Together with an international mishmash of over 300 Russian, Islamic, Asian and Turkic-looking faces, we sit in the huge belly of an elderly Ilyushin II-96 after a stopover in Moscow and thunder with the thrust of four engines at 870 kilometers per hour towards Central Asia, towards the Tien-Shan Mountains. Destination is the airport of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic newly independent since 1991.
Our Soviet widebody jet has almost as many years of service under its belt as the by no means democratically elected president-dictator, Uzbekistan’s first and only. You can tell. Luggage compartments open up as if touched by magic hands, white mist wafts from the air conditioner, signal sounds bleep and stutter constantly and the leanback function to our seats is obviously defective. Nevertheless, there is no reason for Ilyushin-bashing or Aeroflot-mockery; the big thing flies as stable as an albatross and has an interior like the domed hall of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Add to that the light impact Aeroflot’s beautifully simple online booking system had on our credit card; for the round-trip flight from Düsseldorf to Tashkent including extremely overweight ski bags we parted with a meagre 450 euros.“The real beauty lies always inside” says Akki, the oracle. It quickly becomes clear to me what he means by that. Thus, although an Ilyushin may be rickety and convey nothing other than the technological wizardry of the 80s, it only adds to the charm of the ladies in dark blue uniforms with short skirts, whirring between the three rows of seats with cheeky berets, perfect make-up and a bleached toothpaste smile. The industrious bees are stewardesses straight from the catalog. Slender, with flawless features, long hair down to the rear, and chassis reminiscent of the spiderlegged Russian Lunar Module LUNA-9. My thoughts sway between a flash wedding in the kitchen module, smooching in the toilet cabin or the spontaneous creation of an Eastern modeling agency up here above the clouds.
This will not pass! We 3 Western tourists actually manage to resist the Russian juice-pushing beauties consistently and prefer to let the powder suck the bills out of our pockets. Finally, after a long planning phase we are on the verge of fulfilling our ski dreams: the vast, lonely and more than 4,000 m high Uzbek part of the Tien Shan Mountains. At the badly-timed hour of 02.30 AM, old aunty Ilyushin touches down in Tashkent with its load of young mannequins and middle-aged freeride globetrotters.
Of course, we still sneak once last eager glance at our beautiful flight attendants on the way down from the tarmac, but our thoughts are now laser-focused on the incredibly long line at the customs counter, and the snow-covered mountain ranges waiting for us on the other side, whose slopes are certainly far more virginal than the aero-dashing beauties we left behind.
With a skeptic look my visa is accepted by a customs official dressed in olive green, but the import declaration I just completed in duplicate, he supplements with all sorts of scribbles and underlines, expressing at the same time in whatever is Uzbek for “make it snappy, son” that I can fill in the whole thing again. The delay doesn’t hurt that much, because the most important things have just come rolling from the baggage carousel – our skis and travel bags. Time to get the hell out of the nightly bustle of Toshkent Xalqaro Aeroporti.
Surrounded by people at the exit gate, all wearing brown coats and fur hats, we are greeted by our travel companion and Russia expert Mathias Andrä at the last wire fence lock of this eastalgic airport. Dog-tired after the long journey we get in a waiting Isuzu van, aching to get to the hotel and into the horizontal. But 6 Swiss fellow travelers in our party were not so lucky. Their ski and board bags got stuck during the transfer at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The American Brent never arrived. His flight from Idaho already ended at JFK Airport in New York due to snow chaos.
First impressions of Uzbekistan
In a multi-story downtown hotel we sleep off our jetlag and treat ourselves at noon to a sightseeing tour of the metropolis of nearly 3 million inhabitants in which a savage mix of over 60 nationalities was whisked together in a series of Soviet resettlement measures. Meanwhile, a possible hint of US boarder Brent and the Swiss equipment is emerging. Not before dawn the following day, however.
The sun, pouring down from the blue Asian sky, the unusually low temperatures, the recent snowfall and last but not least the longing glances thrown by us towards the mountains, lead us to stop procrastinating in the capital, and we head off as the vanguard to the Tien-Shan Mountains.
We roll through streets of dilapidated Russian apartment blocks, chaotic traffic, lush magnificent buildings and the bustling business district. It slowly dawns on us, why the translation of Tashkent is “place of stones”.
We reach the dingy-brown suburbs, feel the knee-deep potholes in the lumbar vertebrae and wonder about the pig halves shining in the sun next to doorways, or marauding gangs of chicken near the roadside. Finally, we rumble along an elongated concrete runway of snow-covered fields and past the dilapidated village of Olmaliq to see the shining white foothills of the Tien Shan glow on the horizon in the golden late afternoon light. The mountain chain is huge in size and extends over the territories of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. We get a premonition of why Tien-Shan in Chinese means “Heavenly Mountains”.
