Hitting the Slopes in Kazakhstan

Article by Sima Monina

I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth.
Then I ask myself the same question.

-Harun Yahya

With winter on the way, and the copious amounts of vacation time that come with it, it’s high time to start planning your getaway. I don’t know about you, but I miss a proper winter with all the perks—not the gloomy, grey, cold and polluted setting straight out of an urban disaster movie we normally get around here. I know, I sound extremly critical, but where I come from, winter isn’t only cold, but it has snow, blue skies, breathtaking white landscapes and, most importantly, skiing. And surprise, surprise, there is a direct, affordable five-hour flight from Xi’an to exactly where I came from, Kazakhstan. It isn’t on many people’s skiing bucket list. It’s their loss, and a gain for those who dare to go there. It definitely has all the facilities to classify as a winter skiing destination. You are guaranteed to find gorgeous, hidden slopes, a lack of crowds and bewitching views barely known to rest of the world. Ski season in Kazakhstan runs from December to March.

Our direct flight is to Almaty, which is a perfect destination if it’s your first trip to the Stans. I mean, it was good enough for Prince Harry a few years ago, it should be good enough for you. Almaty is known for mild weather throughout, which makes for sunny, delightful days on the slope, but thawing may be an issue on the edges of the season. There are many small ski resorts in proximity of the city, specialized for either beginners or skiers of an outstanding aptitude. I suggest you to check out Lesnaya Skazka, Ak Bulak, Pioneer and Shymbulak ski resorts.

Shymbulak is the biggest and the most versitile. It is arguably the best in the area or, according to some sources, in all of Central Asia, due to being the Alpine Skiing venue during the 2011 Asian Winter Games. It’s located 3200 metres above sea level in the upper part of Medeu Valley, 25 kilometres from the city center and is accessable by bus (number 12) and the world’s third-largest gondola. The bottom part of the same valley is an outdoor speed skating and bandy rink if you fancy visiting. Once at Shymbulak, you can enjoy eight pistes stretching 15km (9 miles). If you haven’t had your fill after a day’s worth of skiing, head back up the mountain for a night ski session, which happens twice a week. Notably, there are also a few good vertical descents off-piste which are accessible. The resort provides heli-skiing packages; they’re pricey, but significantly cheaper in comparison to Europe and Japan, so well worth it. You can even find an English speaking ski instructor if you wish, as well as rent any equipment you need up the mountain but, naturally, it is much cheaper to rent it from one of the ski shops down in Almaty. A day ski pass will cost you from 90 to 130 RMB and a round-trip on the gondola will set you back 50 RMB. Accommodation options are versatile, as it’s so close to the city. You can stay at the resort itself or find a hotel/hostel within your budget and enjoy Almaty’s lively nightlife while you’re at it. A fun fact about Almaty: almost every car in here is an unofficial taxi, so feel free to flag down any vehicle to get around.

Another destination, for more adventurous types craving off-the-beaten-path places should head to Eastern Kazakhstan, to the Altai mountains in Ridder and Oskemen. It’s a 90-minute flight from Almaty to Oskemen and 130 km by car, bus, train to Ridder. Expect temperatures to drop here; -30ºC is normal in this neck of the woods. A big plus, there is always snow here in winter, and a lot of it. Your skiing options in Oskemen are Nurtau, a little 2-piste skiing resort with accommodations, spa, snowcat, and Altay Alps with about the same package. They both cater mostly to beginners and those who ski for leisure.

Freeriders and the super-advanced should look into Ridder, an old mining town. There are 3 resorts nearby: Edelweiss, Stardust Camp and Ridderhutte. Ridderhutte is the most famous among them, where the Kazakhstan National Skiing Team trains off season. The slopes there are 2000 metres high, and can support 1.5 to 2 hours of uninterrupted downhill skiing. There are no heli- rides here, but lots of routes for off-piste flights down on untouched powder. While there, to switch it up and to immerse yourself into a unique wild winter wonderland, book some time with the Klimovka Recreation Center: private, wooden, rustic looking cabins ranging from old Russian village style (brrr, toilet outside) to high-end executive class ones (the Kazakhstani president likes to go there sometimes) just 10 km away from the West Altay Nation Reserve. Here you can enjoy cross-country skiing, amazing country-style food, authentic Russian hospitality, horse trekking, hunting, stunning views, being lost to the modern world (no cell reception) and a banya – a Russian-style bathhouse. They will make your trip planning easier too, they provide a transfer from the Oskemen airport and they speak English.

So maybe it is time to say “no” to an old and familiar Thailand and get some wow unique travelling stories for your friends. It’s up to you.

Sima is an expatriate from Kazakhstan who has stayed in Xi’an for too long.