As far as powder skiing destinations go, Kyrgyzstan is probably not the first place that comes to mind. Heck, we'd be surprised if it's even on the list.
But what if we told you that 94 percent of the Central Asian country was covered by mountains, and that those mountains are slammed by snow systems fed by the world's second-largest alpine lake? Or that, as the Earth's most landlocked country, Kyrgyzstan is blessed by light, dry snow that would put Colorado's champagne powder to shame?
True, Kyrgyzstan is not on the typical powder track, but that just might be what makes it one exotic locale worth the detour.
Because of its consistent snowfall, the country and its ski areas were once used as the alpine training center for the Soviet Union's Olympic Ski Team. But, after the Iron Curtain fell, much of Kyrgyzstan's ski culture fell off with it, and the sport never fully took off.
However, in recent years that has changed, thanks in large part to foreign explorers pushing deeper into unknown terrain. One of those parties is 40 Tribes Backcountry, a backcountry ski and snowboard guiding service started by American Ryan Koupal in 2010 in the Terskey Ala-Too mountains near Karakol.
The Coloradan had explored vast chunks of Central Asia in search of snow, but in Kyrgyzstan he found something special: A ski culture stuck in time in mountains that seemingly went on without end.
Teaming up with a group of local villagers and ski guides, Koupal established a series of mountain yurts, and now runs guided trips for six weeks every winter. In addition to lodging and mountain guides, 40 Tribes offers a local mountain chef serving up traditional meals of noodles, beef, and vegetables, community style. While at times the experience feels like traveling through the end of the Earth (the open-air outhouse can get a bit brisk), it's a wild new twist on the destination ski experience.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the skiing itself. Rising up from the yurt camp, the Terskey Ala-Toos are a popular grazing ground for herders during summer months, but as the snows move in and villagers settle down in the flatlands, the mountains become Koupal's private playground.
The ski lines all have names here, with tags like “Yahtzee” and “Spreadable Cheese,” but the 40 Tribes crew is still finding and shredding new lines on a near-weekly basis. Better yet, because of the conveyor belt of winter storms pushing through the area, fresh tracks are all but guaranteed.
The terrain is advanced, ranging from steep couloirs to big, open-powder faces. When avalanche danger is high, 40 Tribes takes mellow tree laps right from the yurts. No matter what the weather, there is always a line to ski.
While the masses head to the Alps and Japan, adventurers are slowly finding their way to Kyrgyzstan. With direct flights from Amsterdam and Istanbul to the capital city of Bishkek, connecting flights from North America are long but hassle-free.
In addition, Kyrgyzstan is one of the few Asian countries that doesn't require a visa for most Western countries (Canada and the U.S. included), allowing visitors to stay for 60 days with only their passport.
Koupal arranges transportation for many of his 40 Tribe clients (a trip that goes from bus to Soviet-era UAZ van), but busses typically run from Bishkek's western bus station to Karakol several times daily (a roughly six-hour journey).
A seven-day guided trip with the 40 Tribes crew (10 days total with travel included) costs $2,750 per person and includes airport pick-up and drop-off (the price does not include airfare or travel insurance). For those looking to push a little further off the trail map, it's worth every penny.
All photos courtesy of 40 Tribes Backcountry.