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Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination


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Alternate Routes · Asia · uzbekistan · Uzbekistan · Māris Birzulis

Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination

Author: Māris Birzulis0 COMMENTS

Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination

I have been six times there, I think. And gradually this country has grown familiar to me - its mountains and its lavinschiks, its guides and its snows. I feel that we know each other well by now. We know what we can expect from each other. It is no less important than having a good knowledge of your own gear. It gives confidence that you will have safe and enjoyable trip.
Although I have been to great many places, only in Tian Shans I have enjoyed the best free-ride ever. Snow conditions in mountains are quite changeable - frozen on the top, deep and powdery in the middle and wet and heavy towards the bottom. The same refers to Kamchatka, too. In Kyrgyzstan, in its turn, you may hit some icy sections in the middle as well. It is not the case in Uzbekistan, however. The differences are a much subtler there. Its mountains and glistening snow fields are incredibly beautiful and within easy reach. Temperatures are pretty mild - 5 to 8ºC below zero up in the mountains and about 0º at the bottom. The Northern Tian Shans forms a narrow strip - a so called Tongue. It extends to the East of Tashkent and this is exactly the place I would like to tell you about. This mountain range was once traded from Kazakhstan in exchange for a part of Uzbekistani natural gas fields. The Tongue boarders with Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

Starting Point

Foto: Snowboarding Enthusiast DestinationFoto: Snowboarding Enthusiast DestinationFoto: Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination

In Tashkent we are met by Mr. Del Shots, a man with typical Asian features, yet, not an Uzbek. His task is to facilitate our trip. Then a bus takes us to our lodging - a hotel named Chervok - ochormorgi at the Charvaka reservoir, 80 kilometers or so from Tashkent. I do not have a precise address of it, yet, being the only hotels in this region, it should not be difficult to find it. A huge complex, featuring marble flooring and walls, somewhat reminds pyramids. A recently opened recreation centre is a place of grand amplitude, too. It houses eight-lane bowling, a swimming pool with 25 meters lanes, several saunas, fitness centre and a discotheque, seeming pretty extravagant for its location - the middle of nowhere! It's not for locals, however. They cannot afford luxury of saunas and disco parties. Well-off citizens come over to spend weekends there and perhaps are the only ones, creating a hotel's income. During our stay we were almost the only guests there apart from those, dropping in for a short visit. Russian influence is pretty obvious there, exposing it self mostly on shop shelves and mass media. President Karimov steers the country ever since Soviet times. Nevertheless, a few changes in public sentiments have taken place during the last two decades and the president's health is not the same either. They say that some transformations can be expected. A short time ago people did not dare to discuss the political system, let alone sharing their views with foreigners, while now they speak up quite openly.

Our trip in February, this year, turned out especially successful. A helipad - a starting point of our adventure, is located right next to the hotel, at the water reservoir. Having arrived in Tashkent at 6 a.m., at 10 a.m. we already had breakfast at the hotel. Then a guide suddenly says - „What a great day, guys! Sun is shining. Anybody cares to test the slopes?" From a group of 16 people - 10 Latvians and 6 Swiss - 14 of us were ready to fly! We boarded a helicopter and off we went! A marvelous, bright day full of fun, and travel weariness just vanishes away!

Weather conditions were stable, allowing to establish a sort of daily routine - a take off at 10 a.m. and a return around 4 p.m., managing about 5 to 7 descents every day. Why not more, you may ask? It depends on skills, too - the group needs time to reach the bottom of the mountain and get together again. Accessibility of a particular spot is a factor, too. At someplace landing is easy and a helicopter already waits for us. Somewhere else a valley is narrow and in the view of potential avalanche threat a pilot maneuvers very cautiously, landing only when the whole of the group is ready for a pickup. It requires time. The longest descent has been about 10 kilometers with 2100 meters along the vertical. Helicopter brought us up to 3860 meter altitude and we travelled down, reaching 1700 meter's mark. In the Alps it's hardly possible. Maybe only Himalayas in Kashmir region can measure up to it. 4 days pass by, sliding to ones heart's desire, enjoying snow and fabulous scenery! Ispaiska and Pskema valleys stand out with snow fields, offering almost limitless free ride opportunities.

Snow Erasing Any Trace

Foto: Snowboarding Enthusiast DestinationFoto: Snowboarding Enthusiast DestinationFoto: Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination

As tedious as it may sound, but each descent depends on many technicalities, you cannot avoid. Inaccurate maps, difficult helicopter landings, an avalanche threat, a quality of your gear, local food peculiarities, mountain guides, communication issues and snow conditions. The descent itself is like a culmination of the long preparation.

