One of my favorite hobbies is skiing, and I was super stoked for an opportunity to shred some snow on the beautiful slopes of the Tien Shan. Other SRAS students Ross and Mikaela and I planned a ski trip for one of our last weekends of the semester. There are several ski slopes in mountainous Kyrgyzstan. There are a few small ones around Bishkek but the country’s largest complex is at Ski Base Karakol. Located a cool 314 kilometers from Bishkek, it was a long trip but we were excited for it. We gave ourselves three days, taking advantage of one of our long weekends.
We left Bishkek on Friday morning at 10:30 am from the western avtovokzal and paid 350 som (5 USD) for the six-hour ride. One of the down-sides to public transportation in Kyrgyzstan is that the shared taxis and marshrutkas don’t leave until every seat is filled, which makes it quite crowded. Despite a limited amounts of leg-space, the trip went a little faster than we expected.
I booked two nights at the Snow Leopard Hostel which was recommended on the Expats in Bishkek Facebook group. It is centrally located with a marshrutka stop located directly across the street. A bed in a shared dorm room cost $15 per night. A breakfast of homemade pancakes cost an additional $1.50 per day and they were delicious! The marshrutka brought us to Karakol at about 5:00 pm. After some haggling, we found a taxi for 100 som to take us to our hostel that was about 2 kilometers from the bus stop. We had no problem finding our hostel. We were greeted by the owner and his family who live next door to the hostel. Their role was very host-like as they arranged breakfast and our next two days of skiing. That night, we took a stroll to the Russian Orthodox Church and a enjoyed dinner at Lux Cafe, recommended to us by our hosts.
Our host offered to drive us to the ski hill and pick us up both days for 600 som (8.60 USD) each way, 2400 som (34.40 USD) total. This was incredibly convenient; blogs I looked at said taxis to the ski hill and back could cost around 1500 som (21.47 USD) one way (especially as a tourist). Additionally, the road to the ski hill is poor and one should be cautious about getting into a car without four wheel drive. There is a tourist park entry fee of 250 som (3.60 USD) per person as well.
Our host also took us to an equipment rental shop in the town which was cheaper than renting skis and snowboards at the ski hill. A ski rental package included boots, skis, and poles for 1000 som (14.30 USD) per day; a snowboard rental package included boots and a board for 800 som (11.45 USD) each day. Helmets and goggles are not available to rent at the ski hill but at the equipment shop, a helmet was 250 som (3.60 USD) per day and goggles were 100 som (1.43 USD) per day. Our host’s car could accommodate all of our gear. I carried a backpack with me for our wallets, snacks, chairlift beer, and extra gear. We paid 100 som to store our boots in lockers each day at the ski hill.
Our host also had the cards that are scanned to access the chairlift that he sold to us for 100 som each; they cost 200 som (2.86 USD) at the ski hill. The ski passes themselves each cost 1200 (17.18 USD) for a full weekend day (not including the card that is scanned to get onto the chairlift). As it was December and the beginning of the season, the snow cover wasn’t great and the runs weren’t groomed. The snow was slippery and with the rocks and dirt peeking out from under the snow. I honestly felt fairly unsafe and had to maintain a slower speed than I usually prefer to in order to prevent a spill.
There are three lifts; we took the highest chairlift to the top of the mountain where there was some untouched powder and more comfortable snow to ride on. At 9,973 feet, the view from the top of the lift is stunning. Mountains stretch on for miles around. There was a map that showed the runs and their levels (easy, intermediate, and difficult) but the runs weren’t named and there was a limited amount of signs on the mountain. We searched for powder in the trees, however, and always found our way to the bottom.
One important thing to keep in mind when staying and skiing in Karakol is that many businesses don’t take cards. Yandex Taxi also doesn’t operate in Karakol, so be prepared to haggle with cab drivers and pay with cash or take a marshrutka around town. Payments at the ski rental shop and ski base were all done with cash. There are several hotels at the ski base with ATMs in the lobby and ATMs are easily found in the town as well. The hostel was reserved through booking.com with amounts quoted in USD, however, once there, we had to pay in cash with local currency.
On our last day, we departed Karakol at 6:00 pm after a full day of skiing. At the avtovokzal we found a marshrutka departing for Bishkek and paid 350 again for the ride. We arrived home at midnight and slept soundly after a great weekend of skiing.