Story by Halina Boyd. Photos by X Trail.
Riding on a horse drawn toboggan over snow covered roads, we weave through a Birch and Pine forest alongside a half-frozen river until we reach a farmhouse. A curious goat greets us as we walk up to the home. We have come to the home of the village elder to watch him build skis. His family has been carving skis out of birch wood for centuries. After an introduction through the interpreters, he warmly welcomes us into his house. Walking into the wood framed home, his wife, 30 years his junior, shyly greets us and hands us cups of steaming salt tea and fresh goat milk, a local favorite.
Watching the elder carve skis and sipping tea is our first experiences with the local culture of Hemu Village, a small ancient village in the foothills of the Altai mountains of Northern China. In March of last season, five western athletes including Harry Kearney and I, were invited to come visit the village by the local government. A small ski resort was built here about 15 years ago equipped with one rope tow, a tubing hill, and a fleet of snowmobiles. The government is now interested in boosting tourism by promoting the local backcountry potential so we are here to explore and document the terrain you can tour just above town.
A local Altai family with the father holding a pair of birch wood skis.
Horse-drawn toboggan is one of the primary modes of transportation between farmhouses.
Hemu village is tucked between rolling hills and small mountains carpeted with thick wooded forests. Across a wide meandering river just outside of town loom large Alaska-like peaks. To the North and West the region is surrounded by the neighboring countries of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia.
The trip was all about traveling into the unknown. We had no idea what the conditions would be like before we went because there is no weather station in Hemu. Unfortunately we arrived to very bleak conditions. It had snowed a total of three times all winter, all large storms luckily, but we were working with a very shallow snow pack and very old snow. The freeze thaw of sunny days had wrecked most aspects. Any aspects in the sun looked shiny with runnels and small sun cups.
After a few runs down barely edgeable ice-covered corral reef we found a protected north facing zone in the trees that held some preserved pow.
While we had to keep the snowboarding mellow, the cultural experiences were intense. We spent a couple days using horses to move about and the locals loved giving us rides on their snowmobiles. I was praying not to die, as we tripled up and mocked through a barbwire strewn valley, catching air over deep horse trails.
During a dinner of slow roasted horse, beef and veggies we talked to some of the locals about how the winters had been changing in the Altai. They were quick to respond that their winters had been getting steadily shorter with less snow over the past 20 years. With a winter that started later and ended earlier they had been skiing less. Though they had no weather station, the Altai people clearly understood the effects of climate change.
Leaving with just a taste of the riding potential but a rich glimpse at local culture I would love to return to the Altai. With better snow, the touring potential in the surrounding peaks would be phenomenal.