A Winter’s Tale: China’s Altay Mountains

By Mark Jenkins

It’s 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and our horses don’t give a damn.

Large heads bowed, snow coating their thick hides, plumes of steam swirling from their frosted nostrils, they’re primordial beasts genetically inured to intense cold. A wooden sleigh called a chana is attached to each horse by long pine poles and a curved yoke. The design of the sleigh—the width of a horse’s ass, the length of a human body, with two curl-tipped runners—has not changed for centuries.

Our chana driver, Norbek, a rough-cut Kazakh as impervious to the cold as his horses, adjusts the leather straps with bare hands. He has loaded the two sleighs with our backpacks, cross-country skis, and sacks of hay for the horses. Bundled in down parkas, mittens, and insulated pants and boots, we are about to sled into the Altay Mountains of central Asia.

The Altay, an obscure range that is buried in snow all winter, rises at the converging borders of China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. It may well be the last place on Earth where horse-and-sleigh, an ancient form of travel, remains the primary means of winter transportation.

Four of us are on this expedition: Norbek and I on one chana, Nils Larsen and Ayiken on the other. Larsen is an American ski historian who has traveled to the Altay nine times to research the origins of skiing. Shaggy-haired, soft-spoken, and a master skier, he lives in a century-old cabin outside of rustic Curlew, Washington, and owns a small ski company. Ayiken (pronounced I-kin) is our factotum, a rosy-cheeked Kazakh fluent in five languages who is as at ease with pinched-faced Chinese bureaucrats as with broad-smiling nomads.

Our goal is Hemu, a village deep in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, where Larsen is hoping to interview the last living members of a ski culture thousands of years old. To get there by chana, we must cross a mountain pass, then parallel the icebound Hemu-Kanas River. In summer, Hemu is a one-day journey by horseback. Now, in February, it will take much longer.

As we’re about to set off from a settlement named Jaldungwe, a horseman gallops up to warn us that avalanches have closed the chana track to Hemu.

“He says it is impassable,” translates Ayiken.

Norbek nods, his eyes squinting, his face snow-burned to leather from so many years of living in the elements. When the horseman departs, Norbek flicks the reins of his horse and we glide off over the snow. He knows these mountains and knows his horses, which quite possibly descend from Genghis Khan’s own steeds, with coats dense as fur and tails so long, they drag at the hooves. The shaggy creatures pull our chanas in single file with muscled resolution, and considerable flatulence.

What first strikes me riding a chana is the lack of speed. The horses are having to plod through deep snow, so we move just a little faster than a human walks. This allows plenty of time to take in the landscape.

Beyond Jaldungwe we wind through groves of black-armed birch trees. As the trail steepens and the snow deepens, the horses begin to bog down. Then they stop. Norbek rolls off the lead chana into the waist-deep powder, struggles to slog to the front of his horse, flips its reins over one of his own shoulders, and starts to pull the 800-pound animal. Eager to please, the horse lunges forward like a wildebeest in deep water. Ayiken takes the reins of the second horse and plows ahead, his short legs lost in the drifts.

Larsen and I push the 300-pound sleighs from behind. This is not easy. We flounder even worse than the horses, slipping and falling. Soon we’re covered with snow and sweating profusely. Nonetheless, with Norbek and Ayiken stomping forward yanking the reins as Larsen and I push, we manage to reach the top of the pass.

I’m getting a firsthand glimpse of winter life in this remote region without roads and automobiles. Only a few hours into our journey, my dashing-through-the-snow Doctor Zhivago illusions about chana riding have vanished.

Horses here were the original automobiles, tamed, then bred—so, in a way, built—as beasts of burden by Norbek’s ancestors. Archaeologists in fact believe one of the few places where wild horses survived the freeze of the last ice age was here on the Eurasian steppe, an expanse of grassland and taiga stretching for more than 3,000 miles, from the Altay Mountains to the Transylvanian Alps in Romania. In addition, recent evidence is suggesting the wild horse was domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago in this same region.

