24th Mar 2017
Written by Matt Carr
Any proper ski trip to a former Soviet-bloc Republic should include, I assume, a run-in of some kind with the authorities. In my case, I’d made it exactly 2 ½ metres into Kyrgyzstan before being arrested- for smoking in what must be the only no smoking area in the country. In my defence, it was 6am and my 9-hour journey east via Istanbul had me jetlagged and disorientated. Welcome to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan- “the Switzerland of central Asia”- so called as it is home to Issyk Kul, the world’s second biggest saltwater lake and, presumably, because the country is dominated by the mountains of the mighty Tien Shan range. Here, the similarities end.
With our local driver having successfully negotiated my release, we set off on a lengthy drive across the country, crossing large swathes of rain-shadow desert, skirting round the huge lake towards the town of Karakol on its south shore. A ramshackle Wild-West-way-in-the-East-feeling place, it would be our base camp for the first few days. If anywhere in Kyrgyzstan could be called touristy, Karakol would be the most likely candidate, the “gateway to the Tien Shan”, although even here we saw only a handful of Europeans.
Karakol Orthodox Cathedral / Photo: Kene E-O
A short drive from town, Karakol Ski Base is the country’s largest ski resort, with 5 lifts accessing surprisingly well-groomed (and less surprisingly- empty) pistes: ideal territory to blast off the cob-webs of jet-lag. From the 3040m top lift and with barely a cloud in the sky, the views over Lake Issyk Kul and its surrounding plains to the north and towards the towering peaks of the Tien Shan to the south were breathtaking.
Karakol Ski Base / Photo: Matt Carr
From the top of the ski area, the guys from Travel Kyrgyzstan run snowmobile laps into the slackcountry for a couple of bucks a go. Despite no fresh snow for a week, a quick 10-minute ride put us at the top of a gorgeous little zone devoid of tracks and blessed with creamy powder underfoot. Having duly defaced it, we headed back to town to feast on yak (slightly gamier than beef) and Kalashnikov (really) branded vodka. We’d revisit both frequently throughout the trip.
Sledding-Kyrgyz-style / Photo: Kene E-O
The Karakol gorge zone was predominantly fairly mellow rolling forested terrain, with steeper pitches dropping from ridges through huge, widely-spaced conifers. The routine was generally one guy on each sled with the driver and one or two holding the tow-rope behind, with poles hooked through the rope loop to make a rudimentary t-bar.
Photo: Kene E-O
Travel Kyrgyzstan also has access to a couple of dedicated backcountry zones, and so the following day we hooked up with them again. With a storm rolling in, we opted for the more heavily forested of these- in nearby Karakol Gorge. We loaded up the sleds in town and half an hour later we were unloading them again at a farm teeming with horses, cows, sheep, and an insanely cute little dog with a comedy mane that suggested in his mind he was in fact a mountain lion.
Kyrgyz Powder Hound / Photo: Kene E-O
I had suspicions that “cowboy” might be a term we’d associate with Kyrgyzstan and so it proved- at one point the drivers were literally threading through cows and sheep on snowmobiles.
Local Lift-queue, Karakol Gorge / Photo: Kene E-O
On the upside, this meant you get to ski powder on the ride up, on the downside, with the sleds pushing 40mph, we were holding on for dear life over some of the bumpier sections and offering thanks to the Kyrgyz mountain gods each time we made it to the top in one piece!
The snow here, although not blower powder, was deep and smooth and the giant conifers provided great definition in the snowstorm, which came and went. Our guide Andrey helped us sniff out some playful terrain, whilst the drivers unsheathed flasks of coffee laced with a hint of something stronger- for extra warmth no doubt- and Dutch courage for the white-knuckle ride back to the top!
Photo: Kene E-O
We were off to a cracking start with two supremely fun days skiing powder in the can, off the grid in a central Asian republic few people could locate on a map and fewer still could spell.
Stay tuned for chapter two of the Kyrgyz Chronicles dropping soon, in which we dive deeper into the Kyrgyz backcountry- ski-touring from a yurt camp at 2700m!
Matt and Kene both work for SkiBro in Val d'Isere.
Visit Karakol for their invaluable help with logistics.
Travel Kyrgyzstan for their snowmobile uplift service in Karakol Ski Base and Karakol Gorge.
Andrey Shevstov, mountain guide from Kyrgyz outfit Mountain Sky Travel for showing us the goods.