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Ancient horsehide ski-making lives on in Altay

By YAN DONGJIE in Altay, Xinjiang | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-03 09:52
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Slanbek Shahash (right) is the fourth generation in his family to make horsehair skis in Altay prefecture, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. [Photo/Xinhua]

The people of the Altai Mountains in the north of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region have for countless generations been doing something remarkable — racing down the slopes on homemade skis made with wood and horsehair.

Slanbek Shahash, who is turning 70, is the fourth generation in his family to make horsehair skis in Xinjiang's Altay prefecture, and whose son is carrying on the family tradition.

Altay's population mainly consists of the Kazak ethnic group, and many of them rely on livestock herding for their livelihood — so skiing comes in handy across a landscape that is covered in snow much of the year.

For thousands of years, the nomads in Altay have been tying horse fur to wooden skis. In thick snow in the long winters, horsehide skis are essential tools for people wanting to work and get about.

"When sliding downhill, the fur sticks to the ski, increasing the sliding speed. When going uphill, it goes against the board, increasing friction and providing an anti-slip function. The horsehide ski embodies the wisdom of our ancestors," said Slanbek.

Slanbek's son, Juanbek, has returned to his hometown to learn the craft of making horsehide skis from his father.

"My father has been doing this for 50 years, and now I'm inheriting this craftsmanship. I have trained a group of young people in the village who can make horsehide skis. This skill can be passed down," he said.

Altay, known as the "City of Snow", has rock paintings in Dundebrak Cave, depicting ancient people skiing and hunting. According to some experts, these rock paintings were created in the late Paleolithic period, over 10,000 years ago.

Compared to the previously confirmed skiing histories of 4,500 years in Sweden, 5,000 years in Norway and 8,000 years in Russia, Altay is believed by some to be the birthplace of skiing.

"Even until now, many nomads in Altay still use these skis in their daily lives," Juanbek said.

He explains that horsehide skis are all handmade, involving 10 steps from material selection and board cutting to the final shaping and making the accompanying poles, which takes about 15 days.

The skis are usually made of red pine or birch with a diameter of around 20 centimeters and an age of around 15 years. The fur is typically selected from the forelegs of horses aged over 3 years, with hair that grows in the same direction, and is short and brittle, making them suitable for sliding and climbing.

"It takes about six to 10 pieces of horsehide to assemble a pair of skis," he said.

Since the beginning of this winter, Juanbek's family has already received orders for 60 pairs of horsehide skis of varying sizes.

"A pair of horsehide skis sells for over 1,000 yuan ($140), and can bring in nearly 100,000 yuan in income to our family in one winter," said Juanbek.

Previously, he worked as a taxi driver in a different city, earning around 5,000 yuan per month. In 2021, he sold his taxi and returned home.

"In addition to regular-sized skis, we have also designed and made small skis as souvenirs for tourists. These small skis are convenient to carry home and have more ornamental value," said Juanbek.

In December, the 7th Jilin Ice and Snow Industry International Expo was held in Changchun, Jilin province, and Slanbek was invited.

"Our horsehide ski-making technique received a lot of attention at the expo. The trip to Jilin showcased our horsehide ski-making technique to everyone, allowing more people to understand and experience the exquisite craftsmanship. My family is very happy," said Juanbek.

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