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The Season of Pow - China, Xinjiang Trip Report

post #1 of 53
Thread Starter 

Greetings all! Over in China right now, it's time to start the blog as we are into day 4. Going to be heading into the real wilds soon, so  not sure if I will have any internet access. As it stands, the internet access is extremely limited (in terms of what websites I can actually access). I have no other social media, no access to Gmail but you'll be happy to hear that there are no problems with Epicski! I can post away here quite happily at the moment. My VPN I bought does not work, so it doesn't look like I will be able to get onto Facebook until I get home. Let's get into what has been. an amazing adventure so far. Absolutely loving it out here. For those that don't know, we are in China with a small group of skiers checking out some new freeride options in the far NW of China in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. We are close to Mongolia and not too far from Kazakstan. It is a wild and beautiful area.


  The ski industry is absolutely exploding in China right now. They have been building several new ski areas a month (not that we Westerners would know) and they want to have around 800 resorts by the time the Beijing winter Olympics come around. It's pretty crazy stuff but the money over here for skiing right now, is ridiculous. These are very exciting times for the Chinese ski industry right now. Traditionally most of the resorts have been built close to population centers, with little consideration given to terrain and snowfall (build it and they will come, plus add lot's of snow making..... seems to be the mantra). Consequently, they don't really have much skiing to write home about but finally they are starting to look at areas (they happen to be very remote though) where they actually have mountains and have decent snow. The Altay mountains have that, but they have been very hard to access, until now. The airports are in and the roads are being built. There are some resorts and more are planned, but the exciting opportunity is in the new heli and cat skiing operations that are starting up. That is why we are here, to check out these new operations and see if the area is a viable option for us to start a program. This is that adventure.......


Saturday 18th March – Travel Day

  With the late departure from India, I only had 1 ½ days back home in Denver. My body clock was therefore all over the place when I left for China on Saturday late that night. Thankfully I only had a quick flight to San Francisco where I would stay overnight. Then it was the 11 hour flight to Beijing the next day. That was relatively easy (long distance flights are feeling pretty easy after all the travel I have been doing lately). I flew United again and this time flew in regular economy. They had one of the big old 747’s (it’s been a while since I have flown on one of those) and to my disappointment, I saw that they didn’t have the personal entertainment systems (no headrest tv screens), but they did have the system to connect you to their entertainment system through wi-fi (and free movies) via your smart phone or laptop. So I ended up watching a couple of movies on my phone and got a few hours’ sleep. Thankfully the middle seat was empty so we had a decent amount of room.


  The flight arrived a little early in Beijing, but there were a lot of international flights arrive at the same time. It was super busy at immigration and a bit of a shock to the system (already confused enough as it was!), when I saw the queue. Thankfully it moved pretty quickly and I was through immigration in about 30 minutes. Both my bags arrived and I was able to head to my hotel. Unfortunately there was no one there to meet me (I was staying at the Ibis near the airport and they had a free shuttle), so I went to an information kiosk and they have staff who speak English. They called the hotel and asked them to send a driver. Then they gave me a piece of paper with the Chinese translation of the hotel and my name on it. I went up 4 levels and outside to where they said to meet the car and about 20 minutes later, the car was there. Then it was a 15 minute drive to the hotel.


  On first viewing, the hotel didn’t look like an Ibis, but sure enough, there was the branding as I stepped inside. I checked in and headed up to the room. This was a decent looking and new enough hotel from a distance, but when you got into the rooms, they looked pretty ramshackle and obviously lacked any maintenance. My room had obviously had water leaking underneath the bathroom door into the entrance and the wooden floor had started to buckle and crack. They had place plastic sticking tape over the top to try and cover it but it looked like a mess. Inside the bathroom the grout between the tiles was getting moldy, overall the hotel looked like it had been new once, but they did not do any repairs or proper cleaning. Anyway, $30 a night and I will just have to find a new hotel on the way back. No big deal.


  It was about 7pm and I was hungry. I went downstairs to ask about food but they told me to go around the corner. There were 4 restaurants and I looked inside through the windows. The last one looked a little bigger and cleaner so I went in. They ushered me down to a table and I sat down. The menu was pretty big; thankfully they had some (funny) English translations and some helpful pictures. I had some exciting options in donkey meat, chicken and pig feet, fish heads and so on, but I went for the safe chicken curry option and a beer. They like to drink warm drinks in China as it turns out, the beer was pretty warm so using Google translate, I was able to ask for a cold beer. Thankfully they have those for pesky foreigners like me. The food came out in a massive bowl (enough for 2 to 3 people), but it was good and I put a decent dent in it. I had a few groups of drunken business men come past (one so drunk he stumbled into the table) but they apologized and went on their way. No problem. I headed back to the hotel and then hit the internet. I finally got the VPN to turn on and I was able to get online. Grant’s flight was late but he was on his way. I would meet him the next day at 445am in the lobby in preparation for our flight to Aletai. Then it was off to sleep.


- Matt

post #2 of 53
Thread Starter 

Tuesday 21st March

Flight to Aletai – I was up at 4am and then headed down to the lobby at 445am to meet Grant. Grant Nakamura is a friend from Big Sky. He is onboard with the trip as our photographer and we first skied together during the Japan trip (there are plenty of photos of his I will be posting soon, for the rest of that blog). We were meeting Maolin Gu, our local Chinese connection at the airport. Maolin is setting up the Chinese version of the PSIA. We had met on Facebook few years back and he had put the trip together for us. Maolin is on the forefront of the ski area development in China and is extremely well connected. He speaks really good English and is a good skier (very passionate about ski instruction) so I knew we were going to be in good hands.


  We headed to the terminal 2, the older domestic terminal and went to check in for our flights. We went to the wrong queue and were directed to another check-in desk. Maolin was there and we went to meet him. He helped us with the check in and straight away he showed us his worth. They flagged our bags as we tried to get them through the scanner, so we had to open our bags to show them to the security guy. Then we also had to pay excess baggage, after all that was done, we finally got our tickets and could head through security screening. Now, for anyone who complains about the TSA being strict, then please come to China as you have not seen anything yet. They have the tightest security screening I have ever seen. When they say please remove any electrical items, then they mean EVERY electrical item from your bag, even chargers, cords and adapters. When I fly back, I am going to put all my electronics in a plastic bag inside my backpack and just pull the whole lot out in one go. Poor Grant was carrying all his camera gear in his hand luggage and he had a ton of stuff to take out. We also had a lengthy pat down. The lithium battery in my JetForce bag was a concern to them, I had to show them that as they had the bag empty and put it through the machine again and it kept coming up on their screen. Thankfully they did not confiscate it but Maolin definitely had to help with that one (they have not seen airbags before, especially the JetForce packs). We also had a very thorough pat down and wand scan (nothing compared to the check for Aletai!).


  Finally we had all our hand-luggage and were able to pass through security to our gate. Then we found out that the flight was delayed due to weather in Urumqi (pronounced Urum-chi). This was fine as we could then go and get some breakfast. We had some noodles and broth and got comfortable, but after about 40 minutes, they called us back to the gate for departure. We were off! It was about a 4hour flight to get to Urumqi on China Southern Airlines and the plane was nice and new and the hostesses all spoke English. It didn’t feel so alien (not quite the Dakota DC-10 with chicken coops and sacks of rice that I was expecting!) and the flight went quickly. We arrived in Urumqi around noon. Our next flight for Aletai (final destination) was due to depart around 6pm, so we had some time to kill. When we arrived, Maolin received a notification that the next flight was delayed until mid-night, so now we had a lot of time to wait. Thankfully Maolin, the Godfather of Chinese skiing (what we are calling him), knows a lot of people around the country and he knew plenty of people in Urumqi. He called up a good friend of his and about 45 minutes later, we had our hand-luggage stored in some lockers (after having the bags scanned again) and we were out of there for a tour around the area. This was a nice little bonus tour for us as I was keen to know more about Urumqi as I knew pretty much nothing about the entire region. It turns out Urumqi is pretty big. It is the regional capital with about 2 million residents. It is a pretty modern city, with large buildings and is surprisingly clean. I must say that was a nice change from Kashmir and India and I wasn’t expecting that. The drivers are definitely more chill than in Kashmir, with only a little bit of horn usage and a slight obeyance of traffic lights and give way signs.


  I certainly don’t claim to be an expert about the area now, but I have experienced it and I must say I love the cultural diversity of the area. There are many ethnic groups living in the area and you have a majority Chinese living with Wygar, Mongolian and Kazak people. Each group has its own language, culture and food. The people are very friendly and are keen to share their culture with you. They are genuinely excited to see Westerners for the first time. I thought we were an anomaly in Kashmir, but by some of the looks of amazement of the locals, they must have never seen foreigners before and they are blown away. It is really cool. You will get stopped and asked for a photograph many times here and they love to try and speak to you in English. If they receive a reply in English, they are overwhelmed. I love that about this place. People just want to connect and meet with people from far off lands. They are as inquisitive about us as we are of them. I love the interactions we are having. Just be careful if they want to take you drinking, and then be ready to stay up late! The local clear alcohol is like fire water. I stay away from it, but if you can keep pace with them, you will get a lot of respect. I’ll talk more about that later!


  As I said earlier, Maolin’s friend turned up and we went for a bit of a drive. The Silk Road Ski area is the closest ski area to Urumqi, about a 45 minute drive. It was kind of surreal; we drove out through a flat, open farm land area. It was a bit foggy so we couldn’t see too much. We went through a police checkpoint (windows must come down so everyone can be photographed) and then you have to get out and go through metal detectors and have our passports checked again.  You really do need to have your passport on you at all times in this part of China; you can’t not have it on you. That was another surprise. Security is very tight in this part of the country. Then we drove past some indoor stadiums built recently for the Asian Winter Games, purpose built, just sitting idle, out in the middle of nowhere. Surreal. It was still flat and then all of a sudden, the land started to rise and right there, was the ski area. We could only see the bottom runs, but there were a few skiers and boarders riding the slopes. It is definitely late season for this part of China. We then were allowed on the lifts and we took the ride to near the top. We got off and went to the lodge/restaurant at the top of the main lift. Maolin’s friend, unbeknownst to us had called ahead and organized a feast. We sat down at a table and before we knew it, different dishes were getting put in front of us. There was chicken and beef, rice and different vegetables. It was really nice! There were several local skiers who came into the lodge and most of them either knew or knew of Maolin and they all came over to pay their respects. It was a cool scene. Anyone involved in ski instructing either knows or knows of, Maolin Gu. He really is the Godfather! After our food, we took the last lift all the way to the top to have a look. The snow had all melted off the southern aspects, but there were three main runs off the top, 2 blues and China’s steepest black run at about 37 degrees. It was bumped up and with the fog and intermittent snow showers and crusty refrozen snow, didn’t look like too much fun without skis on. We hung out for a bit and took some pictures, chatting to more local skiers.


