Touring the Altai Mountains of China
By Jayme Moye
In January 2019, a small group of adventurers embarked on one of the first-ever ski tours of the Altai Mountains, from the northern China side. I participated as an embedded journalist, on assignment for Adventure Journal. We based out of the village of Hemu, known as Khom in the local language, located at the intersection of China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. Here, residents herd cattle and sheep as they have for thousands of years. China claims the region is the birthplace of skiing, with a cave painting of men hunting ibex by ski that Chinese archaeologists have dated back more than 10,000 years (2,000 years older than the next earliest ski artifact on record, from the Scandinavian mountains). But we weren’t there to debate the origins of the sport. We were looking to learn about a different culture, and to ski in a place where every line is untracked. Hemu delivered bigtime:
Our ski cabins, like all the structures in Hemu, are made from wood. Wood homes with stacked-log walls are a cultural symbol of the Tuvans; the main ethnic group inhabiting the region.
Fifteen years ago, there was no electricity in Hemu, but conditions are changing fast. The place we stayed, known locally as “Mr. Wang’s,” had heat, electricity, running water, and Wifi. The Chinese Government aims to build up the village as a winter tourism destination, complete with ski lifts.
Hemu is located on an eponymous river fed by meltwater from Youyi Mountain. Birch forests line either side of the river, which was frozen solid and covered in snow when we visited. There are two wooden bridges leading across the water, one for pedestrians (shown) and one further down river used mainly by resident herders and their animals.
In the winter, locals living in the hillsides around the village use chanas, traditional horse-drawn wooden sleighs, to travel to town and between homes and pastures.
We soon discovered that chana trails leading into the mountains make excellent skin tracks. They saved us the time and energy of having to break trail on more than one occasion.
Hemu is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and provides seemingly limitless ski-tour adventures right from town. On this day, we drove most of the flat section along the river valley, then donned our skis and followed a chana trail into the hills.
For the final leg (pictured below), we broke trail, switch-backing up an unnamed peak for see-forever views and a long, satisfying descent back down to the valley.
Our team ranged in age from 27 to 68, and came from all over the world, including the Pyrenees of Spain, Canada’s Yukon, New Zealand, the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the U.S. We found that traveling in one of the most remote regions of China was especially challenging due to the language barrier. Luckily, we had David Cheng (second from the left) with us. Cheng grew up in China and speaks fluent Mandarin.
The village of Hemu and its surrounding mountains enjoy a continental snowpack with exceptionally light, dry snow, and cold temperatures—cold smoke as we call it in Canada. It skies like a dream. The birch forests at the lower elevations provided some well-spaced tree skiing to cap off each day. Ski-tour guide Laura Adams (pictured), is one of the trip’s co-creators. Men’s Journal recently named her to its list of “World’s Most Adventurous Women 2019.” Photo by Mike Beedell.