Ski Touring in Kyrgyzstan

Ski Touring in Kyrgyzstan

Alps & Meters Alpinist Nick Marmet lives and works in Moscow, but finds himself skiing often in places like Chamonix, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. We were enthralled when Nick sent us this story about skiing in remote Kyrgyzstan, and have since daydreamed about planning a yurt touring trip ourselves...Enjoy!

For many, Kyrgyzstan is simply off the radar, appearing in US media most frequently when top diplomats and well-respected newspapers mispronounce (“Kyrzakhstan” – John Kerry) or misprint (“Kyrzbekistan” – New York Times) the name of this mountainous, wild, and resilient country.


With mountains covering 94% of the country, which the Silk Road once weaved through and the Mongols and then Russians later occupied, Kyrgyzstan is for skiers what a primed canvas is for painters. Once you escape from the capital Bishkek, civilization is quickly devoured by the elements. In winter, vast expanses are covered by ice and snow, with a few odd ribbons of road cutting across landscapes otherwise little altered since carved by the glaciers that remain partly visible. Optimistically dubbed the “Switzerland of Central Asia” following the dissolution of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan is home to the Tian Shan range (celestial mountains in Chinese), which extends into neighboring China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.



I first visited Kyrgyzstan in early January 2015, having connected online with a local guide who worked with the American outfit 40 Tribes on their yurt-based ski touring expeditions. For a week, Kas and I toured and skied around Issyk-Kul, the exquisite mountain-flanked lake that stretches across 113 miles of the country’s northwest corner.  We climbed up valleys and toured through forests, spending nights in mountain cabins, tents, and on horse farms. Karakol, the major town in the area, could be out of a Western with its single-story buildings and dusty unpaved roads; its character, however, is distinctly Eastern: a Dungan mosque, a wooden Russian Orthodox church, shuttered Soviet factories, and creatively-customized corrugated cargo containers from China.



Kyrgyzstan’s largest ski base, also called Karakol, is a 30-minute drive from town. During the Soviet period, the Olympic ski team trained at Karakol. In recent years, though, little has been done to update the resort’s infrastructure and many Russian skiers now prefer to ski in the Alps. An insider tips us off that the ski base is currently on the market: for $1.5 million, Central Asia’s premier ski base could be yours.


In early January of this year, I returned to Kyrgyzstan to explore more. A night flight from Moscow got me to Bishkek in the early hours of the morning and I befriended a group of Russian skiers to catch a ride to Karakol. Sitting up front, I tried to supplement my few hours of plane sleep while my fellow passengers, still celebrating New Years, started popping bottles of champagne at 7 AM. We arrived in Karakol in the early afternoon and it felt unseasonably warm. When I met up with Kas, he assured me that in the mountains there was plenty of the famed Kyrgyz powder.



We took it easy the first day and drove up to the ski base, with four lifts covering 20 kilometers of groomed runs, and access to ample backcountry. The parking lot at the resort is a classic Kyrgyz scene: big groups of expressive men in dark jackets and tall fur hats socializing with one another and slowly working through handfuls of sunflower seeds. Parking fees here work slightly differently and for the equivalent of 50 cents, you pay one of the guys to “watch” your car for you as you ski for the day.


The highest lift took us above 3000m. As we hiked further into the mountains, the resort quickly disappeared from view. Though the temperature was in the single digits, the low winds and strong sun combined with our fast slog up the mountain meant that we were soon down to our base layers. On a clear day, you can look down across the flat valley dominated by placid Issyk Kul, to the southern-facing mountains that form a uniform ring beyond the far banks of the lake. We climb up the ridgeline to around 3400m, passing the wind-scoured wooden frames of shepherds’ summer yurts. We drop down into a small side valley and the mountains reveal themselves in new ways. With a few hours of light remaining, we skin up and ski a new line. The wind has picked up and the snow is inconsistent, but nonetheless it’s a wonderful welcome back to Kyrgyzstan.



An ancient Kyrgyz proverb states that all guests are sent by God and, though the population is no longer nomadic, age-old traditions of hospitality and genuine warmth towards outsiders remain deeply ingrained in contemporary Kyrgyz culture. Back in Karakol, Kas’s mom has prepared manti, the famed Central Asian dumplings filled with mutton, onions, and some tail fat for extra flavoring. These steaming fist-sized pillows are extremely satisfying after a day in the mountains, especially when served with pungent whole pickled tomatoes from Kas’s mom’s summer garden.


Early the next morning, my buddy David arrives from Bishkek with his friend and mountain mentor Toby, an Alaskan who has been backcountry skiing since before either of us was born. Kyrgyz tradition has it that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – just in case while watching your herd you don’t make it back dinner – and ours doesn’t disappoint: eggs, mutton, pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, lepeshka (the ubiquitous local flatbread), plum jam, and semolina porridge with two tablespoons of butter melting to form a mini Issyk Kul in the grains.



