Skiing in Kyrgyzstan

I got an e-mail this spring about a group called 40 Tribes. Organized by Ryan Koupal, 40 Tribes is laying the groundwork to facilitate backcountry ski touring with local accommodation in the Tien Shan Range in Kyrgyzstan.

Having spent time in western China (directly south of Kyrgyzstan), I found the idea of traveling and skiing in the Tien Shan Range on the Kyrgyzstan side very intriguing, let alone the idea of some guys running backcountry hut trips in such a remote, little known area, so I got in touch with Koupal to find out more about 40 Tribes and what he hopes to do.

Off-Piste Mag: Why KGZ?

Koupal: At the beginning it was all about the intrigue: heading to a place that very few Americans knew about, to explore mountains that I myself knew very little about.  Before Kyrgyzstan ever came into the picture, friends and I were pursuing similar adventures in parts of China/Tibet. In 2006, we spent 6 weeks in the Heng Duan and Kun Lun ranges in historic Tibet (present-day Sichuan and Qinghai provinces).  We traveled with our skis and splitboards, pulk sleds, pounds of food and insane amounts of gear, and attempted a couple of wintertime circumnavigations of sacred peaks along prominent Tibetan pilgrimage routes. The trip was difficult to say the least – partly because of conditions (consistent -20F temps and a shallow snowpack), and mostly because of the bulls%#! we dealt with given the bureaucracy of the Chinese government (permits, fees, corruption, etc). Though inspired, we were physically and financially wrecked.

But by 2008, we were ready for another adventure.  We considered Mongolia, northwest China, and India, and finally settled on Kyrgyzstan – due in part to my rooted interest in the nomadic cultures of Central Asia, and also because I was just so amazed to find out that such an obscure country, with its muddled past, was actually home to more than a dozen developing ski resorts utilizing the original infrastructure that was abandoned by the Soviets in 1991.

Off-Piste Mag: When did you first travel to KGZ?

Koupal: In 2008, after years of traveling/adventuring in China, I decided it was finally time to explore Kyrgyzstan proper.  In the spirit of the earlier expedition, I convinced a few close friends to head into the heart of the Kyrgyz Tien Shan with our skis and splitboards to see what the place was all about.  We set out in December and spent the next six weeks scouting backcountry routes across the country, with video cameras at hand to document our journey.  The terrain that we found was spectacular, and the conditions far better than what we had found in China.  Inspired, I decided to round up an even larger crew of friends for a return trip in 2009/10, and over a 3-month period from January-March we laid the groundwork for a community-supported hut program and wrapped up our documentary filmwork with this exciting new objective as the focus.  This fall we will head back over to set up the yurts, facilitate trainings for our village partners, and usher in the inaugural season.

Off-Piste Mag:What is 40 Tribes? / What is the KGZ project?

Koupal: The 40 Tribes initiative is an evolved version of "The Kyrgyzstan Plan" development project, which we created and promoted following our first trip.  What we found in Kyrgyzstan was indeed a developing ski industry – set very starkly against a severely depressed economy.  Kyrgyz resorts are attracting Kazakh, Russian and European ski tourists, and increasingly, wealthy locals from Bishkek, but very few profits appear to be reaching the community level.  As is the case in many of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, corruption is widespread, and much of the money generated through tourism and development of any kind remains in the hands of an elite few. In addition, most of the resorts are owned by foreign parties from Russia, Europe and Korea.
Kyrgyzstan is also home to one of the most successful ecotourism programs in the world, called Community Based Tourism, or CBT. The program came to life shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union through aid from the Swiss development organization, Helvetas, and has (remarkably) withstood corruption and nepotism and developed into an entity that supports a wide network of rural families through simple home-stays and ecotours (trekking, hunting, fishing, etc).  What caught our eye, however, was that CBT’s operating season lasts only 4 months, from June through September. With such a short season, the income opportunities generated through the program are just not enough to sustain many families’ involvement in the program.
Thus, TKP/40 Tribes was developed to provide rural Kyrgyz families with an alternative source of income during the winter season, an otherwise long and difficult time of the year.  The project introduces yurt-based backcountry skiing as a viable option for increasing the length of the ecotourism season in select mountainous areas, taking advantage of both the country’s growing prominence as a destination for skiing, and also the momentum towards socially, culturally, and environmentally-responsible travel that exists in the wake of CBT tourism – all of which is very new to Kyrgyzstan.  The project trains and employs local villagers as the hosts of our mountain "lodges," and pledges to introduce additional livelihood diversification opportunities to those who are interested, such as ski/mountain guide trainings, in an effort to help them sustain their involvement in the tourism industry.
Off-Piste Mag:Tell me a little about the mountains/terrain, snowpack, huts/yurts, etc.

