Jyrgalan five years ago, there were no tourists at all, and now it is becoming the destination in Kyrgyzstan for ski touring. You’re away from the ski resorts, you’re away from the fancy cafes. You’re in the essence of true Kyrgyzstan.
The Tien Shan mountain range is an extension of the Himalayas found in Central Asia. The name, “Tien Shan” translates to “Heavenly Mountains”, and they are quite heavenly. With altitudes soaring above 7000 meters, these mountains provide a challenge from the novice to the professional climber/skier.
Our trip ski touring in the Tien Shan was confined to the more accessible range of the Terskey Ala Too region. This area of mountains located in proximity to Karakol provided great access to backcountry skiing on northernly aspects. There is an endless amount of terrain for enjoyable powder skiing and steep technical skiing, all being accessed by mountain roads through small Kyrgyz villages.
Winter of course! Kyrgyzstan is as far away you can get from any ocean so it has a continental climate; the snow is dry and the snowpack thin. This allows for great powder conditions, but also translates to a higher risk for avalanches.
December through January are cold and dry. Although the snowpack may be thin during these months, the quality of snow tends to be consistently good, being preserved by the cold temperatures. During the month of February, the temperature rises and spring may come early. Precipitation occurs more often in the forecast. March through May is the wet season. It snows a lot in the higher elevations, but will rain in the lower elevations.
A minimum of two weeks is needed to enjoy the touring areas of the Terskey Ala Too. You can spend less time than what is suggested, though you will not even scratch the surface of the popular areas. We spent two months exploring the region.
Once you arrive in Kyrgyzstan, everything is very cheap. This includes food, accommodation, gear, rentals and transportation.
Level of Experience
As mentioned above, this is a continental climate which means a thiner snowpack and prolonged avalanche hazards. Experience with avalanche mitigation is necessary. We suggest that at least one person in your group is certified with the equivalence of an Avalanche 2 course, while everyone else in the group has taken an Avalanche 1 course. Have the tools and know how to use them!
This past season (2018) was known as one of the worst snow seasons for snow as well as for avalanche danger. We reacted by only skiing slopes under 30 degrees. Anything over 30 degrees would slide, sometimes penetrating to the ground. This steepness may at first sound not attractive, but it sure does make for some good powder skiing and there is a lot of terrain out there under 30 degrees. On a better year, the steeper terrain opens up.
Backcountry Touring Areas
Jyrgalan is one of Krygyzstan’s premier backcountry resort areas and receives most of the lake effect snow in the region. Located only an hour from Karakol, Jyrgalan hosts plenty of terrain to keep you busy for at least one to two weeks. Much of the terrain is under 30 degrees making this place a great choice for those high avalanche danger days. If the snowpack is solid enough, you can find yourself skiing long steep couloirs and faces.
Getting there: Jump on the Marshutka from Karakol which leaves four times a day.
Accommodation: Jyrgalan has been developed in the last five years as a backcountry resort area, so you can find plenty of guest houses to stay at. The price of the guest house is usually around $10/person/night and may include breakfast and tea. An extra few dollars gets you dinner. Another option is to stay at Slava Miroshkin’s yurt camp. It is a bit pricy (~$100/night) but includes a snowmobile for your group, meals, and an outdoor sauna ready anytime of the day.
There is good terrain just behind Ak Bulun on the A364 road headed towards Engilchek. This is a good area to explore for a day or two. Much of the terrain is under 30 degrees but there is some steeper terrain in the main bowl. The mountains across the valley from this area looked fantastic to ski as well, but would require a lot more time to tour to.
Getting there: take a taxi or drive your own vehicle into the Turgenaksu valley via the A364. The skiable terrain is on the right. After crossing the first bridge in the canyon, park and tour up the noticeable road just after the bridge on the right. Once you ascend up the road, your objective will be in front of you.
Accomadation: Stay in Karakol
Located between Karakol and Ak Bulun, the area above the village of Ichke Jergez has a vast amount of skiable terrain. Unfortunately, this area is a private tenure leased out by the American owned company, 40 tribes. They lease this area out for seven weeks in the winter, so plan accordingly. One way to enjoy this terrain during this leased time frame is to rent out one of their yurts in this valley. You can spend more than a week exploring this area.
Getting There: take a taxi or drive up through the village of Ichke Jergez. Once the road becomes unfavorable, transition into your touring gear and head up valley first staying left of the creek, and then right when the valley forks.
Accommodations: Karakol or with Forty Tribes in the valley.
The mountains just behind Karakol provide excellent ski touring of a decent year. You can practically start your tour from the edge of town. The ski resort too has backcourtry accessible terrain right off the lift.
Getting There: From Bishkek, take the 6 hour Marshuka to Karakol which leaves many times throughout the day.
Ak Suu Valley
Deep in the Ak Suu valley, there are some big, steep mountains to ski. Though, the only way out there is by horse or snowmobile. We suggest staying at Slava Miroshkin’s Yurt Lodge deep in the valley and spending at least 3 to 4 days exploring this beautiful area.
Getting There: From Karakol, drive to the town of Ak Suu, then drive up the Ak Suu Valley. Near the end of the road, there is an obvious mountain road the winds up around the hill to your left. You will need to travel this road to the touring area via snowmobile or horse. Once at Slava’s Yurt Lodge, you will notice good terrain on the northernly aspects. There is a lot more terrain deeper into the valley accessible via snowmobile.
Accommodation: Karakol or the Ak Suu Yurt Lodge.
Just west of Karakol is the Jeti Oguz Canyon. There is good terrain here on the northernly aspects and it is fairly accessible.
Getting There: From Karakol, drive west to the town of Jeti Oguz, then south into the Jeti Oguz canyon. Park near the Jeti Oguz resort. Tour along the road, across the river and through the resort area. The valley will open up in front of you.