I enjoy traveling the world as much as I love skiing, so much so that I made it my career starting in 2000 as a ski instructor at Killington, VT and then a decade later I started The Adventure Project where I offer guided tours of under-the-radar international destinations for the last 13 years. One part of the job that I look forward to the most is exploring on my own in order to find new and unique destinations for my clients.
Probably my most notable adventure from the last season was my trip to Kyrgyzstan. I was invited to the country by a non-profit organization that specializes in promoting recreational tourism in countries that are off the beaten path. They had been running a new cat skiing operation in the Eastern Kyrgyzstan, near Karakol and not too far from the Chinese border.
I had been to the neighboring country of Uzbekistan in 2022 where I had an amazing time, and my plan was to keep exploring the former Soviet countries in that region. When I received the invite in February I was excited to take advantage of the opportunity to tick another one of the 'stans' off my bucket list. I accepted the offer and along with my friend Gary we made plans to head to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in late March.
It was easiest to fly to Istanbul and then book a separate flight to Bishkek from there. I arranged a stopover in Istanbul for a couple of days and had a friend show me around. Then it was onto Bishkek. It was a 5-hour flight from Istanbul and we arrived at 2:30 a.m. The security personnel were very friendly and when they saw our ski bags they asked us if we were going to Karakol, to which we said yes. They were excited to see visitors coming to Kyrgyzstan in order to discover what they already knew to be special, and they sent us on our way with good wishes.
We had a driver waiting for us and it was about a 40-minute drive to get to the hotel. I was exhausted so fell asleep quickly. After a decent sleep, I made it down just in time for breakfast and then we had a little walk around the city near the hotel. We needed to buy a few odds and ends and it was easy to find what we needed. We had a nice dinner of kebabs, munty (filled dumplings), somsa (meat pastries), and fermented horse milk. Yum!
The next day we were up around 5am to meet the rest of our group which included a couple of ski industry folks from Holland, a guide from Georgia and an English teacher from Almaty. We then started with a tour around the main square of Bishkek before we started our 275 mile drive to Jyrgalen, a small former mining town where we would be cat skiing for a couple of days and familiarizing ourselves with what makes this region unique and inviting.
Our first stop was a visit to the historical Burana Tower, a beautiful minaret that is the only structure remaining from the ancient city of Balasagun dating back to the Middle Ages. Next stop was a thermal pool complex on the side of Issyk-Kul Lake, the second largest salt lake by surface area in the world at over 3875 sq. mi. Let's just say it's an impressive body of water! Then we had a quick stop in the city of Karakol which is the 4th largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of over 84,000 and the regional capital. It's only 93 miles from the Chinese border. We were definitely out there!
Our destination was the village of Jyrgalen just another 35 miles from Karakol. We were staying at a new homestay that had several cabins. It had an amazing view of the mountains and felt very rural with a working farm next door. After our arrival we were taken out to where they had a couple of modern Pisten Bully snow cats with large cabins on the back for bringing passengers up the mountains. We had a great time exploring the terrain with their team of international guides. The terrain is expansive with some very long runs and great views. Unfortunately, it was late season and the snow was cycling in the sun and the cover was thinning, but you could see the potential the terrain offered in mid-winter.
The next day we did some touring to reach the higher terrain and even more stunning views and we got some nice photos with amazing panoramas. We enjoyed a lovely traditional dinner in a yurt in the village before driving back to Karakol for our next stop for a couple of days.
We had a lovely drive up to the stunning Turgen Jaloo Pass where we met the friendly local snow clearing team and enjoyed several stops to take photographs. The next day we visited the Karakol ski area. Unfortunately, it had just closed for the season but there was plenty of snow up high so we jumped on some horses and went for a trek to the snowline and then skinned up from there. The terrain at the top looked perfect for freeriding and they have a huge off-piste zone that would be amazing with fresh snow on it.
That afternoon, we headed out to a shooting range run by some ex-Kyrgyz army men to fire some AK-74’s and sniper rifles. That was quite an unexpected experience! We had a big celebratory meal at a city restaurant and then we were up early for the all-day drive to get back to Bishkek.
This time we would take the south side of Issyk-Kul Lake. Our first stop was the beautiful sandstone gorge of Jeti Oguz before we returned to our long lakeside drive on the way back to the capital. Towards the end of the lake, we stopped at an encampment of yurts and there we would meet a local family who were eagle hunters, and this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We saw watched a father and his two sons go through various displays of eagle hunting, horseback riding, and archery while learning all about their heritage and culture. It was extremely heartfelt and their skills were amazing. The two golden eagles and their falcon were very well-treated and we were made to feel like part of their family. What an amazing way to top off our journey.
We arrived at Bishkek late that night and I had a good night’s sleep. I had the day in Bishkek but spent most of it visiting various hospitals as the hearing in my right ear suddenly went! It was a little scary but they just needed cleaning and after that, I had my hearing back. I flew out the next day.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience. It didn’t matter that the snow had not been great, we could see the potential and it would be fun skiing in the middle of winter and offered fantastic views. More than that though were the amazing experiences we had had. We met so many friendly people who were very excited to meet us and share their culture. I can’t wait to go back in the middle of winter in order to experience the best that their mountains offer.
-- Matt Appleford
Matt Appleford started The Adventure Project in 2010 where he operates guided trips to under-the-radar international destinations with great snow and skiing along with new and unique cultures offering once in a lifetime experiences. Matt has a degree in Leisure Sciences with a minor in Eco-Recreation. His career started at Killington, VT as a ski instructor in 2000, and he has worked at resorts across the Western US, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and Austria.