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Into the Nines

Mongolians have been skiing from A to B for thousands of years. Now, thanks to a booming economy, skiing is becoming a winter sport...of sorts.
posted: 03/12/2013

Editor's note: This story was named Oustanding Article, honorable mention, in the first person/personal experience category of the 2013 American Society of Journalists and Authors awards. It was written by Evelyn Spence and edited by Kimberly Beekman. Update: Photographer Ilja Herb won a 2013 American Photography award for this photo of Tsaatan nomads Ganbat and Uvedorj.

We weren’t looking for reindeer. We came to Mongolia because there’s a ski area here. Just one. It opened in 2009. Its slogan is TASTE OF LIFE. It has two quad chairlifts, nine runs, 626 feet of vertical, 300 rental snowboards, 480 lockers, 170 staff members, a gift shop, and a rifle range. It’s called Sky Resort—maybe to honor the country’s onetime god, the Eternal Blue Sky, or maybe to be optimistic about its possibilities (because the sky’s the limit). We wanted to investigate the emergence, or reemergence, of ski culture here, because even though a few Mongolians have skied for a while—using horses as rope tows, sometimes—this Sky Resort was the first step toward what Western Hemispherical elitists call real skiing, a pastime that the new rich, who are being lifted by a rising tide of enormous mining developments in the far south of the country, can now, apparently, afford. 

Thomas, however, was not particularly interested in Sky—it was his last day of a two-month stint, and he merely wanted to check “skiing in Mongolia” off his to-do list. He told this to us—me and photographer Ilja Herb—on a late January morning while we rode on the green bus with the toothless driver and the broken seats. The temperature was minus 47 degrees, down past where the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit is even relevant. Thomas was from the UK, and he had recently flown 400 miles from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön on EZ-Nis Airlines, then hired a Cold War–era jeep to spirit him 10 hours north from Mörön to Tsagaannuur on icy dirt tracks that bisected the steppe like pillow marks on a face. They then bumped from Tsagaannuur farther north to a wide larch-dotted Mongolian plain so close to the Russian border that Westerners like us need special paperwork with many emphatic red stamps.

Thomas did this because he wanted to see the Tsaatan—the Reindeer People—who live, maybe 500 of them, spread over a 40,000-square-mile area called the Darkhad Depression. The Reindeer People are the kind of ethnic group that other people—white people—read about in guidebooks and visit as tourist attractions. The Tsaatan create moral dilemmas for the curious and privileged—like whether to bring them Chinggis Khan vodka and Choco Pies, as is the custom, or whether they’d be better off if we all left them alone. 

The green bus was taking us to our first day at Sky, about 11 miles from the center of UB, just far enough to escape the halo of pollution from the city’s coal plants and wood stoves. The windows were frosted a quarter-inch thick on the inside. We scraped it with our fingernails to catch a view. The route apparently passed the President’s house, but we couldn’t see it. While we stuffed ourselves into 800-fill down coats and mountaineering mittens, the pretty Mongolian boys standing in the aisle wore cowl-neck chunky-knit sweaters, engineer’s caps, skinny jeans, and ankle boots. 

Thomas wore all black. He told us, offhand, about a Tsaatan herder named Ganbat. This Ganbat had skis leaning against his hut. Ancient skis. Wooden skis. Traditional, straight-from-the-cradle-of-skiing-culture skis. With reindeer skins on the bottom. 

Ilja and I looked at each other, then through the hole in the ice on the window, where we could see Sky Resort emerging—a treeless and empty hillock. Thomas had no idea, but our original mission—to experience the Mongolian iteration of our kind of skiing—had just changed to include Mongolian skiing. Ancient skiing. Skiing-that-started-it-all skiing. 

The bus climbed the gentle road to the resort, on the flank of the mountain called Bogd Khan Uul. The toothless man grunted. We waited until everyone else—the one in camo, the one with the three-inch-long silver-plated kitty-cat bauble hanging from her neck—disembarked. When we finally stepped off, the frigid air felt like shards of dry ice jammed up our nostrils. The first three things we saw: Ticket sellers in spiked heels. A woman with a bloody lip. And a grown man skiing in pink swim goggles.

