Splitboard Trip – Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan, Allot of mystery surrounded the mountain covered central Asian country prior to the trip. We were enticed by the promise of steep alpine, cheap vodka and the excitement of spending two months exploring a country of which we had little to no concrete information.

Two years previous a friend had passed through while following the Silk Road from China to Rome,  the stories that were told had convinced us to spend the majority of our winter there. As we discovered, sometimes the best plan is having no plan at all.

When deciding on a plan for a Northern Hemisphere winter over pints, ideas can get very big very quickly. What started as a happy hour in Wanaka, New Zealand, ended in a commitment to spending the winter in the backcountry of Kyrgyzstan. It was a place we knew little about, aside from a hot-tip from a friend who had previously traveled the Silk Road: “Of all the places I passed through, Kyrgyzstan is one I would like to go back to”. With that declarative statement, we were sold.

My touring/drinking partner Blake and I did some hasty Googling that evening, and quickly agreed on a two-month trip exploring as much of the ex-Soviet country as we could. We knew that Kyrgyzstan has started to gain traction as a backcountry skiing destination over the past few years, primarily through the yurt-based tourism company 40 Tribes based in the Terskey Alatoo Mountains. While the trips offered sounded amazing, we were looking to do something a little different. We wanted go to the places that hadn’t had too much western traffic and hopefully end up in some places that hadn’t seen a splitboard before. With that mantra we set out, but like any half-baked plan, what we ended up doing was far from what was planned.

Fast-forward a few months: we had acquired a crew of seven who would drop in at different intervals during our two-month say. A brief stop in Istanbul and a few long flights later, I arrived at Manas International Airport, 25k north of the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. There, we had arranged to be collected by Patrick, an Australian native who had emigrated to Kyrgyzstan 5 years ago. Along with his wife Katia, he owns the Southside Guesthouse in central Bishkek. As luck would have it Patrick had some great topographical maps of most of the Kyrgyz mountain ranges. With the topo maps on the table and some with some insight from Patrick’s own travels, we decided to head to the town of Karakol the next day.

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan
splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

Droping into to a line in the Ala Bel Pass. Photo: Jock Gunn

By far, the easiest and quickest mode of traveling through Kyrgyzstan is by taxi. In most of the western world, an eight-hour, 400k taxi ride world would have you calling the bank manager. Our trip from Bishkek to Karakol cost us the equivalent of a couple of overpriced beers in a London pub. The price is, however, directly related to the increased chances of near death experiences, you take your life into your own hands every time you step into a taxi for a journey, no matter how long or short. Highlights would include four-abreast overtakes on mountain passes, drivers refusing to tie ski bags to the roof and instead going for the “slow around corners” method (surprisingly effective), and the all to familiar 100 mile-an-hour blind corner while on the wrong side of the road. This caused much amusement and nervous laughter but we never had one crash. We came to the conclusion that when your driver has prayer beads hanging from the rear-view mirror and believes in reincarnation, perhaps that’s just the way he’s going to drive.

On arrival into Karakol, the host of the Yak Tours Hostel, Sergei, greeted us. He described it as the oldest building in the small mountain town and upon entering the hostel, we believed him. With Victorian décor and pre-Victorian plumbing, it wasn’t the Ritz but was warm and friendly- a welcoming respite from traveling.

Karakol is steeped in history. As far back as the 19th century, explorers have been traveling and mapping the mountains that flank the town, which gave us some great info. We inquired at the Community Based Tourism office or CBT (an organization that would become heavily involved in our trip in more ways than one) about the accessible terrain and decided to head for the terrain surrounding the Karakol Ski Resort, which is the largest and most established in the country. Other than the snow that had fallen the previous evening, we had no real snowpack information and we were exited to see what awaited us. Unfortunately, what the day gave us was 10cm of snow on a 30cm base layer of hoar frost that made the snowpack slide to ground. We decided to stick to low angle terrain and play it safe. The disappointment of the day was compounded when, during our descent to the base, the barely covered terrain presented me with an errant rock, sending me on a trip to the hospital with a separated AC joint.

Imagine a horror movie set around a derelict hospital in Soviet Russia. This is where I arrived to have my shoulder seen. After a quick X-Ray the surgeon was in the room advising we operate immediately. Resembling something along the lines of Doctor Nick from the Simpsons, he didn’t exactly have me feeling reassured. Needless to say, I declined and walked out of there with a prescription and a badly made sling.

