The Altai Project


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.

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    May 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm

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