Could Uzbekistan become Central Asia’s first Shangri-La for skiers and snowboarders?
This question is asked by MIKE Maceacheran, Lonely Planet writer, who visited the mountainous regions of the Tashkent region this winter.
“Anxiety-raising terms such as ‘extreme caution’, ‘mountain edges’, ‘unfavourable weather’, ‘avalanche zone’, ‘wild animals’ and ‘harm to life’ all appear in the small print. And yet, this hazardous activity is quickly becoming one of the region’s new draws, where hardcore powder hounds – including me – pay to be dropped by a Russian Mi-8MTB helicopter on pristine peaks at 4,200m. Understandably, perhaps, the words I scream when jumping out can’t be repeated here” - notes Mike.
In Uzbekistan, it is easy to become obsessed with mountains, even if it is not so easy to explore their wild nature.
Running from the outskirts of the capital Tashkent to the Ugam-Chatkal national Park 90 km to the North, the Chatkal range, bordering Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, is an example in geographical purity of a vast, unspoilt wilderness, almost inhabited by no one.
But while Uzbekistan's silk road route is a revered summer destination (Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva have all the ruins of ancient citadels and madrassas you've ever dreamed of), winter tourism here, like much of Central Asia, has traditionally been virtually nonexistent.
Conditions for skiers in the Uzbek Tien Shan are Spartan: at the mountains’ original ski town, Chimgan, there is one merry-go round chairlift, a few retro button tows, an off-piste kebab shop and makeshift bazaar populated by tea drinkers, sheep farmers and horse wranglers.mNearby, in Beldersay, in the shadow of the top of Great Chimgan, there is a large chairlift and a hotel furnished with the cold appeal of the Soviet era.
But just a few kilometers away, change and artificial snow are in the air: a new resort worth 100 million euros, opened at the end of 2019, that looks less like a Communist monument than the next season of Sant Moritz.
There are log cabins with faux leather trim and heated floors, restaurants with geodesic domes and snow plows that resemble Courchevel. During the day, visitors ride a gleaming new gondola and four-wheeled chairlift - both the first in Uzbekistan-on pristine slopes and ride snowmobiles up and down swirls of snow-white snowdrifts.
This is Amirsoy, conceived back in 2017 after 44-year-old Uzbek oil and gas businessman Ravshan Abdullayev decided to overcome his fear of heights by trying skiing for the first time. This entirely appropriate gamble set in motion the first building block of a plan to turn the Western Tien Shan mountains into an unlikely winter tourist destination.
This resort certainly lays a refreshing new marker in Central Asia, but there is also a sense that it is driven by a sense of civic duty – more than 150,000 locals have visited the resort since it opened in late December.
“There’s no ski culture here,” Rashvan says. “Locals take three laps of the gondola because they’ve never seen one before. So we’re building an entire community and culture from the ground up.”
As it turned out, Amirsoy this is only the beginning of a large project. There is a tantalizing plan to create one colossal ski area, first by modernizing Chimgan and Beldersay, and then by combining them with Amirsoy, a very ambitious move that will create the Central Asian equivalent of France's famous Le Trois valley or Canada's Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia. As Ravshan says,- “This is dream work, so we dream big.”
This attempt involves significant risks, and most of them will be delayed. But if Ravshan and his team continue landing, they will be able to lift Central Asian tourism to new impressive heights.