  Then we jumped back on the lift and downloaded. I was frozen by the time we reached the bottom (sand shoes and ankle socks don’t really cut it here in the winter…..) and it was good to jump back in the car. Then we drove back towards Urumqi. In the meantime, Maolin had received a couple of messages about our flights. First it was moved forward to 8pm, then it got moved back to 9pm, either way, it was better than midnight. Then we had a look around the city. We went to a Muslim area with a mosque and a big tower. We went to the top (6th story) and that gave us great views over the city. We had aquick look around the bazaar net door and then we went to our guide’s favorite restaurant. This was a Wygar restaurant and was like nothing I had been to before. The inside was absolutely stunning, with ornate wooden carvings everywhere and beautiful chandeliers. It was amazing. Our guide ordered all the food for us and we had a feast, with tasty yogurt/jam, Emperor Soup, lamb kebabs, noodles, rice dishes and honey and jam tea. It was quite the spread.  Towards the end of the meal, a band with a singer started to play and we were treated to some local dancing and throat singing. I absolutely loved that! It was cool. We went downstairs and Grant and the dancer had a bit of a dance off.  I would have stayed all night but time was unfortunately getting away from us and we had to leave in a bit of a hurry to get back to the airport to make it for out flight to Aletai. We made it in good time and thankfully we were already ticketed for the next flight, but we still had to go through security and as it turned out, that was even tighter than the flight from Beijing to Urumqi. The x-ray was of our baggage was full-on, I thought they were going to confiscate my lithium battery for my airbag (make sure you disconnect it so it can be scanned individually. We really slowed down the line, but finally after pulling EVERYTHING out of our bags, they let us go through. We had the individual scan and pat down and again, that was way more thorough than in the US. Try scanning the bottom of your feet and then hands down underneath the belt line. It was full on but we made it into the flight.


  It was only a 55 minute flight and that was pretty much straight up and straight down. No problem. The flight arrived just after 10pm. The bags were all out pretty quick and then it was outside and after 5 minutes, a big van with Altai mountain snow park and heliski markings arrived to pick us up. It was a quick 20 minute drive to the start if Aletai and our hotel. We couldn’t see much as it was dark but we did see a lot of buildings with fancy lights on them. Looks like we were arriving in the Las Vegas of the far NW of China!   


Grant at the Silk Road ski area.



Some of the lower lifts.



Heading up higher and the little a-frame village. There were some impressive Western looking condos nearly finished down lower, quite the eclectic mix.



Start of a pretty steep looking pitch.



Muggins (me) in front of the Italian founder of the resort.



Inside the nice upper mountain lodge.



The start of our surprise feast.



Local skier at the top of the mountain.



The steepest run in China (allegedly).



A local skier and our guide posing for a photo with Grant and myself.



Heading back down. Time to get warm!



Lower lifts.



Silk road ski area logo.



Big mosque in Urumqi.



Yurt alert!



The view from the top of the tower.



Paintings inside the tower.









Bizarre bazaar!



Wolf time with Maolin.....



Knick-knacks in the bazaar.



Due to the heightened tension in the region, there is a lot of security. Most major offices and building/businesses have a metal detector or security at the front door. This was at a main bank, They let Grant play dress ups with their riot gear. You can't take pictures of the military or the police, but you can steal their gear and take pictures of you wearing it!



Inside the amazing Wygar restaurant we went to in Urumqi.









The amazing dancing put on for us when we left.



We had an awesome time in Urumqi! Thank you to all the awesome local people we met!


- Matt

post #3 of 53
Can't wait to see what the skiing is like!
post #4 of 53
Thread Starter 

Wednesday 22nd March

  We were up early but breakfast didn’t start till 830am. We headed down to the 3rd floor and immediately we saw a buffet with a lot of different looking things. I had a suspicion we weren’t going to be eating a Western breakfast and sure enough, it was all Asian items. No worries, I found some nice egg fried rice, some steamed meat dumplings, some hard boiled eggs and a bunch of other stuff. My little plate was pretty well loaded. Then we noticed a couple of Western looking guys already sitting down. Maolin was first to finish getting his plate together and he went over to talk to the Westerners. It turns out they were the guides from the place we were going to. How perfect! They were three guides from Canada and they had been in Aletai all winter. We immediately started picking their brains about the local area and what we could expect. We were told that they had a bunch of snow mobiles, a couple of cats and unfortunately the heli was gone, returned to the government who wanted it back (it had been leased from the local government but they had need for it plus the rent was getting too expensive with a lack of use). We had missed it by a week or so. I only knew about them having a heli, so I was glad to hear that they had plenty of other mechanized ways for us to get around.


  After breakfast, we were told that we would meet our rides outside the hotel. When we got out there, we met the guides again and then several vehicles rolled up all badged with the Alatei heli and cat skiing branding. There was a Toyota Landcruiser and 2 brand new Toyota Tundras, one of which looked pretty trick with raised suspension, big fat tires and rims and body kit. It looked like quite the beast (it turns out that the owner of the operation, Mr. Gu, races that truck in some Chinese off-road series, so that is why it was pretty tricked out). Then we were told it would be an hour and a half drive to the snow park. I thought snow park was a funny name for a cat skiing area, but I really didn’t know what to expect. We headed left from the hotel, through town and then out into the countryside. Immediately we were surrounded by mountains. There were a few farms that we went past, with plenty of cows out for a wonder in the middle of the road. It was slow going. Then we started to head into an alpine valley and the scenery got better and better. There was a river bed and forest, and then we were surrounded by steep mountain sides. The road got more and more rugged, thankfully the 4wd’d had excellent tires and their traction was good. We stopped a few times to take pictures and finally we reached the point the guides had warned us about called “the gauntlet” where slides had come down and previously blocked the road. They had cleared a tunnel through and in places, the debris pile was 10ft above the car. It was impressive yet ominous!


  We went higher and higher, eventually we crested over a high point and there was the view in front of us, a massive open, alpine wilderness. It was a seriously impressive view; I have not seen many sights more impressive than that. Still the road went on but we started to see little snow roads lined with flags heading up the sides of the mountains. We crested another high point and then the main camp came into view. This was another impressive sight; several 4wd’s lined up parked in a row, 7 or 8 snowmobiles and then a bunch of groomed trails leading in all directions, lined with colorful flags. Then in the center of all of this, a large yurt complex with several connected rooms and then some large workshops and sheds out the back. What a complex! The mountains went on forever, all caked in white and I immediately felt very small. Most of the terrain looked pretty mellow, but there were larger, steeper peaks in the distance. This would be quite the location. We jumped out of the truck and headed into the main yurt. Inside it was warm and colorful, with rugs on the ground and on the walls. It was huge inside. There was a fire burning in a stove, keeping the place heated. There were tables and chairs and racks holding a fleet of demo ski boots. In the adjoining yurt, they had a lot of fat skis, all brand new. There were supplies in another tent.


  Then it was time to gear up and get ready to go ride. We were told we would be using the snowmobiles that day. We had a group of the owner’s friends in tow, plus a Chinese film crew flying a drone that would be filming the group. We headed up the small hill in front of the yurt, taking a couple of the switchbacks to make it to the top. It was deceptive; the vertical would be longer than I first thought. There was about a dozen or so of us, with 3 guides. It was quite the crew. We went for a quick warmup lap, finding plenty of untouched snow on the main face of what they call the snow park. The snow park is the main area serviced by snowmobiles close to the basecamp. It is a relatively small part of the (massive) national park that they have been given access to (free access to as well, I might add!). Now, immediately I discovered the challenge of the local snowpack. It is facetted to all hell (pardon my French). You could push your pole all the way to the hilt without much problem and when you skied it, you had to be very careful as you would easily break through. Speaking to the guides, it snows pretty hard until mid-January, and then it dries up. It gets very cold and the nights are clear, perfect conditions for major faceting of the snowpack. It was rotten. Now this can still make for fun skiing, you just had to be on your toes and also terrain selection would be important. Seeing that there was a lot of mellow terrain, making safer choices shouldn’t be an issue and I had confidence in our guides that they would do a good job with that too. They seemed pretty experienced and switched on by all accounts.


  After the first run, we headed further out, away from the snow park and into the backcountry proper, in the direction of Mongolia (it felt like we were already there….). I won’t go into too much detail here, I will let the pictures do the talking. We came back for lunch around 2pm and then headed back out for more. Given that China does not have any time zones, it stays light here till very late. We stayed out till 630pm before heading back. We were back at the yurt and had our gear off by 7pm and then we were back at the hotel by about 9pm. Maolin then took us out to dinner to a small local place (recommended by his friends) and we enjoyed some amazing Wygar bbq, various meats on sticks (a lot of tasty lamb and beef) with some noodles and some vegetables. The food was awesome and we ate like kings for less than $10, with a few local beers to wash down all the bbq. It was an amazing and eye-opening first day. I really wanted to feel like I was in the wilds and I definitely got to experience that. The next day we would be taking out the cat, so another great day was in the pipeline.


Starting to get up higher into the mountains. Maolin enjoying the view.



About to start the running of the gauntlet zone, through multiple avalanche paths. In April, the government is about to start a massive project to improve the road. It will be a two lane sealed road with avalanche protection (roof) where the avalanche paths are. This will make the drive to camp a lot safer and reduce the travel time greatly.



This is a fun zone! Potential area for a chairlift for expert skiers. This would be an amazing zone!






Looking back at the massive slide paths that are above the road currently. Looking forward to their changes to the road.....



Getting higher, close to the snow park with multiple snow roads they have put in for cat and sled access.



Snow park sleds.



The bunny hill, our warmup run and there is even a groomer if you want it!



Looking towards Mongolia!



Grant in front of the yurt.



I have no idea what is going on..... this place is nuts!



The yurt is warm and cozy on the inside. Pretty cool place. I ate part of a sheep's head in there today and it was all good. Strange things in a strange land......



Some of the demo skis they have.



The view from the top of the bunny hill.



Heading back to all those pillows and an area they call "the secret garden."



From the high point, you are in the alpine.



Then it's trees and pillows. Giddy up!



Mongolian-style double selfie.



The landscape is huge. The terrain goes on for ever. To see this in person is amazing. I love this place.



Masses of open bowls, mellow ridges and then old growth trees await as you explore.



It's pretty much sunny every day. I quite like that.



Our guides with Grant and Maolin.



I heart this place too. The Chinese skiers are really friendly and most are pretty good skiers too.



Tundra-saurus Rex! What a beast.



Local dinner with Maolin and Grant.



Lamb kebabs! Simple food done really well.



Spicey beef kebabs. Pretty darn tasty too.


- Matt

post #5 of 53
This is a very cool "trip"report.

Are you going to take a group to this area at some point in the future?

I'll be in China working for two weeks in April.
post #6 of 53

What a great trip report.  And you are an excellent writer.  Looking forward to more.

post #7 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Started at 53 View Post

This is a very cool "trip"report.

Are you going to take a group to this area at some point in the future?

I'll be in China working for two weeks in April.

G'day Started at 53,

  Thanks for checking out the blog. Yes, I think I might put out a couple of small groups next season and then build from there. I have to finalize what the actual program will be. We just arrived in our next zone, further north in Kanas. It's late so I have not seen what lies outside the hotel yet, so will have to see if this is a spot we would add to the program. So far I am thinking intro to powder and powder improvement type programs for the first season. As cool as this place is, the snow mobile and cat accessed skiers would probably suit less experienced powder seekers as they have a ton of mellow terrain. The Secret Garden area is a lot of fun for expert freeriders, but I don't know how much there is to really keep more experienced skiers amused for too long. The upper intermediate and advanced terrain is where the Aletai cat skiing op really excels. They are planning some pretty big changes for next season, so that might change things (how about a 5 day, cat assisted yurt to yurt adventure? If they get that program up and running, that would be truly unique and really put them on the map). We'll have to see what Kanas brings! You can always send me a PM or an email to matt@theadventureproject.net if you want to keep in touch about our future China program (please note China does not like Google so I can't access my email yet till after the 11th April).