People sometimes ask me - what is the difference between Tian Shan and the Alps? It is clean, non-industrialized environment, free from human dominance. I learned what it feels to be a tiny creature there, being just a small detail of the entire picture. No one even cared for my security to such extent as it happens in Alps. If it has snowed there, they shoot cannons in the morning to avert any avalanche risk and tourists could safely enjoy skiing. In Tian Shan a helicopter is the only sign of civilization. And, if anything happens, the same helicopter is the only salvation you can count on...

Yet what a thrill it is! Although there is a slight possibility of sliding along someone else's track, we usually chose an entirely fresh slope. It stretches like a clean page that no one has touched yet and you can leave your own trace in virgin powder snow. The greatest surprise for my Swiss companions was that you can go down wherever you please. Guides assess the group - if people are skilled enough and the avalanche threat insignificant, they do not even give any further instructions. You can try going down a bit, feel what it is like, and then chose a slope according to your own taste. A steeper or a gentler - it is just up to you! In similar places in Canada or Alaska, guides try to keep a group together, not letting to scrunch up the whole of a powdery surface, saving some for other groups. In Tian Shan there are numerous slopes and no other groups to take account of. Moreover, in 3 to 4 days any track disappears, even if no snow has fallen. The wind-carried snow erases any trace.

Oleg, Grisha and Sasha

Foto: Snowboarding Enthusiast DestinationFoto: Snowboarding Enthusiast Destination

Oleg is a mountain guide. I met him at the expedition, organized by the Russian Helyboarding club. The Club itself has long since split up, yet, I still keep in touch with Oleg. An interesting coincidence brought us together - in the course of some conversation he mentioned my mom! She was an organizer of the architects' skiing trips back in the 70ies. A unique event for those times attracted participants not only from the former Soviet Republics but also from England, Germany and even America. My mother coordinated a group from Latvia. Couple of time the event took place in Uzbekistani skiing bases of Beldasaja and Chingdana. Oleg told that these bases still operate, using the same old ski lifts from the 70ies. An interesting fact is that old, Soviet time maps were very inaccurate. According to Oleg, foothills were displaced for several kilometers, to make illegal border passing as complicated as possible, in case somebody fancied doing that.

Oleg is a mountain climber and a mountain guide. He earns his living working in a rescue team, however, and taking part in various operations. He is Uzbek and his family lives in Tashkent. Oleg's partner at work is Grisha from Ukraine. In winters he had gone to work in Chegeta, in the Caucasus and had met Oleg there. Later, in mid 80ies, he had come over to visit him and stayed there. I'd like to call him a mountain intellectual. Small in stature and with typical highlander's features, Grisha knows hundreds of incidents that have taken place in the mountains. And he knows everything about the local plants and weather conditions. Our third guide is Sasha - a lavinschik or an avalanche expert and a pretty colorful personality, too. According to the best traditions, he is never sober. His judgment, however, is always sober. His task, arriving at a new valley or returning where we have already been in the previous day, is to evaluate snow conditions. He is the one who determines possible avalanche threat. Snow accumulates and forms layers, depending on temperature. Safety of slopes depends on solidity and proportion of separate layers. The snow may be lose and dry, wet and sticky, fine or rough and Sasha can tell where and at what angle it may start sliding down. It looks approximately like this - we get out of a chopper and look around but Sasha skis a kilometer or so ahead and starts digging a hole in the snow. Then he reports - „the situation is stable!" or „wait, I have to check out some more!" - Sasha scramble out of the snow and goes into another direction. Then follow instructions - keep shorter or longer distance, keep to the right or to the left. Sometimes he strictly says: go just one at a time! It means that soft snow has fallen on top of the frozen one and it can easily start sliding down. Risks depend on the length and the angle of the incline - the longer and steeper it is, the further snow will move and more it will accumulate. Sliding usually starts if the angle exceeds 36°. Gentler slopes are less hazardous. Sasha can tell lots of exciting and unbelievable stories almost nonstop. Sometimes he repeats himself but it does not matter - just close your eyes and listen as if it had happened just yesterday...All three they have substantial experience and possess unique intuition and understanding of the work they are doing. They might even not explain why one shouldn't go down in a particular place, yet, they know the reasons for sure. And we have no choice but to obey.

What happens to those who do not? Let us hope that nothing bad, however, arrogance is not the best companion in the mountains. Avalanches are the biggest danger there. It's just a moment and when a whirl of snow rushes down, there is nothing you can do. I have been in such situation myself - trapped in the sliding snow. It happened in Uzbekistan. Two Uzbeks above me, not seeing me behind a steep slope, went down one after another. They slashed a large slab of snow that started to move towards me. In less than no time I was up to my waist and was carried downwards. Luckily, it ended well for me. Oleg had seen me and tried to reach the guys over a portable radio, yet, they did not hear or did not understand him. It is crucial to observe the basic rule - never go down close together or more than two people at a time. A similar incident happened in Kamchatka, last winter. People impatiently waited while someone slowly passed a steep section, suddenly dashed down altogether! It created a huge pressure on the snow and caused an avalanche. Two people were buried under the snow. Thanks God, everything went off well - their heads were sticking above the snow and rescuer could see where to dig...

