While the U.S. politicizes climate change, even people in remote ancient villages are sounding the alarm
Riding on a horse-drawn toboggan, we weave through a birch and pine forest along a half-frozen river. A curious goat greets us when we arrive at the home of the village elder. His family has been carving skis out of birch wood for centuries. The elder looks slightly bewildered by our crew: 10 camera men and five westerners mulling about his property. He ushers us into his home where his wife, 30 years his junior, shyly serves us steaming hot salt tea with fresh goat milk.
Xièxiè (thank you), I say to her. It is the only Mandarin I’ve managed to remember since landing in Beijing two days ago. She smiles but looks confused. While the cameras capture shots of the old man carving skis, the athletes gather around a table of pastries and hard salty cheese. One of our translators speaks to the wife in a language I cannot decipher and then switches to Mandarin when addressing the Chinese snowboarders. The woman had no idea what I said, I realized, because she doesn’t speak Mandarin. She speaks the ancient language of this small village. It is one of the most inaccessible places on earth in the Altai Mountains of Northern China.
Hemu Village sits in China’s northern Xinjiang region, hemmed in by the foothills of the Altai Mountain Range. It is surrounded by Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Rolling hills lead to small mountains with thick wooded forests that carpet their northern slopes and the Altai’s soaring Alaska-like peaks to the north. A small ski resort was built here about 15 years ago and equipped with a Santa’s sleigh rope tow, a tubing hill and 20 brand new Yamaha snowmobiles to transport guests around the sprawling snowy farmlands to the east. The local government had invited four athletes, including fellow Jones teammate Harry Kearney and myself, to create a ski and snowboard film that would showcase the area’s potential as an international ski and snowboard destination.
The first morning when we woke in Hemu Village and stepped outside, I was surprised that I could actually make out blue sky above us. It was a far cry from what we experienced in Beijing upon our arrival. Though I knew about China’s diminished air quality, the thick smog that engulfs Beijing was jarring. I could feel the particulates on my skin and in my throat. I envied the locals donned in facemasks scurrying through the choked streets of Beijing.
But in the last 10 years, something incredible has happened in China, which makes it hard to imagine just how bad the air quality once was.
Fed up with the rapidly deteriorating state of their environment and the effect it was having on their health, the normally compliant citizens of China stood up to their government and protested. During 2012 alone, more than 50,000 environmental protests erupted in the country. The government’s vision to become a world manufacturing mecca was a shortsighted plan that had largely ignored the potential environmental impacts. Coupled with the highest population on earth at more than one billion people, China found itself in a seemingly impossible mess. Then another stunning occurrence transpired: the Chinese government began to listen to its people, acknowledging it had an environmental crisis on its hands.
The government implemented an aggressive environmental policy. According to chinadialogue.com, “Polluting companies will face fines without a ceiling; NGOs are welcome to initiate public interest lawsuits; and local governments will be held accountable for implementing environmental policies.” During the first eight months of the law’s implementation in 2015, there were 405 cases of accumulative fines, worth a total of 330 million yuan, according to data released by the Ministry of Environment Protection. “It means on average each case involved more than 800,000 yuan [$120,840] in fines, already exceeding the highest 500,000-yuan [$75,525]fine limit in the previous version of the law.”
“Then another stunning occurrence transpired: the Chinese government began to listen to its people, acknowledging it had an environmental crisis on its hands.”
A recent New York Times article discussed how the new anti-pollution law could negatively affect China’s economic growth. But even China’s president recognizes the importance of these environmental measures. “President Xi Jinping endorsed the environmental effort in his work report last Wednesday at the start of the party congress,” the Times reported. “‘Clear waters and lush mountains are as valuable as gold and silver,’ he said. Beyond maximizing economic output, Mr. Xi said that his country needed to address a new dilemma, and one that implies greater attention to environmental protection, ‘between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.’”
Before I accepted the invitation to China, the producers had made it clear that this trip was centered on the unknown. They had no idea about the snow conditions because there is no weather station in Hemu Village. Even if they had someone who they could call for beta, there was a three-pronged language barrier.
“You should only come if you don’t mind going with the flow. We might be sleeping on dirt floors, there might not even be any snow, you might be eating goat head. Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?” I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!” (Except for the goat head part.) But as laid back as we all were, after two days of travel to the other side of the earth, finally arriving in Hemu Village at 3 a.m. one morning, we did have one question: “How’s the snow?” We would soon learn the disappointing truth.
After we wrapped up the shoot at the village elder’s home, the director mobilized the crew for our first snowboarding destination for the afternoon. As we approached our zone, I could tell this would be a struggle. The snow was shiny under the afternoon sun and I could make out sun cups and runnels as we ascended the ridge. Our vague snow report that morning was bleak. It had snowed three times this winter in Hemu, all large storms, but we were working with a very low and old snowpack.
Over the past decade, I have grown all too familiar with shrinking winters across the globe. Just before this trip I was in Valdez, Alaska, an area that reported its lowest snowfall on record last winter. Making sub-par conditions look good had become a mandatory tool along my journey of professional snowboarding. But these conditions would be a challenge all their own. The directors counted us down as the drone buzzed overhead and we prepared to hold our edge down an ice-hard coral reef ridge. Kearney and I descended and chattered our way down the ridge and into the valley below.
As the athletes regrouped on the valley floor, we huddled up and waited for the flock of Yamahas to find us. We joked around and reflected on the circumstances that unfolded to get us to this massive valley in the middle of Northern China and tried to ignore how awful our first run was. The fleet of snowmobiles arrived and we prayed for our lives as we tripled up on the sleds and mocked through barb-wire strewn pastures, catching air over deeply rutted horse trails. The crew reconvened at another old farmhouse in the middle of the valley. As I laughed off our death-defying snowmobile ride, we were welcomed inside to a traditional dinner of slow-roasted horse, beef, rice and stir-fried vegetables. Our local translator asked me how the snow was and I tried to conceal my disappointment. “It was OK,” I replied. He nodded, explaining how climate change has deeply impacted their winters in the past 20 years.
“Less and less snow every year and the winter season now starts later and ends earlier,” he said. As an American, I was shocked to hear this person who lives in a remote village, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world and its endless chatter of issues, discuss the impacts of climate change through his own observation of winter weather trends. The effects of climate change, he said, will ultimately kill the ski industry. Locals, then, would have to forget the economic gains this isolated mountain town had hoped for.
Talking to the translator, I thought about the U.S. With all our resources and unfettered access to information and the science to back climate change, politicians continue to deny its cause. Our leaders are readily willing to sacrifice the health of the earth and its inhabitants for their own immediate monetary gain. I realized in that moment that I had learned something from the people of China. Despite living under a Communist regime, which uses intimidation and fear as a tactic to rule its people, the citizens took this issue into their own hands and stood up to their government.
What exactly is stopping us here?
Halina Boyd enjoys using her snowboard as a tool for exploration of self, spirit, and the beautiful mountain ranges of this amazing world.