- Matt

post #8 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by bamaman View Post

What a great trip report.  And you are an excellent writer.  Looking forward to more.

Thanks so much bamaman. It's been a truly unique and exciting adventure so far and I know there will be a lot more adventure to come. We've just arrived in our second location, Kanas, about 450km's further north and now we are really out in the wilds. Will keep writing now and posting, now that I have another good internet connection. Thanks for the kind words and following along!


- Matt

post #9 of 53
Thread Starter 

Thursday 23rd March

Cat skiing – Day 2 was an exciting prospect. It was time for cat skiing! I’m really not a fan of snowmobiling; I just don’t feel safe riding a (snow) crotch rocket at high speed on uneven terrain, especially with drivers that are new to the game. I’m ok riding my own sled, but I feel infinitely more nervous when someone else is driving me, so I was definitely feeling better about riding the cat all day. It was another bluebird day and we made the 1.5 hour drive in good time. We were at the yurt around 11:30am. We got our gear ready and then the guides did a very quick safety briefing for the new guests. We were still skiing with the owner of the company, Mr. Gu and some of his friends, plus the film crew were still there so it would be a large group and slow going. The snowcat is only a Pisten Bully 100 series; the cab on the back is a tight fit yet very heavy for the size of the engine. With a dozen people or so, the cat definitely struggled up some of the hills, but at least we could (somewhat) relax compared to the snowmobiles. I definitely preferred the cat, even though it is a little slow. For next year, they will be getting a couple of new 400 series Piston Bully’s with much bigger yet lighter cabins. It should be a lot better.


  We went further and further out, it felt like a different world. We went way beyond where we went with the snowmobiles. The best skiing was in some of the open, old growth trees. There the snow felt a lot less faceted and the surface snow was a lot more predictable. We managed about 8 or 9 runs and it was a fun time. Again, I will let the photos do the talking. That night, we had a really nice dinner with the owner of the company, Mr. Gu, his wife, ABC (the operations manager) and some of their friends. We dined in a local restaurant and enjoyed some really nice banquet style dining in a private room. That seems to be the high rollers here in Xinjiang do it. They hire a private room in the restaurant and then they order multiple dishes. The food is served on the glass revolving center piece, so the food rolls around and then you just take what you want. As is customary, the white liquor is on hand (several bottles of the fire water) and you take shots as people make toasts. The toasts are pretty much constant, so you keep drinking and toasting the whole time. I definitely had to make a couple of toasts, with Maolin there, it was easy to make a quick speech and have him there to translate. The dinners are so heart-felt and social this way, you are really made to feel welcome. The hospitality so far, has been second to none. They really want more Western tourists to come to the area, I myself will be more than happy to come again.   


Partial view of the mountains from my hotel room.



More Aletai



The brand new Pisten Bully 100.



Snowpark parking lot.



Very basi avi safety briefing for the Chinese guests.



1st pitch of the day. Great snow up high, a little funky down lower.



Run 2.



Getting ready for another filmed group run.















Last run of the day. Gotta love the light that stays bright till 9:30pm. This was around 7pm.



Back in the yurt at the end of the day. Grant presented the local with some goodies.



From left to right: Maolin, Mr. Gu (owner), me, Grant, local guide, ABC (operations manager).



Local guide and myself.



Big banquet for dinner with the locals.


- Matt

post #10 of 53

Great pics!


As for the dinner, that's the traditional way for any larger group to have dinner in China.  Meaning family style with quite a few shared dishes, preferably at a round table with a large lazy susan, and way more food than can be finished.  Looks like some pretty yummy dishes.  Were they spicy or not?


Most larger restaurants have round tables that seat at least 8, and usually 10-12.  Booking a private room is pretty common for any sort of large group or special family occasion that is set in a restaurant, as opposed to a small local eating place.

post #11 of 53

Holly Cow! That is some amazing terrain. China and India for sure are the growth markets for skiing..


Wish we could have gone with you!

post #12 of 53

Its amazing at how close that looks to be Turkmen or Kazakhstani dress. 

post #13 of 53
Thread Starter 

Friday 24th March

  This was a bit of a frustrating day initially. We were due to head back to the mountain for more cat skiing, but there was now military stationed at the main gate to the national park and we did not have their permission to go past. There was a new general just posted to the area and he has called for more troops to move into Xinjiang and security has been tightened again. So we spent a frustrating morning going from one police station to the next, waiting to see if we could get clearance to proceed. That never came so by about 130pm, we called it a day and decided to go back to Aletai to go and have a look around.


  We got changed and went down town. Aletai is quite a large town (maybe not quite a city yet?), but it is clean and the people are friendly. Most of the adults tended to stop and look at us; but it would be the kids would follow us and try to talk to us. They like to try their English out on you and if you speak back to them, they get very excited. It is a really fun time. We had some nice lunch (Wygar restaurant) and then even managed to find some ice cream. Grant was super happy as he loves his ice cream and had been missing it badly!


  Then we took a little diversion to go and check out the General’s Ski Hill, Aletai’s local ski area. It was about a 10 minute drive from town and looked pretty good. It’s all above treeline and has some prominent ridgelines down to the bottom that they have carved runs down. They groom those. The off-piste is heavily fenced off with 2 layers of netting (mostly I think to stop people from falling off the side of the runs) but they do have openings in certain areas and people to go out a ski off-piste. The runs looked really steep too and the off-piste, though short and very rocky in places, also looked like fun.


   The base area was pretty big and modern. They have the obligatory security check complete with x-ray and pat down to go inside the lodge, but the security guys are friendly and happy to see some foreigners. We had a look around. There was a large rental shop downstairs and a big locker area, plus a pro shop with some decent looking gear and some conference rooms. Upstairs there was a big restaurant. There was also a large sun deck outside with a great view of the mountain. We made a plan to return before we headed north to Hemu/Kanas.


  That night we were invited to another dinner. This time it was with friends of Maolin and Mr. Gu’s. They were a group of pretty high ranking local VIP’s apparently. Unfortunately Grant had a crook in his neck and wanted to stay home so it was just Maolin and I. We were picked up around 8pm and then driven about 5 minutes around the corner from our hotel to what looked like on first inspection, someone’s house. Apparently this is a Kazak family restaurant, not a public restaurant as such, but more of a private eating club with a Kazak family who cooks for you and hosts you in their private dining room. This place is very popular apparently and is booked out well in advance. Someone had pulled some strings then and it was easy to understand why; we had quite the crew around the table: Mr. Gu and ABC from the snow park, then their friends. I’m not sure what all of them did, but we did have the head of the police, the head of the local bank, the head of the airport and his second in charge, then a couple of ladies (not sure what they did) but they were also very prominent locals. One of the ladies knew the new general, so she called him to get permission for us to be able to go up to the mountain again the next day. Nice work!


  There was a copious amount of food; all served on the rotating glass table, with all different types of Kazak foods. I can’t remember exactly what we had, but the food was good. The highlight was the meat (lamb and beef) that they dry age by hanging out in the open all winter. The meat is dried by the wind apparently. Because it is consistently cold, the meat stays fresh and there are no bugs obviously. Then they cook it. The result is a very flavorsome and tender meat. It was really good. Of course the drinking happened straight away and it was toast after toast after toast. There were many bottles of the white spirit going around, with everyone having their own little glass jug that they would then fill their own small shot glass with. No one drank unless they were being toasted, thankfully (for them), this happened nearly every 2 or 3 minutes. I had declined the white spirit and had asked for beer, so they gave me red wine instead. No worries.


  Now I do enjoy the concept of the toasting as it is very heartfelt and warming and it keeps things very lively and entertaining. There are a couple of different styles of toasting though. You can toast the entire table if you like, either by saying cheers or the local equivalent (sounds like gambei?), tapping the base of your glass on the glass table and then drinking OR you can just toast individual people or one or two people, giving a specific little speech to them. I had several individual toasts made to me, mostly thanking me for coming and to bring more people from overseas with me next time (like I said, they are very curious about us Westerners and want to meet more of us). All the group were skiers, so we talked a lot about skiing too. Then they asked me to give a speech as the “honored guest.” The pressure was on! I had Maolin translate for me. I basically said that I was very happy to be there and I was enjoying the hospitality and the experience very greatly. I said that I enjoyed visiting places around the world (India, Japan and Chile) for skiing and that initially, I am attracted to these places because of the snow and the mountains. What keeps me coming back though, is always the local people and their warmth and friendliness. The people of Xinjiang and the Altay Mountains, have been the most hospitable people I have ever met and they are what will keep me coming back to the area in the future. Then it was cheers all round.


  That went down very well and that encouraged them to try and get me to drink the white spirits again. I finally relented and did one shot of the fire water. They liked that even more. They tried to give me more but I stood firm and had to say no. Then they would try and get me to down my glass of wine. Maolin told me the locals can be quite persuasive when it comes to drinking and they are impressed when someone can hold their liquor. I ended up having the whole bottle of red wine to myself and that impressed them that I could finish it. One of the guys gave a very stirring rendition of a song about Aletai and the whole room was singing and applauding. It was quite the scene. Finally close to mid-night, they all remembered that they had to go to skiing the next day, so we ended the party. It was a really fun night and it was fun to meet all these locals. When it came to all the drinking, then Grant had definitely dodged a bullet there, but I was feeling pretty good considering and was looking forward to one more day of cat skiing.   


Grant, in front of the hotel as we waited for the taxi.



Our hotel in Aletai.



Friendly local kids in Aletai.



The General's Ski Area in Aletai. You can see the main groomed runs. They were very steep. Some of the off-piste between the runs looked decent, but snow quality might be questionable.



There were quite a few runs, the runs on the lookers right are hard to see. The beginners looked like they had some nice runs down low too.



The outside of the new base lodge.



Plenty of rental gear.



You have to go through the turnstiles to get to the runs. They have the electronic, scannable tickets system.



Surprise surprise, it's toasting time! Dinner with the local VIP's in the Kazak family restaurant.



Drying the meat outside with the wind.



The local Kazak family who did all the cooking. Lovely people!


- Matt

post #14 of 53
Thread Starter 

Saturday 25th March

  We were on the road by just after 10am and this time, we had the green light to proceed up the mountain thanks to our friend at the dinner party the night before. We had to stop at the checkpost near the entrance to the national park, to sign in and hand over our passports to the guards. That would stop us from escaping to Mongolia! No worries, as long as they would give them back at the end of the day. The original plan was for us to go cat skiing for our last day, but the cat was full with Mr. Gu’s friends. No worries, they had plenty of sleds and drivers so we could take some sleds and do our own thing, but we just couldn’t go far. We had to stay in the vicinity of the snowpark area, but there were still plenty of untouched lines to be had there, plus we could also go down to the secret garden area too.


  Our mission was to try and get as many photographs as possible and to take more video, before we left. This was our last chance. Unfortunately the weather was not looking like it wanted to co-operate with us as it was windy and flat light. We did 3 laps, trying hard to get the drivers to drop us in some logical areas that would enable us lap quickly, rather than having to do big circuits. The light was getting flatter with each run, so by about 1:30 pm, we called it to go in for lunch. One of the group from the previous night was in the yurt, cooking up a storm. I looked in the pot and he had a lamb’s head in there. Actually he was cooking up 2. We had our own lunch provided by the regular cooks, so we took our time eating and relaxing. No one was feeling super keen to get back out there are the wind was really picking up. Just before we headed out, one of the lamb heads was done and they started cutting that up, plus some lamb sausage so of course they wanted us to try some and actually it was quite good, very tender and if you got the better cuts, lean and tasty. There were some very fatty pieces, so you tried to avoid those. The lamb sausage was good too.  