Our final destination lands us at a row of aging Soviet hotels directly on the turquoise Akhangaran reservoir. On the far left, the hotel has an imported bowling alley, in the ramshackle copy on the far right the ground floor has been transformed into goat sheds. We’re in the middle one. The dinner is surprisingly good, a mix of Turkish-Arab and Russian dishes. For the rich meat dishes probably a lamb from next door was sacrificed. Are included in the price as a free table drink: 2 bottles of vodka for every 4 people. “Well then, sdorowje”, we let the Russian toast resound again and again. The evening takes its course.
Finally, freeride heaven
Although we wear colorful bobble hats, we put on a helmet the next morning, when our giant helicopter awaits us under a perfect blue sky. We are a motley freeride crew of six Swiss, five Germans and two Americans, addressed by chief organizer Mathias Andrä. Ten years ago, Andrä was here for the first time, since 2006, he has been taking small groups. “Once, in Kühtai in Austria, I met the producer for Warren Miller’s films. He told me that shortly after Tashkent the Uzbek Tien-Shan starts at 400m and shoots up from there to 4,600 meters. Paired with heavy snowfall in January and February, this makes for the longest freeride lines on this planet, “says Mathias. He should know, because in the Mission Powder movie he was traveling a lot – from the Alps to Japan and the Caucasus to Alaska.
We can’t wait to take on these incredibly long runs in the heavenly mountains. Our carrier is truly unique. A skybus seating 16, the MI 8 went into production in 1967. Our helicopter is the MTB mountain version, with more powerful turbines. In the cockpit sits a trio of pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer who can theoretically fly up to heights of 7.200 m.
Too high for us pale-faces; 4.000 meters will be our magic limit. While the engines ignite, amidst deafening noise a jet of fire exits the turbine, and we take off for our Uzbek powder dreams. Hard to imagine that in such a vast mountain range, we are the only crew traveling here by helicopter to ski or snowboard.
Why this is so, Mathias explains to me under the howling noise of the helicopter turbines: “There are only two of these helicopters here in Uzbekistan. With one we fly, the other is in Tashkent and could help us out in an emergency.” I prefer not to think why he is speaking in the subjunctive. Instead I enjoy the view from the heli-porthole on the incredibly imposing mountains. Such bold and exotic summits with countless snow-covered ridges I have never seen before.
The area through which our MI-8 chugs is as large as Tyrol. Many runs are still nameless. Named already are the German, Japanese and Slovenian Towers, the runs around the Triangolar, shaped like a Mercedes star, and the slopes of Kaptarkomirch that recall the splendor of the sun on a silver bird. Lastly, the huge area of Padir (uncle in English) has the longest runs: more than 2.000 meters above sea level, up to 10 kilometers of track length. We fly towards the Ichnatch-slopes and land at almost 3.800 meters at the Slovenian Tower. Bringing snow, crystal hail and noise chaos, the giant helicopter hovers away and disappears behind the next rock wall. Then there is absolute silence. Deeply impressed we look at the breathtaking scenery and the snow-covered slopes and mountain ranges, surrounding us on all sides.
Typical of the runs here are steep summit slopes of about 500 to 600 meters above sea level and subsequent long cruising passages at more than 1.000 meters above sea level. It starts. Finally, we delve into the Asian powder, film and photograph what we can, while looking out for the parking spot of our troop carrier, to take us to new destinations again. On the third summit plateau other Tien Shan residents had already scurried away. In true tracker-style, we identify the fresh paw tracks of 3 snow leopards, and from the helicopter we get to see them live on a later run, as they run away, gathering pace through the deep snow.
10 fat runs are on the odometer at 15.30 when we head back home. Not, of course, before consuming some glasses of highly concentrated national drink. A highly doped poker tournament with stacks and stacks of worthless sum notes ensues. With tired legs and faces red from the mountain sun, we drag ourselves into our rooms.
The next morning, the same clouds that show up in the sky are floating around in our brain. But the heli starts anyway and during the day the vodka haze clears and our minds focus on the horizon. The lines today are again simply breathtaking, and indescribable, just like the first day. My only concern is how quickly you get used to the luxury of freeriding by helicopter support. Crawl up the Alps for a whole day to tick off a single line in the deep snow, in the Tien Shan this happens in 30-minute intervals.
We were considering how to best shoot video from the heli. The matter was resolved after five minutes of flight, when the Russian mountain guide Denis Grigorev saw us clumsily pressing our lenses against the portholes. “Don’t you want to open the windows,” he asked. Camera out, head out – in the MI-8 no problem.
A trip to the bazaar
Of course skiing in Uzbekistan also thrives on the excitement of traveling. Central Asian exoticism and hospitality combine with the multicultural people mix of the ancient Silk Road. Everywhere a wild mess and friendly chaos leaves us Europeans to wonder how in this developing country with all its simplicity and poverty everything seems to work. (Editor’s note: it just seems to work)
We make a trip to the huge bazaar in Tashkent in the pouring rain. This is excellent, since what drops here as water, turns to snow in the mountains. The traders offer clothing from 1001 nights: fur hats and sultanic robes as well as wedding gowns, hairdressing, hand knotted carpets, electronic accessories from the founding era of mobile phones and fake football shirts of Real Madrid or FC Barcelona.
