Deep In China, 'Cowboys' Have Skied For Thousands Of Years
The birthplace of skis is under debate, but the ski is believed to be even older than the wheel.
"So they're one of the very first forms of transportation," travel writer Mark Jenkins says.
Jenkins recently traveled to China, which claims to have invented skis almost 10,000 years ago. His exploration is documented in the December issue of National Geographic.
Jenkins went to the Altai Mountains in Northwest China, about where Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia come together — "kind of dead-center Central Asia" — where the Tuvan people have been skiing for at least 4,000 years.
"Their skis are remarkable," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "They cut them from red spruce. They bend them by heating them and steaming them, and then they nail on horse hair on the bottom of the skis, which is very slick to glide forward but then grabs when you go uphill."
But this isn't just about making it down the mountain: The skis are for hunting. In a region that can get temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, these hunters don't even know what frostbite is. In a single-file line, pulling sleds, the men search for elk — elk tracks are obvious in the snow because of the animals' heavy weight. On skis, they can track the elk for three to seven days.
The "most remarkable part," Jenkins says, is when they finally spot the elk.
"They're using a technique that's several thousand years old. They have lassos, and they ski downhill, screaming, wild ... just like a cowboy, but they're on skis," he says.
With a loop large enough to go over the elk's antlers, the ski cowboys lasso their prey.
"The elk is bucking and kicking and snorting and they fall sideways, perpendicular ... like an anchor — Old Man and the Sea sort of thing," Jenkins says. "They're being pulled by this elk through the snow. Of course, the elk is so deep in the snow it's practically swimming, so within an hour or two, the elk has worn itself out."
But then, they let it go. One of the men told Jenkins, "In the old days we hunted. Now we only chase."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
The Winter Olympics are right around the corner. Thanks, in part, to the influence of the X Games, skiing is more exciting and popular than ever. But there's an intense competition over skiing that won't be settled at the Olympics. Several countries contend for the title of the birthplace of skiing. Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia have all stated claims. Now, China has thrown its hat into the ring. Travel writer Mark Jenkins went there.
MARK JENKINS: The claims of the Chinese, most recently from this research and this trip I did, were that they invented skis almost 10,000 years ago. The archeology on it is somewhat questionable, but the Russians do have an archeological site that has found a ski tip that is 8,000 years old. And, in fact, skis turn out to be older than the wheel. So they're one of the very first forms of transportation.
RATH: And wherever it started, it's hard, I think, today to find people who still ski in a way which might be the ancient style, but you did. So can you tell us about the Altais in western China?
JENKINS: Yeah, this is western China. In fact, it's very far northwestern China. We were within a stone's throw, literally 10 miles of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia. And the Altai Mountains have a range that go up to about 15,000 feet, kind of dead center central Asia. These are Tuvan people who come from Siberia, and they've been skiing for at least 4,000 years.
And their skis are remarkable. They cut them from red spruce. They bend them by heating them and steaming them, and then they nail on horse hair on the bottom of the skis, which is very slick to glide forward but then grabs when you go uphill.
RATH: And these men, like the ancient skiers you were talking about, they're skiing to hunt.
JENKINS: That's right. This is what it's all about. It's really about hunting. And I've done lots of long, hard expeditions, and this was one of the most fascinating because these guys are so inured to the cold, first of all. I asked them if they ever had frostbite and they didn't even know what the term was.
RATH: And cold, you're talking 40 below zero, right?
JENKINS: Yeah, 40 below zero, yeah. And what they do is they ski out in single file. They're pulling goat hair sleds, and they find elk tracks, which aren't hard to find because now the elk are so heavy they're sinking into the snow. They will hunt - track elk for three to seven days on their skis.
RATH: And then once they finally find the elk, how do they chase them down?
JENKINS: This is the most remarkable part. They're using a technique that's several thousand years old. They have lassos. And they ski downhill, extremely wild and - with a lasso just like a cowboy but they're on skis. And they ski downhill, and they loop the lasso - it's a very big loop because it has to go over the antlers of the elk - and then lasso the elk.
The elk is bucking and kicking and snorting, and they fall sideways perpendicular to the - and so they're basically - they're like an anchor, "Old Man and the Sea" sort of thing. They're being pulled by this elk through the snow. Of course, this - the elk is so deep in the snow it's practically swimming. So within an hour or two, the elk has worn itself out.
RATH: Wow. But in this case, they captured two elk and let them go, right?
JENKINS: They did, yeah. They just waited till the elk were exhausted and couldn't barely lift their heads and then walked over to them, took the lassos off their antlers and waited for them to recover. And they eventually kind of just, to their great fortune, just wandered back into the woods.
RATH: And this was a weird detail. You actually found out what happened with those two elk.
JENKINS: Right. There are still wolves in this region, and the wolves ate these two elk about two weeks later. There's a funny story about the - kind of a gruesome story about the wolves, because they are quite concerned about wolves. I was going to go for a long midnight ski tour one time solo. And they just wouldn't allow me to do it. And I said, well why not? This is a common thing to do in my home state of Wyoming. And they said: Oh, you'll get attacked by a wolf.
And I kind of laughed it off. And then they told me the story of a guy who was on a motorcycle who got stuck. His motorcycle died, and he got surrounded by a wolf pack. I don't know if I believe the story. It might be apocryphal. But he called the police, and the police said: We'll be there as soon as we can. In the meantime, light your motorcycle on fire. And he did that, and by the time the police arrived, they found a burnt motorcycle and a head inside a helmet. And that's all.
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RATH: And that's Mark Jenkins talking about a wild trip he took to report on the history of skiing for National Geographic. His article appears in this month's issue of the magazine. Check out the photos online at npr.org.
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