The snow report on our arrival in Kazakhstan wasn’t good. Vitaliy, aka ‘Rage’, our local ski guide informed us that the snowpack was thin and И hadn’t snowed in weeks; the local mountains were looking more like high altitude ice-rinks than ski resorts. It seemed that the snow, which we had traveled to the heart of Central Asia to ski, had simply forgotten to turn up. Thankfully, our luck soon changed. Within a few hours of that depressing snow report, the white stuff began to fall. By the next morning a thin layer of snow covered everything outside our Almaty apartment. Rather than skiing icy bumps at the local ski resort on our first day, we enjoyed face shots and fresh tracks. The adventure had begun well.
Telling people you are going to ski in Kazakhstan gets you some funny responses, the most common being:
“Where?'” or “You mean where Borat comes from?”. Kazakhstan must be at the top of the list for The Most Misunderstood Country in The World’. It
may be bigger than Western Europe and home to the original apple, but no one seems to know anything about the place.
In many ways it is a country overloaded with stereotypes (no thanks to Borat) of crazy old Soviet dictators and nomads on camels.
If there is one place to smash this mindset, it has to be the old capital Almaty. Located below the Tian-Shan mountains and packed with designer
shops and late model four-wheel drives, Almaty often feels more like Central Europe than Central Asia, Our accommodation in the city was a single
bedroom apartment in the most Soviet looking building I have ever seen. While it may have looked like it was out of a Cold War spy movie, the apartment fitted our
needs perfectly; it was warm, had a washing machine and kitchen and, best of all, the corner store sold excellent vodka for $9 NZ a bottle. What more
could a bunch of ski bums ask for?
Taking the ski bus to the local hill is normally a pm-event in any skier’s day; it’s when you check you haven’t
forgotten anything or sleep off your hangover a bit. Not so in Almaty. Here the ski bus is war. While the Kazakh authorities have done an excellent job at
developing the ski resorts around Almaty into world-class venues, they seem to have forgotten about the poor ski bums without a car. As there is only one bus
leaving the city per hour, skiers have no choice but to charge though the bus doors like bats out of hell, praying they
squeeze in before the bus leaves. Once inside, a seat is out of the question as the bus is packed beyond bursting point. If you are lucky enough to fit on the bus, you will end up at the Shymbulak Ski Resort, a short 40minute bus ride from the city. Here snow-lovers, diplomats and high society mingle among the newly built cafes in some of the weirdest ski fashion on earth. Shymbulak recently underwent a major upgrade and is home to two gondolas which rise up to over 3000m, giving any skier plenty of vertical to enjoy.
‘Sometimes we have to make a sacrifice,’ replied Rage as I once again bitched about all the rocks I was hitting as we made our way to his secret spot. With Shymbulak all but tracked out, we had followed our trusty guide to Almaty’s other main ski resort, Akbulak. It was a good move. We arrived to vast amounts of new snow and no lift lines for the top half of the mountain. While Rage’s ridge-top traverse did remove a decent amount of ski base, he once again served up the goods. Below us lay a steep gully, 40 meters wide, which snaked its way down through the trees.
It was absolutely stacked with powder and yet held no ski tracks. To call that run ‘fun’ would simply dishonor the word fun; it was simply unreal. Every time I stopped to take in the moment I would look around to see and witness Mark and Hamish either airborne off a pillow or drowning in cold Kazakh powder. Russian, Kazakh or English; it didn’t matter what language you spoke that day. You could read it on everyone’s face; powder days are the best days.
After two weeks of exploring Almaty and the surrounding mountains, it was time to head east in search of new experiences and fresh turns. Arriving at the train station with our gear late one night we didn’t know what to expect; we had heard the stories of robberies and being stuck in a cabin full of people for the 24-hour trip. Thankfully it turned out that we had bought tickets for the first class, two-person cabins so we got to spend the train journey traveling in comfort. A friend, who had recently visited Kazakhstan, warned us not to bother with buses or rental cars. He said the country is simply too big to drive anywhere. Looking out the window of our train cabin, I was glad I had taken his advice. Outside lay the famous Central Asian Steppe. As far as landscapes go, it’s not the hardest to explain. In winter it’s white, it’s flat, there are no trees and it goes on forever, and yes, I mean forever. By the time our train rolled into Oskemen, 24 hours after leaving Almaty, we had passed only a handful of towns and villages, yet we had covered the same distance as going from Dunedin to Auckland.
The first thing you notice about Oskemen is the cold. While Almaty normally stays around -10C during I February, it is not uncommon for the mercury to fall well below -30C in Oskemen. With the skiing around the city limited to small, one-tow hills, we decided instead to spend a day helping out at a local school as a way of thanking the Kiwi schoolteachers who were hosting us. The school turned out to be brand (new and filled with eager students in crisp uniforms. While it looked private and expensive, it turned out that it was in fact a government school with no student fees. The money paying for the school most likely came from the country’s booming oil and gas industries; Kazakhstan contains some of the largest oil and gas reserves to be found outside of the Middle East. These resources have allowed the country to develop and flourish in contrast to many of its neighboring states, which have instead suffered economic decline and civil unrest since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After a few days in Oskemen, it was time once again to head to the hills. As we drove northeast towards the town of Ridder, the flat landscape of the Steppe melted away and mountains began to appear in the distance. Some friendly locals we met in Oskemen had been nice enough to invite us on an overnight backcountry trip. After five hours of walking, skinning and snowmobiling. We finally arrived at our log cabin. Inside we found a Sean Connery lookalike putting the final touches to the new lodge. With little light left to enjoy the skiing around the hut, Abbie and Mark represented our crew in a quick game of clay bird’ shooting (using vodka bottles) against some local hunters. The hunters were keen to inspect our touring gear before coming back with some of their own wooden skis and skins made from deer fur; talk about keeping it real. Whilst we enjoyed our meal that evening, Sean Connery kept the vodka flowing with endless toasts to everything from good health to New Zealand and Kazakh relations. With bad weather closing in, we set off the next morning in search of a route back to the packed cars. Once again local knowledge pulled though and we got to ski freeze-dried two-week-old powder all the way down to the valley floor.
Different cultures like to end a great day’s skiing in their own special way. In Europe they like to hit up the discotheque, in Japan they relax in the hot springs. In Kazakhstan things can get a little weird. When our ski-touring comrades invited us for a banya’ (aka Russian sauna) we were happy to accept the offer The one-room cabin we had just moved to lacket any shower, so after a few vodkas it seemed j good way to clean up and relax. Inside the banya Russian buddies helped us unwind by smacking usi with tree branches and chucking buckets of water us whenever we went outside to cool off. The ml of extreme temperatures and alcohol soon took its toll, so we hid away in our cabin as the Russian boys continued their naked rampage through the night.
For our last day of ski-touring we headed off into the mountains not far from our small cabin. The weather was playing ball and we enjoyed blue ski and no wind as we skinned up through the trees! tired legs after almost a week of constant touring Reaching the tree line it became clear that we would not be going any higher as the wind had stripped the high peaks, leaving them naked and bare. The ski down was possibly the best we scored; the snow was cold and dry, the light soft and golden, and there wasn’t a single soul on the mountain but us and local friends; it was a fitting end to an incredible trip.