a one word descriptor like that will leave most people with a cold sense of dread about learning this language). In a nut shell this means new words are created by adding suffixes (and occasionally prefixes)to the roots of words. To further complicate matters there are also vowel harmony rules, meaning there are generally 4-6 variations to a given suffix. A very simple example of the agglutinating part would be for the word ‘where’. You cannot say just ‘where’ without adding a suffix modifier, in this case a postposition attached to the word (we use set prepositions for this – at, of, to, for…)

Qay zher de – where at/in

Qay zher den – where from

Qay zher ghe – where to

An example of the vowel harmony (and what really confuses the ear on the fly) would be –

I am from Hkom – Mien Hkomnan

I am from Beijing – Mien Beijingnen

I am from Chunkor – Mien Chunkorden

suffixes for ‘from’ are – dan, den, tan, ten, nan, nen


On the plus side there is no gender.

So to get me through all this I have had a translator with me each year, with Ayken filling the roll for most of the trips. He’s Kazakh from the southern mountains (south of Urumqi)and is fluent in Kazakh, Uygher, Chinese, and English (written and spoken) and knows a bit of Russian (and cyrillic), a smattering of Mongol, and a bit of Tuwa – an archaic language from the Altaic family tree which also includes all the Turkic languages. He’s also a great guy, short, stocky, and full of energy, while being a bit lazy at the same time. He knows how to work well within the Chinese system  and has an inborn knowledge of the nomadic customs. Ayken is also a great pleasure to travel with.


Ayken on a long downhill stretch to Chunkor.

Norbek and Ayken on the trail. 

So, in a roundabout way that gets me on the doorstep of the Altai. Four plus days – if I push it – I am ready to shift gears and head into the mountains. The cold is always a bit stunning at first but the hard traveling is over and now the real journey begins !

Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan/Timeless Skiers of the Altai

Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis KhanSkiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan – In 2005 Nils Larsen, Dave Waag, and Naheed Henderson journeyed to the Altai Mountains of NW China to document the indigenous use of skis. Nils followed this first trip with three additional trips into this remote region and what he found was a rich culture that still builds and uses skis in ways that date back thousands of years. ‘Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan’ takes you on a tour of both place and people, showing you how they build and use this ancient style of skis as well as live in this harsh but beautiful part of our world.

Running Time: Approx. 49 minutes

Produced and directed by Nils Larsen

This DVD is now available.

Click to buy.


At long last I am getting some information up on the website 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 th 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.

In the March issue of Off Piste Magazine Dave Waag did an interview with me that primarily focuses on the Altai Project. Read it here –

In late March I attended the ski history gathering in Mammoth CA. I t was a great event with attendees from all over the US as well as Europe. The sessions went for 4 days with two rooms running presentations on all manner of ski history topics – from the psychology of using Austrian skiing to pull the country out of its post war depression to the forst ski traverses of the Sierras. I did a presentation too, and was the only one dealing with truly old skiing (prior to 1800). Even amoung ski historians, many think skiing started in relatively modern Europe…. On the night of April 2nd the ISHA (that’s the International Ski History Association) had an awards banquet and I was given the film award – it was very special for me to be recognized by this prestigious group.