For much of the year, skiing is the only way to get around Khom, a village of wooden cabins heated by earthen stoves, five hours’ drive from the nearest major town in the northern Altay region of Xinjiang.
The design of skis such as the ones used by Sulita, who like many people in this region uses just one name, have barely changed for centuries. The bottom of the skis are covered with horse-hide and shoes are tied on with leather rope.
The direction of the horse fur allows the skis to slide forward, while preventing them from slipping backward when travelling uphill. “I’ve been up the highest mountains with these,” Sulita said. “When I was young, we used the horse-hide skis a lot, for hunting or if we lost a cow or sheep.
“Xinjiang is a volatile region where hundreds of people have been killed in recent years in violence between Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people, and ethnic majority Han Chinese, which Beijing blames on Islamist militants. Most of the violence has been in the far south of the region, rather than its far north.
Cave paintings discovered in Altay – today home to a mixture of ethnic Tuvans and Kazakhs – show rows of figures standing on what look like skis, with herds of animals running below them. Archaeologists have dated the paintings as 10,000 to 30,000 years old, according to Chinese ski historian Shan Zhaojian.