Travelling on furry skis in Xinjiang

Tough path: Mamani skiing on the snowfield in Altay. (Inset) A pair of fur snowboards.  — Xinhua

Tough path: Mamani skiing on the snowfield in Altay. (Inset) A pair of fur snowboards. — Xinhua

URUMQI: Mamani never thought he would ski 300km from his hometown in the mountains to the city of Altay in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but the 30-year-old herdsman, along with eight teammates, just completed an 11-day journey skiing through the Altay Mountains using ancient fur snowboards.

“We hope that more and more people can learn about these ancient fur snowboards and take part in winter sports through our journey,” he said.

The fur snowboards, which are made of pine wood and horse hide, have a history dating back more than 12,000 years.

In 2005, an ancient rock painting that depicted people hunting with skis, dating back more than 12,000 years, was found in Altay Prefecture.

This discovery provides solid evidence of the area’s long tradition and culture of skiing.

The horse hide, which covers the underside of the snowboards, provides friction when skiers go uphill.

Mamani’s first snowboards were made by his father when he was eight years old, but these were not real fur snowboards.

“Without horsehide, his father tied ropes onto the snowboards to increase friction.

“Since ropes were not as good as horse hide at providing friction, I always failed to climb to the top of mountains using these snowboards,” said Mamani.

His father made him a pair of real fur snowboards a year later, and taught a young Mamani how to ski with them.

“These were my favourite toys in my childhood,” he said.

The fur snowboards are born for the mountains, he added, with the grain of the horse hide providing friction to help them climb mountains, while also helping to slide down the mountain smoothly.

The herdsmen in the Altay Mountains used fur snowboards to hunt and travel through the mountains until the 1980s.

Mamani, who was born in 1989, regards skiing with them as a kind of extreme sport.

The reason for the difference in the use of the fur snowboards between Mamani’s generation and that of his ancestors lies in the changes of the herdsmen’s lifestyle.

With the construction of roads and the increasing capability of snow removal, the village of Hemu, Mamani’s hometown, has become one of the richest villages in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is also popular among tourists.

Mamani spends most of his time running a homestay and a restaurant while renting out horses and sleighs for tourists.

Mamani’s family earned around 150,000 yuan (RM90,497) last year, of which 86% was from tourism.

Mamani now spends more time skiing than herding. Since 2008, he has made a pair of fur snowboards every year in order to take part in skiing competitions.

He made a pair of small fur snowboards for his eldest daughter and taught her how to ski with them last year, and he plans to teach his five-year-old daughter next year.

Altay prefecture’s powder snow is apt for snow sports. The snow season lasts 179 days, and along the Altay Mountains, it is over a metre thick on average, earning it the “Snow Capital of China” title from the National Climate Centre.

Mamani’s group of nine planned to spend 10 days travelling 300km from Baihaba, a village near Hemu, to the city of Altay, traversing over 100km of uninhabited area.

Although Mamani himself never experienced such a long-distance skiing adventure, he was determined to join them after talking with his heavily-pregnant wife.

“I was very confident because I had been to some places along the route where my father had taught me how to ski,” he said.

On the fourth day of the journey, they climbed over one of the steepest mountains along the route, each dragging 40kg.

Zigzagging up mountains for 20km, they travelled more than 44km in a whole day, including three hours of travel after dark.

On the sixth day, the team arrived in one of the most dangerous valleys, where they came across the footprints of wolves and the remains of wild animals.

The Altay Mountains extend across China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, with the whole length about 2,000km and an elevation between 1,000m and 3,000m.

“There were a lot of dangers, including falling into one-metre-thick snow, and wading across unfrozen rivers,” said Mamani.

“I want to tell my children to face life’s difficulties bravely,” he added.

“Never giving up is the most valuable lesson that I have learned through skiing, and now I want to teach it to my children.”

The government of Altay prefecture has given a pair of fur snowboards to the Beijing organising committee for the 2022 Winter Olympics as a gift in 2018, expressing its sincere wishes for a successful Winter Olympics.

China has pledged to have “300 million people involved in winter sports events” as it gears up for the Winter Olympics in 2022.

A total of five primary and secondary schools in Altay prefecture launched skiing classes for their 7,000 students.

“I can imagine my daughters learning to ski in this resort in the future,” Mamani said. — Xinhua