  It was well after 3pm by the time we left the yurt. Thankfully the cloud had disappeared and the sun had come out again. The wind had died down again too. We did a couple more laps up high, finding some good snow (still very faceted and punchy if you got too aggressive) with conditions being a lot more conducive to skiing and filming. For our last run, we headed over to the pillows in the secret garden area. The snow was nice and soft in the more sheltered trees, I found a couple of steep lines and then a really rowdy pillow/spine line. I decided to go for it, jumping off a few pillows that were initially soft, but then finding hard snow. The hard snow didn’t allow me to slow me down enough and I high-sided and fell down hill. I was heading off a pillow head first and it had a tree on it. Thankfully, I hit soft snow again and punched into the facet layer. That slowed my momentum and I was able to flip over and get my feet below me as I went over the next pillow. I then linked a couple more turns at the bottom. I definitely had to say that was a fall even though I kept going but I was a little bummed that I blew the line. I was more relieved though I didn’t go head first off the drop and had gotten my feet back around in time. Phew!


  We headed back to the yurt and packed up all our gear. The group from the cat skiing arrived back and then they brought out the second lamb’s head and also some beef sausage, so they cut that up and put that out for us. Looked like we were having dinner then and staying late there….. Of course the white spirit came out and they had bought me another bottle of red wine, so we had to join them. Again they honored me as their guest and this time had me cut the lambs head twice and gave me the first piece of meat. Then the meat was given to the rest of the group, the oldest getting the next serve, another one of their traditions. More toasts were made and we had another fun meal. We didn’t end up leaving till after 8pm (thankfully it doesn’t get dark here till 9:30pm). It was a late night but a nice way to end the skiing up in the park. We would be heading north up to the Kanas region (a 6 hour drive) but first we would go for a ski with some locals at the General’s Ski area in Aletai.  


Please ignore my fingers getting in frame here....... Maolin on the first pitch. The runs here are so deceptive, they are a lot longer than you first think when you look at them from a distance.



Grant excited by first lunch!



Second lunch being prepared!



Yay sheep's head and stomach lining!



Hanging out with the local trainee guides as we wait for the weather to improve. Or third lunch......



The sun came out so time to get back out. Grant getting the shot.



Maolin getting 3rds.






The sled bringing Grant and Maolin up for the next run.



My driver.



Pillows in the Secret Garden. My line was to the left of Grant.



Time for more lamb and more wine.



Local Chinese skiers. They are starting to enjoy powder skiing over here.



It definitely tasted better than it looked. The beef leg in front was really good!


Hope I didn't put you all off breakfast!


- Matt

post #15 of 53

This is an amazing trip report! Thank you so much for sharing everything - it looks amazing. I have been interested in this part of the world for some time - the culture, the history, the food. I have a good friend from Kazakhstan who raves about the mountains in this region. 

post #16 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by ralba View Post

Holly Cow! That is some amazing terrain. China and India for sure are the growth markets for skiing..


Wish we could have gone with you!

Thanks Ray, it's been a fun trip so far. The terrain in Aletai for cat skiing has been good. The area they can access is absolutely vast, it's been pretty inspiring. I was wanting to see large, desolate, wide open spaces and I have seen plenty of that. I'm excited for the future as they are planning on offering a 5 day ski excursion out into the wilderness, all cat serviced, sleeping in yurts along the way. That would be absolutely unreal. Until then, then have plenty of terrain and great infrastructure already. It's questionable, given the snowpack an how weak it is, if heli-skiing can ever really take off here for aggressive riders looking to hit steeper terrain. It's too early to say if the snowpack will ever support an operation like that. The cat terrain, for less experienced freeriders, is really good though. I will be looking at running powder improvement and intro to powder type sessions here, but until they get that 5 day caravan trip figured out, then I probably won't push this place for more experienced or aggressive riders. Thanks for following.


- Matt

post #17 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by ralba View Post

Its amazing at how close that looks to be Turkmen or Kazakhstani dress. 

It could be either. Not so sure on the Turkmen culture in the area, but there are definitely a lot of Kazak's in the area, so they could be Kazak. The area is very diverse and there are a lot of different cultures represented in the area (Chinese, Kazak, Mongolian, Wygar and others that I can't tell you the names of without looking it up, but I can't access Google or any search engines here, so I'm a little out of the loop, information-wise). I really enjoyed meeting the locals and experiencing how hospitable they are. I thought they might be a little wary of someone from the US, but not at all. People are still people, wherever they are from and they are keen to meet Westerners. Thankfully they don't seem to have any preconceived ideas about us, just a general curiosity. I can roll with that!


- Matt

post #18 of 53
Thread Starter 

Sunday 26th March

  We were supposed to be heading north about 6 hours to Hemu, a little village in the Kanas area, but Grant and I were intrigued by the thought of skiing the General’s Ski Area so we asked Maolin if we could push our departure time back. He made some calls and we were able to organize our transport for 3:30pm, which would mean that we would still have light for most of the ride, if all went well. If all went well, being the relative term, more on that later.


  Maolin had organized for us to ski with some of his friends (of which he has many, in the Chinese ski industry) and we left by about 10:45am. The resort doesn’t actually open till 11am and it was a quick drive. His friend was head of the local ski association and as it turned out, an absolute ripping skier (on the groomers especially) and was the poster boy for the resort (we drove past some awesome billboards with him really laying them over). We were also meeting some of the VIP group that I had met for dinner and had hung out with at the cat skiing place, so we would have a fun little posse to ski with. We were given VIP passes for the day, so free lift rides. Awesome!


  Maolin’s friend (sorry that I don’t remember his name, we are not always given people’s names when we are introduced to them……) gave us some demo skis to use as we were all on fats with tech bindings, not really great skis for the conditions and it was easier to ride to the resort without them. I was given a pair of 170cm Atomic Redstar World Cup slalom’s and Grant was given a pair of Fischer WC Slaloms. They would take some getting used to; I hadn’t been on a pair of slalom skis for at least 7 or 8 years, maybe more and they felt really twitchy for the first couple of runs. Being in touring boots with vibram soles didn’t help either, so I definitely had to ease back into them.


  We went up the chair in front of the base lodge. It was a long, slow fixed grip quad. We thought it took us to the top but there was another chair next to it, an old double chair and that went to the highest point. We got the lay of the land on the way up. There were 3 main groomers that we could see running back down to the base and they were heavily fenced with b-netting. There were gaps in some places so you could ski off piste. Some of the snow on the more southern aspects looked pretty rotten, but in the shadier places where people had been skiing already, it looked pretty good skiing. I think earlier in the season, when the base was better, the terrain would have been really fun off-piste.


  We got off the chair and then noticed the view of Aletai in front of us. It looked like a mini Las Vegas. Behind the resort the mountains quickly ran out and there was a massive snow covered plain that stretched way off into the distance. We could see the mountains that we were cat skiing on and they looked pretty impressive. We stopped for a bunch of photos with the locals and then we headed down. The skis felt really different (I had been on 132mm underfoot and now I was on 66mm underfoot) and the tune was very aggressive, really sharp edges and maybe a 0.5 degree base bevel. The skis did not feel like they wanted to pivot. I took the first run very easy, waiting till I had gotten off the really steep part before I had the confidence to really lay them over and go edge to edge in a pure carve. The skis definitely held an edge and were very stiff, so I really had to stay over them to avoid getting into the backseat. This is when not being in walk mode in my touring boots would have been a good idea…..


  We went back up again and did the same run. Maolin’s mate was really laying them over, almost pure carving all phases of the turn (he had a slight pivot at the start of the turn to scrub a little speed and then he was hard on his edges, it was pretty impressive given how steep it was, he was clearly the most confident skier on the mountain). Either way, it was strong skiing. I certainly wasn’t game enough to go for it that soon, but I did start to pure carve a little higher up this time. I was slowly starting to dial in the skis. We went back up for another run, this time turning left at the top and hitting a little traverse to get over to the next groomed run, the steepest run on the skier’s right side of the mountain. Now this run was really steep, pushing 38 degrees, with really firm snow. This was pretty impressive and I definitely put the brakes on again until I was close to the bottom of the steep part. Grant and I had gone down first and we didn’t notice that the rest of the group had jumped on the double chair at a mid-load station. We kept going down to the bottom. We jumped on the double (it was slower than the quad) and it took quite a while to get to the top. We saw Maolin and the group skiing the groomer again.


  The view at the top was pretty amazing, with nearly the full 360 degree view. Aletai looked lovely surrounded by all the mountains. There was a little shrine at the top covered in prayer flags. Then we took the groomer down. They had only groomed from the start of the steep part down, we skied that again and then this time, jumped on at the mid-load. We saw Maolin and the group skiing in the off-piste area, so we yelled and they said for us to join them and that they would wait for us. We went right at the top and soon found the entrance to the off-piste. There was a sign with a crossed-out picture of someone skiing in the trees, so as there were no trees in this area, we decided it was ok for us to drop in. I was a little nervous about taking the slalom skis off the groomer (not sure how soft and punchy the snow would be), but after a couple of turns, the snow was somewhat chalky and the skis were actually quite playful and fun. The snow wasn’t punchy if you stayed in the middle, with just a few exposed rocks that you needed to avoid. Otherwise the skiing was challenging but fun. We ripped it down to the group and then watched them ski the steep part and then we dropped in after them. The guy who was ripping on the groomers, now did not look so strong in the ungroomed stuff. His movement pattern definitely changed, to a less dynamic, short radius hop turn. Still good skiing, but not with the same ski performance or confidence as we had been seeing on the groomers. Maolin too looked like he was a little more out of his element, he was looking a little compact and static, without the necessary extension that would have helped him uncoil and manage pressure better in the choppy snow.


  It felt good to be back in the rough stuff again and I got a little excited, trying giving everyone a pole tap as they came to a stop. I think they thought I was scolding them or something and they did not reciprocate the pole tap. They looked at me with a blank stare. One of the guys asked Maolin why I had hit my pole onto his and I explained I was giving him a pole hi-five. He laughed and told everyone else, then it was pole taps and pole clapping all round with every run. That was pretty sweet. We ended up skiing a bunch of ungroomed runs, Maolin was getting his confidence and he let me give him so feedback that helped his skiing. He was happy for the quick lesson. It was good to get back into instructor mode for a couple of runs. Maolin told me that there was no off-piste at the resorts closer to Beijing where he normally works. We had a late lunch around 2:30pm and by the time we were finished, it was time to say goodbye and head back to the hotel for our journey to Hemu. I felt a little sad to be leaving Aletai, I felt a great affinity with the place and with all the people we had met. Skiing at the General’s Ski Area, was a great way to finish this leg of the trip. I was sad to go but also looking forward to the next part of the adventure. So off we went.


