China may be a relative newcomer to skiing and winter sports in general. But the tradition of skiing goes back several generations in a mountain community in the northwest of the country, which some Chinese historians say is the birthplace of the sport.
As evidence, the researchers pointed to the cave paintings of the community, which is in the lowlands of the Altai Mountains. The paintings depict hunters on skis and Chinese archaeologists say they date back over 10,000 years.
Other historians have raised questions about the claim, citing the difficulty of dating the rock art.
Yet there’s no doubt that skiing has long been a way of life in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang, a hub of territory where China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia intersect.
For thousands of years, the people of Altai – which include ethnic Kazakhs, Mongols and Tuwas – have been making wooden skis by hand and using them for transportation and hunting. Traditional skis are wider and covered on the bottom with horse skin. Instead of plastic and metal ties, they are loosely tied with leather string. Altai skiers also use a single wooden pole for balance.
Nils Larsen, a documentary filmmaker who researches the ancient history of skiing, has visited the area several times. Recalling one ski outing in particular, Larsen said traditional skis were much better suited than his modern skis to the deep, soft snow in the region.
“We couldn’t keep up with them,” Larsen said. “They are crazy skiers.”
In recent years, the local tradition of skiing in Altai has faded with the advance of modernity and the Chinese government’s promotion of modern winter sports. At the same time, Chinese authorities have sought to use the region’s skiing tradition as a selling point for tourists, as part of a broader government-backed plan to transform Xinjiang into an international ski destination. .
In the run up to the Beijing Olympics, Chinese state media released a flurry of videos about the local ski culture in Xinjiang and the many ski resorts that have been built in the region. At the opening ceremony this month, organizers showed images of ethnic minorities in traditional dress skiing in the Altai region.
Chinese officials said the development of winter sports will help bring economic prosperity to the region. But critics have accused the government of using Xinjiang’s skiing history to whitewash its harsh crackdown on ethnic minorities, a crackdown the United States and other governments have called genocide.
“I find it insulting and upsetting that the Chinese Communist Party is using the pretext of sports to convert our homeland into a ski resort and bury its crimes against humanity and its genocidal policy,” said Rushan Abbas, an American Uyghur activist whose sister , Gulshan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Xinjiang.