National Geographic : 2013 Dec
First Skiers 95 and moisture has returned, producing a four- foot-deep mantle. Tursen revels in skiing and in the silence. Even if he won’t actually kill an elk, even if it’s just a journey to show a foreigner the ancient ways of carving life out of this harsh wilderness, it nourishes his spirit to venture back into this pristine white world of his ancestors. Exactly who these ancestors were remains something of an enigma. The hunters come from seminomadic Tuvan-speaking clans who inhabited pockets of the Altay. Technically, they are Chinese citizens, but their log cabins stand within 20 miles of the converging bor- ders of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, and the roots of their language lie to the north in Siberia, where the majority of Tuvans now live. Anthropologists say their lineage includes Turkic and Samoyed tribes who at various peri- ods over the past several thousand years moved through these mountains. Nevertheless, each member of the hunting party will heartily at- test that he descends from the mounted Mongol warriors who swept through the Altay in the 13th century. Each takes great pride in his ex- pert horsemanship. Indeed, the horse remains the center of their culture, used to pull sleighs in winter and to herd cattle, goats, and sheep into upland summer pastures. Lest there be any doubt, it is Genghis Khan, not Mao, whose por- trait hangs in each of their cabins. And it is in his honor that their sons are shaved bald but for a tuft of black hair. I follow the men across a snow bridge span- ning a buried creek. The burbling water beneath can be heard but not seen. Abruptly Tursen stops to examine some animal tracks. “ B ö r ü ,” he says quietly in Tuvan. “Wolf.” Serik, who is Tursen’s brother-in-law, stops to look. He nods. There is a pack of six blue-black wolves that also hunts these drainages, occasion- ally venturing close enough to the cabins to kill a horse. These tracks are old, but the wolves prob- ably aren’t far away. The men squat on their skis and study the snow. The paw prints are the size of a mittened fist, and deep, the claws leaving marks in the snow. “Big börü,” says Tursen, puffing himself up to mime the wolf ’s size, his smooth cheeks curving into a grin. Wolves remain plentiful enough here that no one skis alone. Local lore holds that a motor- cyclist once got stuck in the snow and was sur- rounded by a wolf pack. Panicked, he called the police on his cell phone. The police told him to light his motorcycle on fire, because wolves are afraid of fire, and that they would be there as soon as possible. When the police arrived, they found a motorcycle burnt black, blood every- where, and a helmet with a faceless head inside. Soon the men find a place near the buried creek to take a break. They sit on their sleds, re- move their mittens. Some pluck cigarettes from inside their quilted coats. Most, like Tursen, are in their 20s. Serik is the old man at 33. Beneath the layers of clothing, their physiques are lean as willows. They have spent the entirety of their young lives exploring these mountains and seem inured to the bitter cold, unhurried as they cup their rough hands to light their smokes. Tursen, who doesn’t smoke, is missing two fingers on his left hand. When he was three years old, he and his sister were sent into the woods with an ax to collect sap. Tursen reached up too soon and his sister accidentally chopped off his fingers. The men resume their burdens, and after an hour they spot fresh tracks. Tursen leaves his sled and glides back and forth along the trough of tracks, probing at the snow with his staff. “ S y g y n ,” he says triumphantly. “Elk.” From the confluence of several tracks, size of scat, and location of urination, Tursen and Serik determine that there are four elk nearby: two large bulls, a cow, and a male calf. Tursen points out the zigzag trenches where the bulls plowed up the steep north slope. “We camp here,” he says. Nightfall is about an hour away, and the men, using the tips of their skis as shovels, dig down to a layer of pine needles beneath the limbs of a conifer, creating a nest surrounded by four-foot Mark Jenkins wrote about summiting Mount Everest in the June issue. Jonas Bendiksen photographed Tibetan glaciers for the April 2010 issue.