  We had a driver that they had sent over from Hemu come and meet us back at the hotel. He was driving a brand new Toyota Landcruiser 4wd, so we knew at least we had a really good vehicle for the drive out. As we left Aletai, the scenery quickly changed, it was like we were in the desert. We had a 25 minute stop for a police check point where we had to get copies of our passports taken and then have some of our bags checked. They have cameras every so often and sometimes I noticed that the driver would stop and wait in front of them for a minute or so. He was waiting for the camera to flash so it would get our picture but he said that the camera system is different here. It’s actually pretty smart. They don’t record your speed as you go through it; they are recording the time taken to get from one camera to the next, then the next checkpoint will register how long it took you to make it there and will calculate your average speed from there. That’s how they get you. Very sneaky!


  Then we started to get back into the mountains again. There was plenty of snow up high, after about 4.5 hours we got to another police checkpoint (again we had to get out and register, this time we didn’t have our bags searched). The police checkpoint was a large building at was right at the bottom of what looked like, a deep gully and slide path. I noticed a big concrete barrier built around the backside of the building, most likely an avalanche deflector. It didn’t look that strong and was already partially buried in the snow. I said to Maolin that that looked like a pretty dangerous place to be putting a building but he didn’t think there was too much risk of avalanches (this trip has become quite the eye opener for Maolin in regards to avalanche theory). The driver then told us that the original police station had been destroyed in an avalanche and that they had rebuilt the building but this time much stronger so not to worry. So now instead of a quick death, the police guys get to be buried and die slowly in a big concrete tomb, what a great compromise. Maybe don’t have buildings there in the first place fellas?? We got out of there in quick time.


  We made it through that area past multiple avalanche looking areas and then out onto a plain where we could relax a little. We saw the Kanas airport (only open in summer unfortunately) so I assumed we were close, but Maolin informed me there was still at least 50km’s of mountain roads to go, so more than an hour. The driver got a call and was told there had been an avalanche further ahead. We were back into avalanche terrain and then we saw a vehicle that had fresh snow on the driver’s mirror and on the window’s so I figured we were about to get into something interesting. Sure enough, we came through a very tight opening where they had just plowed through a new avalanche that had crossed the road. The debris was at least 10ft high. We kept going and then as we came around a corner, we saw another cleared slide and then the snow clearing machine itself and it looked like it was surrounded by debris. We stopped the car (looking up to see if we were underneath any obvious slide path, it was a small cliff above us so we had some protection at least) and got out to investigate. Sure enough it was the snow mover stuck in a slide. There were guys around it with shovels trying to dig them out.


  We went over to see if we could help. Apparently they were out clearing the road and had been hit by a secondary avalanche in the path they were still clearing. Scary stuff for the driver no doubt. They had been digging for more than 3.5 hours (it was 5pm approx. when they got hit) trying to get the rotor free at the front. There were a lot of guys just standing around doing nothing, so we jumped in and started digging. I was hoping that a third slide didn’t come down and take us all out, but someone needed to get this crew motivated to move faster. I made the mistake of trying to get them to dig strategically and dig out the side first, so they didn’t have to toss the snow so high, but they didn’t get that and ushered me away. Some more people showed up with plastic shovels and finally, after another hour and a half or so, we had the blade and rotor free at the front. It took some fixing (one of the bolts had sheared off at the front) and some clearing behind the machine, but we finally had it free. It backed up and then was able to push forward again, the massive snow blower doing its thing. Finally it pushed through to the other side. We got in our vehicle and went forward, only to find the blower having to clear another slide. We got a little upset with the driver as he insisted on driving right behind the blower as it slowly cleared the debris. We had to yell at him to wait in a more protected spot, so he could move quickly through the cleared debris, rather than move slowly and expose us to secondary slides for longer. He finally got the message and he backed off. We then had another 30 minutes or so before we made it to the Hemu Hotel.


  It was nearly 11pm by the time we arrived. We were pretty tired and hungry and thankfully the manager still had dinner ready for us. That was really nice. We were then shown to our rooms and we could finally get some rest after midnight. It was a big day.   


















- Matt

post #19 of 53
Thread Starter 

Photos of the drive and scenery on the way from Aletai to Hemu.......


I thought this was a town originally......



It's a graveyard.









The Chinese flag is prominently displayed at the start of this town.



Big modern hotels in this town in the middle of nowhere.






Back into the mountains again.



There are so many farms in this part of China. The cows are always left to roam where they like.






Kanas airport entrance to the left. Still an hour to go.



This guy was pretty much asleep in the road when we drove past and woke him up. Thankfully his horse knew the way home.



Wet slide territory.



Passing through a cleared slide path.



Here the snow blower had been hit by a secondary slide as it was clearing the same old path. The debris was more than 15ft high. Scary stuff.


- Matt

post #20 of 53

So is this considered late season there right now? 

post #21 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by albertanskigirl View Post

This is an amazing trip report! Thank you so much for sharing everything - it looks amazing. I have been interested in this part of the world for some time - the culture, the history, the food. I have a good friend from Kazakhstan who raves about the mountains in this region. 

Thanks albertanskigirl,

  This certainly has been a dream come true for me. The culture and food are right up there; the people have been really friendly and eager to share their corner of the world with us, that's for sure. They have great mountains and developing infrastructure, but right now the snow (in terms of the stability), is questionable, at least for skiing anything really steep. I think where they have the terrain, then (new) resort based developments are definitely a possibility, where they have good cat skiing terrain, then that is a go too. Heli skiing in this area on mellow terrain is also a distinct possibility (not sure if I would personally spend the $$'s to come all this way and ski mellow heli terrain, but maybe that would be a cool thing for wealthy domestic tourists to come and do, I see a market for that, but I would think cat skiing would be a better, more cost effective scenario for the mellower terrain), but heli-skiing on steeper terrain, might not be a possibility, given the uncertainties that surround the snowpack. Certainly for us, we have found extremely weak snowpacks in both the Aletai and Hemu regions, so I'm wondering if the entire region is like this, or does it vary (we have come about 400km further north and still have the same conditions as Aletai). Is it a seasonal thing? Would earlier season be better for stability when maybe the faceting process hasn't fully developed yet? That's questionable too as I know they get snow early (October) and it gets very cold, but I don't think then that the regular snowfalls develop until November or December. Those snowfalls continue into mid-January and then I think the high pressure systems roll through for several months after that. Is this a shallower snowpack this season that might aid more rapid faceting? There's so many questions and a lack of any kind of hard, quantifiable and historical data on the snowpack that we don't have anything to go on, apart from our own limited observations, so it's unfair to judge the area and the potential for skiing here, until more data comes out. I know the Western guides over in Aletai will be at the forefront of this push, but Hemu is even further behind the eight ball in that regard. They don't have any recognized ski area yet or cat/heli skiing operation yet, so they have even more to learn. It is exciting being involved in the forefront of that development and see how skiing can take off in this area. I know the locals are dead keen for that to happen and there is a ton of money (both government and private enterprise) being brought into the area, but it needs to be done with caution and with understanding, not just expensive (and potentially dangerous) trial and error. We'll see what happens in the upcoming winters.


- Matt

post #22 of 53
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by bamaman View Post

So is this considered late season there right now? 

Yes, I think in general it is. In Aletai, the local ski area will be shutting up shop soon. They were already closing some lifts (surface lifts) and some of the runs were melting out, so I think they will be done soon. We were talking about getting one last day of skiing in there right at the end of the trip, but Maolin wasn't sure if they would still be open. It was very quiet for a Sunday when we were there and we did notice the small pro-shop starting to pack away it's goods, but we didn't hear word of any official closing day. The Aletai cat skiing op should continue for a while longer. The guides are contracted to work until the end of April, so they have a while to go. How passable the access road will become when it really starts to heat up and get messy up there, is anyone's guess (the road was put in, in August so no one had been up into the mountains via road before then). Here in Hemu, the resort (also the first time they have operated in winter) is gearing down, starting to put things away and get ready for the very busy summer season. They don't have a formal ski area (just a groomed run behind the resort where people hike up, though they do have plans for a chairlift) but they did have a terrain park with jumps and rails that they had set up for some international riders that were in town a couple of weeks ago, but the rails have just been taken down. They still have all their staff onsite, but I would say they are winding down.


- Matt

post #23 of 53
Thread Starter 

It's been a little crazy here in Hemu..... the snowpack is absolutely sketchy, the worst I have ever seen. Avalanches are going off all over the place. We are trying to leave the valley but slides keep coming down, blocking the road and taking out the power. Now we are out of beer and they are rationing the steamed buns at breakfast. Not good. The locals are still happy as they have plenty of white spirit left. If they run out of that, then we are in big trouble......


Monday 27th March

  It had been a busy day the previous day and our nerves were a little on edge, given what we had experienced on the drive in. Before I get into the report on the first day in Hemu, let me give you the lay of the land and tell you about Hemu itself. Hemu is a small village in the Kanas district. Originally I thought we were going to be in Kanas itself (also an actual town as well), but we were actually staying in a resort called the Hemu Hotel. It is a large complex with over 400 beds. It is very popular in the summer time but they want to become a year round resort and this is the first year of winter operation. Traditionally they would close in the winter. So they have stayed open and are running with a relatively small amount of staff.


  Originally, they had thought they could start up a cat skiing operation. They bought a passenger cat (Chinese manufacturer) but then realized that they don’t have suitable nearby terrain for decent cat skiing. They do have a massive mountain right in front of them, but it is super steep and there is no way they could get a cat up it, not that you would, as it is very dangerous and avalanche prone at the moment (we’ve seen a few slides come down). So now they have a small slope behind the resort that they have groomed and they had been using the bottom at least, for beginner skiers. They also have a large fleet of snowmobiles and we have been ripping around on those, but the snowpack is so weak and rotten that we can’t really get anywhere on those either (not that we are really keen to ski at the moment, we are here too late for that I think). They have been doing some horseback accessible skiing, but the tracks are now too soft for that as well, so skiing has really taken a back seat. We spent more time training the locals in avalanche safety and doing siteseeing, than any actual skiing. All good though, I’d rather stay safe myself and get home in one peace.


  So that should give you a rough feel for the place, so let’s continue on with the story. We had a lovely breakfast (here the steamed meat buns are fresh and delicious, I feel like Kung Fu Panda as I want to eat all of them!) and then jumped in one of the vehicles for a drive down into the village of Hemu. Hemu is a farming community where the locals all ride on horses and the cows roam free. Consequently the ground is shall we say, very fertile? (ie. covered in dung), so it always small like a farmyard and you definitely don’t want to be wearing your smart shoes. It was a Monday so we were invited down to watch the local flag ceremony in front of the main village government office. They do this to start the week, a lot of the villagers come down and then line up in front of a large flag pole and then they hoist the Chinese flag and play some patriotic music.


  Then we jumped back in the 4wd and drove to a small house in the village. This was the Lama’s house, the main spiritual man and wisest man in the village. His wife had prepared a local feast for us which was great as it had been at least an hour since we had last eaten (come to China and be prepared to eat an absolute ton of food….). There was fresh bread, butter, a really nice jam, some dried fruits and raisins (very good for the constitution, as it turned out!), lamb butter (wasn’t game for that one), dried cheese (in a pellet, extremely hard and not so good, I regretted nibbling on that one) and some yoghurt and milk tea. The highlight was the welcoming ceremony that the lady gave us. She sang to us and presented us with a token (a white silk scarf each) and then gave us the local drink. This was fermented cow’s milk, thankfully not as potent as the white spirit, but still made you (as the locals say), “feel very relaxed in the legs”. Then we met the Lama himself and he sat with us and welcomed us to the village. He then disappeared (using Lama magic I think) and then we were taken to the local temple.


