Saturday, February 10, 2018

Discovering Kazakhstan's main ski resort: Shymbulak & Ak-Bulak

Following a pretty epic and (another) deep trip in Japan, I left my Dad at the Haneda airport and took the public transportation all the way to the Narita airport from where I was to fly out to Almaty, Kazakhstan!

I've never been to Kazakhstan, so I was really looking forward at this new adventure! My flight was from Tokyo to Moscow where I would meet my girlfriend Amelie at the airport and do the last leg of the travel together.

For an unknown reason, our flight to Almaty got delayed by 4 hours, turning our 4 hours layover into an 8 hour waiting session… Fortunately, I have brought back some sake from Japan that didn't last too long!

We eventually boarded and after a pretty miserable nap on the plane, we landed in Almaty.
After dropping our luggage and doing a short nap, we left the hotel to discover the not-anymore capital of Kazakhstan. With the devaluation of the national currency (the Tenge) in 2015 by almost 40%, it is possible to enjoy the country at a really reasonable cost and feel like a queen as Amelie is showcasing!

We eventually stopped to get a coffee in a restaurant requested by Amelie who was having a much stronger jetlag than I was. I had to search back into my really limited knowledge of Cyrillic (or commonly named Russian) alphabet to figure out how to order a coffee!

Almaty is a real big and modern city (population around 1.8 million). I was expecting something similar to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, but I could not have been more wrong! Of course, there are some crappy Russian-style-badly-looking building, but there are also some really nice and modern ones. One can certainly shop for a raw-bloody sheep head to a Swarovsky jewelry!

Kazakhstan, is to start, a much more modern and advance country than Kyrgyzstan. The streets of Almaty are wide and rather clean. It used to be the capital of Kazakhstan (and it's still its economic center), but the current president Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital to Astana in 1998. I was really surprised by how many pedestrian areas are present in Almaty making it really pleasant to stroll around town!

We eventually got dinner over a wine out of Crimea. I was first surprise to learn that some wine was produced in Crimea even though I knew that wine are produced everywhere on the planet, but after the first sip, I eventually understood why I never heard of it!

We spent the next day pretty much repeating our previous one as we hadn't overcome our jetlag…

The following day, we moved to an hotel located close to Shymbulak.

Shymbulak is the 'largest' and most upscale resort of Kazakhstan. Located only 30-40minutes out of Almaty, it is only a short trip for the population of Almaty to visit. The road that leads to the resort is closed to the general public. Only some taxis and a shuttle bus are allowed to make the trip up and down this really steep road. If you don't have any luggage, you can always make the trip to Medeu and take a gondola all the way to the ski base of Shymbulak.

We had to make a trip with one taxi from Almaty to Medeu and then change taxi to complete our journey to the Namaste 2000m hotel located between Shymbulak and Medeu.

We hiked up to the base of the resort to exercise a bit.
As we got there, we certainly have the impression that we were in a European resort minus… that you could take pictures with an eagle at the base!
We eventually hit the slopes the following day after waiting for about an hour for the shuttle bus.

As we got to the top, it was obvious that a pretty strong wind event had occurred not too long ago. The ridges were stripped clean of their snow on one side. As for what was on the proper slopes, the conditions were rather hardpacked snow.

We tried to ski a bit around the resort, but everywhere we tried, we either hit some wind-hammered snow or a deep sugary bottomless snowpack typical of a continental climate.

Where there isn't that much snow in one place and when the temperatures are really cold, the whole snowpack turn non-consistent and sugary. When you try to ski it, one quickly sinks down and the buried hazard are then quite dangerous since you are pretty much skiing the rocks underneath!

This snowpack was somehow similar to what I experienced in Kyrgyzstan a few years back. We skied Shymbulak for another day trying and searching for some good skiable areas. With the incident I had in Kyrgyzstan related to a shitty snowpack, I wasn't much in the mood to venture too far on my first days of skiing.

The conditions of the snowpack could be due to a bit less snow this year than in average (around 70% of the normal from what we were told) and a really cold snap that happened in late January. Anyhow, that is too bad since the mountains around Shymbulak are really impressive and their ease of access is also quite phenomenal.

After packing up our stuff from the Namaste hotel, we jumped into a taxi for an almost 2 hours journey towards Ak-Bulak.

Ak-Bulak is the second largest ski resort in Kazakhstan.
We arrived fairly late and we quickly had to exchange with the staff of the Alma-AkBulak hotel who was speaking a really limited (to non-existent…) English. A little phrasebook and Google Translate helping, we were able to understand each others! They are certainly compensating their lack of perfect English by the welcoming attitude!

Located a few kilometers down the road from the ski station, we had to jump into a taxi with an interesting ski-carriage technique! Taxi rides are always somewhat interesting!

Ak-Bulak is much steeper than Shymbulak.
Its lower portion is rather flat, but its upper portion is really nice and steep! The wind, even if it was less than in Shymbulak left scars here as well!

There is also some slackcountry lookers left of the upper chairlift, but we were quickly warn (at every run!...) by the patrollers not to go there in plain simple terms: No guide, no go!

So we had to stay inbound… or kind-of.
Fortunately, steeper portion of Ak-Bulak is not groomed at all and there is some really nice hidden couloirs that we could get to out of the sight of the patrollers.

The snowpack was slightly better, but not that great either.
We were holding our horses a bit since we were hitting logs and stumps that were hidden a bit everywhere. It was much safer to ski where someone had previously skied than trying to ski an untracked area where our skis would usually sink all the way to the ground…

We skied it for another day.
We couldn't help but be wondered how good this resort would be after a proper snowstorm or in good snow conditions! With steep and constant fall line, it is hard not to dream about hitting it with the right timing!

We are now in Almaty trying to figure out what our next adventure will be.
There is different options in the sack, as taking a 18 hours bus north east towards Ridder, check out some apparent backcountry near Tekesu or move west towards Shymkent to check what the snow looks like around there.

As bummed as we are about the skiing conditions, we are pretty excited about the whole Kazakh mountains! Certainly, an interesting adventure to discover the mountains of Kazakhstan!

Stay tune for more non-planned mountain-discovery on skis!