Thursday, February 15, 2018

Kazakh impressive redneck ski set-up!


The first taxi driver who showed us at the Alma-AkBulak hotel to pick us up was not able to get us back to Almaty due to our large ski bags. The second taxi driver that was called to give us a ride saw no problem with our ski bag.

He just put them on his roof and attached them with some really not-that-much resistant tape! He actually didn't try to do more than half a turn on his rack roof and just rely on the glue of the tape to hold on the ski bags! Due to the status of the roads in Kazakhstan, I was certainly not sure of his technique. Especially after trying to move the ski bags after he strapped them on the roof and see almost no improvement of the no-tape-at-all technique! Anyhow, I grabbed his Kaztigertape and improved a bit his setup and off we were to go back to Almaty!
At our arrival at the hotel, since our room was not ready, we sat in the staircase while waiting. Thomas, a Russian guy, who was staying at the hotel ask us what we were doing there… and if we would like a drink… We ended up spending the last part of the afternoon drinking a local Kazakh cognac.

Since we didn't had lunch, we told him that we were in the need for some food. He said that it was no problem and that he would come with us. He ordered a taxi and first thing we know, we weren't in a restaurant, but in a Karaoke bar!!!

Fortunately for us, the bar was not only serving another bottle of cognac, but also food!
We were really surprised by the Russian/Kazakh karaoke culture. We, as Canadian, see karaoke as a really good way to laugh at your equally drunk friend trying to sound accurate while singing songs that they know only half of the lyrics.

There was a group of women next to us who were actually singing really well… and drinking tea! They were really there solely for the pleasure of singing amongst friend.

But the most surprising thing for us was to find, within one of the 3 catalogues of songs, plenty of songs from Quebec!! We ended up singing some Robert Charlebois, Marjo, Les Cowboys Fringants and Jean Leloup to our fellow Russian speaking audience! When one of the lady realized that we were singing in French, she ordered a few songs of Lara Fabian which she was singing really well even if she could not speak a single word of French!

The following day, we met up with Vitaliy Rage. Vitaliy is a skier which is pushing the limit of skiing in Kazakhstan and developing the sport around Almaty via Freeride.kz and Powder.kz. He put up a free guidebook online about some backcountry runs that are available around Almaty and he is quite a resourceful person ski-wise for Kazakhstan. I think that anyone thinking about visiting Kazakhstan for skiing should contact him.

We spent a good 2-3 hours talking about skiing in Kazakhstan, the options, the snow, the best time to visit and also about the skiing in Canada. After a first coffee, that turned into two because we had so much to talk about, he led us to a good cheap restaurant from where we could buy some really tasty plov.

He pointed us a nice little tour that we could do. That would include a bus ride from Almaty to Medeu, skinning for a few hours towards Elik-Sai which is a kind of a cowboy-style ski place which is supposed to have a place to sleep and take a taxi back from there.

After leaving our luggage at the hotel where we were staying, we left with only our ski gear to take the bus. The bus from Almaty to Medeu was really crowded and we were pretty happy to have caught it at the first stop and to have a place for ourselves, our bags and our skis!

The trail that Vitaliy pointed us is used by a lot of people from Almaty as a hiking destination.

The ski conditions were really marginal. On the trail, it was fine, and the snow was solid enough to hike on it, but it was a different story when skiing down, the snowpack was shallow and the snow, not really consistent.

We ended up in the Butakovka Valley which we hiked up a bit before traversing and skiing down towards Elik-Sai.

The snow was really sugary and non-consistent, and we were really careful skiing down and the snow was really sluffing a lot despite not being on a really steep slope which was a clear indication of the instability of the snowpack.

Elik-Sai was even with less infrastructure than what I was expected!
We asked a guy who was doing mechanics on his truck in what was like the parking of the ski-hill if there was a room that we could rent for the night. After agreeing, he showed us a place that was pretty basic and a bit crappy, but since it looks like we could be warm sleeping, that was all we needed. It was located in a boat-shape building with what looks like different apartment where people seems to be living…

Then I asked him if there was anywhere that we could buy food. He kind of pointed really far-away so that I can understand that there was nothing around… Since there was like a little village of about 20-30 houses, I decided to check out if I could not find a place to buy food. After asking 3-4 different persons and walking around for around 1h30 following some vague indications in Russian, I ended up agreeing with a woman which agreed to cook us food for dinner. I went back to Elik-Sai to get Amelie and by the time we got back to the lady, dinner was ready and on the table!

She was really curious about how we got there and what we were doing there which, I do have to agree was unusual! After a really hearty dinner, we went back to our palace where we had a really good night of sleep.

The ski lifts at Elik-Sai consist only in a metal wire that is running up and which is powered by an electrical motor that you have to activate to get the metal wire going.

To use it, they handed us a belt with an aluminium handle at the end of a leach. That handle pries the metal wire and squeeze it. It provides enough friction to get you going up. At the top, there is a bunch of rubber lanyard that are forming a bumper that the handle hits and thus releasing itself from the metal wire. Once at the top, you have to look down if there is anyone coming up and if not, you got to stop the lift by pushing on the kill-switch.

Unfortunately, this setup is really hard on the back and with Amelie's back injury, that lift system was really not working for her.

I had a few laps by myself, but the conditions really needed a refresh.
We skied and hike to the nearby Pioneer ski base to check it out since they had a proper T-Bar that Amelie could use. That ski-base is only a beginner place. There is some interesting slopes that are shown in Vitaliy's guidebook, but with the quality of the snowpack we decided not to try them.

We went back to Almaty the same night after finding someone in the village which could act as a taxi driver to drive us down to the city.

We spend a day in the city wandering around. It is really impressive the clash that there is between some really fancy stores (like a dedicated Bogner store) and the availability to eat a really nice lunch for 2$...With some new snow on the forecast, we left to head back towards Ak-Bulak which, with its really nice terrain should be a nice place to spend the next few days.

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