“Is the tunnel still closed?” Alex, our tour guide and driver asks a man in Kyrgyz at a refueling stop.
“You will see.” That’s the only reliable response he can give. “Ak jol,” he wishes us a white road. It means to have a good trip, or safe travel. They nod their kalpak hats and we continue driving in the darkness.
There’s a four hour drive from Bishkek to reach the tunnel that may or may not be passable. The magic tunnel, as Simon calls it, connects to Too-Ashuu, and one of the country’s few ski resorts—a cluster of simple cabins and a single lift imported from Switzerland. On this side of the tunnel it’s dry and early spring, but the other side is said to glisten magically, all white. On the other side is where we plan to ski.
Bumping along in the Russian bukhanka, a bus that looks like a metal bread loaf, we finally approach the tunnel. We all hold our breath passing through, and without fail, the promised white is waiting on the other side. Expansive. Tian Shan, the heavenly mountains, sprawl with more potential touring than we can even imagine. Where to start?
Tired and jet-lagged from overnight travel, we submit to a short nap before we see just how much white space we can cover. During our first days in the Suusamyr valley, we learn to be cautious, even leery, of 20 - 25 degree slopes thanks to an upside-down snowpack. Anything steeper is unsafe. Fractures, whumphing, and slides are everywhere, but still, we find good lines, have some fun, and mostly keep from sinking into the hollow void between the snow and mountain.
After three days exploring Suusamyr, it’s time to relocate. We have a two-day drive to Karakol, to continue our two-part ski tour adventure. Along the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest mountain lake, the landscape changes from an all white plateau to red rocks. We stop to watch kids play a game in the road, tossing sheep vertebrae like marbles, and we stop again when the the van putters out. After almost 8 hours and two dozen stalls, we arrive to our host, a family in Kochkor, where a long table is spread with breads and candy. Full and tired, we pile blankets on the floor to sleep in a guest house that’s always ready for friends to arrive.
In the morning we continue the drive to Karakol, with no breakdowns, ready to head to the Aksuu yurts. The only problem: no snow. We start walking until we reach thin alleys of white, mount snowmobiles, and spark our way over the rocky trail deep into the valley where there are giant white yurts, and lines everywhere.
The same upside-down snowpack we’ve come to expect is waiting here, too. Although the terrain isn’t steep, it requires solid avalanche awareness and ski skills. We sink, break crust, and sink deeper into the space below, causing a slab to cut loose on a six degree slope.
Back at the camp, we slackline, have push-up contests in the yurts, soak in the cedar hot tub with Russian beers. We only grumble a little about the snow conditions. It’s tough to complain from a warm, colorful yurt in a remote valley in Kyrgyzstan.
We aren’t overly optimistic for our last chance to ski. It’s cloudy and snowing, as we start skinning, but we figure it’s best to go back to the spot we know just behind camp. There are still untracked lines. We power up without stopping even though we all have thoughts of turning back early. At the top we wait a few minutes, and as soon as the sun burns through the clouds giving the slightest contrast... speed down. 300 meters below, we all apply our skins for another lap. And then a third. “I can see you smiling through your buff,” Dan notices. Everyone wears big smiles. As we finish the third lap clouds fill from the valley and swallow our playground. Lapping is done and we race the clouds and midday heat down to the valley. Those few laps of buttery curves made for one of the most fun ski days of the season.
The next morning, we sleep until light leaks through the seams of the yurt, pack our gear and ride, 3 hours out, on horses that are only slightly more stubborn than the buhanka or the snowmobiles we came in on.
For us, ski touring in Kyrgyzstan turned out to be far more about the touring, than the skiing. And that was just fine. The skiing was good, but what’s even better is road tripping in a ballistic buhanka, colorful yurts, Russian beer, and the unexpected around each turn. There’s a mix of comfort and adventure, familiarity and uncertainty. It’s a hospitable country with nomadic traditions, a collective sweet tooth, and heavenly mountains. Beyond the peaks, Kyrgyzstan offers the historical Silk Road, an oral tradition of epics, Kok Boru- goat carcass polo, and hosts the World Nomad Games. Tourism is growing each year, but especially in winter, you might just feel like the only ones around. Go there and you will see what it means to have a white road.
Location: Kyrgyzstan, known as the Switzerland of Asia, is surrounded by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, China. Nearly 80% of the country is covered by mountains. Tian Shan, the heavenly mountains, spread for 2500 kilometers along its border with China, a skier’s paradise. Kyrgyzstan is landlocked and further from the sea than any other country. It has plenty of shoreline, though, along Issyk-Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world.
Best time to go: January - March
Phrases to know: salaam alaikum- a greeting, peace be on to you; rakhmat- thank you; bazar jok- no problem
Nomad’s Land www.nomadsland.kg A big thanks to Namad’s Land for showing us a very intimate side of Kyrgyzstan by arranging to stay with families and share meals. For taking the backroads and visiting markets where sheep are loaded into the back of taxis for transport. And for a day of “Kyrgyz heli” - ski down and drive back up in the buhanka to do it again.
Aksuu Yurt Lodge with Travel Kyrgyzstan www.travel-kyrgyzstan.com/ We didn’t expect a banya in the backcountry, but there really isn’t anything better than a sauna and hot tub after a day of touring. In a high, remote valley, the team at the Aksuu Yurts kept us well fed and cozy in their colorful camp.
Photos by Dan Patitucci.