  The Lama was in the temple and we looked around and he performed a blessing on all of us which involved getting hit over the head three times with a magic plank of wood (thankfully covered in soft cloth). Concussion is the path to enlightenment and combined with my wobbly legs from the fermented cow’s milk rocket fuel, I was well on my way to the heavens! Fun times! The Lama posed for some photographs with us at the steps of the temple and we were on our way. Then we went back to the hotel for some much needed 3rd lunch (hobbits would be very happy here).


  We changed into our ski gear after lunch and headed back outside. Then a fleet of snowmobiles came around the corner, about 7 sleds and their drivers, in all. It was quite the scene. They were brand new Ski Doo sleds and all the drivers were kitted out in proper sno-mo gear. They looked the part, but could they actually ride? That question was answered in the first 5 minute when we nearly rolled going around the first major bend….. my driver didn’t lean (and consequently neither did I), so over we almost went. I’m not a fan of snowmobiles in general (not a fan of the noise, the smell of them and just how dangerous they can be, I’m ok if I’m driving, but I just can’t relax when someone else is driving). He was also super aggressive and went way too fast for the trails were on (very rough and often off camber, not groomed trails but tracks put in by the snowmobiles themselves).


  I quickly changed onto another sled but it was not much better. These guys haven’t had any training (I guess Ski Doo were supposed to come out and train these guys when they bought all the sleds and they never did) so they are all self-taught. They are doing well with what they have then, but definitely need to be shown how to handle a sled properly and drive more conservatively when they have guests riding with them, but also they need a proper network of groomed trails. The other challenge is that the locals use the snowmobile tracks as paths for their horses, so I think they would always get pretty beat up (also covered in poop as well). They do have a decent groomer, so maybe in high winter season; they could get out and regularly groom the trails? Anyway, our trials and tribulations with local snow mobile drivers would continue, as it had done in Aletai…….


  They wanted to take us to a small hill at the base of the big mountain, to do some skiing. The snow felt rotten to me and I was not sure I wanted to go anywhere near the bottom of the big mountain, so I suggested we stop for a minute. I got my probe out and pushed it into the snow. There was a little bit of resistance in the first 30cm’s of the snowpack and then the pole just dropped about 60cm’s to the ground. It was rotten, faceted snow. That was not good. We probed all around us and it was the same everywhere. I really didn’t want to be going anywhere near a mountain that had a snowpack like that. We turned around and went to another area. Again, I got my probe out and found the same snow. Then I dug a quick pit, down to the ground. At the base of the snowpack was large depth hoar, about 4mm in size, quite large grains. That put me off wanting to go skiing. I was keen to learn more about the snowpack though and do some stability tests on different aspects. So we called it and headed back to the hotel.


  After a break, we went over to the bottom of the bunny hill for a look around there. Maolin’s good friend Mallequin, a local snowboarder, hunter and guide, was at the ski park. He was snowboarding and we stopped to meet him. He had some homemade skis and we were keen to try them. They are cut from local wood, heated and bent up at the front and then they have horsehair nailed to the bottom. The horsehair gives good grip on the uphill and is very smooth on the downhill. They have leather straps for bindings. They use a large wooden pole as a brake and a rudder, but typically they do not turn. They say it is inefficient and slows you down too much. The local people have been using these skis for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, traditionally for hunting. They would find an animal track (say a deer), then follow it. The hunters are able to move faster than the animal who will be struggling to move through the deep snow. They then chase the animal to exhaustion and they are able to take it down. The government has protected all the wildlife in the area and has banned hunting (and the cutting down of trees without special permission), so the manufacturing of the traditional skis is dying out. I hope that if we bring Western tourists to the area, we can help to keep the local ski industry going.


  We all had a quick go on the groomed run. The leather bindings were a little too small for my massive hooves, they did stay on my feet but the skis were quite wobbly. On the uphill, that is where the skis really excelled. They glided really nicely, were very light (nice to tour in my hiking boots) and the horse hair gave great grip. I have never felt so light on my feet going uphill. Going downhill was really sketchy; you had to be really focused. Because I couldn’t get the leather straps very tight, my skis wanted to wander off, so going downhill definitely was a challenge. I liked the uphill better (never thought I’d ever say that). Overall, it was super fun and I was stoked to finally try these handmade skis that were one of the top items on my China bucket list. Tick! Grant and Maolin both tried them and then the skis were gifted to Maolin by Mallequin (Maolin had given Mallequin some of his old Armada skis in exchange for the handmade skis). That was a nice way to end the day. We had another nice dinner that night and we ate with some of the local leaders of the area.


Nippy, our favorite local dog (light brown, on the readers left) follows everywhere we go and looks out for us. I'd take him back to the US if I could, he's a great dog. Muttley (on the right) is his lady.


Breakfast is pretty awesome. Steam buns....... yum!



Hemu Hotel, I'll post more photos of the hotel later, when it was sunny it looks better.



Hemu Monday morning flag raising ceremony.



Que patriotic music, undone by the loud, rusty mechanism used to raise up the flag. Whoops!



The parking lot for the flag ceremony was busy.....



Entrance to the temple with scarves used as offerings. Hey, that white one looks like the scarf they gave me??!!



Lovely lunch provided at a local house.



Inside the temple.



The Lama, getting his plank of wood ready to whack me over the head with....... I mean bless me with!



The Lama and his new followers.



The new Chinese manufactured cat they bought for the resort. They haven't quite figured out where they will run it yet.



Plenty of snow mobiles to go for a ride on......



My new skis! The best skis for uphill ever made......



Grant straight-lining the bunny hill. Crazy guy!



Maolin and Mallequin on his new skis. He was stoked!



Maolin is a bit of a trouble-maker. Thankfully there is plenty of unattended riot gear lying around so we can keep him in line!


- Matt

post #24 of 53
Thread Starter 

Tuesday 28th March

  The marketing lady wanted us to go on another snowmobile tour and try and find somewhere to ski. We wanted to dig more pits though and find out more about the snowpack before we agreed to any skiing. We weren’t stoked to be going back on the snowmobiles, but we gave it another shot. It was the same story as the day before, just very unsafe driving. We started heading up to a hill using a well-worn (and pooped on) horse track. It was hard going, with the off-camber trail causing us to nearly go over a few times. Then the trail turned to rock and mud. One of the sled drivers tried to go up on a ridgeline next to the path, but he quickly got buried. It looked like we weren’t going too much further, so this would be a good time to dig a pit and do some tests. Maolin and Mallequin had never dug any pits before, so it was a good time for them to learn.


  I wanted to hike out a little ways from the sled, onto an open slope, but before it got too steep. We broke through to our waists in the rotten snow. There was a firmer layer on top, about 30cm’s which you had to break through, then it was rotten to the base and you sunk right in. Mallequin thought this was great fun and he dived into the snow, disappeared and came out through the snow, several feet away. That’s one way of testing the snow…… After some effort wading and breaking through the snow, we started digging the pit. It was very easy going and in about 10 minutes, we had a 2m wide pit, about 85cm’s deep, cleared down to the ground. We excavated some extra snow to make a bigger viewing platform, for (hopefully) the snowmobile drivers to come and take a look as well. We spent time looking for different layers, finding several, but the main profile indicated slightly cohesive and firmer snow on top (about 4 finger hardness), then really soft fist hardness snow (facets) in the mid-layer, then slightly firmer snow (still fist hardness, but slightly more resistance than the middle) with well-developed depth hoar at the base (4mm). Lovely stuff…..


 The snowmobile drivers were still hanging back so we asked them again if they would like to come and see what we were doing. Only the boss of the snowmobile drivers was keen to come and check things out. I set up with the first 30cm’s to do a shovel shear test. I separated the sides and left the back intact. I put my shovel blade down the back and without any force, the top 30cm’s popped right away. Not good. The rest of the column broke at the base (about 55cm’s of faceted snow with large depth hoar at the base), with only a little more effort. Then I set up to do 2 Column Tests. I did the first one and it broke on that same 30cm mark, but only on one tap. Wow! Scary stuff! Maolin did the second one and his released on two (not quite a firm enough first tap or his would have gone on one as well).


  Then we did an Extended Column Test (ECT) and we got a clear shear with an aggressive failure of the slab at 30cm’s, on one tap. That was really bad. That was an eye opener for everyone. I’m glad we hadn’t gone any further on the sleds and that they hadn’t been able to make it up the ridge. We finished the session with a Ruschblock test. We had 2 people scramble around the sides and place our probes into the snow 150cm’s up slope and then I got my cord out and we separated a 150cm by 200cm block. Then I had Maolin climb up with his skis on to test the block. Just before he climbed down onto the block, he punched through the top 30cm’s. That made it a little harder to climb onto the block. He made it onto the block and then stepped down the 35cm’s. Then he extended and pushed down onto the block. It failed at the weak interface (30cm’s down) and sheared off cleanly and fast. Maolin lost balance and fell uphill.


  That was the first time he had been in a “slide” and it scared him, how quickly and abruptly everything moved and how little control he had. That was a RB3, I think if I had been the one testing the block, it would have been a RB2. It was a real eye opener for everyone who witnessed it. The thought of any kind of skiing was gone. Now this was only testing in one area and on one aspect (south), so we wanted to gain more knowledge and check out a more northern aspect. The drivers finished their cigarettes and turned the sleds around. I was a little disappointed that all of the drivers (apart from their boss) had taken part in digging the pit and testing the snow. I was determined that they would take part in the next pit.


  We drove back down into the valley and then across to the other side. There was a wide open plan and then the start of a treed, northern-facing slope that was protected from above. Just below the start of the trees, there was an open slope that looked like a good safe spot. We drove the sleds close and then parked. I jumped off and straight away, was up to my waist as the snow was also rotten here as well. I made a track towards the bottom of the slope and got about 2/3 of the way. Then I doubled back and improved the track. I wanted to make a good track so the drivers had no excuse not to come up. Then Maolin suggested we have some lunch and the drivers got out the tasty packed lunches they had for us. As we were sitting down eating, we heard a rumbling. We looked up and saw a large avalanche come down from the mid-level of the mountain, through some trees and over a cliff band. The snow was dirty as it thundered over the rocks. It was a wet slide and had obviously run to the ground. This was further confirmation of instability.


  After lunch, we then mustered the troops and made our way up the track and to the bottom of the small slope. We got the drivers to help dig our way up the slope and they got to practice some strategic shoveling principles. Again the top 30cm’s was more cohesive and required proper shoveling techniques (chopping blocks and then moving the snow to the side). We made it to our spot and then put in the same 2m wide put down to the ground. The snow was a little deeper here, nearly 1m deep. It didn’t take long to dig all the way to the ground. I got out my crystal card and I showed the drivers how to feel for different layers by lightly passing the corner of the card down through the sidewalls of the pit (our observation walls) and marking them. They all had a go of that and then I showed them how to test the hardness using the hand hardness test. It was pretty much the same results as the southern aspect. Then we went through the same series of stability tests: Shovel Shear; Compression Tests and Extended Column Tests. Maolin did a great job of translating and showing the guys what to do. We did multiples of each and we saw similar results; consistent failure of the top 30cm’s on either 1 or 2 taps, with clean and aggressive shears. The only inconsistency was whether the failure went all the way to the ground or if it just took out the top 30cm’s. I have no doubt in my mind that if something failed at the top, it would easily step down or entrain the rest of the snowpack down to the ground. The point releases we had a seen on some isolated slopes down lower all went down to the ground. We set up for another Ruschblock test, this time Mallequin was the tester.