As our horses gulp down snow, Larsen and I unpack our skis, clip in, and slide off the back side of the pass, whooping away. Norbek and Ayiken follow on the chanas. Though our skis are modern, as Larsen and I cut turns down through the trees, we echo the experience of the Altay Mountains’ original skiers, faced as they were with months of powder.

The deeper we go into the landscape, the deeper the snow gets. Once again the horses begin to flounder. Norbek remains insouciant, as does Larsen—they have shared many a chana journey—but I begin to fear for our animals. Ayiken relays my concern to Norbek.

“He’s afraid we may kill the horses.”

Norbek, standing waist-deep in snow as he rocks a chana to unstick it, looks at me, shaking his head. Onward. Larsen and I forge forward on our skis, stopping at each swath of avalanche debris to dig a route for the horses. At dusk the animals become so mired in a snowbank that Norbek has to unhitch the chanas and let the horses make their way through—which leaves him, with our pitiful help, dragging the sleighs.

The temperature has plunged below minus 40 degrees, the horses are encased in ice, and Norbek is utterly unperturbed. Larsen had bragged about Norbek’s skills as a chana driver, but I quietly decide he’s insane and our horses probably will die.

Norbek rehitches the chanas to the horses and we trudge onward into the gloaming. Night stars appear, illuminating the mountains in a pale, phosphorescent blue. Slipping along on my skis, I notice my fingers and feet have become cold but my core is warm. Surprisingly, that’s good enough, just as it has been for Norbek and his ancestors for millennia.

The four of us are traveling through a land using a method that belongs to a distant past. If we want to survive out here, we must keep moving. The realization bemuses me. Our situation is elemental, irreducible. No thinking is needed, only doing. I enter Norbek’s mind, Norbek’s reality. I must ski into the looming darkness without thinking. Nothing more. Acceptance of this soon will liberate me.

As if in return for my newfound sanguinity, we spot a tiny yellow light on the black horizon. It seems a mirage in the inky vastness, appearing and disappearing as we traverse dunes of snow. Drawing near, we see the light is emanating from a cabin. We’re saved!

A dog howls as a man in quilted pants appears in the blackness. We park our chanas and shake his hand. Inside the cabin, beyond the blanket-draped door, sit the man’s bewildered wife and son. We stare at each other in mutual surprise. We can’t believe our good fortune, and they can’t imagine what the hell we’re doing out here at night in the dead of winter.

Ayiken makes introductions. The man of the house, Womir Uzak—Ayiken explains this means “long life”—is short and wiry, with a crooked nose that looks like the result of a hoof to the face. His wife, Meir Gul, is a round-faced beauty. Their son, Janat, wide-eyed, with an even wider smile, looks to be 12 years old. Ayiken asks politely if we might spend the night.

Boladi, boladi. Sender bizdeng honahtar!” Uzak says. “Of course, of course. You are our guests!”

It’s past 10 p.m., but Meir Gul stokes the fire, sets a giant pot on the woodstove, fills it with meaty bones, and begins making noodles from scratch.

Outside, Uzak and Norbek unharness our horses. There is no horse barn; the animals are neither watered nor fed. They just stand, behemoths of stoicism. I want to invite them into the deliciously warm cabin.

Our hosts, Ayiken learns, are caretakers of a herd of horses in the valley; all winter they shovel snow off the haystacks to feed them. Ayiken explains we’re on our way to Hemu. Uzak nods and says, incidentally, “That route is closed because of avalanches.” His manner is indifferent; because it’s closed doesn’t mean it’s impassable. All here is a matter of muscle and perspective.

Exactly an hour after our arrival, Norbek goes out and feeds the horses hay.

“If I give them water before I feed them after a hard day,” he explains through Ayiken in a rare break from taciturnity, “they will bloat themselves and not eat.”

Around midnight, we all sit down to bowls of mare’s yogurt, beef stew mixed with noodles, bread, and jam. As I dig into the stew, Norbek heads out to give the horses water. He doesn’t sweet-talk them or pet them or even break off the chunks of ice plating their shivering flanks. When I ask him if he shouldn’t put a blanket on the horses, he shakes his head no.