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

Walnut forest pillow lines. Photo: Tyrone Low

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

It turned out that Karakol was experiencing one of its worst winters on record, but we heard through the grapevine that Arslanbob was having its best. An 18-hour drive in one of the aforementioned taxis later, we arrived in what seemed like a different world. Snow banks edged the road on the drive up to the small town, which has the world’s largest walnut forest in its surrounds. The head of Arslanbob’s CBT awaited us; he had arranged for our transportation to the town as well as a homestay for us to use as a base during our visit.

The CBT is a great source of information throughout Kyrgyzstan. They have many sites all over the country, some established for years and some still in their first stages of development. Regardless of their age, they all do a great job of building the bridge between visitors and the local families, organizing treks, homestays, and a myriad of other activities.

Our main apprehension before the trip was the language barrier. While in most of the Western world, a few simple hand gestures, a cheeky smile and a grunt or two can be all you need to communicate. We quickly learned that when you enter a completely new culture, things can be a little different and those gestures may not work. The CBT was instrumental in helping us arrange homestays, communicate with locals, and even offered to help us communicate over the phone in a pinch. They break down the barriers that may otherwise exist and let you get a real insight into the life and culture of the locals.

We awoke the next morning to a perfect day- fresh snow and blue skies. Hayat had been in touch to arrange a light tour out to Little Green Hill. This would give us a chance to check out he surrounding alpine and get some more local knowledge. During our tour, we made a series of targets for the coming weeks, leading with a summit of Nooruz peak, sitting at 2876m.

The day of our summit bid, we woke up early, kitted up and made the familiar walk up the road to jump in one of the many Lada Niva 4x4s that scatter the town center. With five of us packed into the tiny car and all of our gear strapped to the roof, we set off on the drive to the base of the Nooruz access trail.

The trail was deep with fresh snow but as the temperature rose, touring became difficult with masses of snow sticking to our skins. After Blake’s ski binding snapped in two due to a build up of sticky snow, much swearing, and experimenting with cable ties lead to a boot lashed to his ski. Blake turned back to town and look for a quick repair while the rest of us pushed on. After three hours of gloopy skinning along the trail we arrived at the hut set at the foot of Mt. Nooruz and easily capable of sleeping double our crew. We were pleasantly surprised, with a wood stove to keep us warm, boil our tea, and cook our food.

We were set for the next 3 nights and slept well in our cozy hut. We rose early the next morning and after checking the snowpack that was a world away from what we had found over in Karakol we headed for the summit. A long but scenic slog up to almost 3000m and we were there. While she is by no means the highest peak in the mountain range, what Nooruz did offer was great snow and steep terrain. The open faces fanned out to the base with a selection of great rocks to throw ourselves off of. We each chose a different line down; our photographer Chris chose a technical rocky line over some exposure, while I went for the steep open face. Both of us were elated to find that the snow was amazing which is a direct result of Kyrgyzstan being thousands of miles from the nearest mass of water. As such, the precipitation produces some of the lightest snow I’ve ever seen; comparable to the lake-effect snow Utah is so famous for. After a few more laps on some of the lower gradient slopes we headed back for dinner. With tinned horsemeat and Vodka waiting for us, we stayed up late into the night before retiring to our sleeping bags a little bleary eyed.

Hayat joined us the next day with new guides in tow. From the start of the trip, we had planned to try and educate the guides we worked with in basic avalanche safety. While they are knowledgeable of terrain and exude enthusiasm, their avalanche awareness is not that of what you would expect from a mountain guide. However, they are eager to learn and we spent a great day discussing snow stability and teaching them some basic knowledge.

Hearing the guides talk about how Kyrgyzstan had changed in recent years and the transformations it has gone through was fascinating. They talked about the collapse of the USSR, the resulting decline in tourism and the new, lower quality of life that resulted in. The former standard of life and tourism finally does seem to be returning, no doubt aided by the new no-visa policy Kyrgyzstan had recently implicated. The policy means anyone can enter the country at the border gates for two months, and has resulted in an increase in the amount of foreign traffic, and in turn extra income for the local markets.

While tourism as a whole is rebounding in Kyrgyzstan, winter tourism is still in its infancy in Arslanbob. That aside, I would encourage anyone with a sense of adventure and not much attachment to creature comforts to head there in a heartbeat. I particularly relished the experience of living with a local family.

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan
splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

One of the many Kyrgyz delicacies, shashlik kebabs being cooked over the wood fired stove in Narooz hut. Photo: Tyrone Low

Their nomadic culture is still evident; they will feed you amazing food and welcome you into their family. That being said, waking up to a decapitated cows head waiting for us on the stoop one morning at our host family’s house was a slight surprise. From the broken translations, we managed to figure out that the cow had bit our hosts finger and enough was enough-the cow was the clear loser in this confrontation. Between the warm welcome our hosts had shown us and the quirks we were beginning to get to know, Arslanbob had become to feel like home. But, we had plans to explore off the high mountain road of the Ala Bel Pass.