  He climbed up and stepped onto the block. He got onto the block and immediately punched through the top layer. He stepped down a little further and then I had him rise up and push down. The block failed but this time it went all the way to the ground. This was another RB3 and it was looking like similar snow and instability existed on the northern aspects too. Ideally we would have tested this on higher elevations and looked for greater special variability in our tests, but we’d seen enough for now. Looking up at the mountains, all the natural releases were happening around treeline, the top wasn’t moving yet, but I felt sure with a stronger trigger (ie. us!), snow would start moving up there too. There were cornices at the top, so there was probably a more complex snowpack up higher with wind slab more than likely present in the start zones. Either way, no one was keen to go up any higher than where we were (the valley floor) so it was decided that we would abandon the thought of skiing and go site-seeing instead. That was much safer potentially, although driving anywhere during the middle of the day would also be very dangerous. That was it for a very interesting and eye opening day. Everyone was really happy for the lesson. I was really happy the snowmobile drivers finally got in on the act and they learned quickly. I hope these are skills they will keep up with!


Start of a 360 degree view of Hemu.....















I would bring my Tenkara rod next time, but fishing is banned here and allegedly the fish are really small. Looks like a pretty fishy spot to me!






A rotten snowpack makes it easy to tunnel through. Mallequin having fun under the snow.



Testing the hand hardness of the different layers in the snowpack. There wasn't a big difference, it was either soft, or really soft.



I horsepower engine vehicles are still common in these parts.....



Heading to a more northern aspect. The mountain in front of us let loose a couple of times.



Finally getting the snow mobile drivers motivated to learn.



First of many stability tests. These guys got the message that here, the snowpack is extremely weak.



Nippy was happy we came back safely!


- Matt

post #25 of 53
Thread Starter 

Wednesday 29th March

  Skiing was now out for us, so we wanted to see as many of the local sites as possible. We did another drive around Hemu, I think we’ve covered the whole town by now. It’s interesting to see that they were putting up a bunch of new razor wire around the official buildings, not the best look for a village trying to become a year round tourist destination. Maolin told me it was to keep out wild animals (bears and wolves most likely), but this seemed a bit like overkill. I think it’s more in line with the general beefing up of security in Xinjiang province. I think we would have been better getting out and walking around the village, then we would have had more interactions with the local people. It felt a bit weird pointing our cameras out of the vehicle at people and I’m sure they didn’t appreciate being made into the tourist attraction. So, I didn’t really feel like we were really experiencing a lot of the culture this way. Anyway, we’d already been around the village before, so I was happy to move on to new things.


  Next we were driven back to the edge of town where there was a new bridge built over the river. We had already been there with the snowmobiles, but this time we were meeting some horsemen and we were going to go for a sleigh ride through the forest to meet the oldest man in the village who used to make skis. We had heard other stories about this man, allegedly he had fought off a bear with his own hands and had also designed and built the old bridge (since replaced by the new bridge for reasons unknown) without any plans or prior engineering experience. The design came to him in his sleep apparently. When we got to the bridge, there were two guys with two horses and two sleds attached. They had a nice looking dog with them too (he almost looked like a German Shepard, but had some slight muttliness about him). Grant and Mrs. Lee jumped in the first sled and I rode with Maolin in the second. These sleds are a little different. You sit facing backwards. The challenge there is that you cannot see what is coming (part of the fun I guess?) and it is already a very rough ride, so you definitely get thrown around a lot. Our driver (or who we thought was our driver), attached some rope to the side of our sled and then the first sled took off, closely followed by ours. I thought our driver was going to stay on with us, but he jumped off. For about 5 minutes, Maolin and I thought that our sled was driverless and we were just following the other sled, but when we rounded a sharp corner, I was able to see that we were roped to the sled in front. Phew! That was a relief. Then we had about a 20 minute ride through the forest, getting absolutely pounded in the back of the hard sled with no suspension. We took a couple of big hits when the horse had to speed up to get us through a deep depression. Not so fun….. Finally we made it to the farm where the old man and his family lived.


  He definitely looked old but he was only 87. 87 is pretty old for these parts apparently. The average life expectancy is in the fifties here, due to the old drinking supply. Apparently the old water supply had been overly high in certain minerals (apologies that this is all a little vague as I am going off a pretty rough translation) and that was causing health problems that was leading to medical complications and eventually an early death. They have put in a new filtered water system and the harmful minerals have been removed, so they are expecting the life expectancy to rise in the region. That’s good news. The old man spoke Kazak so Maolin couldn’t talk with him except through the man’s (I’m assuming) daughter. He had a couple of old pairs of skis left, but he hadn’t made any skis for more than a decade and was long retired from skiing himself. Maolin showed him a video on his smart phone of some modern skiing and the man seemed to really enjoy that. Then we were shown into the house and given the traditional local lunch of milk tea, homemade bread, butter, jam and dried fruits. The dried cheese was also on the menu but I stayed away from that this time. The old man came in and Mrs. Lee was able to strike up a bit of a conversation with him. He said he was a bit leery of the tourists; they just come to his home, take pictures and then leave. He says it makes him feel like a bit of an object. He was happy to talk to us more as we had made an effort to talk to him and interact with his family. I can totally understand his viewpoint. I think it confirmed my feelings that we should not be driving around the village, but we should walk through it and be closer with the people. It’s similar to driving a lot on the snowmobiles, we drive past people, I try and at least wave and say hello, but there is no chance for us to interact with them, we seem to just be driving past and potentially scaring their horses and making them feel nervous. I would definitely do things differently if I came back here and spend more time meeting the local villagers. We spend a lot of meaningful time with the staff at the hotel, but I think we need to do that more with the villagers next time. Note to self…….


  We had a nice lunch and a good chat and then it was time to leave. We got back into the sleds and took the rough ride back to the bridge. As soon as we were dropped off, the sleds were out of there. Off they went with a quick wave. We headed back to the hotel. I had been asked to give an avalanche safety presentation to the staff, so after dinner, we assembled in the main dining room and I set up my laptop to give a PowerPoint presentation about avalanches. It would just be some of the slides I use when I give my regular presentation to our guests during their initial avalanche safety training, with Maolin acting as the interpreter. There was a pretty big crowd, more than 40 people turned up. I’ve never given a safety presentation to that many people in one go before, but with Maolin doing a fine job helping me, I soon got into a rhythm and the nervousness went away. We only had Grant and mine avi gear, but we did have 2 people come up and we put our airbags on them and they set them off. The crowd liked that one. Then we went outside and I showed them how a beacon worked. We had Grant’s beacon hidden under 1 of 3 boxes at the end of the carpark and then I had to go find it. I did a slow walk through and then a go at speed, then we had 3 people volunteer to try it themselves.  Grant had brought out a bunch of prizes with him and the 3 people each got a gift. Nice one Grant, they were stoked. The initial training went well, the feedback was positive and everyone was happy as they had never had any kind of avi safety training before. My hope is that all on snow staff and guests will have access to beacon, shovel and probes in time for next winter. That was the end of another busy day. Now to get rid of all that horsehair on my jacket and pants…….


The Hemu Hotel



The camping and stage area. What a place to have a concert!



Mrs. Lee our contact in Hemu, sporting her red cape. Looking sharp!



Going on a sleigh ride with a flatulent horse. Maolin and I feeling a little nervous, but at least he was my human shield.



We had another dog to watch over us thankfully. This guy loved to run!



Our rides resting.



Some of the handmade skis. These were fancy with hand-etched rubber foot plates for extra grip.



I'll take these in a 195cm please!



The master ski builder himself. Maolin was showing him some footage of modern skiing. He was pretty interested in it.



Photo of a photo of the old man.



Having lunch in the old man's house. That is cow's stomach drying above the fire.



Love the bow and arrows.



The bedroom in the two room house.



Lunch time with hand-made bread, jam, dried cheese, raisins and butter.



Chewing on horsehair.....




Putting on an avi safety talk. A little simultaneous airbag pop to get the crowd fired up!


- Matt

post #26 of 53
Thread Starter 

Thursday 30th March

  This was a pretty low key day. Mrs. Lee was keen for us to go on another snowmobile tour to a small peak, but we weren’t into that due to the avi danger, plus we weren’t too keen to go on the sleds anymore anyway. Unfortunately there had been a large avalanche and that had taken out the power so we stayed at the hotel and I caught up with some writing. Around 3pm, we had organized with the snowmobile drivers to do some more beacon training, this time on snow. We headed over to the bottom of the bunny hill, but there was no one to be seen. Mrs. Lee was doing some skiing, but that was it. We waited a while and then Mrs. Lee was told that all the snowmobile drivers were off helping clear another avalanche. One of the managers came to ask me if I would go with them to make sure the site was safe for the people to go up and fix the power line that had been taken out by another slide. It was still really warm and it seemed pretty obvious to me that it was still really dangerous out there. It wouldn’t likely start to firm up until the sun started going down. I don’t think you needed to be any kind of expert to realize that and not to be a coward, but there was no way I was going to put myself at harm’s way going out on some crazy mission to goodness knows where to check on the stability in an avalanche prone area. I wasn’t into that at all so I had to tell them that I thought it was still too dangerous and they had to make their own call on if it was safe or not. I suggested it wouldn’t be safer till later.


It was 3:30pm and the snowmobile drivers still weren’t there. Then some ski instructors turned up so I suggested I start beacon training with them. They had done the theory session the night before and they were keen to learn more. This was also good training for Maolin too as he hadn’t done any on-snow beacon work with me either. We had marked out a large training area, with a crown, flanks, 15m in from the side of the flanks and a green flag that marked the last seen point. Grant had leant me his beacon and that was buried in the snow in my skins bag(the snow in the main run was rock hard but I had to bury the beacon there because as soon as you got off the groomers, you were up to your waist in the rotten snow). I did a walk through with the instructors first, then I gave them a demo at high speed next. Then it was their turn.


  We only had three instructors, so we could take our time and make sure they really got it. I made sure they did a walk through first so that they hit all of the steps and I could give them feedback. The first guy had the toughest job going first and then the two others could also learn from what the first guy did. It was crucial then that we (Maolin and I) gave them detailed and accurate feedback. Then they could do a timed run each. The first guy did well, he needed to communicate better at the start, calling out when he got a signal and then calling out his distance readings. That is obviously less important when you are conducting a search by yourself, but in the long run, I’m preparing these guys to do searches as a group and then if they do well, at some stage, then they might also be the ones giving the training to others, so the correct mechanics need to be taught from the start. I always tell people during the training that I should be able to turn my back to the scene and still know exactly what is going on. That’s a good way of thinking about the communication side of things.


  He also had a slight turning of the beacon in the pinpoint phase, but the probing and shoveling was spot on. In the timed run, he was able to add the feedback to his searching and uncovered the victim in 2:54. That was an amazing time for someone doing a search for the first time in a large area. Excellent job guys! Then it was the turn of the second person. They didn’t communicate about turning all beacons to search mode at the top, but then was very fast to find the signal and get down to the pinpoint phase. During the timed run, they managed to uncover the victim in 2:07, a really, really fast time. He was pretty stoked with his time. Then the third person, he did really well too. He powered through his timed run and got the victim out in 2:01! Amazing! Grant had more prizes for them and they were really happy. Then Maolin and Grant had a go, they were not as fast as the boys but both had their victims out in 5 minutes or so.


