Travel Stories

Into The Wild: Exploring Kyrgyzstan’s Backcountry

An all-girl's splitboard mission takes them to the heart of the Tien Shan Mountain Range

Words by Karlien Abbeel, pictures by Oreli Berthollier

‘Kyrgy…what?’ That’s the common reaction when I tell people about my trip to Kyrgyzstan – but that might just be the source of its beauty. Surrounded by a lot of other ‘stans and China, it’s dominated by the Tien Shan Mountain Range, where you find more than 40 peaks over 6000 metres. In the middle of all these giants, we found our home: a traditional yurt surrounded by the Celestial Mountains.

At first light, we worm out of the comfort of our sleeping bags and witness the pink sunrays hitting the mountaintops. Sticking the skins on our splitboards, we are keen as beans, and the mountains and beautiful views bring us happy vibes while we slide up. We are in the good company of Slava, local guide and legend. He likes to set himself challenges and recently he conquered Kyrgyzstan’s highest mountain – Pik Lenin, 7134m – with bare feet and skied down. He’s as fit as a fiddle, a kick-ass skier and he knows the mountains like the back of his hand. It’s a good feeling having him around, in a place far from rescue, where getting lost or getting injured can get you in real trouble.

#yurtlife – warmer than any French ski apartment

“In the middle of all these giants, we found our home: a traditional yurt surrounded by the Celestial Mountains.”

The Celestial Mountains, stellar work

The second part of our route up is all bare rock, scrambling up the steep route with our boards on our backs. The effort is big, but the satisfaction up top is gigantic: we are treated to a majestic 360° view of the highest mountain peaks in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Proud of our vertical metres, we enjoy a well-deserved picnic at 3650m, charging up for the ride down. The mountains all around us provoke mind lines and shred fantasies without a track in sight.

“The snow is really good considering the last snowfall was seven days ago – strong and fast at the top, more playful and slushy lower down.”

Strap in, ready. Let’s do this. There are glorious powder turns to start with, sinking in and slashing through. Soft. Fast. Great. The snow is really good considering the last snowfall was seven days ago – strong and fast at the top, more playful and slushy lower down. We’re all fully absorbed in the moment, enjoying the flow of the ride – it’s definitely one for the books.

We arrive back at the yurt, the fragrance of a hearty stew prickling our nostrils. The evening routine is as follows: bubbling up happiness in the hot water of the woodstove jacuzzi; a sweat session in the sauna; rolling in the snow; repeat. The mountains, sunset and stars reassure us we are in the right place at the right time as we reflect on a perfect day.

Up, then time to Kyrg out the jams

There’s more to life than just snowboarding, so the next day we swap our boards for horses. The five hour route crosses a gorgeous plain surrounded by red rocks and snowy mountains. We cross rivers and stray from the path deep into the woods and up a hill through belly-deep powder. Its an easy day for the horses: usually it’s their duty to drag big logs back to the village, so they are enjoying the light load as we ride out into the wild.

Our guide Akay is a passionate Buzkashi player. The country’s national sport starts with the slicing of a goat’s throat, after which the carcass functions as the ball in a furious game played on horseback. There’s lots of whipping and hanging sideways of the horses, with the aim to get the ‘ball’ across the field and into the basket.

This place makes one-horse towns look good

“Do you know how most men in Kyrgyztan seduce their women?’”

Akay asks us ‘And do you know how most men in Kyrgyzstan seduce their women? Forget flowers and dinners – Kyrgyztan girls are very shy. So it’s our tradition to just ride up (horse or car), and kidnap the girl back to our home. Back home she can agree or refuse upon marriage.’ The way he puts it makes it sound like a rather light-hearted, consenting ritual, but a later read reveals a lot of these kidnappings are rather violent and more often than not without the approval of the women. Comparatively, Tinder isn’t all that bad.

A modern response to a traditional Kyrgyzstani proposal

We organized this trip with Ryce Travel. As well as the epic riding, there’s heaps of extracurricular activities: today is snowmobiling. The low cost and spirit of adventure make this all very different to a typical holiday in the Alps. Afterwards, in the mountain village of Karakol, the local evening scene calls to us. Tasty shasliks and yak stew with a bottle of red – the waiter steps behind a set of turntables and the party starts. The Kyrgyz are entertaining dance buddies, and it’s definitely false to say the the local girls are ‘too shy’. Blending in nicely, we get out our best moves out to keep up with their energetic styles, taking turns in the middle of the dance circle.

Next day, with legs tired from dancing and riding, we relax on the slowest chairlift I have ever been on. With no powder around, there’s no need to hurry, just beautiful surroundings to take in. We throw twenty Euros in for a paragliding adventure. There’s a near miss with the lines and a chairlift, and we see another girl land on top of a tree, but by the end somehow everyone is fine and smiling. There’s a ‘no rules, no safety’ mentality here, but it only adds to the sense of freedom we’re experiencing.

"Buzkashi? No thanks? I'll just go find some face shots in the trees"

On the lookout for some souvenirs, we stroll into a local market in Karakol. With no other tourists to be seen, the locals descend on us. They reel off full conversations at us without a single word of English, all accompanied by big hand gestures, broad smiles and exotic food which they make us taste. We all fall in love with the people and the place, and the six hour bus ride back towards Bishkek airport, the stunning Issyk Kul lake and its neighboring snowy peaks leave us with no doubt: we will be back soon.

Spread that yak butter

If you have a taste for adventure, we’d definitely recommend this trip. Kyrgyzstan offers impressive mountains with lots of possibilities for riding. You can enjoy ski resorts without queues, the fun of snowmobiling or a hike up for some solitary backcountry lines. Choose the comfort of local guesthouses or the chance to stay out in the wild in traditional yurts. It certainly opened our eyes to off the grid snowboard destinations.

– Oreli Berthollier is a professional snowboard and lifestyle photographer, based in Avoriaz. She is also the founder of the all-girls ensemble Lines.

– Karlien Abbeel is a passionate snowboarder and former Belgian freeriding champion. She is the founder of Riffelalp Lodge in the freeride paradise of St Anton.

– We organized our trip through Ryce Travel, a social enterprise supporting local economies.

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