The Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan are as wild as it gets, completely off-the-radar for most of the ski world. There’s little ski infrastructure to speak of, and even finding your way to the mountains can be a challenge. For years, this has meant it’s inaccessible to all but the most pioneering backcountry skiers, but that’s slowly changing. Today, you can find a range of tour providers who know the area well and will remove most of the hassle for you, like 40 Tribes, TDC Expeditions, and Remote Corner. You can also book directly with a yurt camp, but you’ll have to be self-sufficient in navigating routes and controlling for avalanche risks. Some of the more popular ski touring regions are Issyk Kul, Jyrgalan, Ak-Tash near Chong Kyzyl-Suu, Suusamyr Valley, Arslanbob, Char Valley, and Song Kol. Ak-Tash has the benefit of hot springs being just 2 miles away, while Issyk Kul and Song Kol are both high alpine lakes known for their stunning natural beauty. Jyrgalan, meanwhile, is known as one of the best ski-in, ski-out yurt camps and it has a super-hot sauna to warm you up after a long day.
Climbing a +7,000 meter (+22,950 ft) mountain is never easy, but Pik Lenin (23,406 ft) is famous for being as straightforward as it gets at this altitude. For this reason, it is often chosen as a stepping stone to higher mountains, like the +8,000 meter (+26,250 ft) behemoths of the Himalayas. To reach the summit, you’ll have to contend with glaciers, high-altitude snowy ridges, and fickle weather. Accordingly, you’ll need basic experience with glacier travel, including crampons, self-arrest, moving in roped teams, and crevasse rescue. You should also train up to excellent fitness before your climb, as even breathing will seem like a challenge at Pik Lenin’s higher altitudes. Climbing Pik Lenin is like traveling back in time, as much of the population in this region is still semi-nomadic and you’ll undoubtedly spend part of your journey in yurts. While you can start the climb from either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, most people start in Osh, as climbing from Kyrgyzstan is easier and more accessible. Reaching the Base Camp from Osh will take you along the Pamir Highway M41, which is an adventure in itself.
Jengish Chokusu (24,406 ft) is the highest peak in the Tien Shan Mountain Range, located on the border of Kyrgyzstan and China in the Issyk-Kul Region. Jengish Chokusu (a.k.a., Peak Pobeda) is a picturesque yet extremely dangerous mountain. Reaching the summit via the normal route requires traversing an exposed summit ridge over 7 miles long, often in harsh, windy conditions. Its location between the Taklamakan Desert and the expansive waters of Issyk-Kul – the tenth largest lake in the world by volume – makes for fast-changing weather and violent storms. Meanwhile, being the northernmost mountain over 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), Jengish Chokusu can also be extremely cold. In part because of its difficulty, Jengish Chokusu attracts a select group of climbers that want to test themselves on the most challenging mountain over 23,000 feet in the former USSR. The other main reason to climb it is the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding Tien Shan Mountains. Few travelers even visit this unique region, let alone ascend a major summit there. It’s an opportunity to experience a completely different climbing culture in one of the most remote places on the planet.
The Heights of Alay Trek is a 4- to 6-day journey through the Alay Mountains in Kyrgyzstan, where you’ll likely have the trails all to yourself. It’s highly recommended to bring a guide since it’s not too expensive and they’ll be able to show you more places of natural beauty than you’d likely find on your own. Guides can also help a great deal with logistics, as public transportation and rental cars are not easy to arrange. One of the highlights of the Heights of Alay Trek is all the alpine lakes and snowy peaks you’ll see along the way. Most of the route is over 10,000 feet in elevation and there are 2 passes over 13,000 feet, so be sure to leave some time for acclimatization. Also, leave some time for hospitality. Many households will invite you in for tea and sweets, never accepting money in return. They just want you to feel welcome to their wonderful country.
The Silk Road Mountain Race is a single-stage bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan that’s typically held in August. The race course crosses a mix of gravel and dirt trails and old Soviet roads for 1,120 miles, including over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, through the wild Tien Shan mountains. Competitors have just over 2 weeks to complete the trial, and the time doesn’t stop while you rest. Over half of those who start the journey will not finish it, making it all the more of an accomplishment for those who tough it out.
With Kyrgyzstan being a semi-nomadic country, it’s no wonder that its National Horse Festival is among its most popular events. There are two locations for this important event, Kochkor and Kyzyl-Oi, which is held in late July. Besides witnesses unique feats of horsemanship, highlights of the festival include folklore shows and banquets, where you can taste traditional Kyrgyz cuisine.
Arslanbob is a fascinating region where you can ski through walnut forests by day and cozy up in yurts by night. It’s also home to the Arslanbob Ski Challenge, which is held in January each year. In addition to skiing and snowshoeing, the festival features folk shows and traditional games, like tug-of-war and horse wrestling.