  Then we finished off with one more run, this time with the skis on and this time with the probe not assembled already, with the three boys working together. The guy with the beacon did a good job, just moving a little too fast in the last 10m and overshooting the landing. He then had to turn around and then he was able to pinpoint. We also had a little bit of a problem assembling the probe, I had to show them how to lock that down properly and they found the victim in about 2:35. Not bad at all. I had them all practice assembling and folding up the probe until they could do that fluidly, then we were done. It was a really awesome training session and I have never seen people get it so quickly. They obviously need to do a lot more than 2 runs each (and work on multiples, in nasty snow conditions) to say they really own it, but it was a really encouraging start and really fun to work with these guys. You could tell they were hungry for more. I wish we had more beacons, shovels and probes because then we could really develop their rescue skills. I hope they get the necessary safety gear in time for next winter and they can continue training with it.


- Matt

post #27 of 53

I had a far less adventurous trip in this region in connection with the 2008 total solar eclipse;


The spelling of the local ethnic group in Urumqi is Uighur, not Wygar.

My avalanche training in the field is strictly from the drills run by cat and heli operators, but I've read some and also attended ISSW at Squaw Valley in 2010.

I had always suspected that Central Asian snowpack would be chronically dangerous and this report certainly confirms that suspicion. Actually the Gulmarg reports made me think that, and if Gulmarg is sketchy, Central Asia rates to be much worse.  I think this region is bitterly cold below 0F in December/January.  So if it doesn't snow much after that, what you saw is probably normal.

I located the Silk Road and General's ski areas on Google Earth and pinned them to my kml file of ~1,900 ski areas. The cat skiing terrain outside Altay would be much more of a challenge.  I would probably need latitude/longitude coordinates to have chance at that.

General's elevation range looks to be about 3,000 - 3,900 feet.

I'll put in my usual plug about the upcoming total solar eclipse crossing from Oregon to South Carolina in a ~70 mile wide path this coming August 21.  https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/

I've been to 10 of them and this is the first one in the continental US since 1979.  No exotic travel required this time, so don't miss it!

Edited by Tony Crocker - 4/7/17 at 11:58am
post #28 of 53


Hands down the best report on Epic. 


(I had been on 132mm underfoot and now I was on 66mm underfoot)  

- that must have been a HUGE change. Crazy, I wouldn't know how to turn on 132! \



​This was fermented cow’s milk, thankfully not as potent as the white spirit, but still made you (as the locals say), “feel very relaxed in the legs”


I have a sort of funny story to tell you about fermented horse milk when we meet.  Let's say for now the short version is - that is why we have Nevada.. ;) 

post #29 of 53
Thread Starter 

Friday 31st March, Saturday 1st April, Sunday 2nd April.

Trapped in Hemu – avalanches close road


  Unfortunately on the Friday, the weather changed and it started to rain lightly in the morning. The mountains were socked in. I could only imagine what adding more water and weight to the already extremely weak snowpack would do. Sure enough by that afternoon when the sun re-emerged, we heard reports of more large avalanches coming down and closing the road. There were at least 5 slides blocking the road. Then a massive slide came down, 100m wide and more than 10ft deep. We were trapped. There is only one road in and out of Hemu and it was shut down. The power keeps coming in and out, same with the internet service. We are supposed to be flying out of Aletai tomorrow morning, but who knows if we will make our flights or not. If there was a helicopter around, we could fly back to Aletai but that is not happening unfortunately. Finally we were given some good news. They were close to having the road clear and we were going to be able to leave in the afternoon. The time was set for 3:45pm departure. Whilst I was happy about the thought of leaving, I was concerned about us leaving at prime avalanche time. Most of the avalanches we were witnessing were coming down in the heat of the afternoon, from 2pm to 5pm. It was cloudier this day at least, when the sun was hidden, it was a lot cooler, but as soon as the sun came out, it warmed up really fast. We’d have to hope that the sun stayed away. Unfortunately, there was a convey heading down and we were in it. We didn’t have much of a choice.


  The vehicles were loaded up and we headed out with about 40 people in 8 different vehicles (several 4wd’s, 3 buses full of staff and a tanker truck). We started away from the resort and got stuck behind the tanker. Going up the first hill, I noticed a piece of metal pipe fall from the bottom of the tanker. It lay steaming in the road ahead of us. The tanker did not stop and neither did we. I mentioned this to the driver but he did not seem too concerned and we kept going. After about 30 minutes, we rounded a bend and saw a police truck pulled over at the side of the road. We kept going and then we saw several vehicles stopped further ahead. Then we saw that a large avalanche had blocked the road. The debris was piled up around 4ft high. It was a point release that started 200m up and then fanned out about 30m wide. It had slid all the way to the ground. It was only a shallow slide, maybe a foot deep, but over that distance and the weight of the heavy, wet debris, you would not want to be caught under that. The road surface was a perfect terrain trap. There was still a ton of hangfire left behind and the previous bowl was also ready to rip. The driver wanted to pull in right behind the other vehicles but we made him back up and pull in under a big rock face and outcrop where there was no snow above us. We were really concerned about the risk of secondary avalanches.


  We had hoped that the other vehicles would park next to us and that people would stay back, but as soon as the coaches came along, everyone got out and started to walk out towards the slide, like moths to the flame. We had shouted for people to stay back, that it was too dangerous with the risk of more avalanches. Maolin tried to get them to listen, but most of them just kept walking, saying they needed to help. There were only a limited number of shovels and before we knew it, there was a crowd of about 40 people hanging out with most of them taking selfies next to the slide. I couldn’t watch, it was an accident on a massive scale about to happen. Then the winter operations manager turned up. He saw the vehicles stopped and the slide, and just kept driving towards the debris pile and pulled in tight with the other vehicles. It was crazy. Grant and I were so frustrated. We were waiting for the rest of the slope to go and then people would be buried and it would be a disaster. We didn’t even have access to any rescue gear (all mine was in another vehicle and Grant had donated his shovel and probe to Mallequin), so we felt quite helpless. It was hard to watch.


  It took about an hour and a half for them to clear a path through the multiple slides, wide enough for all the vehicles to pass through. It was a massive relief to leave that spot with everyone safe but we sensed more of the same was just around the corner. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for us to reach the next slide blocking the road. This was a relatively small one and we made it through relatively quickly. Then we came to the big one, about 300m wide with a car stuck in the middle. Again, all the vehicles were parked willy nilly, bumper to bumper. We stayed back, away from the crowd under an area where there had been a large slide already above and where the slope considerably lessened. The crowds all piled out to go take a look. This time we could see heavy machinery working its way towards us. This must surely be the end of the obstructions? It was getting late now, it was past 8pm and we had been on the road for more than 4 hours already. It was going to be a long night as we still had a long way to go. The temperature was starting to drop so I decided to hop out and have a look around. The slide was huge, running from way up high, through the trees (taking a few down with it) and crossing over the road. The car was extremely lucky; it was pretty much untouched by the debris and had a large 50m swathe surrounding it where the slide did not come down. It would have been very scary to have been in that vehicle. Hopefully the slide had come down relatively slowly and they had time to make it to that free spot. Maybe that was what happened, either way, I’m glad no one was hurt (it was confirmed to me later that no one was hurt). I watched as the snow blower tried to plow its way through the debris, but it kept getting stuck. The debris was just too wet and heavy for the blower to make much headway. Then the digger took over and it plowed into the snow, scooping up massive loads and then dumping it over the side. It took several hours to get through to the convoy, but finally around 11pm, we were free. We could continue on.


  On the way, we must have passed about 30 places in total where they had cleared slides that blocked the road. As we got up high, we saw another digger, but with only 1 snow blower and 2 diggers, they had had their work cut out for them. It was amazing that no one was hurt. We got to the town we were staying at (no chance of making it to Aletai) by 2:30am and was able to get to bed by 3am. Then we were up at 8am with a nice breakfast (steamed dumplings and eggs) at an awesome hole in the wall place opposite the hotel. We were at the airport by 11am with the flight leaving just before 1pm. We had the usual crazy amount of security with my brand new multi-tool getting confiscated (even though it was going in the checked baggage!) but my hand luggage trick (put anything electronic in a plastic bag which I would then take out of my airbag), working well. They flagged my airbag (remembered to unscrew the battery this time) and checked that again, but not Grant’s. The security here is very inconsistent. The flight to Urumqi was quick, only an hour and then we said goodbye to Maolin. He was going skiing at the Silk Road ski area the next day. Then we had the 3.5 hour flight to Beijing which arrived on time around 8:20pm. I said goodbye to Grant (he’d been a really great person to be on this trip with, laid back, fun and was great to have a second person around to be able to discuss any concerns with when we were exposed to avalanche danger, cheers Grant!) and I headed to the Langham Palace to meet my wife (MUCH better hotel than the Ibis, a lot more expensive but really, really nice, strongly recommended if you need a place in Beijing right next to Terminal 3). That’s the end of the daily reports for this trip and what an adventure it has been! I’m staying on to do some more traveling around China for 9 days with my wife. I’ll finish up later with more photos (Grant’s photos) and if I have time, I’ll edit some videos together so you can really get a feel for the trip.


Thanks for following along, expect a few more posts (plus plenty more to come from the Japan and India trips).


- Matt


I missed some photos from the on-snow beacon training day. Here is a shot looking back at the resort at the Hemu Hotel. Quite the view.



View of the resort from the bottom of the bunny hill. Hopefully they will have a chairlift in this area soon.



Training the local ski instructors in beacon searching. Love the jeans and rear entry boots.






Grant with the local instructors.



Grant, myself and Maolin with the instructors.



Grant and that view, one last time.



Insert obligatory Trump joke..... Grab that cat....... after Nippy had chased it up there.



Waiting to leave the resort. Then all the roof's started to slide. This one went big and nearly caught some people on the path below.



That hangfire went later in the day too.



The convoy getting ready to leave the resort. Then the real "excitement" was about to start.



Making our way through multiple slide paths. The crowd would like to stand and watch in potential zones of secondary avalanches. This happened all day. It was tough to watch.......








They got bigger and bigger. One things for sure, I won't be going back to Hemu in the winter without more slide protection above that road. One of the scariest situations of my life.



This was the big one. More than 300ft wide with debris up to 15ft high and a car trapped in the middle. Thankfully, the car was in an untouched clearing and had not been hit too badly by the slide. It would have been very scary to have been in that car though.



This one was powerful enough to take down some trees.



The bulldozer did a great job finally breaking through that last big slide.



The escape! Finally we made it out, but we passed through about 30 more slides that had blocked the road. Unbelievable stuff and I'm happy we made it out of there in one piece......


 - Matt

post #30 of 53
Quote =Mattadvproject:
One things for sure, I won't be going back to Hemu in the winter without more slide protection above that road.

You've convinced me that Hemu is a non-viable ski area with the road as it is now.  Could a new road be built in a safer area? This also begs the question of what terrain will people be skiing.  Anything worth skiing is going to need intensive control work.  I see this as an issue at Gulmarg from your reports, but the danger seems to be on a completely different level in Central Asia.


Your reports are very informative for avalanche education.Thumbs Up

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