Deep in the Altai Mountains, a father and son keep alive a tradition of making their own winter gear that may date back to the very beginnings of skiing.
THE ALTAI MOUNTAINS CURVE THROUGH the far north of China’s Xinjiang province, dividing China and Mongolia, and nosing into neigbouring Kazakhstan and Russia. Amid its forests of birch and pine live a mix of peoples, many of them nomadic: Kazakhs and Mongolians mostly, as well as the Tuwas ethnic group. In the village of Meilifengcun, more than 20 hours by car from the provincial capital of Urumqi, eight families of Kazakh origin live in simple wooden houses. Predominantly farmers, they grow strawberries, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables as well as breeding livestock. Life there is played out according to the rhythms of nature, with long and bitterly cold winters often bringing snows that isolate the village from its surroundings. There 40-year-old Mierbieke is the sole protector of ancient skills. For uncounted generations, his family have passed down the knowledge need to make skis, for this region is said to be the cradle of skiing. Now it is Mierbieke’s turn to pass on the knowledge. Skis have long been used to help move about on the snow, but also for hunting deer, chased into deep snow where they exhausted themselves. This is no longer permitted as the region is a national park. Mierbieke’s son Wulahati however has different goals in mind: dreaming of one day becoming a sportsman.
FROZEN FORESTS The Altai has long been a draw for tourists, and in recent years a government initiative has encouraged a handful to brave the long, cold winter. The reward is an ethereal beauty and perfect stillness.