We drive to Jyrgalan (2400m), an old Soviet mining village that has been reduced to a scattering of wooden houses, and settle in with the family that will host us. The chickens in the yard come up to inspect our skis as we rest them against the house. Tradition dictates that after a journey there must be chai, and inside tea, bread, butter, and apricot jam await. We quickly gear up and click into our bindings right outside the house. As we begin our ascent up the valley, the motely housedog barks and bounds past us through the snow before wisely returning home.



As we climb, we’re on the lookout for where to ski in this limitless playground that for the next three days belongs only to us. With height, Issyk Kul becomes visible and soon we can see into Kazakhstan. We drop off a ridge for some open turns before weaving through a light pine forest and crossing a river to return to the village. We’re able to make one shorter lap before the sun drops and with it the temperature. The valley is completely black save for a bright network of stars in the clear night sky and the light glow of the snow-covered mountains.


We spend the next two days exploring the other side of the valley, making a skin track up a sharp ridgeline in search of steeper terrain. The snow is between 2- and 3-feet deep and requires gymnastic-level kick-turns. Clouds close in just as we reach the top of the range (3100m) and the flat light holds us back from charging down the unexposed fields up top. We cruise down and into the woods, where we navigate through the massive trunks and unexpected drops in knee-deep untracked powder.



Though we’ve only begun to explore what Jyrgalan has to offer, after three nights we change our base. Following a bowl of ashlan fu – thick cold noodles in a spicy broth with a vinegar kick– we drive back to Bishkek, in search of different snow and new terrain. The next morning we drive south along Kyrgyzstan’s main road, a single-lane artery connecting Bishkek and Osh, the country’s second largest city. After passing refineries and the odd settlement, we enter a tunnel under the Too Ashuu pass and emerge into the Ice Age, with pristine white waves of snow and ice either from another time or another planet. This is Suusamyr Valley.



With the exception of some cars pulled over for stretching and vodka breaks and abandoned trucks, there isn’t much activity in the valley. In summer, the area is a popular destination for Bishkek weekenders, seeking the refuge of its lush green fields and drinking fresh kumys, a traditional drink made from fermented mare’s milk.


After three hours, we reach an imposing statue of Manas, the hero of the Kyrgyz national epic, and a massive Kyrgyz flag flying in the crisp wind. There’s a small café here with dormitory rooms for truck drivers who can’t make the full journey from Bishkek to Osh in one shot. Since there’s no cell service, we agree with our taxi driver to pick us up in three days’ time. After tea and oromo, a steamed layered pie filled with small chunks of mutton sautéed with onions, we get out our skis and explore our surroundings, the vibrant red Kyrgyz flag quickly receding behind us into a sea of white. It’s significantly colder in Suusamyr and the powder is up to our thighs, much lighter than what we were skiing in Jyrgalan. Most peaks here top out around 3000m and the side valleys offer literally endless opportunities for fresh tracks. On this clear day, all that is visible is rock, ice, snow, and sky.



The next day, we hike past Manas and follow a gentle ridgeline deeper into the range, from where we can drop into five minutes of pure powder paradise and end up on a smaller road that takes us back to our skin track. With each lap, we go slightly further, so as to explore new lines each time. Temperatures are well below zero and a lunch stop at the café a steaming bowl of lagman, a kind of Central Asian spaghetti bolognese, is obligatory. For the last day, we traverse parallel to the road to Osh and go as far as we can, catching a spectacular golden sunset through the clouds while riding down a ridgeline, not entirely certain of where we will end up. In Kyrgyzstan, you can afford to be a snow snob: if there’s windslap or the snow isn’t deep enough for your standards, hike a hundred meters and something different will present itself.



Back at the café, we feast on heaping plates of kuurdak, a dish of fried lamb, onions, and potatoes, while waiting for our car to Bishkek. During the ride, in a meat haze and to distract myself from our driver jetting down unlit, serpentine mountain roads, I do a mental review of the trip: the slow climbs and difficult gains followed by blissful descents, the juxtaposition of triumph and humility upon reaching new isolated heights. At a resort you can ski every run, but in the wild there’s always more to explore. The conditions are constantly changing and you must adapt, drawing on your knowledge and experience in the mountains.  


Over the past several years, Kyrgyzstan has become growingly popular for backcountry skiers from around the world; however, the country’s remote location and underdeveloped infrastructure have prevented it from reaching mainstream appeal. Meanwhile, in recent years skiing has become increasingly fashionable for young Kyrgyz, with several small ski bases opening and eminent plans for expansion. In this country, change happens slowly but with so much of the country skiable, it’s only a matter of time before a generation of young Kyrgyz backcountry skiers emerges from the Tian Shan.