• Wishbone

Virus Evacuation through Avalanche Mountain Pass in Western China

Updated: May 14, 2020

Filming in the Xinjiang Province of China was never going to be easy, especially for a foreign crew. While planning to shoot a documentary about the origins of skiing in the remote village of Kohm (Hemu in Mandarin) in northern Xinjiang we had anticipated that we would encounter challenges. Located in the border region between China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia - there is a heavy police presence at multiple checkpoints and roadblocks and traveling freely in this area is fraught with difficulties. Confident that we had identified the enormous range of cultural, political and logistical obstacles we might face, the team spent months researching and preparing so that when we finally set out on the trip, we were armed with the belief that we had a contingency plan for every eventuality. As it turned out, we could not have been more wrong. At no point in the hours spent strategizing, organizing and prepping, did we consider that all our careful plans could be suddenly and completely derailed by an outbreak of the deadly and highly contagious Coronavirus.

Arriving at Urumqi airport on the 21st of January from various locations around the globe, the team consisted of North American professional skiers and snowboarders, cinematographers and documentary filmmakers. Harsh weather and unfavorable conditions meant that instead of setting off immediately to the Altay Mountains as originally planned, we were able to spend a valuable 48hrs exploring the unique local culture of Xinjiang. When the weather cleared on the 23rd and it was safe to begin our journey at last, we flew north to Altay City. From there the team piled into SUV’s for a bumpy, 5-hour drive spent alternating between clinging to the edge of our seats as the cars bounced along perilous mountain passes and pressing our noses to the foggy glass, taking in the breathtaking scenery unfolding beneath us, before finally arriving in the tiny village of Kohm.

We had chosen this remote, semi-nomadic community whose residents are primarily Tuvan, Mongolian and Kazakh ethnicities because of its ancient connection with skiing. Increasingly more known in snowsports circles, the people of Kohm continue to use traditional skiing techniques, passed down from generation to generation from their ancestors who are believed to have been among the very first skiers many thousands of years ago.

Despite our earlier delay, we were relieved to have arrived in this incredible little village just in time for the first day of Chinese New Year celebrations. For such a remote place, the village holds an astonishing array of competitions and cultural events which span several days, many of which focus on both traditional and modern skiing and it was for this reason that we had chosen to visit Kohm at this time of year. The opportunity to explore traditional skiing and to witness firsthand, the use of these techniques in the modern world was not to be missed.

However, our excitement at being in the center of the festivities turned to confusion when it was announced, out of the blue on the first day, that the rest of the celebrations had been canceled. Our confusion was quickly overtaken by fear when we were told that the cancellation was due to the detection of a new and previously unknown virus in the city of Wuhan in central China. With limited access to the internet and information trickling down from the authorities slowly, the village was full of rumors. Unaware of the extent of the risk, the likelihood of infection or even the prognosis if we were to be exposed to the virus, a general sense of panic began to creep into the team.

Not long after the announcement that the New Year's celebrations had been canceled, came a second announcement that everyone in the village was to be quarantined in their homes and subjected to random health checks throughout the day. While our initial reaction to the restriction of our liberty and mandatory screenings was anger, it quickly became apparent that they were intended to protect us, the villagers, and the other visitors who had come to welcome the New Year in Kohm. In a rural village as remote as this one, with the nearest medical facility many hours away, a virus-like this could have devastating consequences in a very short space of time. The authorities were not going to take any risks and a few days spent quarantined in a house was a small price to pay to protect the health of our gracious hosts.

As news of the outbreak reached us and we learned that the virus was spreading rapidly through China and had already been detected internationally, we decided that we had no choice but to abandon the project and find a way home to North America. However, as we were waiting in the cabins we had rented for the duration of our stay, we watched as the snow continued to fall around us, blanketing the mountains and gradually shutting us off from the rest of the world. Leaving Kohm would have been impossible if it was not for the generosity, compassion, and sheer determination of the local Altay government. On the morning of the 30th of January, with a police escort, we packed up our equipment and said goodbye to our new friends in the village.

After an hour of surprisingly smooth driving, our progress ground to a sudden halt when the convoy of cars arrived at the scene of a recent avalanche that had completely buried the road. With the chances of getting away from Kohm dwindling and news that this was only one of many avalanches that were blocking the mountain pass for the next 50km, our hearts sank as we realized it was unlikely that we would make it to the airport before our morning flights. Accepting that the might of nature had beaten us, we prepared to turn around and head back to the village, defeated. However, determined to help us foreign visitors, and in nothing short of a miracle, the local official who had offered us the police escort, ordered an extensive snow removal operation to clear the mountain pass and allow us through.

After several anxious hours spent huddled in the cars against the freezing wind and continued snowfall, we finally caught sight of the bright lights from the snow removal vehicle shining through the late Xinjiang night. With unbelievable efficiency, a tunnel, just wide enough for our caravan of vehicles to squeeze through, was dug through the wall of snow. Thanking the crew who had worked tirelessly through the day, in the icy weather, to clear the road for us, we cautiously continued on our journey. It was only as we passed through dozens more tunnels dug through avalanche after avalanche that we realized the scope of the snow removal efforts that the authorities had undertaken on our behalf. All that manpower, machinery and time committed to ensuring our safe evacuation from the village.

Reaching the end of the mountain pass and with several hours of driving left before reaching Altay City and the airport, we continued our journey, passing through a series of the health screening points that at this stage we had become quite used to. Exhausted and immensely relieved, we eventually made it to our hotel at the airport in the early morning.

Despite all our careful planning and preparation, the unexpected outbreak of Coronavirus meant that ultimately, we were unable to complete the project as planned. However, our disappointment at having to abandon the filming pales into insignificance in the face of the incredible generosity of the people of Kohm and the Chinese authorities who were unwavering in their determination to support us in our mission to evacuate while it was still possible for us to fly home.

While we were able to return to America safely, our thoughts remain with the millions upon millions of people who have been affected by this terrifying epidemic. We look forward to returning to China next year to continue the project once the time is right.

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