If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting Rihanna. As I swooped down my first run in the Kyrgyz ski resort of Karakol, high in the Tian Shan mountains and close to the Chinese border, it was the Bajan pop princess’ latest hit that was being pumped out of loud speakers, not some local song. I schussed to a stop in a haze of smoke wafting from a piste-side kebab grill and pointed myself at the chair lift, ready to do it all over again. If Karakol was good enough as a training base for the Soviet Union’s Olympic downhill squad back in the day, it was certainly good enough for this bottom-out, elbows-out, knees-together skier.
There are around 12.5 miles of runs here, with five lifts and some good off-piste too, with the promise of fresh, regular powder snow. Although the daily piste fee of around £15 is too steep for many Kyrgyz, it’s popular with Kazakhs and Siberians. And from this year, it’s been launched as a package by a British tour company. While it’s not going to give Tignes or St Moritz sleepless nights, it’s an option for skiers who fancy something a bit different, plus it gives an insight into a fascinating part of the world they’ve probably only heard about from watching the news.
The actual journey to and from Karakol and the high peaks of the Tian Shan mountains is half the fun. I explored Bishkek, the country’s capital, with my guide and driver, Mr Egemberdiev, keeping warm on a dazzlingly sunny but freezing winter day by eating plenty of laghman (noodles with lamb), chuchuk (horse sausage) and steaming hot tea.
Over several days we headed east, trundling through villages where the only people out and about seemed to be men in traditional kalpak hats collecting water at standpipes and small children laboriously lugging firewood on small carts.
We admired the 82ft-high Burana Tower, near the 10th-century city of Balasagun, before stopping for a night at Issyk-Kul. At over 105 miles long and 44 miles wide, it’s the world’s second largest high-altitude lake, after Titicaca. In summer, it’s busy with regional tourists who come to relax on its beaches, but when I visited, the shoreline was blanketed with snow. The only other people staying in our hotel were a group of jolly locals who drank vodka in the sauna and then jumped naked into the lake (I don’t speak Kyrgyz but I think they regretted their decision pretty quickly), and a dour youth triathlon team from Novosibirsk and their coaches. After dinner I marvelled at the Russian version of Wheel of Fortune and then promptly fell asleep.
But Karakol was my goal. Once we’d arrived the next day, picked up my skis and sorted out a lift pass at my hotel, the Caprice Issyk-Kul, I met up with 24-year-old guide Askat Baisynov Orozbekovich.
The slopes were empty, which, apart from at Russian Orthodox New Year, is typical, I was told. The weather was fresh: clear blue skies but not desperately cold, but enough to leave puffs of my breath down the mountain. Truth be told, the runs weren’t that challenging but there’s something to be said for cruising down easy blues and reds, picking up speed and getting to know the bumps and corners in preparation for joyfully doing the whole thing all over again. I practised my turns and sang into the wind as I sped down, with spectacularly energising views in front of me.
As we rode back up, I quizzed Askat about life in Kyrgyzstan — only a generation ago, most of his family were still nomads living in yurts — and also why so many local skiers seemed to have cushions tied to their bottoms. A sensible precaution against the freezing metal slats of the chair lifts, it turned out. We stopped for lunch at a piste-side barbecue stall, where pizzas were on offer as well as delicious, sizzling kebabs, and Russian dishes such as pelmeni (meat dumplings) in soup with dill and sour cream.
Afterwards, we skied in the back country — tucking and weaving through pine forests, alone, the only people for miles around. We were surrounded by silence, the only noise being the occasional bird or snow falling from branches. When we did meet local skiers, they were fascinated by having someone from Britain in their midst. “Ah! Tony Blair! David Beckham!”
In the evening, I ate at my hotel, accompanied by an Armenian crooner belting out Russian and Western hits at top volume before well-oiled diners got up for a bit of karaoke. And this time, no Rihanna.
Regent Holidays offers eight-day winter trips to Kyrgyzstan from £1,250 per person (two sharing). This includes accommodation with some meals, transport and (non-ski guiding), but not flights.
Accommodation in Karakol is at the Kaprice Issyk-Kul hotel.
The easiest way of getting to Bishkek is via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)