Before Scandinavia: These could be the first skiers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Move over Bode. You may have competition you don't know about - among a sturdy skiing clan in northwest China.

They are central Asians, Mongols, and Kazaks, living in the remote Altay mountains of Xinjiang province, where some claim skiing was first conceived.

Using curved planks whose design dates back 2,000 years, the Altaic peoples are formidable skiers. They might not win a medal on perfectly groomed Olympic trails. But they can break their own paths, track elk for days in deep snow, and capture them live.

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They don't zig-zag through slalom courses or bump down moguls. But using a single pole, they plunge straight down mountainsides in a blaze of efficiency, and climb hills with a speed and grace that has wowed the few Western experts who have witnessed their prowess.

"These skiers wouldn't do well in the Olympics," says pro skier Nils Larsen. "But the Olympians from Turin couldn't make their skis do what the Altaic skiers can.

"The Altaics learn at age three, and by seven they are really good. They saw us skiing, swerving and turning, and they thought it was the funniest thing," Mr. Larsen adds. "For them, going straight down the mountain is the manly thing. They think it is silly to turn, unless you have to."

In fact, until a few years ago, no one in the West's serious ski communitywas aware of the Altaic skiers, and no one knew that "ancient" skis were in use anywhere on the planet. Archeologists have long known about long skis with animal-skin bottoms preserved in Swedish bogs and depicted in old cave paintings.

But Larsen, a telemark-skiing expert from Washington state, heard a few years ago from friends on a scholarly expedition in the Altay region who saw locals using what had been identified as aboriginal skis.

For ski buffs, the discovery was exciting, spawning informal visits by foreigners desiring more information about how old skis were made, and how locals used them. This January, some 40 Altay herdsmen took part in what was billed as an "ancient-skiing contest" (except it wasn't "ancient" for the locals).

"My father told me about these older skis," says J.Suhee, a Mongolian diplomat raised in the Altaic region and now in Beijing. "But they were for survival, not for sports."

The skis used today in Altay are not unlike the 4,500-year-old skis found preserved in bogs near Hoting, Sweden. Local Altays hack them out of a single piece of lightweight wood - spruce or white pine - and wrap them with hairy, brittle horse-shank skin.

The skins are permanently attached to the bottom of the ski, providing a "grip" going uphill, and a natural "brake" going down. (The skins stay tight on the frame since they are soaked and stretched over the form, and then shrink as they dry.)

The skier's foot is kept in place using what is known in the West as an "arctic binding." Four holes are drilled through the ski, with rawhide binding threaded through in the shape of an "X." The foot is slid into that X, and it keeps the foot relatively stable.

"The skis have a distinctive shape, and the designs we saw are fairly uniform. But they seem more like cousins of our [modern] skis, than brothers and sisters," says Larsen, whose business card reads, "minister of ski culture."

Differences in ski styles are major. The Altay skis are at least twice as wide as even the latest hourglass-shaped alpine skis. And unlike modern skis, which have the boot clamped into place, these skis require much more maneuvering with foot and pole to steer the skis.

Balance is completely different. Altay skiers do not lean forward in a knee-intensive crouch. Rather, going down the mountain, they lean far back and use the pole as ballast. The pole tends to get used on one side or the other - not on both sides, as a kayaker would use a paddle.

Larsen, who videotaped the making and use of the Altay skis, says he was impressed with the local talent: "I've taught skiing 25 years, so I know when someone has good balance and .... they are naturals. The ski is like an extension of their body. You can tell they are totally confident on the ride."

Altay snows are so deep that cross-country skis are ineffective. But with their "ancient" skis and highly developed stamina, many Altaic skiers go for 12 hours at a time. They hunt for days, following deer, elk, bear, wolves, and other game through deep snows. Eventually the game tires, and often local Altays will tie them up. "They have scads of captured elk, which they use for antlers," Larsen says.

The origins of skiing are disputed. Research of ancient skiing methods is not highly funded. But anthropologists and ski-history buffs debate two main origins: Scandinavia, where the oldest preserved skis are found, and the Altaic area. Of late,a consensus has been forming among scholars and ski enthusiasts that it was the Altaic area.

Civilization developed earlier there. Altaic peoples may have brought skis to Sweden or Norway. Or the common-sense concept of skiing may have arisen independently in each place.

On Jan. 25, days before the ancient-skiing contest, China's state-run news service Xinhua announced that China had essentially invented skiing.

Citing newly discovered Altaic regional cave paintings of four hunters on boards with poles in their hands, chasing cattle and horses - the Xinhua story proposed that "Chinese were adept skiers in the Old Stone Age," and that skiing originated there 100 to 200 centuries ago.

Historians did not rush to embrace the theory. The ethnic Han Chinese, let alone a corporate state called China, did not exist inthis part of the world in stone-age days, 10,000 years ago, they note.

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