Helibording entirely depends on weather conditions and no one can promise that every day will be nice. Equipment and a team matters, too. And these three factors can easily change a course of action. Forget about the attitude - "I have paid and I deserve it!" Although it is not a cheap entertainment, no one is able to push aside clouds for you. And my advice is to choose carefully your group mates, too. It is more fun to spend a week without conflicts. Yet, if you are an easy going personality and ready to compromise, you will feel good in any company (or even being alone!). Self-control on the slopes is much valued, while excessive bravado can prove extremely critical. And the opinion of guides and pilots should always be taken into account.

Local Hospitality

Speaking of local peculiarities, first thing coming to my mind is food. Nothing has changed ever since my first trip to Uzbekistan, 7 years ago. It features a fusion of local Uzbekistani cuisine and some former Soviet eating traditions. If you are a choosey eater, better be prepared. They serve huge amounts of greenery, ripe and succulent tomatoes and lots of bread. A typical dish is shurpa or a rich meat soup with carrots and potatoes. Yet, suddenly fried eggs and frankfurters may appear on the table! Sweetened pearl-barley porridge, ham, cheese, bred and jam go for breakfast. Just accept what you are offered and do not expect more. Uzbekistani people may not know much about gastronomic finesse, yet they are warm and hospitable and share with guests all the best they have.

Being a guest at some Uzbekistani home is a special experience and I was lucky enough to have it. A day before our departure to Riga a friend of mine invited me to come along to his father's acquaintance - a former state prosecutor, living in Tashkent. We entered a courtyard and then into a U shaped house. It was men-only dinner as the host himself, his son and a son's friend and we were sitting at the table. Women never joined us. They just brought in food and disappeared again. Table was loaded - a sumptuous dinner consisted of appetizers followed by the main course and returning back to appetizers in the end. If you are at the Uzbekistani home, you are supposed to eat. Otherwise it might be taken as disrespect towards the host. Uzbekistani adhere to Islamic traditions, with polygamy still being practiced at some regions. Yet, I had never enjoyed more hospitability in my life! Guests are offered to stay over and are treated with the best food. Moreover, for three days or so they do not even ask how long actually you intend to stay. It was not so easy to break away from irresistible hospitability of the prosecutor either. We didn't have any choice, yet, as we had to manage to an early flight in the morning.

Tashkent is a big city, featuring low buildings, wide streets and big inner yards. Comparing to Riga, our central, four-lane streets would seem like side lanes there. In 1966, Tashkent was destroyed by a massive earthquake. Just a few houses around the marketplace were left untouched. Uzbeks built their city anew and did it with amplitude. Some buildings are really impressive, made of stone and marble, perfectly fitting the image of a capital city. It features plenty of parks and greenery, as houses do not greedily fill up every empty spot of there. Three types of cars are to be seen in the streets - Uzbekistani Daewoo, old stock Soviet cars - Moskvitch, Ziguli and Volga, and the third category - all types of jeeps. The same striking contrast as among cars, is observable among people - ones can afford nothing while the others - anything.
As to communication, mobile telephone network coverage is good enough, no problems using your phone. Yet, it is not the case with the internet as its accessibility is pretty variable. The last night we spent at the hotel Intercontinental - one of the best hotels in Tashkent. A computer at the lobby did not work at all, while the internet speed in the room was so miserable that I had

Useful Information

- Take appropriate equipment with you - a wide and long free-ride snowboard or good quality, wide and soft free-ride skis. Do not spoil your pleasure with unsuitable gear!
- Costs of a helibording tour to Uzbekistan is about 3100 USD, which includes transfers, hotel expenses and the guarantied 20 000 - 26 000 vertical descent meters with 8 helicopter working hours. If hours or meters are not fully used, some money is returned (which is not a usual practice in similar tours in America, Canada or Switzerland).
- Additional expenses are Uzbekistani visa (an individual one - 95 USD; in a group of more than 10 people - 65 USD), airfare and insurance.
- Official language is Uzbekistani, but Russian is widely used as well.
- This country is pretty inexpensive (a short trip by taxi costs 2 - 3 dollars), yet the inflation is quite unpredictable there, too.
- In the airport, passing through customs, you will receive a customs declaration form that must be retained and shown, leaving the country.
- Time zone: UTC/GMT +5 hours.

Hotel Intercontinental
Amir Temur str. 107a
Phone: 08704009093

More information about Tashkent avialable on the web pages: or

Posted in 2008.

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