Kazakhstan – Martin
Friday March 8
Finally the time has come with Epique to Kazakhstan. Skies waxed, bags packed and waiting for the taxi. The taxi drives in front, “but we still asked at a station “we say to each other well that’s going to be a puzzle with the ski bags. At Schiphol we meet part of the group and our guide Gijs-jan. We won’t see the rest until Istanbul. At Istanbul we have a few hours transfer time and I quickly go through customs for a cup of coffee with my girlfriend. When I come back, the whole group has found each other and are already having a nice drink and exchanging beautiful winter sports stories. We have a nice like-minded group and I’m looking forward to next week even more.
Saturday 9 March
We land early in the morning at Almaty and there Vlad (Vladimir) and Ayan our drivers for the week are waiting for us. After some puzzling and stacking, all the luggage is in and on the cars and we head out for breakfast and a visit to Almaty. Vladimir takes us along some highlights of the city. We will also visit the Green Bazaar, a covered market that we do not know in the Netherlands. The (dried) fruit organized and stacked as only an autist can. The meat department is like walking through the slaughterhouse, where whole pig heads are on the counter. We’re stocking up on some dried fruit and nuts for the week ahead, which we can use while touring.
After the shopping we go back to the cars and on our way to Shymbulak, the largest ski resort in Kazakhstan. We sleep here in a hotel at the top of the first gondola at 2300 meters. There are a few restaurants here and we are going to explore the local apres ski.
Sunday 10 March
The first ski day of the trip, that’s what we came for. The hotel is at the foot of the slopes, so we can go straight into the lift. But in Kazakhstan they like to sleep in because the elevator doesn’t open until 10 o’clock. We ski warmly over the deserted slopes and then decide to stick the climbing skins under them and set off towards “Pik Gvardeytsev”.
We walk into a deserted valley and the view is great. What a beautiful mountain range here. After a bit of walking we arrive at the foot of the glacier and we put on the belts. Climbing is getting harder and harder for me. Not very surprising, we also almost reach 3900 meters. At a certain point we walk a lot on the ice and the snow cover towards the top is also very thin. We decide to turn around and ski back. A nice long descent back to the ski area. The snow is variable and the sharks are present, but what a great first day. We have a drink in the local pub, the group has already come together nicely and this promises a lot for the rest of the week. The tour of 1500 altitude meters and an altitude of 3900 have been a bit difficult for me so we will stay with spa red tonight.
Monday 11 March
Yesterday Gijs-jan had neatly arrived at the mountain rescue and signed out for our trip and received some local tips from Alex. If he hadn’t been on duty, Alex would have been more than happy to come along today. Freeriders don’t see them very much here. Today look a little closer. A nice first run that we can ski straight out of the lift. Here again varying snow, but it should not spoil the fun. Gijs-jan also shoots some nice pictures of everyone. We walk across the road back to the ski area and have a cup of coffee. Here we decide to start at the same place but still walk up to the top. A shorter tour but again a challenging descent with amazing views over Almaty and the Kazakh steppes.
Tuesday March 12
This morning we get up on time and pack up because we go down with the first gondola. Today Furmanov Peak and our transfer to the Cosmo station are on the agenda. The elevator is already running when we arrive well before 10 am, but it is not possible to go down before 10 o’clock. Rules are rules here. When we come down, Vlad and Ayan are waiting for us again with a big smile. They will drop us off a little further and then drive around the mountain with the luggage and pick us up again. We start our tour at 1950 meters and walk up as a group with military discipline. You won’t meet other skiers here and even other tracks can’t be found there. We meet a few Kazakh hikers, but nothing else. Just below the top there are a lot of stones sticking through and the snow cover is not very thick. Part of the group decides to touch the top of Furmanov peak (3100m) with a booth pack. With the rest I stay with the skiers and we drink a cup of tea and enjoy the spectacular view.
As soon as the rest of the group is back we prepare for the descent. A great long descent down the other side. Here we found another great undisturbed powder. We have not found better snow than this that week. After a descent of more than 1000 vertical meters we arrive again at our 4X4’s and drivers. Vladimir is waiting for us while filming and with real Kazakh chocolate bars.
