Vail Travel: The long, snowy journey, part 2
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
As the film crew settled into the cold city of Altay, I remember being woken up before daybreak and being stuffed back into a cold, cramped bus for the three-hour ride to the village of Chung-Kar, where we would be introduced to our next mode of transportation.
A couple of hours after driving across open plain, the bus pulled into the village of Chung-Kar and up to the doorstep of the small adobe home of Dunai Aga, the Kazak elder with facial lines of a life well-lived. He greeted us with a smile and bear hugs that could warm even the coldest of environments, including this one. Looking around it was clear to me once again how spoiled I was, being born in a country with every amenity at my finger tips.
A spread of food awaited us inside – nuts, berries, bread, meats, greens, noodles, soups – how the women of the house had put this together this early in this frigid place impressed the hell out of me.
Our Kazak hosts were more than gracious. They wanted us to feel at home and to load our bellies with fuel – had I known what was to come, I definitely would have eaten more of the wonderful items at the table that morning.
Jaining Uye , pronounced chana, is the name for the horse-drawn sleighs we would be married to for the next several days. The chana were fine pieces of handcrafted engineering made primarily of wood and leather, with some tempered metal under the skids.
At first, riding on the chana was a novelty. Then I realized, looking around the streets of Chun-Kur, that the use of horse and chana was not a ride at Disneyland. This was actually a necessity of life for these villagers.
We loaded our bags onto the chana which were already anchored to six of the toughest looking horses I have ever seen. Dunai’s son, Kannat, would be the lead horseman taking us into the Altay Mountains toward the village of Kanas. He would be assisted by two other Kazak horsemen, Hastir and Norbik. Over the next several days I would come to realize that these men were some of the most durable men I had ever met. If I wore the clothing they were wearing rather than the high tech Obermeyer gear I had, I would most likely have perished on day one.
We rolled out of Chun-Kur like a wagon train of the old west. I stood on my sled and held the reins like Ben Hur, giggling with confidence and the sense of adventure, totally clueless to the monument of the journey ahead. Director/cinematographer Chris Patterson sat on the chana behind me capturing every moment with his 16mm Bolex. It was -30 Celcius.
Patterson, who shared the chana with me, was keeping himself busy by catching the surroundings on film – if only the film could really capture the sensation of just how cold it was.
Because of the cold and lack of power, Patterson chose to bring a Bolex camera. This is a spring-loaded, hand-wound 16 millimeter film camera – old technology that still captures the world better than today’s digital technology.
Together Patterson and up-and-coming producer Colin Withrell brought 90 rolls of film. When the film reel runs out, they would have to pull out a portable darkroom to change the exposed roll out for an unexposed one. Just looking at it made me nervous about the vulnerability of the equipment.
We dressed and ate in the cramped quarters and eventually wandered out into the cold world. The snow was coming down so hard that anything that sat still for more than a minute had an inch of snow on it.
It was the day our excitement grew as a young, strong-looking Mongolian man by the name of Munke arrived with a pair of handcrafted skis.
We had only seen images of what these people had been using for equipment and now I was actually holding a pair – it was surreal.
The craftsmanship, weight and shape of the skis were impressive. I was looking back in time at what could perhaps be the beginning of our sport. The sensation was amazing.
I was paralyzed with excitement and just stood there, studying them. The skis stood around 205 centimeters in length, had reverse side cut and perhaps a tiny bit of rocker. The bases consisted of horse hair, with the bristles running from tip to tail as to allow the skier to be able to walk uphill, yet slide down efficiently. The bindings were simple leather straps punched through from the base of the ski. The straps wrapped around the front of the skiers’ foot and left the heel free so they could walk through the deep, dry Altay snow.
Instead of poles, they carried one long, straight stick. One end of the stick was shaped as a comfortable grip and the other was carved into a blade to act as a rudder. The stick, although functional, was also a matter of personal choice – it had to look and feel just right.
Standing outside the hut I pulled my brand new Salomon skis from the bag. Munke was fascinated by my skis as well as my heavy ski boots. We did not speak the same language, but I could read his body language. He was really curious about the bindings and how they worked. He studied everything and smiled when he understood after I demonstrated the technology. He turned the skis over to look at the bases and indicated they were too slick for walking uphill, so I pulled a pair of skins out of the bag and showed him how I would to apply them.
I could tell he thought that this was way too much work and that my equipment, though colorful, was a little too heavy and that it was not wide enough for the conditions.
I laughed, flashing back to packing for this trip and trying to decide which skis to bring. I went with a mid-fat, all-mountain ski with a side cut I could use in every condition.
Of course, now that I was here and it had snowed so much, I wished I had brought a wider ski. This is always the case.
Munke indicated it was time to go skiing. Everyone reacted, putting on their equipment in front of the hut. Munke skied away from the hut toward the mountain beyond the homestead and we followed like sheep.
I immediately noticed how much more efficient he was moving through the snow on his gear than we were on our modern gear. Throughout this portion of the journey, Patterson was trying to capture every movement with his Bolex and Canadian still photographer Ilja Herb was running around trying to catch the action with his still camera.
The energy was awesome. We were actually here in China, near the Mongolian boarder, with a real descendent of an ancient skiing community.
The first descent we made was an experience that I will remember forever. The moment when we saw our first Mongolian skier rip through the bushes and small trees of the steep, rocky terrain at 30-plus mph was impressive. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the rate of speed in which he did it. He just pointed and went by leaning back and using the long pole as a rudder.
Watching this made me realize a couple of things: could they have possibly been the first straight liners in our sport and were they the first to have reverse side-cut skis with a bit of rocker?
The native people were having fun watching as our crew, with all its gear, had issues negotiating the rocky terrain.
Below, I watched the Mongol skiers tear up the slope, descending toward and into the trees at warp speed. It was scary to witness and I could hear the cameramen yell with enthusiasm.
I received the countdown and pushed off. I sank in the bottomless snow and once again wished I had brought wider skis. I put my feet together for more surface area and leaned back.
The natives did a few more straight runs into the trees. All I could hear were breaking branches. These guys were crazy!
As we removed our gear, Munke grabbed a hold of Patterson’s ski boots and skis and started walking awkwardly up the slope to test the modern gear.
The first thing that got him was the fact that he could not walk uphill with the skis on. He complained about the weight of everything and laughed. Once we had him sufficiently clicked into the bindings and his boots buckled he was out of the gate like a rodeo bull. I thought for sure he was going to crash but he didn’t. I was blown away by his skills.
I thought about how amazing he had performed, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if we had just interfered with the evolution of things here? I mean, he literally just jumped ahead in technology from where he was by a couple thousand years.
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