Skiing the Silk Road: A Kyrgyz adventure
Discipline: Skiing & Ski touring Area: Expedition Abroad: Tian Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia Type: Expedition / Tour
Distance: 5-20km skiing / day Duration: 4-8 hours / day Time of year: Jan-March
Guidebook/external recommendations: Maps are limited in scale and language but old Soviet maps are available to buy or can be viewed online here
Logistical recommendations (if applicable): Moving around Kyrgyzstan in winter is challenging. Many of the connecting mountains roads close for winter months and 4x4 is definitely advisable.
The Alps is renowned for having some of the best ski infrastructure in the world right? And the UK, a long history of making that short hop over the channel to ski its convenient delights. We traded our chalet for a yurt for ten days and here’s why we think you should do the same….
You could perhaps be forgiven for having not heard of Kyrgyzstan. Or its official name, the Kyrgyz Republic, which has been enjoying its independence since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is a size comparable to that of the United Kingdom however, with a tenth of the population, it is sometimes dubbed the “Switzerland of Asia”. Though this isn’t down to a reputation in watches and wealth management; the monstrous Tian Shan mountains dissect the entire country East to West, rising up to well over 7000m in places.
Kyrgyzstan offers a fascinating blend of central Asian culture and Soviet history with ever present symptoms of Russification, not least the readily spoken Russian language and adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet. Outside of the capital Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan however remains very underdeveloped, and for us, this is possibly what made the place quite so magical. You can experience a nation largely untouched by western culture and the modernised world. Now add some of the most impressive mountains in the world, consistently dry and cold snowfall and you’ll start to understand why we flew half way across the world to clip in.
While there are traditional ski resorts in Kygyzstan, let’s manage expectation here – you won’t find a Folie Douce or any 6 man chairs or rapid gondolas. This land is for the intrepid explorer wanting to experience something totally different from a conventional ski trip. However, what it lacks in modern ski infrastructure, it more than makes up for in stunning scenery and untouched powder.
There are a total of seven ski resorts, all of which in the North boating a modest 7-20km of piste each, generally with 2-3 lifts at each station. For the more committed of backcountry skiers however, there are unlimited touring opportunities all over the country. Based on our experiences, this would be my recommended itinerary to experience a few of the resorts as well as the really special isolated ski touring Yurt Camps in the Karakol area.
Fly -> Bishkek
Too Ashu Pass Ski Resort & Ski touring
Orlovka Ski Resort
Issyk Kul & "Seven Bulls"
Karakol Ski Resort
Jurgalan Yurt Camp
Aksuu Yurt Camp
Transfer back to Bishkek
There are many other small resorts around the Bishkek area which would be suitable for day trips from Bishkek each day if you have more time or were looking for something different.
Topping out at over 3000m and with stunning scenery, Karakol remains the most renowned of the resorts. With five lifts and relatively varied skiing, the pistes are quiet and you don’t have to work too hard for fresh snow. The resort itself doesn’t have much accommodation, thus it’s only Hotel isn’t cheap by anyone’s standards, let alone in central Asia. Within a short drive however, there are plenty of affordable options within a few KM and I’m sure the Guest Houses would happily drive you to the resort each day. We stayed at Mountain House Dinar Sky which was more than pleasant enough and is available for just over £30/night for a double room.
Aksuu Yurt Camps
For us this was without doubt the most special part of the trip. Of course the main purpose of this mini expedition was to ski some amazing lines but once your skidoo drops you 10km into the remote Aksuu valley (or you can tour if you’re a keeno), just being there is enough. The Yurt camp sits at an impressive 2650m, and is surrounded by peaks up to and over 4000m. Usually with just 10-20 people staying in the two sleeping yurts, there is literally unlimited snow and faces to ski. The relatively flat valley floor seems never ending and there are countless peaks coming off it. There hadn’t been much fresh snow in recent days before our arrival assured this was a bad season however, there was still around 3 feet of decent powder! Because of the cold temperatures in winter, the snow is dry and doesn’t suffer from too much melt-thaw. There was some more granular snow lower down in the snow pack but it still made for some great turns and frankly, would be considered a great snow day in the Alps!
We were preparing for savage temperatures and very basic food comparable to our beloved winter Scottish bothy nights. Pleasantly surprised however, the staff are very conscious to keep the wood burners going and yurts warm even in the freezing cold nights. They are comfy, and you certainly don’t go hungry! Furthermore, there is a pop up Banya (Russian style Sauna) available each evening to warm those weary legs up (complete with compulsory freezing river dip) followed by soak in the rustic stove fuelled hot tub under the stars. Falling off the digital grid with no phone signal or wifi, with the family feel to this winter wonderland made this place really magical for us – I would 100% recommend a visit.