Stallholders seduce with fragrant spices piled into pyramids and stacks of pita bread, while women hawk cottage cheese and cream cheese in large plastic laundry bowls. Others present deep-red raw cuts of beef next to the ubiquitous food stalls grilling shashlik skewers and sizzling soups in battered pots.
We test a variety of garlic-heavy snacks, but decide to spend the evening in a traditional restaurant in Tashkent. The menu sounds tasty, as does the belly dance performance. Although the distances in the Uzbek metropolis are enormous, a taxi is quickly found. Simply stand on the curb, stick your hand out and seconds later the first-best private car stops. Each car here in Tashkent is a potential taxi in which you can go for a ridiculous amount from A to B through the city.
We make use of this alternative transport in the next few days in the mountains with all our ski equipment. The peaks are hidden among clouds and overnight 20 centimeter of new snow has fallen. In the dreary fog our heli is shrouded in tarpaulins on the runway: he will not fly for us any more. But we have a bad weather alternative.
Bad-weather alternative Chimgan
It’s hard to believe, but here in the secluded western reaches of the Tian Shan there is actually a small ski resort whose 2 rickety lifts date back to Soviet times and are fired up when people somehow end up here. Chimgan is the name of this place. Its dilapidated hotel ruins and scattered cottages lie at 1,600 meters and 3,309 meters high.
The path on the bumpy and potholed mountain road there takes about an hour. But, behind the 3rd hairpin a militia unit lurks and asks for papers. Theycannot be persuaded, with a stack of sum or other bribes, to let us continue our onward journey. 2 weeks ago, the government in Tashkent came up with the idea that, whenever there is fresh snowfall, the mountain roads are too dangerous, and small buses cannot drive.
“Normal cars are allowed to drive, however,” smiles Mathias, after he has discussed for some time with the highest ranking police officer. The transfer begins. As if they knew, around the bend come 4 drivers of rickety USSR-era Ladas, cramming our skis into the car and us onto the back bench. Through deep tracks in the snow, the rust bucket convoy then drags itself in the direction of Chimgan. From time to time we are stopped by unmoveable cattle. Our skis sticking out of the rear luggage compartment are used by our Uzbek driver to fearlessly slap some lean oxen on the rear.
Finally, we arrive at the lift station of Chimgan. The village youth is on the go on their horses, the rickety double chairlift is running, it’s clear we are the only skiers. A granny sells knitted hats, another has a mountain of a pale green herb in front of her that looks like a giant pile of marijuana. The lift with just 350 height meters costs around 1.50 euro and the man behind the register verifies if one of us is called Edward Snowden.
At the top of the 1,975 m summit station we are greeted by the friendly elevator attendant, complete with gold tooth grin, mirror glasses and camouflage jacket. Above it all sits the impressive scenery of the Peak Chimgan. Hiking up would have cost us an arduous 6 hours. Now the beautiful ridges can be reached after a mere 15 minute climb. Freeride competition, there is none. We can sail down the freshly powdered slopes with ease, dodging scattered boulders and stunted shrubs. Meanwhile the sun is struggling through the sea of clouds. At noon the last wisps of cloud have largely disappeared and a view of the incredibly wide mountain landscape opens up.
On our other runs with the chairlifts there are no skiers either, just love-struck couples and squadrons of walking vodka bottles.
Down in the delightfully ramshackle small town smoke rises on every corner. Lamb skewers steam on charcoal grills. Passing by locals without getting invited in the front yard and having to participate in a just-one-more vodka tasting is impossible. No one understands a word of English, we speak with our hands and feet until we shake up with laughter after a minute or two. The whole thing ends inevitably in traditional cap exchange.
For us, the time has come to say “Daswidania”. We will remember the monstrous freeride possibilities, the lonely expanses and the pure powder adventure in the Tien-Shan Mountains for a long time to come. What will stick even longer is the post-communist chaos, the simple lifestyle of the people, the exoticism of the Silk Road, the multicultural melting pot of Central Asia and the admirable daily art of improvisation, confidence and humility, that language which all Uzbeks show such a good command of.
Those skills we have unfortunately lost in our over-organized, materialistic western world. Just like the hospitality and friendliness. Both are in Uzbekistan – despite all the poverty – absolutely stunning. Especially in the mountain villages you cannot avoid the prompt to a welcome-schnapps or picnic anywhere. Heliskiing in Uzbekistan is thus not just about galactic lines and the snowy flanks of the Tien Shan, but just as much about the people!
You can find the original article in German at White Hearts.
Text and photos: copyright Dirk Wagener and Whitehearts.de. Translation and editing: Caravanistan