Altay Series Part 1: Missing Guide
Updated: Feb 13
This is the first post of my trip in February to the Altay region of Xinjiang Province in Northwest China to research the potential original location of skiing some 10,000 years ago. I suffered multiple setbacks at the beginning of the trip that threatened to end the project before it even began...
Follow the project at www.glidingonwoodenhorses.com
Arrival at Altay
I began the research for my project Gliding on Wooden Horses in Beijing during Chinese New Year. After acclimating to the time difference and doing some research in Beijing, I then flew to the Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang in the far west of China. Arriving at the airport, I realized that my ski bag did not arrive with me. I spent the next several hours until 2am trying to track down my bag and figure out why it had not arrived. With he assistance of the very helpful staff at the Urumqi Airport, I found out that my bag was held up in Beijing. In the ski bag I had a backpack that is used in case of a snow avalanche by inflating into airbag. To inflate the airbag, the backpack has a battery attached to it that was not allowed on planes in China. While they were able to remove the battery, this would make the airbag nonfunctional. Nonetheless, I was told the bags would arrive to Altay the following day. After a few hours of sleep at the airport, I boarded my flight to Altay City in the cold, dark morning. It was a difficult start to my trip to Altay…
Missing Guide in Altay
After a short hour-long flight, I arrived at the airport in Altay City in the northwest corner of China on the border of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Altay City holds the dubious distinction of being the being the most inland city in the world, over 4000 kilometers to the nearest ocean in any direction. In recent years, it has achieved notoriety due to cave paintings discovered nearby that may represent the first record of skiing yet found the world. This, as well as the local population who still use traditional skis with horse hide as their ancestors might have, is what brought me to this region. The first step in the plan was arrive here and meet my guide Ayiken.
Ayiken Jiashan was one of the foremost experts in the history of skiing in Altay as well as a leader in preserving the local traditional ski culture that is quickly fading with modernity. When I first devised the idea for my project in the summer of last year, multiple different sources suggested I contact Ayiken. He soon became an integral part of the research and story for the project. A local from Urumqi, Ayiken spoke fluent Mandarin, Kazakh, and English, he also was going to be my translator.
After picking up bag (not my ski bag which was still in transit from Beijing), I walked out into the small arrival hall for the airport. The door leading outside was left open so it was particularly cold. I walked outside with the other passengers of the airplane. While they quickly hailed taxis or were picked up by someone waiting for them, I stood alone looking for Ayiken. He was not answering his phone nor any messages I sent to him on WeChat. I went back into the airport arrival hall (which was just as cold as outside) and waiting for a few hours. I eventually realized that he was not picking me up. Disheartened and confused, I finally got in a taxi and asked the Kazakh driver in my poor Mandarin to take me to find a hotel downtown.
Walk to Jiangjunshan Ski Resort
After settling into my downtown hotel, I noticed that the local ski resort was visible from my room, only a kilometer or so away. While still perplexed about why Ayiken was not responding, I decided to make the most of the rest of the day. I put on several layers of clothing and went out to brave the frigid cold and walk to the resort. Along the way I passed an ice sculpture garden that reminded me of a miniature version of the Harbin Ice Festival in the northeast of China. Upon arriving at the Jiangjunshan (General’s Mountain) Ski Resort, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of snow. While small compared with ski resorts in Europe or the West Coast of America, the mountain was sizable compared to other resorts in China I had visited in the past. Since there were few trees, there looked to be some fun off-piste skiing as well. My spirits were lifted seeing all of the people on the mountain skiing and enjoying themselves despite the cold. I became excited about coming back the following day to ski here myself.
First Day at Jiangjunshan Resort
After spending my first night in Altay alone, I reached out to my friend Tian from Urumqi. He connected me with some of his friends from Chongqing who were on holiday skiing in Altay. His friend Joyce and her friends picked me up at my hotel and we drove to the Jiangjunshan Resort together. They helped me buy a pass and rent skis since mine had still not arrived from Beijing yet. Since they were taking lessons, I went off to explore the resort on my own. While it was quite cold, the sky was blue, the sun was out, and I was finally skiing in Western China. I began to move of from the disappointment I had been feeling about not connecting with Ayiken. I met up with another of Joyce friends named Foam who spoke great English and was happy to show me around the resort. We became instant friends and over the next week would spend several days skiing together (even though he, all of his friends, and pretty much all young people at the resort were snowboarders). I also was able to connect with another guide who offered to take me to Hemu village the following day.
Later in the evening, my new guide named Aiden came to meet me at my hotel. Upon opening the door to greet him, Aiden, a large, jolly Kazakh Chinese with a big smile, embraced me in bear hug. Since Aiden did not speak English and my Mandarin is quite limited, we started communicating over a translation app on our phones. This is how I first learned about what had happened to Ayiken. Supposedly he had an accident the night before I arrived and was killed. Thinking that there must be a confusion due to an awkward translation on the app, I repeatedly asked for clarification until I was sure that this is what Aiden meant to be saying. I was shocked. Ayiken had been a key part of my project and was a major reason I was in this very foreign, remote part of the world. Beyond being a guide, translator, and local expert, he had also become a friend over the past several months of planning. I struggled to figure out how I should proceed until I finally decided that I should follow through with my original plan as much as possible and use Aiden as my guide instead...