Yes, I traveled around the world to ski and sleep in a yurt.
Outside the fourth populous city in Kyrgyzstan of Karakol, mountains rise to the south. A valley called Ak-Suu nearby. Up the valley from civilization, you can find a backcountry ski yurt operation in the winter season.
You wouldn’t think an area so far removed from an ocean would be a ski destination. Driving from Bishkek to Karakol, it is hard to miss a large body of water along the way. Located in the northern Tian Shan mountains, Issyk-Kul is the tenth largest lake by volume, the second highest alpine lake, and the second largest saline lake in the world.
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Travel Kyrgyzstan operates two backcountry ski yurt operations outside of Karakol. Don’t let the name fool you as the company is not associated with a tourism board. The two operations include Ak-Suu and Jyrgalan Yurt Lodge. Ak-Suu was more appealing to our group for its steeper terrain and sauna. Jyrgalan has more abundant snowfall and mellower terrain, which provides safer skiing when avalanche risk is high.
Ak-Suu Backcountry Skiing Yurt Lodge
Situated 16 km away from the closest village and sitting at 2600 m above sea-level, Ak-Suu Backcountry Skiing Yurt Lodge is surrounded by beautiful snow-covered mountains. Backcountry skiers (and snowboarders) of all levels can find their lines through the rocky mountainous terrain. Hire a guide familiar with the different ski lines and study maps to find the best route for your ability.
My group created a GPX file of lines near the lodge and can be found on Gaia GPS.
Guides: Aurelie and Anthony
Snowmobile driver: Daniel (and Slava)
Bosses: Slava and Dan White who lives in Bishkek
The trip ran smoothly due to the hard-working staff at the yurts offering everything from tea to food to heat to transportation. I’m thankful to have met them even if a language barrier presented itself. The guides spoke English and were our main connection to the staff.
The yurts are simple and spacious for the eight to ten overnight guests. The walls made of painted red wood bent to the shape to create a shelter from the cold winter temperatures. The wood stove vents up through a patterned rooftop, which inspired the current Kyrgyzstan flag.
Large wooden platforms line the walls on both sides with an aisle through the middle that leads to the wood-burning stove for heat. Soft padding and vibrant green and red patterned velvet blankets cover the wood platforms for comfort.
Even though the lodge provides sleeping bags, our group packed our own. My 15-degree bag was plenty as I had the closest place to the fire. The sleeping platforms were soft without needing a sleeping pad. Small pillows matching the velvet decor were available to prop your head up throughout the night.
Under the platforms, we stored ski bags and duffles we brought along on the trip for more room to lounge and navigate the others. Dry wet gear near the stove or drape it from the many webbing cords throughout the structure.
The heat is managed by the groups keeper, Vlad. I learned the first night not to touch the stove after creating a small smoky haze in the yurt by opening the vent to get the fire more oxygen. Vlad came to the rescue and tried explaining why in fast Russian I couldn’t understand.
Daniel later came to translate that Vlad is in charge of the fires and to talk to them if something is wrong. The yurts were plenty warm, especially the dining yurt where we often opened the doors to cool down during meals.
Throughout the day, a flap is pulled away from the top of the roof to allow natural light. I could sleep all day as the yurt inside is very dark and hard to tell the time of day.
In the evenings, a generator is turned out for electricity and lighting in the yurts and toilets, along with outside lighting for walking throughout the village. The luxury of electricity allows recharging of electronic devices and less headlamp use.
Along with two sleeping yurts, a dining yurt is a place where all the clients and staff drink tea and coffee, eat meals, share stories of their day, and play games. A whiteboard hangs where each group can list meal and sauna times. When the sleeping yurts have clients, the staff sleep in the dining yurt on cots.
Ah, the food. If you’re a meat eater, the catered menus are for you‒a vegetarian option is available upon request. Not knowing all the dishes served, they were delicious.
My favorite breakfast was porridge washed down with a cup of coffee. Packed lunches for the clients in small containers included cheese, sausage, Snickers, and a nutty mix.
The dinner menu consisted of meat and carbs (usually rice, pasta, or potatoes) with slaw-type sides. The food was fresh and delicious.
Water was gathered from the river running through the yurt village and heated in the cooking yurt on the stove before being cooled again for drinking.
Sauna and hot tub
After a day in the mountains sweating uphill and cruising downhill, having access to a banya made the end of the day a little less stiff. The hot tub was a highlight for me, where we passed around vodka and soaked with views of the mountains and dimming light ambiance.
The sauna has a changing room, so guests don’t have to walk the distance between the yurts and the hot tub. My group opted for bathing suits while the Italians decided to go au naturale.
The sauna itself is closed off at the one end and too hot for me to even enter. On the other end, the mountain river bend provides relief from the heat for a frigid ice bath of sorts if brave enough to take a dunk in the shallow waters. I could only muster my feet in with a quick splashing rinse before running back to the hot tub.
At the end of the trip, I asked Aurelie how she washes her hair. She mentioned the heated water from the sauna. I guess I should have went in further to evaluate. I’m not one for being overheated and is why I find myself on more ski trips than beach trips.
Where do you go to the bathroom when there’s no plumbing? Two plywood outhouses are uphill from the yurts. One is a squat toilet and the other a Western toilet. Both familiar ideas to pit toilets found at trailheads in the U.S.
Getting to Ak-Suu
Dan White from Travel Kyrgyzstan helped us with our booking and logistics.
Flying into Bishkek, Dan arranged a driver to pick us up in Kyrgyzstan’s largest city and transport bags of ski gear and six humans six hours to the small village of Teploklyuchenka.
From Teploklyuchenka: Arrive at a small farmhouse that leads to a road up the valley. Depending on the snow levels, ride snowmobiles or horses roughly 16 km (8 miles).
As we arrived in late season, we hiked up the road while our gear was transported by vehicle to the first patches of snow.
Some skiers are towed while a couple of guests are asked to ride on the snowmobiles.
Leaving Ak-Suu, the crew arranged a transfer to a guesthouse in Karakol. We loaded up all the gear and waved good-bye to Ak-Suu valley.