See more photos in the Into the Nines gallery

There’s this Mongolian word: temul. “The look in the eye of a horse that is racing where it wants to go, no matter what the rider wants.” Mongolian horses, and Mongolians, like the shortest distance between two points. No pussyfooting around. It’s how they drive and ski, too—with absolutely no fear. They get a lot of femur breaks at Sky Resort. 

While the green bus circled back to the city for another pickup, the truly ballsy were bypassing the superfluous turnstiles and taking Lift A to the runs called Zalaat and Khurkhereet, which were triple-green-circle in difficulty, and careening down them. All french fry, no pizza. The first-timers headed straight for Lift B, looker’s right, which passed over the “fun park”—a collection of 10-foot-high snow knuckles with unused flat landings. We followed. Vanilla Ice pumped out of the lift-tower speakers, followed by a gangsta rap that repeated Blood! Sweat! Tears! The liftie at the candy-striped top shack was dancing with himself.

There’s another thing: Mongolians divide up their winters into nine sets of nine days called The Nines. In the Second Nine, vodka congeals and freezes. In the Third Nine, the tail of a three-year-old ox freezes. We were there during the coldest Nine, the Fourth Nine, when the horns of a four-year-old ox apparently freeze. Last night the temperature dropped to minus 50, and the daytime temps bounced back to minus 37. It was so cold that the snow off Lift B was the texture of floral foam. Last November, Sky Resort blew together a base with the help of 15 guns, brought from South Tirol through Russia, which blasted a five-and-a-half-inch-deep dusting that was supposed to stick around until March. It squeaked. It was groomed and regroomed obsessively.

A group of a dozen 20-somethings stood partway down the run called Tenger—named for a big-time deity of the 6th century. They all wore matching gray Sky Resort rental jackets and black Sky Resort pants, looking very Mao and smoking cigarettes and laughing. They were passing around a liter of vodka. Our friend Lisa, who has lived in UB for five years, told us that it’s generally a faux pas to drink straight out of the bottle, which is why you see drivers in the countryside removing the ceiling lights from their jeeps or taking a pan from somewhere underneath the hood and drinking out of that instead. 

But to hell with it. The bottle made the rounds, though not to us. Fortified with Chinggis Khan, they straightlined Tenger one by one. A few of them made it to the bottom unscathed. We followed, reserving judgment and holding our elbows in front of our faces to block the shattering air. 

Perhaps the infancy of Mongolian downhill skiing looks like this: a low, hangarlike lodge with orange-dotted rubber floors. At one end, people buzzed around the rental shop and the gun range. The teenage kid in charge of the guns sported fake Jordans and a faux-hawk. He faced his reflection in a mirror, plucking his eyebrows. At the other end, the cafeteria served Meat Ball and Steamed Beef. A few families sat near the coffee stand, where a cappuccino could set you back 3,600 tugrik, about $2.75, and the cooler held Tiger Beer and Red Bull. From those tables, we saw a woman skiing with a Louis Vuitton purse slung over her shoulder. We saw a man sitting on a bench, one leg crossed over the other, trying to put his ski on like a shoe. A chubby guy in a Ferrari baseball cap and a sweatshirt that said GREAT MATCH FUNKY FRESH fell down and couldn’t right himself; a girl in leg warmers and tights lifted him. Someone in a fur miniskirt got tangled in the fencing. Everyone was smiling, including the old man in the green wraparound deel—traditional Mongolian clothing—his fur hat tall, his belt orange, his boot tips curling up, his cheeks bright red.

I told Olgi about the Chinggis Khan. “You are not supposed to drink or smoke here,” he said, spearing a piece of Steamed Beef. 