From here we leave for the Cosmo station, we make a short stop in Almaty for a hot lunch and some shopping. Finally we drive back into the mountains at dusk. It soon becomes clear why we have those big 4×4’s with spikes, these roads are not pushed. We are blocked by a black sedan that stands across the road and will not get away. We push his car straight again and can continue on our way. Vlad drives on those snowy mountain roads as if he is driving on the 5 lane A2 to Amsterdam. We have to make a short stop for passport control at the army checkpoint and are allowed to continue. We arrive at the Cosmo station in the dark. Our cabin in cozy and the lignite stove has turned the whole tent blue. After some bedding roulette, “Koentje” ends up in the “child’s bed” and we have a late evening meal. All our meals come from the catering from Almaty and are heated up for a while. We all have a drink in the hut. It was a long day, a great tour, an even more beautiful descent, but also the route to the Cosmo station was an experience in itself.
Wednesday 13 March
The night has hit me hard. The Cosmo station is located at 3400 meters and my body had to get used to that. I’ve been awake a lot and wake up with a headache. A nightly toilet visit here is quite a contrast to home, let alone to my Japan trip last year. From heated toilet seat and all kinds of crazy features to -20 to an “outhouse” without light, a hole in the floor and a stalagmite of …… that grows with each visit. The group decides this morning to climb Tourist peak and start a nice trek to 3878m. With a bit of pain in my heart I decide not to go. After the bad night and the persistent headache I really don’t feel fit. I stay in the cabin to get used to the altitude. Vlad takes me
on a walk to a nearby peak. The view is really great, only high peaks and not a person, ski lift or building in sight. I am sitting quietly reading a book when the group returns. Enthusiastic stories about the view but it had been a descent full of sharks. Vlad and Ayan warm up 8 trays again and we enjoy lunch. Everything is done to make us comfortable and the food tastes good again. This afternoon we will do another descent from the hut and will be picked up again by the 4×4’s. I feel like going downhill again and I’m going with it. The snow is difficult, sometimes hard, sometimes just like crème brûlée, but that shouldn’t spoil the fun. We ski a nice line and arrive just above the army post. Ayan comes to pick us up with a smile and brings us back upstairs.
We have a drink on a dilapidated concrete wall in the Cosmo station before we start on Ayan’s home-cooked meal. I’ve seen him busy all morning in the small kitchen with potatoes, onions and different kinds of meat. In Ayan his words are “Horse meat is the best meat”. What surprises me the most is how you prepared all this with his survival knife. It is cozy at the table and the food tastes good. We end the evening with a few more shots of vodka and go to bed. Hope we don’t have to go to the bathroom again tonight.
Thursday 14 March
Unfortunately, yet again: Headlamp on, sleeping bag off, pants on, jacket on, snowshoes on, door open and wide awake because it is definitely -20.
Today another tour is scheduled. We tour the part I walked with Vlad yesterday and descend at the back. Here we find some powder and everyone can make some nice tracks. You always ski first tracks here because other people don’t come here. We clear the intermediate valley again and descend further. After yesterday’s experience, the snow is actually a lot better than expected. When we come back down to the army post, Ayan picks us up again.
Vlad has gone to town to get new containers from the caterer and hasn’t returned yet. So we decide to do our afternoon run before lunch. We all leave the Cosmo station to quickly convert for the descent. We do one last run and end up near the army post again. To our great surprise, Ayan got himself stuck with the jeep. With a long cable and the brute strength of 8 Epique athletes and a Kazakh soldier we pull it loose again. Vlad is on his way up again so a few of us are waiting along the road to ride with him. We get in with Vlad and a few hairpin bends later we see another jeep stuck. Not again Ayan but someone who had come to take pictures. Without spikes you have nothing to do on these roads. Together we help the man on his way again. We Dutch would have approached this very differently, but here they prefer to try with brute force. We have a late lunch upstairs almost immediately followed by dinner. We drink a little, talk a little. Everyone wonders why no one brought a pack of cards. But that shouldn’t spoil the fun, it’s a great group and new friendships have been made. With the food we make plans for tomorrow. We decide to leave the Cosmo station in the morning and visit another ski area around Almaty, a little help from lifts is sometimes nice.
