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 artifact 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 the 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, 27, 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 neighbors often do the same, and a handful of Tuwas, a small mountain culture of Mongolian descent, are considered the best skiers in the valley.