“Sky is not that kind of place,” said Amara, stroking his thin mustache. Olgi was the Procurement Manager. Amara was the PR guy. Amara wore an all-white Columbia ski suit and a felt cowboy hat. Amara wanted a ’65 Mustang. He said, “Sky Resort is the biggest investment in pleasure since 1990. Mongolians need pleasure. The investor has spent $28 million already, and he will see some fortune from the novelty. The master plan is for a pleasure resort, hotel, golf, the shopping.” He smiled. “I am addicted to ski.” He gestured over at another man in a red jacket. “Like Jagaa. He could leave and make a lot more money in the mining, but he stays.” Jagaa nodded. He’s a Sky Resort patroller. His father used to run a single drag lift that he built himself in 1981, up the side of Zaisan Mountain. It was called Bogini Am. As a kid, Jagaa groomed the piste with a shovel and his hand. Then, in 1996, his father died. No more skiing for a while. “I love the extreme carve,” Jagaa said in Mongolian, and Olgi translated. “And you can escape the smoky city.”

Olgi turned to me. “Jagaa has father issues,” he said.

It is hard to say, exactly, what kind of place Sky Resort is. Adjacent to the lodge is the VIP shop, which sells $4,000 pairs of LaCroix skis. (Four pairs sold in the first two months of the 2011–2012 season.) Businessmen come up to see and be seen, never taking off their Gucci loafers. Sky is owned by the MCS Group, which also has holdings in beer, cashmere, mining, energy, communications, and retail. Tickets cost $23 for six hours—nice for us, but not within reach of most Mongolians, who make an average of $2,500 per year. “The price is very OK,” Amara said. “We want to compete with
the USA, Canada, Korea, and Japan.”

It’s hard to say, too, what kind of place Mongolia is. Back in UB, beautiful people flush with cash—from enormous mining projects like Oyu Tolgoi, the biggest undeveloped copper and gold mine in the world, and from multipronged corporations like MCS—walked the black-iced sidewalks with fur coats and Hermès handbags. Some 3,000 mining licenses have been issued, to foreigners and locals alike. Oyu Tolgoi, in the Gobi Desert about 300 miles south of UB, produced its first copper ore in June, but its impact—30 percent of GDP—has already influenced the Mongolian economy through investment, construction, and a trickle down to everything from Irish pubs to high-end wristwatch shops. In fact, in 2011, Mongolia’s economy ballooned more than 17 percent—the fastest-growing in the world. Next up? Tavan Tolgoi, the largest untapped coal deposit on earth. Of course, the people getting rich are developers and politicians, not ordinary citizens, though every Mongolian gets $16 on the 15th of every month, and political candidates are not sparing in their future promises. 

In the center of UB, the Choijin Lama temple sits in the shadow of a fin-shaped, green-glass skyscraper hotel. We saw a gold BMW one morning. Not gold-colored, but gold like Flavor Flav’s grille. We saw a Louis Vuitton store a hundred yards from the parliament building. We saw a car with red headlights. Someone told us that there’s even a Lamborghini in UB now. But all the men in suits who skitch the crosswalks also have to dodge frozen vomit, and several people told us, Don’t ever step on a manhole cover. You’ll fall right in. The garbage trucks sound like ice-cream trucks, playing insistently cheery music. UB is now the most polluted city in the world in wintertime. 

It took all of about 140 cumulative seconds to try every run at Sky Resort, getting frostnip on our cheeks and slicing our palms with the freezing edges of our skis, thus concluding that modern ski culture in Mongolia is small, and nouveau riche, and optimistic, and much too uncomfortable for thin-skinned and spoiled investigators like us.

It was time to find Ganbat.

See more photos in the Into the Nines gallery

A quick primer on Mongolian customs, overheard: Mongolians love VIP rooms. Mongolians are superstitious—don’t touch anyone else’s hat, don’t leave your hat with the inside up, don’t sleep with your feet close to anyone’s head. Mongolians are obsessed with polishing their boots. Mongolians say that wrapping a fresh wolf tongue around your neck can cure a sore throat. That, or drinking your mother’s urine.

Also, never ask a Mongolian, How long will it take to get there? It’s very bad luck. Even if you are desperately searching for reindeer skis.

