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Steppes to the Sky

Steppes to the Sky

Travel
By Simon Richmond
posted: 01/11/2005

If you're used to having a perky young liftie help you plant yourself in the chairlift, you may find the lift attendants at Chimbulak particularly troubling: old men with skin the texture of tanned leather, stripped down to their saggy underpants and sunbathing Russian style-standing up. If the temperature drops below freezing, they may wrap themselves in fur coats, heads hidden beneath colorful babushkas, instead. (Yet another reason to pray for snow.)

Needless to say, you don't come to Kazakhstan to ogle the ski-bunny staff. The Central Asian nation is most commonly associated (if associated at all) with the grassy steppes across which its nomadic peoples once roamed, but it's the mountain ranges on its southeast flank that draw hearty skiers from Asia and Europe to its largely unknown powder stashes and terrain.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles make light work of the steep and rocky road up to the resort, 13 miles south of the former capital of Almaty. At the end of the road is the Shymbulak Gorge and the base station of the ski resort (which retained its Soviet-era spelling). Broad, pine-fringed slopes, sheltered from avalanches, cover a variety of terrain-from the rocky, ice-coated peaks surrounding 10,368-foot Talgar Pass down to various bunny slopes. The view from the pass, a glorious panorama of the Tien Shan, or Heavenly, mountain range that stretches to the horizon, is awe-inspiring. These peaks shield Chimbulak from the winds, while the altitude keeps it free of the fog that shrouds Almaty, offering prime conditions for the ski season, December through April.

The Soviet alpine ski program never had the same cachet as, say, the Austrian team, but its talent was nonetheless nurtured at Chimbulak. In 1954, the first ski lifts were installed. The resort then hosted the Soviet National Championships five times over the next 40 years. From 1983 to 1991, Chimbulak was the Winter Olympics training center for Soviet athletes, and the four-story hotel that housed them still provides typically severe Russian-style accommodations of a retro-yet-passable nature. In 1998, the lifts were updated, save the highest, which remains a cranky single-seater that drops skiers at an 11,000-foot ridge atop Talgar Pass.

Wine bars are not yet the norm at the base, but if you're up for a rousing round of bowling, you're in luck. The recent addition of a bowling alley-something no self-respecting town in the former Soviet comrade states seems to be without these days-enhances the resort's otherworldly feel. But before leaving the mountains, make a point of tasting authentic Kazakh culture: At Kazak Aul restaurant, patrons dine in yurts-the carpeted tents of the nomadic Kazakhs-on kazy, a horsemeat sausage, or besbarmak, a mutton stew served atop broad sheets of pasta. Like a two-inch-thick porterhouse in Jackson Hole, this hearty fare can't be beat after a day on the slopes. Just don't glance over at the lift attendants-you might lose your appetite.

DECEMBER 2004

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