It’s worth mentioning however, Aksuu is not a place for beginners, or perhaps even intermediate skiers. Its steep faces are loaded with snow, and avalanche risk is ever present. Further more, the terrain is serious and until skin tracks are cut, touring is particularly hard work. For something, more easy-going, Jurgalen Yurt camps have less severe mountains and actually gets around twice as much snow as Aksuu due to the microclimates. The area has a very different feel, surrounded in a disused Soviet mines, so certainly not quite as picturesque however, it sits on the outskirts of a traditional Kyrgyz village so gives a different insight into rural life in Kyrgyzstan. There is still loads of great skiing to be done here, and it would make a great warm up couple of days before transferring to Aksuu (something the owners can easily arrange).
Wanting to get a glimpse of Tien Shan’s huge 7000m peaks or at least nearer to the highest mountains, we took a drive East towards the Chinese Border and Enilchek. Finding out road status in winter of the many high passes in Kyrgyzstan is difficult with very limited information available but in the true spirit of adventure, we headed into the unknown. At almost 4000m, the Chong Ashuu pass was an incredibly scenic but also a severe and isolated place. Many mountain roads are closed in winter however, this one remained open despite numerous recent avalanches. There are some impressive mountains to climb here, but don’t underestimate the severity of the terrain and isolation - we saw just one or two cars all day. After a decent stretch of road skiing, and some successful Eagle hunting, we were politely asked to return the direction from which we came by Border Control. Should you wish to get deeper into this area, you will require a Border Permit which I believe is available from Bishkek but for assured success you may wish to use a travel company such as Ak-Sai Travel.
Horse trekking & Jeti Oguz "Seven Bulls"
With a very unique geology, more akin to that of the wild west, the Jeti-Oguz or “Seven Bulls” is a vividly red rock face and valley. Not too far off the shores of Issyk Kul, the area is not particularly high altitude in Kyrgyz terms, however its nearby peaks stand up to and over 3000m. Staying in a lovely family run bed and breakfast, Emir guest house is affordable and friendly. It doesn’t take long to notice that horses remain a salient part of rural life in Kyrgyzstan, a horse trek with our skis was kindly arranged for us with two locals in the village.
For a very reasonable price (ca. £15pp) we were guided up the foothills on horseback to higher terrain where we were able to continue touring higher still under our own steam. Despite language barriers, our local guides were very kind, showing us to one of the most unique places we’ve ever skiied – the contrast between the snow and the striking hues of the cliffs was astounding. It transpired that we were the third pair of tourists that the horse trekking double act had ever guided. At the risk of sounding like a patronising westerner, having a small involvement in creating a new tourist trade in the village felt pretty cool, humbling even.
Too Ashu Pass
Traversing the Too Ashu Pass road is quite an experience in its own right. The Alpine style road reaches around 3000m and despite being the main link between Kyrgyzstan’s largest cities, Bishkek and Osh, the road is quite lively in winter conditions. We passed plenty of stuck and jack-knifed lorries in challenging icey conditions, however this was all in a day’s work for our affectionately nicknamed Toyota Land Cruiser, Tina.
After a couple of feet of fresh snow, saying we were excited when we arrived at the resort would be an understatement. As the freshly groomed upper pistes come into view in perfect sunshine, conditions just couldn’t be better. Concerned about making the three hour drive to find the resort closed, we’d touched base with the owners the day before to ensure they were opening. On arrival, our enthusiasm was quickly dampened when we were met with news the resort wasn’t opening today. Astonished by the disappointing news considering the snow looked idyllic, we weren’t going to concede easily. Eventually after a few phone conversations bartering with the family member who spoke the best English, they kindly agreed to privately hire the entire resort for all the Kyrgyzstani Som we had on us – around £70 worth. Carving our first turns on immaculate corduroy, we knew it was worth every penny.
The lifts were switched on and off as we needed them, with only our fresh tracks in the powder to worry about. Although the resort isn’t huge, nor have loads of lifts (one chair and one drag lift), the views are just stunning. It feels like you’re skiing in the clouds, with the high altitude plateau in front covered in a white blanket as far as the eyes can see. It’s worth noting, that there are loads of touring options above the resort as well. I’m sure you’d enjoy the resort on any given day, but having the whole area to ourselves, when conditions were so perfect was something really special, a day on skis I don’t think we will ever forget.
Kyrgyzstan really is different to anywhere else we’ve ever been. For us, it offered a genuinely off grid experience we could really get stuck into. The mountains are huge and the people friendly. Anyone looking for an unconventional place to ski and combine their trip with a fantastic cultural experience, look no further.