Kazakhstani Cowboys: Snowboarding Kazakhstan

By Mick Wilson
Photos by Derek, Jezus, Woody and Mick
Published May 2006

Saddle up: the Kazakhstani cowboys on horse back. Pic by Derek.

It was during one of my frequent trips to the Kazakhstani embassy in London, as a motorcycle courier, that I first saw the photos of heli-boarding in the Tien Shan mountains. Intrigued by the old Russian helicopters and being an inquisitive kind of guy who was a little tired of the typical European mountain resort with its long lift queues, crowded pistes and expensive lift tickets, I wondered how feasible is was to get out to Kazakhstan and do some snowboarding in this little know mountain range.

Tien Shan, Chinese for “Heaven’s Mountains”, straddle Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, and extend all the way from Uzbekistan to Mongolia. They are so under populated and remote, that many of the peaks have never been climbed. A little research on the net revealed a ski resort called Chimbulak, situated only 22km from the old Kazakhstan capital city, Almaty, would be our best bet for powder snow and a ride in a chopper, so with a fist full of US dollars and a vision of the piste map once viewed on the Chimbulak website, a team of three English and two Polish guys set off from London on the seven hour flight.

Our home in Almaty; at least it had a kettle. P: Woody.
We touched down in Kazakhstan, jumped into a taxi, and with no hotel booked we headed for Almaty centre. We soon realized what a completely different world we were now in. With few English speaking locals we relied on our Polish contingent to translate with the little bit of Russian they had picked up in primary school. We discovered that most hotels were full due to the Kazakhstan spring public holidays, so our taxi drivers took us to a street corner where people seemed to be trading in apartments. After a five-minute conversation between the taxi driver and a female trader, she looked into the taxi, nodded approvingly and led us to our temporary base; a small flat on the 3rd floor of an apartment block in central Almaty. To describe it as basic would do an estate agent proud but it did have hot running water and most of us had beds (bad luck Woody, floor for you!) and it did come equipped with one essential item; a working kettle.

We had arranged for the same two taxis to take us up to Chimbulak resort the following day, and after an hour of city traffic we finally arrived in the mountains. Upon seeing the terrain and resort for the first time we were absolutely stoked. The place was deserted; we were the only people present. After a night in the ‘slightly rough round the edges’ urban Almaty, the resort looked strangely modern and you could almost believe you were somewhere in the French Alps, but for the towering mountain range that over shadowed Chimbulak and the lack of hung over European skiers. We rushed to get our lift passes, costing KZT2500 (Kazakhstani Tenge, £10/US$18) for a half day and took a series of three chair lifts to the top of "Talgar Pass 3182m".

On the up; a one-man chair lift as Chimbulak resort.
Our first impression of the place was a unanimous ‘thumbs up’ among our group. Looking down on a white sea of untracked powder that stretched all the way to the base station, a broad grin appeared on our faces. With thick white clouds covering Almaty in the valley, but a royal blue sky all around us, we all strapped in and rode the Kazakhstani snow till the lifts shut mid afternoon and our taxis had loyally returned to take us back to civilisation.

That night, back in Almaty city, we ventured out in search of food. One of the cheapest and best places to eat was a modern cafeteria that was attached to the front of a supermarket in the form of a large white tent. This became our favourite haunt, much to the amusement of the staff, as we tried to find out what exactly it was we were eating! All the food was tasty wholesome stuff and very cheap; pickled salads with noodles, meatballs with suet skins, kebabs with real meat, dried fish, stir-fry and delicious pancakes were on the menu. A typical three course meal would set you back about £5 (US$8), with beer about 50p (90c) a bottle,

After three days commuting back and forth from Almaty to Chimbulak in taxis, and with the snow conditions degrading fast in the sunny spring conditions, we decided to take a couple of days off to explore some other parts of Kazakhstan in the hope that mountains would welcome us on our return with the fresh powder we had enjoyed on our first day.

The train: note the duct tape repair job. Pic by Jezus
We planned a trip with ecotourism.kz, (a tourism company based in Almaty) to go to the Ugam region of Kazakhstan via an overnight train. The train journey was an adventure on its own, buying food from station platform vendors that ran up and down the train selling everything from boiled eggs to vodka. That night we met a large Russian guy from Siberia called "Sasha" who challenged us to drink vodka, the way Russians drink vodka.

