Uighurs, local beer, rented bicycles, skiing, jeweled watches, low fuel, yurts, renminbi & the Tian Shan.
In the summer of 1994, my friend, The North Face athlete Rick Armstrong, invited me on an expedition to ski China’s remote Tian Shan range. He and two college friends, Ned Hutchinson and Dave French, wanted to pursue rumors of an ancient ski culture in that region. Ned spoke Mandarin and had studied for a year in Beijing. My role would be to shoot and write an article for Powder magazine.
We flew to Beijing that October and settled into a third-floor hotel room, $12 a day, paid in renminbi. We frequented the café downstairs, eating, drinking and plotting. A meal cost a couple bucks, 65 cents for a big bottle of local beer.
For a week we toured the megalopolis on rented bicycles, mine so undersized I looked like a bowlegged Cossack dancer. I stopped often, to stretch my legs and photograph the street scenes. We ate often, buying from street vendors their grilled kabobs, boiled eggs, nuts and dried fruits. Sometimes we dined in restaurants—mostly the unadorned, tiny and cheap.
Children constantly ran up to me, often holding two fingers in the air. I soon realized their question: “Are you two meters tall?” I nodded and said yes, which always sent them over the moon. (I’m a couple inches shy of that height, but it seemed wrong not to agree.)
W e left Beijing on a three-day train across China, traveling 2,300 miles to the northwest frontier town of Ürümqi. While waiting to depart—it arrived thirteen hours late—we sat in a booth in the station café and drank beer with a Buddhist monk. His Chinese military general bodyguard stood by, silently watching us. Ned told me the monk was fascinated by my face.
Abruptly, the yellow-robed brother took off his jeweled watch and handed it to me, indicating a gift. I panicked, lowered my head and, under my breath, asked Ned what to do. “Refuse it!” he barked. I refused it twice, saying, “I’m not worthy.” The general then unlocked an invisible side door and gently hustled the intoxicated monk out of our sight.
That left us a little unnerved. Ned explained that if the gift had been offered for a third time, I must accept it, but not until then. I was relieved to have a guide.
Later, on the train, that same Chinese general saved me from some tough Uighurs who’d cornered me in their booth, suckering me into a “friendly” card game, possibly planning to grab my camera and throw me off the moving train. (It’s happened before.)
Cameras and bodies intact, we went straight to the largest hotel in Ürümqi and rented their finest room—located over the bar where each night karaoke singers wailed into the wee hours. But soon enough we were out in the countryside, being transported via government vehicle, with our mandatory Chinese agent in tow, to a boat ride across Heavenly Lake, the trailhead for our objective.
We set up base camp in a meadow by the creek and ferried loads to two higher camps. At snowline we found an unoccupied stone yurt, a relative castle, to serve as Camp 2. We collected some firewood, built a fire in the hearth, sorted our ski gear, ate dinner and slept soundly on the straw mats.
N ext day, at long last, we were skiing in the Tian Shan, carrying a load to high camp. By lunch we were staring directly at our objective: the heavily glaciated, very steep, 17,864-foot Bogda Feng. It was awesome, literally. We set up the tents and dug snow blocks for walls and kitchen tables.
Camp 3 was well positioned for an attempt to ski that monstrous and daunting mountain. But after two nights, we bailed.
Weak link? Gas. We ran out. The liters of fuel we’d carried in from Ürümqi were of such poor quality that it took volumes more than normal to produce the heat necessary to melt snow for water.
Defeated? No. Powder ran the full-length feature and five years later Ski ran a standalone photo titled “Around the World for One Turn.” And while that headline is true, the China expedition remains one of the greatest adventures of our lives.
Wade McKoy lives in Jackson, Wyoming, with his wife of thirty years, Holly. His photographs and articles have appeared in national and international publications, including Men’s Journal, Outside, Sports Illustrated and Powder. He currently publishes the Jackson Hole Skier and the Adventure Guide to Grand Teton & Yellowstone, which can be viewed at jhskier.net. (All photos © Wade McKoy)