Skiing Kyrgyzstan's Vast, Snowy Frontier

Next to China, this former Soviet republic is about as wild, untouched a ski destination as you’ll find.

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Jan 13 2016, 8:55pm

Photo by Pierre Augier

Hayat Tarikov knows these woods. The 49-year-old has spent decades picking, sorting, and hauling walnuts here in the largest grove of walnut trees in the world in Central Kyrgyzstan, officially known as the Kyrgyz Republic. In 2004, however, Tarikov looked beyond the trees and to the mountains, which are the dominant feature of this landlocked country. He strapped two wooden skis to his feet and began sliding downhill, turning his workplace into a winter playground.

Today he winds through the forest trailed by 15 wide-eyed young pupils, skis in tow—Kyrgyzstan's first generation of recreational skiers. After years of wearing out skis and enduring endless jabs from incredulous friends and family members, Tarikov has helped pioneer a growing ski community in his village of Arslanbob that could vault one of the world's poorest countries onto the global snowsports scene.

"The local kids are our future ski guides," Tarikov said. "[These] winter sports are very important for bringing new things to this country"—things like, most notably, foreign money and a much-needed shift toward a tourist-based economy. Known primarily for walnuts, wool, and gold and uranium deposits, Kyrgyzstan is in many ways an afterthought in the global economy; in Central Asia, only Tajikistan is poorer, according to the World Bank. Skiing, though, has become the keystone to attracting foreign interest and investment in the nascent winter tourism industry.

Kyrgyzstan has 158 mountain ranges covering 94 percent of the country, which is roughly the size of Nebraska. Frigid Siberian storms blow off Lake Issyk Kul, the world's second largest alpine lake, creating a microclimate on par with Salt Lake City, Utah. There are currently about a dozen ski resorts that cater to mostly Russian tourists, but this, some people think, doesn't begin to tap Kyrgyzstan's real potential.

Getting a horse-tow into the walnut forest. Photo by Pierre Augier

Kyrgyzstan has long been a Central Asian crossroads. The Silk Road ran through the country and brought a continuous flow of trade and conquest to its high plateaus and mountain valleys. Mongolian, Chinese, and Siberian conquerors advanced and receded over several centuries, creating a unique, albeit a patchwork society of nomadic hunters and herders.

In 1936, the Soviet Union absorbed the country as the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic and united the ethnically diverse Kyrgyz people under one flag. Though the Iron Curtain lifted in 1991, the skeletons of a Soviet regime linger throughout the landscape: town squares with life-size Stalin and Lenin statues, Russian signage dominating the capital, Bishkek, and, high on the hills, ski bases.

The Soviets were the first to realize the region's alpine potential, setting up these ski areas during the 1970s and 80s. One, Karakol Mountain Ski Base, served as the Soviet Olympic team's official training ground during the USSR's alpine push through the '80s.

The Soviets never set up ski shops or other infrastructure to support widespread snowsports tourism, though. When Tarikov started skiing a decade ago, he began stockpiling a small arsenal of skis and other gear in the crawlspace under his house; his unofficial gear locker is the only reliable access to equipment in Arslanbob. To the Kyrgyz, whose cultural heritage includes traditional nomadic games like wrestling and ulak—a polo-like game that uses a dead goat instead of a ball—the ski bases are nothing more than manicured blips on their mountainous horizons. In a country where most people make their living off the land, skiing presents an economic ceiling that few will ever breach. It has been, for most, an inaccessible sport.

Kasidin Musaev is trying to change that. The 26-year-old grew up in the shadow of Karakol Mountain Ski Base. He was the son of a potato farmer in the 200-family village of Maman and learned to ski at the Russian guiding school in the city of Karakol. Sitting on the east shore of Lake Issyk Kul, in the shadows of the Tian Shan Mountains to the south, this city of 67,100 has become the skiing capital of Kyrgyzstan.

In 2007, Musaev met a group of Norwegian skiers who wanted to explore the backcountry outside of the ski bases, something that was rarely done in Kyrgyzstan at the time. After showing them the mountains of the Terskey Alatoo Range near his home, they gave him his first pair of backcountry skis, and in doing so opened up a new world of human-powered skiing opportunities for him.

