Could Uzbekistan become Central Asia’s first Shangri-La for skiers and snowboarders?
Mike MacEacheran, Lonely Planet writer, who visited the mountainous areas of the Tashkent region this winter, asks this question.
“Anxiety-raising terms, such as ‘extreme caution’, ‘mountain edges’, ‘unfavourable weather’, ‘avalanche zone’, ‘wild animals’ and ‘harm to life’ they are all imprinted in our minds. 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 of the western Tien Shan at an altitude of 4,200m. It’s clear that the words I scream when I jump out can’t be repeated here”, - Mike notes.
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 of a vast, untouched wilderness, almost inhabited by no one.
However, 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 have ever dreamed of), winter tourism here, like in the most part of Central Asia, traditionally has not almost existed.
Conditions for skiers in the Uzbek Tien Shan are Spartan: there are one ski lift and chairlift, several retro-tows, an off-piste barbecue and improvised bazaar populated by tea lovers, sheep farmers and horse traders in Chimgan ski resort. Nearby, in Beldersay, in the shadow of the top of Great Chimgan, there are a large chairlift and a hotel furnished with the cold appeal of the Soviet era.
However, just a few kilometers away, change and artificial snow are in the air: a new resort at the cost of 100 million Euros opened at the end of 2019 that looks less communist than the next season of Sant Moritz.
There are log cabins with faux leather trim and heated floors, restaurants with geodesic domes and snowplows that resemble Courchevel. During the day, visitors ride a new gleaming gondola and four-wheeled chairlift, both the first in Uzbekistan, ride snowmobiles up and down of white snowdrifts.
This is Amirsoy, conceived back in 2017 when 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 completely appropriate adventure triggered the first building block of the plan to turn the mountains of the western Tien Shan into an unlikely winter tourist destination.
This resort, of course, lays a refreshing new marker in Central Asia, but there is also a feeling that it is driven by a sense of civic duty – more than 150,000 locals have visited the resort since its opening in late December.
“There’s no ski culture here,” Ravshan 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 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. This very ambitious move 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 job, so we dream big.”
This attempt involves significant risks, and most of them will be delayed. However, if Ravshan and his team continue their work, they will be able to lift Central Asian tourism to the new impressive heights.