In search of some adrenaline-filled activity in Central Asia, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere makes a somewhat brave attempt at skiing in Kyrgyzstan.
A short stout man with oriental features hands me a timeworn snowboard that is clearly too short for my height. It just about reaches my chest. I know I can’t be too picky at this little Kyrgyz ski resort – this may be the only board there is. I am delighted there is even a ski rental shop, let alone a snowboard up for grabs.
“Razmer?” I am asked. He is after my shoe size. “39”, I mutter in clumsy Russian. A gruff attendant shoves a pair of lacy boots at my feet, in true Soviet fashion. Both are in pretty good shape – at least compared to the chipped board that casually rests against the wall, its unwaxed base screaming out for some motherly love.
I am at Karakol Ski Base in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic with beautiful mountainous scenery bordering China. The country’s main attraction is Lake Issyk Kul, a glittering expanse of water that is the world’s second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, surrounded by majestic alpine scenery.
During the USSR, the lake became a popular holiday resort and saw the construction of sanatoriums and country houses along its shores. On the lake’s eastern tip lies Karakol, a pleasant little town with pastel coloured wooden buildings. A twenty-minute drive from here is the Karakol Ski Camp, built during the Soviet Union as a training area for the country’s Olympic team.
As I wriggle my toes into my new footgear, I notice my friend has squeezed into a pair of squeaky boots that have already lent him a slight limp. A pair of vintage skis rests against his shoulder – the type I haven’t seen since I started skiing in the 80s. Now, it seems, is the time to really test our true skiing and snowboarding skills.
We trudge towards the chairlift, skis on shoulders and board tucked under arm, at times gently sinking in puddles of water that dot the semi melted dirt track. Spring has arrived, and a warm gentle sun gives the surrounding mountains a creamy hue. In this part of the world, awe-inspiring peaks reach heights of over 7000m, nearly twice the size of Mont Blanc. The Alps seem relatively insignificant by comparison.
Among the squelching sound of our boots I look up to see a rusty sign reading “Les Menuires, Slalom Olympique 1992”. Dazed and confused, I wonder if I am hallucinating in a moment of alpine excitement as I recollect a series of much-cherished childhood holidays in the French Alps. It soon transpires that I am not daydreaming at all – the sign is very much there, clumsily nailed above a Kygryz man who is kitted out in waterproof trousers and a woolly jumper, a large spade in hand. Intrigued at the sight of two Westerners, he unabashedly stares at us as we plod along. I soon learn the French have donated, or maybe sold, their now obsolete skiing infrastructure to this landlocked Central Asian country. I can’t help but think this may well be the same lift that I had once sat on as a young child, thousands of miles away, in a crowded European resort. Here, only a couple of fellow skiers are discernible in the distance.
Boards and skis firmly on, we glide forward to our first Kyrgyz chairlift ride. A red two-seater metal chair flings towards us at full speed, hitting us right in the knees and knocking us back into our seats. We are lifted off the ground and soon marvel at the surrounding scenery, trying to ignore the soreness that already rests in our weakened legs. Lake Issyk Kul majestically spreads below us, its waters lapping the shores that lie at the foot of the imposing Tien Shan mountain range.
Once safely at the top, we take another moment to soak in the wonderful views and when the photo session is complete, we set our minds to descend. From up here we can see there are only another dozen people enjoying the resort to themselves, yet it is not glaringly obvious where the slope commences. We soon make out a couple of black poles with glitters of phosphorescent orange protruding from the mountainside. And so we bomb it down this little Kyrgyz slope, unable to distinguish between piste and off-piste, as our outdated ski gear does its job, much to our delight.
As Kyrgyzstan doesn't exactly fall on a well-travelled path, it's difficult to know where to start. The best way to start your Kyrgyz skiing adventure is to land in the capital Bishkek, and hire a car and driver to take you the six hour, 250km journey to Karakol. A basic understanding of spoken Russian is essential, as almost no one speaks English in Kyrgyzstan and cyrillic is illegible if you've not studied it, but if you're stuck, the locals are generally very hospitable, incredibly welcoming and always willing to help.