While Kyrgyzstan's Tien Shan mountains are steadily growing in renown among international tourists, most visitors aim for the warmer months of the year to hike up craggy passes and descend to the shores of alpine lakes.
Equally adventurous, but far less explored by visitors, are the area's winter sports, and in particular the country's excellent skiing options.
Whether hobnobbing with Bishkek's middle class on slick pistes, trekking into the backcountry for a run of untouched powder or dropping onto a slope out of a helicopter, there are plenty of ways to get out and enjoy the snow Kyrgyzstan.
Skiing around Bishkek
Ten of Kyrgyzstan's 23 functional ski bases are within 45km of its capital city, Bishkek. They make great destinations, not only for their sports opportunities, but also for the potential they offer to interact with Kyrgyzstan's middle class making their way out for a day of skiing.
ZiL Ski Base (zil.kg) is particularly popular, with an easy piste for beginners and 1.8km of lifts just an hour from the city. Each weekend during ski season, families pile into private cars or hired minivans to make the short trip up from Bishkek. Skiers of all experience levels fly and flop down the runs, local children sled down hills at the foot of the base, under the backdrop of the Chuy Valley and Ala-Too mountain range far beyond.
Gear rental and a lift pass at ZiL costs 1600som (US$21), with transfers to/from Bishkek starting at 700som (US$9).
Après-ski in style at Karakol
Karakol Ski Resort is the standard by which other ski resorts in Kyrgyzstan are measured. It enjoys some of the longest pistes, newest equipment and best ski accommodation in the country. It is only a half-hour drive from the city of Karakol to the resort. Yet, from the top of the 'Panorama' lift, the view of the Tian Shan mountains stretching across the horizon and the deep blue waters of Lake Issyk-Köl below make the area feel remote.
One of the few ski-up hotels, the on-site Kapriz Karakol hotel is also the fanciest place for a post-ski drink in the country – if you're looking for comfort and convenience, Karakol is very much the place to go.
Gear and a lift pass at Karakol Ski Resort start from 1600som (US$21), and a night at the on-site hotel can be had for 7600som (US$100). Budget-minded snow bunnies can stay at cheaper guesthouses in the city of Karakol and hire a car each morning to get to the ski base.
Freeriding at Jyrgalan
While the developed ski resorts continue to grow in popularity with Kyrgyz skiers, off-piste areas remain largely unexplored. Small eco-resorts, like the village of Jyrgalan, now in its second year of hosting skiers, cater to a select audience willing to put in the effort to hike their way to the tops of remote hills for the pleasure of skiing back down on untouched snow. Despite being just an hour from Karakol, this area sees far fewer visitors – on most days you'll enjoy the mountains all to yourself.
While accommodation and food are available in Jyrgalan village, equipment rental is not. You'll need to bring your own or rent equipment in Karakol before setting off. There are marshrutka (minibuses) from Karakol at 8.30am, 11am, 1pm, and 4.30pm for around 60som (US$0.80). A taxi costs about 2000som (US$26).
Independent adventure in Ala-Archa
Not all of Kyrgyzstan's ski areas are serviced, and not all of them have lifts. For an offbeat, independent adventure, the old Soviet-era ski base in the far reaches of Ala-Archa Canyon is a chance to get way out into the wilderness and ski down runs that have seen very few visitors since the end of the USSR. From the abandoned Soviet-era ski base at the far end of the Ala-Archa Valley, slap on skins and climb past glaciers and peaks named after mythic heroes and Soviet leaders for a run back down these remote mountains.
You're totally on your own here, though, so be prepared to pack in all the food and gear you'll need for the length of your stay. This is only a trip that for experienced backcountry skiiers and trekkers.
While the skiing is free, the nature park charges an admission fee of 80som (US$1) per person and 150som (US$1.90) per vehicle. The best way to reach Ala-Archa from Bishkek is to hire a car from around 900som ($12). Otherwise you'll have to carry all your gear the 20km between where public transport ends and the trail into the valley begins.
Heliskiing at Too-Ashuu
The most adventurous Kyrgyz ski experience, and the only real way to get constant access to totally unexplored powder, is to jump into (and out of) a helicopter. Most skiiers use the Too-Ashuu Ski Resort (too-ashuu.kg) as a base and as a backup run in case of bad weather. A number of companies organise week-long trips around the Suusamyr valley during the short February-March period when off-piste skiing in Kyrgyzstan is at its best. At around 45,500som (US$600) per day, it may may sound like a lot, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, but in fact this is one of the cheapest places in the world to take a heliski trip. Prepare for epic days flying across the Tien Shan mountains and hopping out onto virgin slopes, but come prepared – this trip is only for experienced backcountry skiers who are prepared to ride ungroomed and potentially treacherous tracks along wild mountain slopes.
One-week trips start from US$4200, not including gear rental. Helipro (helipro.kg) arranges heliski trips to Too-Ashuu and other remote parts of Kyrgyzstan.
Make it happen
Equipment rental is available from a number of sources in Bishkek, including the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (tuk.kg), who also organise buses to various bases in the region each weekend during ski season. See their website for info about upcoming trips, or visit their office on the corner of Kiev/Tyrusbekov in Bishkek.