We asked, and were shushed, after flying 400 miles from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön—the capital of Khövsgöl aimag, or province—on EZ-Nis Airlines with Lisa to meet her friend Naraa and Naraa’s husband, Enkhee, who picked us up at the airport in an old Land Cruiser imported from the Middle East that had a broken heater. Osama Frozen Car, he called it. All we wanted was to see a real man on a pair of ancient skis. Enkhee took us to the Mörön museum, where a docent showed us a glass display case. In it was a full reindeer ensemble—jacket, knee-high boots, and skis, all covered in fur like a surreal Meret Oppenheim coffee cup. It was a start. 

In the morning, we tied dog-fur covers over our boots. Our hired driver headed north out of town and steered us into a brown meadow. We didn’t see another road for six days. The landscape looked part moon, part Montana, rolling endlessly into emptiness. Sometimes, on a far hillside, was a round ger, or yurt, and a few horses and sheep. Because we’d already learned not to ask questions, we played along when the driver pulled to a stop near a schoolyard fence in Ulaan Uul, a beautiful small town with a Teton-looking range, the Horidol Sardag, in the distance.

“Come,” Naraa said. “Skis.” 

We followed her into the schoolhouse. We waited by the wood stove. We followed her back to the vehicle. We drove 650 feet to a cabin that turned out to be a restaurant. Inside, the poster on the wall depicted orange juice and croissants on a tropical beach; we were served mutton noodle soup and fried meat patties with salty milk tea. We drove 650 meters back to the school, then walked across a field to the edge of the woods. “Skis!” Naraa said. Four students were putting on variations of a cross-country setup: leather boots, wooden skis, bindings that pinched down on the toes (perfect for dress shoes, which one boy was wearing). The littlest one, Nyamtogtog, tied his skis on with shoelaces. The girl, Nomingarav, was wearing pink pants and a scarf with silver polka dots. Batdorj, the one in the blue tracksuit, was clearly the talent; he pushed off and classic-skied back and forth in front of us.

We took many photos and nodded our approval.

From Ulaan Uul, we kept driving north all the way to Tsagaannuur, a hamlet on the edge of a frozen lake, and a house that may or may not have been owned by a small man named Lhagvaa. Lhagvaa immediately brought us milk tea in a pink Chinese thermos that read HERBS PLANTED IN SPRING EVENTUALLY BEAR FRAGRANT WHIFFS OF JOY. And he immediately wanted to set me up with a man. A man named Bator. Warrior. Bator was shy, Lhagvaa told me, and he thought babies came out of the belly button. Bator was 27, but he was very short, so he could wear children’s clothes, which are less expensive. “Shorter is easier to sleep with,” Lhagvaa said. Lhagvaa made a cell phone call up to the Reindeer People and told them to prepare the wedding clothes so we could leave me there and “fix the inbreeding.” He said a sentence that ended in bong-bong, banged his right fist into his left hand, and cackled. The driver roared. “The shaman will do the bong-bong,” Naraa said. “Then Bator and I will do the bong-bong?” I said.

It worked for us but might not work for you: If you need comic relief in Mongolia, make a gesture in the gray area between clearly animated and vaguely sexual.

That night, a woman in Tsagaannuur promised to deliver us fish soup for dinner, but she got too drunk. She didn’t, however, forget to call and make sure that the fire was hot. It was.

See more photos in the Into the Nines gallery

The guidebook said that “visiting the Tsaatan is difficult and exhausting.” The guidebooks have not yet found Lhagvaa. All the way up to the Darkhad Depression, Lhagvaa sat on my lap and patted my knee and talked about my marriage to Bator. The route had us bumping through a larch forest—through it—and it took hours to go 19 miles. But when we pulled into a clearing with a few cabins and tepees and gers, a dozen dogs, and a few reindeer, there they were. Skis. Traditional, straight-from-the-cradle-of-skiing-culture skis.

“Skis!” Naraa said. Her face was so sweet.

The skis were leaning against the side of a hut. The reindeer skins were attached to the bases by tacks of some kind. Before we could high-five, before we could touch them, Instagram them, we were hustled inside, where Ganbat himself served us salty reindeer-milk tea, and we passed them the bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka and the Choco Pies. The walls were decorated with pages from German magazines and dish towels printed with London landmarks; CDs hung from the ceiling to help with cell-phone reception. In the center of the room, a massive piece of thawing meat, sitting on a stool and half-covered with a blue tarp, dripped blood on the floor.

