By Ptor Spricenieks
As the heat and "good weather” of this annual summer thing drag on—and besides finishing our house, going on family river pool expeditions, enjoying my professional broccoli crop, harvesting garlic and trying to "see colours" riding my mountain bike—I am very much fantasizing about winter. When the magic season finally rolls around again, my true fancy is entering the magic cycle of ski, eat, sleep. Yet, around home or some populated ski place, so many things can rear their complicated heads to distract from that perfect routine of bliss and simplicity of really living around skiing. For this very reason, my reverie returns to the Ichke Jergez yurt in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzsytan.
Yurt-based ski touring scenarios have been popping up like yoga retreats all over the place these days, from Switzerland to Idaho. However, until last January, when Ryan Koupal began his 40 Tribes Backcountry LLC with me as the guide, the real thing in it’s own endemic environment used commercially for the purpose of "ski-eat-sleep"… had yet to be seen. About a 40-minute drive and two-hour ski tour outside the small city/big town of Karakol is where Ryan (with his fantastic mix of Russian and Kyrgyz language) has made it happen. So now one can ski, eat and fall asleep looking up at the eight crossed pieces of wood that make up the Kyrgyz national symbol in its home splendour and winter solitude.
Perched overlooking the eastern end of Issyk Kul, the second-largest mountain lake in the world (after Titicaca in Peru/Bolivia), the yurt site is perfect for many reasons: It’s a great view to chop wood and/or sit on the outhouse in front of; lake effect powdies hit these wooded slopes of this Tien Shan frontrange; and there’s nothing to do at night but drink cognac tea and play Yahtzee until the sleeping bag becomes irresistible. I’ve always been a fan of prioritizing partying all day on the mountain, even since my younger days. For me, aprés ski has always been where it’s at. I still feel that if I’m not sorted after dinner, I probably haven’t been skiing hard enough and shouldn’t try to make up for it in all sorts of silly ways that would only go to diminish the next day’s skiing.
But hey, if you’re sessioning the ski hill out of Karakol (an old Silk Road town), you could easily lose yourself on the icy streets at night drinking black vodka into the wee cold hours. The ski area, also named Karakol, built from old French lifts and past home to Soviet ski-training, offers some pretty decent slackcountry touring, some decent tree lines and good groomers if you need some speed. I noticed they’d built some park features here and there, too. Plus, from the top chairlift, you can really see into some of the meat of the Tien Shan. 3,000-meter, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000-meter peaks… daylight come an we won go home. I’d have to say it really is one of the great mountain ranges of the world.
Doug Coombs used to tell me about it and of course I always knew of the great peak Khan Tengri but somehow Kyrgyzstan never made it on my "to do" list. Maybe it’s because there’s so many "stans" in that area, that until you get to know a couple, they all kind of blend in together. Maybe it’s because there’s always some Western fomented revolution, uprising or heroin-supply insurgency going on in the "stans" that it’s easy to dismiss the tranquility and peacefulness of the mountains and their regular inhabitants. After finally spending some time in Kyrg, I now wonder why it took so long to visit the country of 40 tribes that Manas united against the Uyghers in the 9th Century .
Last year we were there in mid January, pretty early in the season before a lot of the snowpack had arrived, and we experienced the continental side of the continental snowpack. It is after all the furthest country from an ocean in the world. With all the options accessible from the yurt, fun could always be had in the trees or ridgelines even with a sensitive snowpack. But man, it sure was cold! Always crunchy snow under the feet that’s for sure. Touring in the cold also builds the raging appetite with which to enjoy the delicious, abundant and authentic Kyrgyz food cooked by the local crew. Putting on hut booties aprés-ski around the wood stove becomes all the more cozy.
So this winter, I’ll be there again for six weeks, this time for the bigger snowpack in February/March to keep an international clientele of ski-touring aficionados shredding, stoked and safe. I’ll be missing my family, friends and the myriad distractions of the "modern" world tremendously, but, at the same time, I’ll be wholeheartedly grateful to be able to be fully ensconced in "ski-eat-sleep" mode in an amazing country that’s 90 percent mountains. Party on, eh!