As we arrived at the highest point of the Ala Bel pass, standing at 3175m, we were surrounded by amazing terrain. We had spent the last part of the journey in the back of a truck cab conversing with a worryingly excitable driver.

Communicating on the road was at the best of times interesting, but this time our driver’s enthusiasm for thrusting towards us had me worried; we were relieved when he dropped us off on the side of the icy pass. Our relief immediately turned to awe, as we looked around at the high alpine of this spectacular country.

The plan was to head up a ridgeline and into a saddle that looked from the topo maps as if it had a nice raised plateau next to what we assumed would now be a frozen lake. For once we got what we expected and the unbelievable steep lines that surrounded us had us excited to get after it. That evening we went to shoot some sunset shots and dig a pit to figure out the following days plan. That’s were we were again shut down; the rotten base layers had returned and there was no way we could ride what could only be described as a dream zone that stood right in front of us. We had planned to explore this veritable Shangri-La for three days, and had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the end of the days. So, unable to ski the steeps, we spent our time riding low angle deep fresh snow. It wasn’t exactly what we had come for and looking at that face every morning had us leaving with more than a little regret.

So once again, we moved our location, this time to Bokonbayeva. This wasn’t somewhere we had planned on going or even heard of before we left but Hayat had told us of a fellow CBT guide named Joke, who was looking to start up some ski tourism in the mountains behind the small town on lake Issyk Kul. We decided to take a chance and go meet Joke, hopefully to help his new business gain some exposure and map out some good terrain should he have more mountain touring crews venture there in the future.

Lake Issyk Kul is vast- I was surprised to find out that it is the second largest mountain lake it the world. When we arrived it was eerily still and despite being freezing cold we were told to strip down and get in, as the healing minerals would do us some good. Healing minerals aside, there was something incredible about taking a dip in such a massive body of water high in remote mountains. It provided some time for us to reflect on the trip so far- despite the unstable snowpack we seemed to be constantly encountering, we were intent on keeping the adventure going and try to find some more dream lines we could actually ski.

Joke helped us look into a few options for this trip. One option was a reasonably well-trodden path from Barskoon to Kara-Say. We had been told a couple of locals had even imported some sleds to ferry paying customers up the hill so that they could ride back down- ski tourism in its infancy! But, we went with the option of heading up to over 4000m into the Tong Pass, an old mountain road that used to connect the lake to Naryn. Joke arranged transport, which dropped us around 3500m and left us to be collected in three days.

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

Arslanbob trail gap. Photo: Jock Gunn

splitboard trip kyrgyzstan

Some things really weigh on your mind being out in the backcountry, but those things weigh more out in the most remote locations. No phone signal, a 3 hour drive from the nearest town at least 7 hours to the nearest functioning hospital. The way you look at terrain definitely changes as the consequences of even the slightest mistake become life threatening.

Consistent with the pattern of this trip, once we had skinned to the summit and found a place to camp, we didn’t even have time to click ourselves back into bindings before the high winds ravaged all the snow off the glacier we had hoped to ski. As amazing as the trip had been we had been frustrated yet again.

Through our week with Joke in Bokonbayeva, any time not spent in the tent was spent at his house. It was a quaint two bedroom stone building that had a cottage feel to it. His wife, two daughters and son were brilliant. At 7 years old, his oldest daughter Alati was especially endearing. She spoke great English and had the most infectious enthusiasm to learn. We spent all of our evenings together reading books and looking at photos, which will definitely be a time we will all look back upon fondly. We knew we had gained a friend when she joined us for the 5-hour trip to Naryn, only for her to head straight back home having dropped us off with tears in her eyes.

As we explored Naryn after deciding not to head back into the Ala Bel Pass due to a four-day 70cm storm arriving on a snowpack we had already been scared by, we reflected on out time here. Our goals had never been 100% skiing oriented, which was just as well since we had been shut down by sketchy snowpacks over and over. That aside, the country and the people had amazed us.

We had entered with no real plan, very little information and –admittedly- some stereotypes, but what we found in Kyrgyzstan was a culturally rich and incredibly scenic country. In good snow conditions, the massive mountains would offer up prime touring and skiing. The terrain is steep and beautiful and the snow light and plentiful. But, the thing that altered my perception of this incredible country was the hospitality and friendliness of the Kyrgyz people.

We didn’t end up getting the best skiing, but the eagerness at which the Kyrgyz people welcomed us into their lives ensured that this trip was a success.