Kazakhstan’s mountain ranges are rapidly becoming an up-and-coming destination for skiing and snowboarding holidays for tourists from across the globe. Tourists are attracted by Kazakhstan’s stunning scenery and quieter slopes than many of the more popular European destinations.
The slopes of Shymbulak receive a royal seal of approval
The resort of Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak, near Almaty, received a boost via a visit from Prince Harry and his girlfriend Cressida Bonas in March 2014. President Nazarbayev, himself a keen skier, has also been seen on the slopes there. Ski tourism has been steadily increasing by around 20% year on year in the region, with Shymbulak in particular attracting a somewhat wealthier crowd, being popular with expats, foreign visitors, and the Kazakh elite, although it is also starting to attract a more middle class local crowd these days. The resort boasts a ski school ,as well as a snow park, jumps, a slalom course, and regular night skiing trips. Shymbulak’s convenient location, just a 25-minute drive from the lively downtown Almaty, means that the après-ski scene is well catered for, with plenty of trendy restaurants, bars, and clubs to pass away the winter evenings.
Best for beginners and families – Lesnaya Skazka and Tau Turan
Lesnaya Skazka is one of the larger resorts. The slopes here don’t get steeper than 35 degrees, so it won’t impress seasoned pros, but for newer skiers and kids, it’s ideal. Accommodation around here tends to be family-friendly, and although there are restaurants and bars, there isn’t the kind of nightlife that you’d find in Shymbulak or Almaty. Other than skiing, there is an ice rink and snow tubing, also known as horse cylinders or ‘cheesecakes’ from $1.50for one lift.
Tau Turan is a smaller resort, but it still has plenty to please and is good for those on a budget, since it tends to be cheaper than the bigger resorts. Transport can be arranged from Almaty centre, which is an advantage for those who are not able to rent vehicles. There is a ski school here and snow tubing available and there is some off-piste skiing around here for more adventurous skiers. Tau Turan is down to earth; it’s popular with locals, and you’re more likely to see families sharing a flask of tea and a packed lunch or grabbing a quick shashlik from the local food truck than hanging out in trendy cafés. It’s a quieter scene here and families should be prepared to make their own entertainment away from the slopes or head into Almaty.
Best for improvers and advanced – Ak-Bulak
Ak-Bulak is around 40km east of Almaty in the Tien Shan mountain region and is overlooked by the majestic Talgar peak. There are 5000m of ski trails here, including off-piste routes, a lot of which are suitable for intermediate to advanced skiers. There are some beginner routes and ski instruction is available, so this makes it suitable for mixed ability groups. Night skiing is also available here. Families with older children and larger groups of adults are well catered for at the Akbulak Hotel complex, where there are ample entertainment facilities, including a bowling alley, pool and billiards, an indoor pool, and plasma TVs. The Akaydin ice concert complex also hosts regular sporting and entertainment events.
Best for freeriders – Elik-Sai
Off-pisters and adrenaline seekers will love Elik-Sai, which features higher-graded routes, including a couple of black-graded descents, and the terrain is described as less ‘manicured’ than some of the more popular resorts. It is also close to the family-run Pioneer ski resort, which is something of an alternative destination that’s popular with families, so if you have a mixed-ability group, daredevils can head to Elik-Sai while the newbies learn on the gentler slopes of Pioneer. The Pioneer resort has also set out plans to offer an adaptive skiing and mountaineering programme in place for children with special needs, which isdue to launch by the end of 2016. Cross-country skiers will also find Elik-Sai appealing, with easy access to the Trans-Ili-Alatau routes.
Best for snowboarders – Knyazhy Gory
Knyazhy Gory is located in East Kazakhstan in the Ozkemen area. It’s one of the lesser-known resorts to non-locals, but is rumoured to be one of the better places for snowboarding. Be warned though – it’s extremely cold in this region, so wrap up and take your thermals.
For ski-jumpers – the Sunkar International Ski Jumping Complex
This acclaimed ski jumping centre in Almaty is one of the top complexes in the world. It hosts prestigious ski jumping competitions every year and has modern equipment that can be used in both snow and artificial turf mode.
Something different – heli-boarding
Hardened thrill-seekers will love heli-boarding in Kazakhstan. Old Soviet military helicopters are often used for the journey up, which is an experience in itself. As long as you are prepared and dressed for the cold, you can access much more interesting and higher routes via heli-boarding, although it does of course involve a higher cost. You must usually be over 18 to participate, although some operators will allow teenagers aged 14+ to participate with their parent/guardian. Insurance is an absolute must.
If you can’t decide on a resort, then there are ski tours available, mostly in the Tien Shan area, where you get to experience different areas over a period of 1-7 days accompanied by a mountain guide. You must usually have your own equipment to participate.
Whatever your preference for winter sports, there’s something for everyonein Kazakhstan.