Soon, 15 people were jammed in there, including Ganbat’s wife, our driver, and Uvedorj, an apple-faced man with spectacles and a navy-blue deel. He owned the other pair of skis. We learned that the Tsaatan, or at least these two men, use them after storms to go hunting or to find stray reindeer. They use a single long pole for balance. They didn’t seem to “need pleasure,” the way Amara put it, or understand why we traveled 5,500 miles to see the skis in person. 

The tea finished, everyone went outside and watched while Ganbat and Uvedorj posed with the skis, tied them to their feet with rope, and climbed up a small rise in the middle of their camp and slid down to cheers. Lhagvaa put the skis on, fell. Bong-bong. Naraa put the skis on and we took pictures. I put the skis on. They were heavy and thick. Everyone watched while I walked around, climbed up a little bluff, coasted down. The reindeer fur gripped the snow on the ascent, zipped the descent. The tool worked.

At one point, Ganbat skied through the larches and down out of sight. Maybe he was just walking on two big planks. Maybe he was looking for a stray reindeer. Maybe he was feeling what every skier can’t help but feel when the slope tips and the wind hits his face and the earth moves. Exhilaration. 

See more photos in the Into the Nines gallery

“More signs could help with Mongolians.” Tumen Altansukh was checking his e-mail in the Sky Resort lodge. He’s the CIO of the Tavan Bogd Group. “We should put a mogul run between the A and B lifts,” he said, “but Mongolians don’t know how to make moguls. I think there is not enough to do on the groomed trails.” Out the window, a guy yard-saled while talking on his cell phone. “I want to do a 360,” said Tumen. “I can’t get enough speed. We go YouTubing, and there is big air, and we want to do it. It is just tickling us!”

It was our last day at Sky, a day that promised to extend well into night because Sky offers night skiing six nights a week. We’d already watched a tug-of-war on ice, a beach-ball soccer game, three camera crews filming segments, and a ceremony involving huge cakes. We’d already eaten Grill Chicken Leg. We’d already skied every run, three times over. The Mongolians were still smiling and didn’t need goggles or gloves. Their scarves flew behind them. Temul. The sunset turned the white hillside briefly neon, and then it was dark, and lit-up, and cold. 

Amara told us that Sky often sees 2,000 skiers per day, but after six days here, I thought the figure seemed ambitious. Still, it was clear people were getting it—the sport. Tumen described the sidecut of his new GS skis, and his daughter told us what she learned today (“Pizza!”). Drey, who was 19 and already the owner of one of the top-ranked restaurants in the country, bought a season pass this year. The hill employees snowboarded on their days off. The few expats raced slalom against Jagaa and Olgi. They were skiing, all of them. On this early February night, it was dark, and lit-up, and cold, but it was getting closer to the Fifth Nine. That’s when boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes. That’s when Westerners like us can feel our feet, when the guns come out for one more round of snowmaking, when Ganbat and Uvedorj chase the snow farther north with their herd of reindeer. 

We had to physically fight to board the last green bus, at 10:40 p.m. Lisa told us everything is a competition in Mongolia, which meant that people, including us, started waiting outside at 10. We didn’t want to get left behind, because after six days, Sky Resort felt one shade too close to purgatory.

But before the shoving match, before the last Tiger Beer, before the last teenager slipped in his ski boots on the rubber-dot floor, I bundled up in five layers for a run. On Lift A, the lights on the towers turned the larches into fingered webs. Down the valley, UB twinkled, the air brittle and surprisingly clear. I was completely alone, floating past the prayer flags piled on a rocky bluff. I pushed down Zalaat, or maybe it was Khurkhereet. The slope tipped. The snow creaked. I carved a few easy turns. You know that little bit of skin underneath your nose? Mine was exposed. It burned. I thought about standing up and holding my arm across my face, but then I spread my legs out wide, and dropped into a tuck, and I went fast and straight and true.   

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