Story and Images by Alpinist Nick Marmet
It’s no longer a secret that Kyrgyzstan is paradise for skiers. The Central Asian republic’s burgeoning ski scene has been receiving steady press for the past five years, even topping Backcountry’s 2017 Travel Guide. Most skiers head to the Karakol region, where infrastructure is relatively developed and thigh-deep powder is plentiful. But as one would expect in one of the world’s most mountainous countries, there’s much more to explore beyond the country’s northeast corner.
Having skied and toured around Lake Issyk-Kul and Suusamyr Valley the past two winters, this year I headed south. After flying into Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, and driving through Jalalabad, I arrived in Arslanbob, an Uzbek village at the foot of the Khrebet Babash-Ata Mountains. Legend has it that Alexander the Great planted Arslanbob’s first walnut trees, which now cover 27,000 acres and make up the world’s largest walnut forest.
Skiing came to Arslanbob more recently. Hayat Tarikov, the head of the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) chapter, first started skiing in 2005 as a way to get around the village in winter and quickly recognized the sport’s potential to transform his community. In the decade since, backcountry skiers from all over the world have traveled to Arslanbob to explore nearby mountains and train local guides in everything from skiing skills to avalanche safety. The guides then teach kids from the village basic techniques and even organize weekend competitions.
I joined my friends David and Toby, who over a breakfast of roasted chickpeas and pickled cabbage brought me up to speed on their previous two days of tree skiing through walnut groves. We then hopped on the “gondola” – an aged Lada Niva that ferried us to the trail head. With our guide Lachan, we trekked up to Green Hill (2400m), a slow and gradual climb through dense, wet snow. The snowpack improved as we climb higher, but at the cost of diminished visibility. After two laps from the ridge, the flat light and fog forced us to retrace our skin tracks all the way down, making hairpin turns and bracing for river crossings before joining the iced-over road to skate down to the village.
The next morning, we set out for an overnighter at Nowruz Hut, a 3-hour skin-in from another trail head. After dumping our sleeping bags and provisions (lepyoshka, lamb, and cookies), we worked our way towards Nowruz Peak up an increasingly steep slope requiring tight switchbacks. With the afternoon fog thickening, it was difficult to get an accurate read on the distance to the peak so we skied down to our hut, taking a conservative line that still included nicely angled slopes and fun, unexpected drops. Inside was toasty thanks to a small coal stove and in very little time we were reclining on pillows on the floor, pouring piping black tea into our piali, and ladling servings of shavlya, a hearty risotto-like dish glistening with tail fat and studded with chunks of lamb and carrots.
With clear skies the next morning, we got an early start and zipped up the mountain, gliding up our tracks from the day before. We continued further up the ridge to take in the stunning panorama in its full glory, with not a single sign of civilization in sight. The spectacular views across this corner of the Fergana Valley were matched by ideal snow conditions as we flew down the slopes, with sluffing occurring only during steeper drops.
Through we could have easily spent another week exploring the mountains around Arslanbob, we head back to Osh and then further, along the famous Pamir Highway, to Sary-Tash, a village of 1,500 near the border with China and Tajikistan. We were greeted by Shamurat Matiev, a 22-year-old recent university grad who works as a meteorologist and is determined to put the Alay Valley on the backcountry radar. Shamurat learned to ski from his father, who was also a meteorologist and took to skiing out of necessity: in winter, it was the only way he could reach the weather station where he worked.
With temperatures dropping to -20 °F at night, there was no reason to get an early morning start. It was 11 AM by the time we started to climb the pyramidal mountain near the Taldyk Pass. After reaching 3400m, we peeled our skins off to take the first run of the day, a cruise down a gentle aspect into a gully. The snow was so cold that it stuck to our skis, making for a slow and squeaky ride down. For the two next runs, we found better snow and then traversed across a wide-open snowfield, with strong winds helping to push us from behind towards the highway, where we flagged down a car for a ride back to the village.
The following day, we headed west to the neighboring village of Taldy-Su, directly across the valley from Peak Lenin (7,134m), one of the highest mountains in the Pamirs. As we started skinning up the wind-blown hills that rise behind the village, we were joined by seven-year-old Beksultan, who trudged through the snow to follow us for the next hour-and-a-half. When we reached an outlook over the village, I rewarded Beksultan for his climb with piggyback skiing, and he leaned into the turns like a total natural.
For our last day in the Alay Valley, we headed towards China. As the only non-truckers on the A371, there was no doubt that we looked like aliens, in bright-colored jackets, goggles, and helmets. We skied off the highway and traversed across a mostly flat ice field, heading eastward and imagining where in the mountains China began. Were we to fly south, we would cross into Tajikistan. In this corner of Kyrgyzstan, there’s rock, ice, snow, and little else. The enormity of the scale makes you feel like a visitor to another planet. When Shamurat spoke about wanting to plant a Kyrgyz flag on the summit of a nearby mountain, I fully understood the sentiment. The valley has been inhabited for centuries, but it’s only now that skiing is arriving to Alay.