Our bellies full, bodies exhausted, minds scrubbed clean of thoughts by a day in deep snow, we climb onto the wall-to-wall sleeping platform carpeted with rugs, which has more than enough space for our three hosts plus the four of us. I scooch down into my sleeping bag and sleep a dreamless sleep.

When my eyelids lift in the morning, Meir Gul already has the fire blazing and cups of milk tea steaming on the table. I step outside, fully expecting to find our horses frozen solid, iced sentinels that will stand before this cabin until the spring thaw. But the beasts still breathe; Norbek is slipping their halters back on and reattaching the chanas.

Uzak said that to reach Hemu we’d have to dig our way through this winter wonderland, so we hire him to help. He’ll trot ahead, tromping out a track. Back into the wilderness we sleigh, away from our cabin of salvation. Meir Gul waves.

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Larsen and I, eager to lighten the load of our horses, choose to ski; Ayiken and Norbek will drive the chanas. Wolverine tracks are everywhere; among the most elusive of animals, their presence here, Larsen says, suggests a fairly intact ecosystem.

We continue on, and soon the valley narrows. We know our way is about to be impeded. Sure enough, an avalanche has obliterated a section of the old chana track. Our horses pull up at the slide as at the banks of a raging river. Uzak unsheathes his shovel and goes to work. The four of us deploy our skis, chopping out snow on the high side to fashion a sort of platform. It’s slow business. I calculate it’ll take days to trench a path across this avalanche.

Methodically digging and shoveling snow, it dawns on me this is what the locals have been doing for centuries. I’m certain Norbek, Ayiken, and Uzak don’t give it a second thought. If they want to get somewhere in winter—for supplies, for help, for conversation—they and their horse-drawn chanas are it. It doesn’t matter how hard the work is or how long it takes. They have no choice.

Again, I find a gratifying freedom in this lack of options. We can’t go up, down, over, under, or around, so we have to go through. Well then, dig. Not in frustration, not impatiently or angrily. Not with any emotion at all. I give my mind a rest and let my muscles do the work.

If we were stuck somewhere in my home state of Wyoming, an obstacle such as an avalanche would be identified by the older generation as an opportunity to “build character” and by the younger as “like, really unfair.” Not to the Kazakhs of the Altay. They don’t weigh obstacles down with emotional freight. Avalanches and other impediments are part of the rhythm of the day. Altay people expect them without dwelling on them, take whatever effort and time is required to get through them, and move along.

To my surprise, within two hours we have shelved out a track through the avalanche debris. Naturally, around the bend, we find another avalanche, but by now I don’t care. I’m getting the hang of this. The Zen of traveling by chana.

It is midafternoon when we reach another cabin and are invited in by the owners, a Kazakh family, for milk tea and fried dough. Outside the cabin, a solar panel is set in the snow. We are told it can power a cellphone, two light bulbs for a few hours, and the toy electric crane I see on the floor.

As we eat, the family’s matriarch, seated by the woodstove, operates the controls of the small crane while a three-year-old boy with a traditional haircut—head shaved but for a tuft—tries to break the jerking toy. We are back in civilization.

The final leg of our journey to Hemu will be along a well-used chana track. If Larsen and I stay on skis, we won’t be able to keep up with the chanas, so we join Norbek and Ayiken on the hay bales. When we set off, the horses, now free of deep snow, practically gallop.

The sun is slanting across the snow, and soon the chanas are gliding along as if on ice. Enchanting as this is after our labors, I’m finding it disappointingly uneventful. In Hemu there will be skiers using traditional wooden skis, but there also will be SUVs, even a plowed road—and I’m not ready. I want to remain in ancient Altay.

As the low cabins of Hemu come into view, blanketed with a flat gray cloud of woodsmoke, I find myself wishing we had another snow-covered pass to make our way across. I find myself yearning for more nights out in the unknown, for more miles of deep snow to traverse by horse and chana. And I find myself envying what Norbek and Ayiken have in their rugged homeland.

National Geographic contributing writer Mark Jenkins skied Yellowstone and climbed Devil’s Tower for Traveler in “America’s Cathedrals.” 

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