"[Backcountry] skiing brings you up to the mountains, a place where you need to speak their language," Musaev said. "They tell you where to ski, where to climb, when to turn back—you need to understand it. That's the reason I like to ski, those conversations between me and the mountains."

That calling eventually connected Musaev with American Ryan Koupal at a Peace Corps party in Karakol in 2011. The year before, Koupal and Canadian mountain guide Ptor Spricenieks founded a yurt-based adventure skiing operation, called 40 Tribes, in the Terskey Alatoo near Musaev's home. Musaev came on board at 40 Tribes in 2012.

"After meeting Kas, I could immediately see that he shared our enthusiasm and would be a great addition to what we were trying to do at 40 Tribes," said Koupal, 34, a Colorado backcountry snowboarder and mountain guide. "You could tell he fit right in with our mission and wanted to spend his life in the mountains."

While similar backcountry skiing operations in North America and Europe shuttle skiers to expansive mountain lodges or cozy high-country chalets, 40 Tribes takes guests on a bumpy ride to the trailhead in a stripped Soviet UAZ-452 vehicle. A local village man named Nurbek cooks the meals, which range from a rich Borscht to a staple beef-and-noodle dish known as Laghman. Guests sleep in traditional Kyrgyz yurts.

The skiing, however, is a full-on adventure. 40 Tribes takes its skiers to some of the most untouched terrain in the world, places that have never seen a powder turn. Kyrgyzstan, Koupal said, is "similar to Colorado as far as mountains and snowpack, but with uncharted terrain that stretches all the way to the China border."

French skier Arnaud Rougier samples the backcountry of Kyrgyzstan's Terskey Alatoo mountains. Photo by Kade Krichko

For locals like Musaev and Tarikov, 40 Tribes is about more than just virgin snow. In the case of Musaev, a potato farmer and father of three, the influx of international tourism offers a rare window into different cultures, people, and lifestyles. It also offers economic opportunities.

"Ten years ago, it was quite funny to see someone carrying their skis around Karakol," Musaev said. "Now people are getting used to seeing foreigners in the winter season, and every year there are new ski shops and guest houses."

Europeans especially have taken to the Kyrgyz peaks. The opportunity to explore untapped snow has drawn French, Austrian, and Scandinavian skiers since the country gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

"The size of the mountains and the feeling of being isolated in Kyrgyzstan can be intimidating," said Arnaud Rougier, a French professional big mountain skier who traveled to Central Asia last year with Faction Skis. "But having the opportunity to ski powder faces where nobody else has skied before gave me another perspective on my skiing."

There is also a mystique in experiencing the sport in its infancy. That's what brought the Faction crew to Kyrgyzstan.

"These kids are walking an hour with all of their ski gear to access a field that they lap all day with a big smile on their faces—they never complain," Rougier said. "I am convinced that skiing [in Kyrgyzstan] is going to progress in years to come...because we crossed paths with so many people there that were dedicated to the sport."

People like Tarikov. Despite limited resources, he has hosted European groups for five years now, working with the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association to offer backcountry skiing, along with ice skating, horse-tow skiing, and home stays. European nonprofits have also pitched in to help develop the sport: Faction and Gear4Guides, a Dutch-based organization, recently donated 850 pounds of gear to Arslanbob.

Domestic growth in Kyrgyzstan, however, has been slow. The country's infrastructure is years behind most Western ski destinations: ski base equipment is outdated, the roads are poorly maintained, and there are no snow safety standards regulating the industry. If something should go wrong, emergency healthcare is dicey at best: Koupal requires his clients to purchase medical and evacuation insurance, adding that the nearest trustworthy emergency care is a seven-hour medevac flight to Dubai.

Despite these obstacles, though, Kyrgyzstan's dedicated group of mountain pioneers are building an alpine community, piece by piece, with hopes that the next generation will continue to grow the sport they have come to love.

To that end, Musaev has already introduced his six-year-old son to the ski fields. After an afternoon snaking downhill, the kid turned to his dad and wrapped him up in a hug.

"This is the thing that every man should be able to do," he said with a wide grin.