Koupal: Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountainous, so just about everywhere you look, you face a new breathtaking alpine vista.  What’s better is that the country is criss-crossed by an extensive network of roads, many of which are maintained through the winter (not to say that they are safe or in good condition, by any means…but they do provide amazing access to backcountry terrain!).  The climate can be likened to that of Colorado – i.e. continental, warm summers, cold winters, lots of sun, and huge temperature gradients. The snowpack is most volatile in March, and shallowest in December/early January.  Late January-February and April are the ideal months for hitting the backcountry.

Our first yurt-lodge will be set up this coming October, just before the snow begins to fly.  For the inaugural year, we will lease two traditional Kyrgyz yurts from our local partners, which will be placed on wooden platforms, insulated with reed mats and felted rugs, and outfitted with wood-burning stoves. One of the yurts will be used for cooking and the other as the sleeping quarters. Yurts were, for a long time, the year-round homes of Kyrgyz nomads, but these days, occupying a yurt in the winter is a thing of the past.  We have indeed had to work hard on selling the idea to our local partners.

Off-Piste Mag: How is the current political situation? What’s your take on the future there?

This is definitely a pertinent question.  On June 10th Kyrgyzstan’s south erupted with violence, leaving hundreds dead and thousands wounded, and sending hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks across the border to seek refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan.  At first, and for some time, the international media reported that the Kyrgyz were killing the Uzbeks, when in fact there were causalities on both sides. There’s no doubt that the violence was inter-ethnic, but it is still unknown who, exactly, went after who, and what, exactly, ignited the violence in the first place. The story (and the history behind the story) is too complex for me to dive into much detail here, but the whole scenario was undoubtedly influenced by politics – in some way or another – given that the ex-President, Kurmanek Bakiyev, was forcefully overthrown from his post and replaced by a "pro-democratic" interim government a few months earlier, in April.  

In the north, including the Lake Issyk Kol region and the mountain village of Ichke Jergez (home to our inaugural yurt-stay program), rural life continues at this point without many concerns over safety, much as it did during the events of early April in Bishkek and the events of early June in the south.  While the situation in the south remains volatile, with hundreds of thousands of refugees returning to cities that were almost entirely destroyed, the north is calm and violence-free – not to mention separated from the south by the huge geographic barriers of the Tien Shan.  

As told by our local partners in Bishkek and Ichke Jergez, a more poignant concern is regarding the current prices for diesel fuel and other commodities, affected by the frequent and prolonged border closings that have taken place in the wake of each event.  The surge in fuel prices means that many fields have not been planted, leaving many of Kyrgyzstan’s already-depressed agrarian economies to brace for an even harder hit this year.  

Amidst all of the recent political upheaval, violence, and hardship, however, there is finally hope that Kyrgyzstan is on a path towards stability.  Voters recently adopted a constitutional referendum on June 27th that makes  the interim government legitimate as Kyrgyzstan’s "caretaker government" until presidential and parliamentary elections can be held next fall. Kyrgyzstan’s new government will be the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, a remarkable feat given the history of autocracy and despotic rule in the region.

Check out the interactive map of ski terrain and images of the mountains in Kyrgyzstan.