For most of the growing number of tourists that are traveling in Kyrgyzstan, the small Central Asian republic is a country of summer mountains and sandy beaches. The majority of visitors come in the warmer months, for the June-September high season when horse riding and mountain climbing and of the many other reasons to visit Kyrgyzstan. For a small subset of the travel scene, though, the country is creeping up the ranks in popularity as a winter tourism destination as well. Snow-capped mountains, accessible front- and back-country skiing and boarding, and super affordable prices that make it worth the trip; just a few of the reasons that winter travel in Kyrgyzstan may be on your agenda soon.
On the Streets
Winter travel in Kyrgyzstan can be tough, for sure. In the cities, there’s not always an emphasis on shoveling snow or salting ice, so it’s a slippery affair to get around and get out of town. Once you get out into the mountains, though, it’s a veritable winter wonderland. Deep powder, crystal clear skies, bracingly cold winds under a warming sun. It’s the kind of place that demands preparation, particularly if you want to get into the backcountry on a self-supported trip, but also one that rewards adventurous travelers with stunning views and breathtaking experiences that make the privation more than worthwhile.
Though flights from North America can get expensive, getting to Kyrgyzstan from Europe can be as cheaper as a few hundred Euros on budget carriers like Pegasus and AtlasJet. Even for expensive trans-oceanic flights, the cost savings on the ground once you arrive to the country can justify taking a long holiday to enjoy winter sports in the country. Have a look at sample costs at the most popular ski bases in Kyrgyzstan, and you’ll see that they’re a great value compared to the western world – even at the most expensive ski base at Karakol (pictured below), a lift pass is only about $17 on weekends and cheaper on weekdays.
Hostel dorms start around $7 and private rooms from $18, while food costs can be as cheap as $2-3 per meal or as much as $20 or $30. Transportation within the country is cheap but slow, with the public minivan (marshrutka) from Bishkek to Karakol only ~$7 but taking anywhere between 6 and 10 hours depending on the conditions of the roads.
While infrastructure for winter travel in Kyrgyzstan is at times underdeveloped compared to places like Europe or the US, this actually comes in handy for skiers who want to get off-piste and explore the backcountry. Outfits like 40 Tribes can organize luxury (and expensive) backcountry experiences, but it’s also possible to post up in a village like Jyrgalan for a low-cost base from which to set out each day on skins or snowmobiles (pictured below). Or, if you’re feeling flush this winter, check out the options for heli-ski in the Tian-Shan ranges.
Much like summer tourism there, winter travel in Kyrgyzstan is more about nature and mountains than sightseeing in the traditional sense. Skiing and snowboarding are obvious winter possibilities but don’t discount more traditional pursuits like trekking and rock climbing as well. There are certainly more gear and safety requirements than during the summertime, but for those willing to put in the effort and put up with the cold the possibilities for exploration, photography, and getting close to nature are nearly limitless across the country. (The photo below is from Ala-Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan’s most popular mountain valley but one that sees almost no visitors during the winter months.)
Kyrgyz food is hearty year-round, but only in winter does it truly become apparent how appropriate the cuisine is to the climate. Think lots of meat, lots of potatoes and bread, and a fair bit of vodka and cognac to warm things up after long days out in the cold. It’s a tough spot for a vegetarian, sometimes, but meat lovers will find it filling and warming after coming back in from the slopes or the trail.