Ancient fur ski craft revived in Xinjiang


From arts and crafts to knowledge and skills, China's intangible cultural heritage is invaluably embedded in its ethnic communities. This series looks at the latest efforts to preserve and promote the country's inherited traditions and living expressions.

Today's skiers and snowboarders are used to relying on ski lifts at resorts to take them to the top of a mountain before experiencing the addictive thrill of swooshing down the mountain.

However, in some snow-covered villages in Altay prefecture of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, it's common in winter to see local herdsmen, with planks attached to their feet, climb the snowy slopes without any other form of assistance. And they do so in a relatively nimble way.

The pair of planks are wrapped with horsehide, which serves a double purpose. Remarkably, the horsehide not only can provide friction to prevent skiers from slipping while ascending, but also helps them slide more smoothly down the slopes.

According to rock carvings uncovered in the area by archaeologists, such skis have served for around 12,000 years as a means of transportation for the snowfield inhabitants of Altay, especially those who had to trek a long way in the snow to herd animals or hunt.

The fur skis gradually lost their popularity in recent decades after paved roads linked houses to the outside world. Consequently, craftsmen who made the fur skis had little chance to display their skills.

Now, however, in response to the nation's goal of kindling grassroots enthusiasm for ice and snow sports, Altay plans to protect and promote its skiing culture and better pass along its skiing tradition to future generations.

The prefecture is working to promote itself as the place where skiing might have originated, and it hopes to develop the area as a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders. As a result, the ancient fur skis and the craft of making them have found a new lease on life in modern times.

Silambek Sakish, 67, a herdsman in the village of Lasti in Altay, began to learn the craft at the age of 15 from his father.

"When I was young, most people in my village would wear the fur skis to go out to search for firewood or to graze their animals. Being one of the few families in the village who knew how to make the special planks, we could make money from selling the fur skis every snow season," he recalled.

The skis sold well in the winter, but to prepare for the surge in sales, the family usually began during the summer to dry pine wood in the sun and purchase horsehides from slaughterhouses.

Sakish would first cut high-quality pine into a plank and then bend the plank's front end after the wood was heated in a flame. Wrapping the plank with horsehide was the last step.

"I would wear the newly made fur skis to slide on the snow to test if they were durable and practical," he said.

As the village's basic infrastructure was upgraded and residents' living conditions improved considerably, the traditional mode of transportation lost its appeal. For some time, Sakish's fur ski workshop didn't do much business.

However, the situation took a favorable turn in 2010, when Sakish was honored as an inheritor of the craft of making fur skis, which had been designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Xinjiang.

Supported by the local government, he set up a woodworking studio where he not only produces the traditional handmade fur skis, but also creates wooden souvenirs related to Altay's skiing culture for tourists to purchase.

"A pair of fur skis can sell for 1,500 yuan ($235) or so. Last year, I earned around 60,000 yuan from the business," he said.

His works are exhibited in ski resorts, airports and train stations across Altay and also at an exhibition center for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to promote the prefecture's deep historical connection to skiing.

Last month, he was invited to a six-day intangible cultural heritage exhibition in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to introduce the ancient craft and the unique nomadic lifestyle it represents to a larger number of people.

More young people have come to him to learn the craft, and his youngest son, who is 31, has followed in his footsteps to carry on the tradition.

Sakish's family members still use the fur skis as a means of transportation during winter. In addition, fur ski competitions have been held annually by the local government, at which the family members display their maneuvers.

Nie Ping, an official from Altay prefecture's Culture, Radio, Television, Sports and Tourism Bureau, said that activities that allow tourists to experience snow sports and local cultures, such as the fur ski competitions, help to generate momentum for the prefecture's economic development. Because of this, tourism is becoming a pillar industry for the prefecture, Nie said.

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