“I knew the experience would be entirely new,” says Fitzgerald, of choosing the country as a destination for his tours. “Riding a horse to trailheads, interacting with local guides, and drinking tea halfway up the mountain isn’t really something you get elsewhere.”
And that’s part of what Kyrgyzstan wants to offer visitors—a multi-faceted, immersive visit. In 2000, the country began an effort to brand itself as a tourist destination, with the opening of a Community-Based Tourism (CBT) office in the capital city of Bishkek. The association’s main focus is on sustainable tourism: developing an industry around the natural environment that can stimulate local economies, while also preserving cultural and natural resources. Local community members make up the tourism infrastructure in each destination, serving as guides, porters, homestay hosts, and cooks—and the CBT requires 80 to 85 percent of profits to go to local families and businesses.
Today, there are CBT groups at 15 different destinations throughout the country, offering cultural and active excursions like skiing, but also trekking, horseback riding, and village tours. Engaging in any of those activities, visitors are guaranteed to meet a number of locals and learn about Kyrgyz culture.
My trip, the inaugural excursion of Northeast Mountaineering, brought this to life. Even reaching Arslanbob was a full-fledged adventure: We first flew in to Bishkek, a 15-hour-plus journey from the East Coast of the U.S., then hopped on a short flight to the city of Osh before spending the rest of the day driving to Arslanbob. We passed the rural villages of a once-nomadic Kyrgyz people—a melting pot of cultures sculpted from centuries on the Silk Road trade route—who continue to live off the land. We also stopped to explore the 2,000-year-old-city of Uzgen, sampling noodle dishes with horse meat (laghman was a group favorite), lepyoshka, which is a round, crispy bread baked in a tandoor, and dumplings like samsa.
A local Kyrgz man grabs a meal after competing in a race with traditional snowshoes.
A snowboarder enjoys fresh powder turns on a ridge leading to the summit of Jaz-Jarym.
Upon arrival in Arslanbob, we dropped our things at the modest home of an English teacher, Mashhur, who was part of the local CBT’s homestay program. And so began our new routine: Each morning, we’d sit cross-legged around a table on the floor of a small, coal-heated guest room (which was only slightly warmer than the sub-freezing temperature outside), enjoying a homemade breakfast of eggs, crepes, walnuts, jam, hot tea, and instant coffee, before heading to the slopes. We’d spend hours backcountry skiing—that is, hiking up to then make turns in light, untracked powder far above the village and forests below. We’d stop only for homemade lunches, usually traditional pasta and rice dishes, served on a table and benches carved into the snow by our guides. Each day was marked by hoots and hollers of joy echoing deep into the mountains, as we became lost in clouds of dry powder snow.
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And where you can try it.
It was clear we had discovered a ski destination that rivals the best in the world, with ski zones ranging from the low-angle forests, to steep, high-alpine bowls and couloirs, all within a few hours’ walk (or horseback ride) from the town’s center. The dry snow, reminiscent of that in Utah or Chamonix, is left untouched for weeks after a storm. There isn’t much competition for first tracks. In fact, aside from the handful of locals who ski around Arslanbob, we were the only foreign visitors during the entire 2021 to 2022 ski season.