Friday March 15
We leave early on our way to Akbulak, here we are going to make good use of the lifts today (we thought). We take the lifts all the way up to ski warmly. The mountain rescue sees 8 men with ABS coming out of the elevator and already shouts “no freeride!”. After a descent over the piste, we decide to dive into the forest on the shadow side. Here we find some powder and have a very nice descent. Back to the top and one more time!! Up again the gentlemen of the mountain rescue are not too happy with us but they don’t speak English. We must register in the book that we do this on our own
responsibility and are allowed to go back into the forest. We go a little deeper into the forest and find an even better run than before. This is going to be a beautiful day. We have a quick drink downstairs and decide to do the same run again. When we get to the top lift, the men tell us that it is closed. After Vlad arrives on his snowboard from the same piste, we understand that they don’t want to let us go up because we ski off-piste (I didn’t feel unsafe this whole trip under the guidance of Gijs-jan). After a long discussion, the answer remains no and we are not allowed to join. We could try to get our money back at the register downstairs. Since no one was really eager to climb the slopes, we decide to descend and sit on the terrace. Armed with our ski passes, Vlad strikes up a conversation at the cash register while we have a beer. When Vlad returns the good news is that money back was not an option and we were allowed to take the elevator up again, there were already enough beers in it and we stayed on the terrace where beautiful plans are made for our night out in Almaty. Ayan makes a few phone calls, what type: Mercedes G, what color: White, how many axles: 3, and Almaty’s biggest limo is for us tonight. That is promising. We drive back to Almaty, check in at the hotel and can finally take a shower again. We all go to eat shashlik at a Kazakh restaurant and don’t really know what is happening to us. Next to our table is a veritable dance floor that is occasionally interrupted by something that resembles a pub quiz. We get a call that our limo is there and it is blocked outside half the street. What a machine, inside there is something with bubbles ready and with DJ Gijs-jan our party starts. The limo takes us to a first bar for a few drinks where we also won the sing a long challenge. With some new Kazakh and Kyrgyz company we go back into the limo for the next club. We are taken to a beautiful tent with different rooms with DJs and live music. It doesn’t take long for the bar to be filled with vodka.
Saturday March 16
We had to be on time today because we are going to the Charyn Canyon. This was visibly difficult for everyone after last night. It is about a 3 hour drive and very quiet in the car. On the way we visit a small village and the local market, a stick of shashlik from the BBQ and continue driving. It is unbelievable how from Almaty you can reach between 4 and 5 thousand meters within an hour and a half and only encounter steppes on the other side. We reach the canyon and what a special environment. Nice that this trip is about more than just skiing. Vlad had also brought his “insta famous” wife Katy with him today, who then took the cat back in a designated backpack. Katy guides us through the canyon to where the river still flows while Vlad and Ayan move the jeeps. The canyon is impressive to see and it is also a nice walk.
We walk out of the canyon again and on top of the rim some pictures are taken. The cat also has to get out of the backpack and take a picture. After the cat went on an adventure itself, I know two things for sure. That cats don’t listen and that this cat Luna, Luna, Luna, Luna, Luna,…. hot. The power of repetition seems to work. If only I had known that when I was in school.
After the cat is picked off a ledge somewhere, we return to the 4x4s and drive to a picturesque Kazakh village for a traditional lunch. When we are back in Almaty we will go out for dinner one last time and share the highlights of the week. Sunday morning Vlad and Ayan take us to the airport and we say goodbye to them. We all fly back to Istanbul.
What an incredibly beautiful week, this trip is about so much more than skiing. I enjoyed it and would love to go back here again. Kazakhstan has great mountains and no industrialized winter sports yet. In a week we encountered 1 person on tour skis, otherwise it was our team and nature. I would also like to thank the group again, what a great company! I hope to travel with you more often in the future. Epique & Gijs-jan thank you, everything was taken care of down to the last detail and that makes it a real holiday!
Until the next,….