Three bottles and many miles later, we woke up in Ugam. We met our guide who took us on a trip to "Otrar in Turkistan" the burial place of Genghis Khan. The great Mongolian conqueror lies in a very impressive 1000-year-old Muslim mosque, but I think I would have enjoyed it better without the vodka headache that I carried around for the rest of that day. That night was spent at our guide’s house in a small town which he claimed that it was the only place in town with running hot water.

Powder in the Tien Shan. Pic by Derek
As we entered the family living room I noticed some old black and white photos on the wall of our guide dressed in Russian military uniform. It turned out he was a highly decorated flight officer and had spent many years on reconnaissance flights over China in the 70s, and told us of his army exploits over dinner. The food was all traditional Kazakhstani fare, such as locally grown vegetables, free-range chicken, goat and home cooked breads and was the best we had eaten on our trip.

The next morning we headed for the local foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains but this time on horse back with two guides. The breathtaking ride took us through some of the most amazing scenery, crossing gorges and trotting up a dry river valley to the snowline where we had a picnic lunch, before riding back to the ranch in the afternoon where we again enjoyed more traditional food and vodkas, said our farewells and departed for our evening return train to Almaty and hopefully some fresh snow.

Our new home in Chimbulak resort. Pic by Woody
We were not to be disappointed; our second week started with the same perfect snow conditions as our first. We relocated to a new home in the resort of Chimbulak, a modern hotel called " Vorota Tuyuk Su" run by alpina.kz, whom we had hoped to hire a helicopter from, but with avalanche season starting that week and a layer of weak sugar snow, we were told that it would be impossible to get helicopters to land at any altitude in the mountains until May.

So we took the next best thing Alpina had to offer, a three-night backcountry guided hike up in to the mountains to ride on the glacier. After seeing an avalanche on the upper slope  of Talgar Pass within an hour of leaving, and our guide Alex digging somebody out of the aftermath it was decided the three nights would be turned into one night on Chimbulak peak, from where we could check the conditions for hiking more tomorrow.

Looking down over the plains after a hard day's hike
The walk from the top of Talgar Pass to Chimbulak peak was steep, with a mixture of deep snow and rocks. Our snowshoes did little to compensate for the heavy packs and snowboards attached to our backs. At 3540m up, our guide Alex told us to make a flat spot in the snow and pitch the tents. We gladly ditched the backpacks and then pushed on to the peak at 3670m with nothing more than our cameras.

The scenery was outstanding with the sun going down across the flat plains of Kazakhstan in one direction and the majestic Tien-Shan Mountains in the other. The night was fairly cold at -10C, but there was not a breath of wind, and after a couple of shots of cognac, we hit the sack. The morning showed us how fast weather in the mountains could change when we awoke to 80km winds blasting our tents.

Cold camping: our tents on Chimbulak peak
We hastily broke camp and we heaved our heavy packs onto our backs and began the slow ride down to Talgar Pass against an 80km headwind, which would take us to the Chimbulak resort slopes. As we arrived at the empty base station which was closed due to the bad weather, we breathed a sigh of relief that we had all made it back unharmed and had had a truly amazing adventure.

On our final two days the weather closed in on us resulting in white out conditions, but we amused ourselves with the fresh powder through the trees.

We left Kazakhstan with the feeling that it has plenty to offer the ambitious snowboarding globe trotter. I would recommend it to those wishing to experience a slice of eastern promise with friendly locals, cheap food and accommodation and the high chance of scoring late season powder.

Mick Wilson is a 41-year-old snowboarder who first hit the slopes in Andorra 11 years ago. He has since visited France, Norway and Poland and now seeks new and unusual locations to snowboard in. Kazakhstan was the beginning of these ‘off the beaten piste’ adventures.

Mick would like to thank the following companies for their help with their trip to Kazakhstan: www.alpina.kz, www.freerajdy.pl, www.rakiety.pl, and www.ecotourism.kz.

To view more photos of Mick’s Kazakhstani trip click here