Do as the other tourists don’t and plan a trip to Central Asia during this magical time of year.
High peaks and horse trekking, Silk Road cities, and Soviet architecture. Scenes of summer are probably the first thing that spring to mind when planning a trip to Central Asia, but savvy travelers are discovering the deep powder and under-visited cultural sites of the colder months in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
From backcountry freeride yurt camps to village kok boru contests, it’s the off-season in an offbeat region and a great fit for an adventurous audience looking to explore. Temperatures may be cold, but warm hospitality and plenty of active travel options should be enough to get your blood pumping as you explore the -Stans.
Central Asian Culture and Silk Road History
The cultural attractions of Central Asia are year-round opportunities—from Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva to the Kyrgyz yurt-building village of Kyzyl-Tuu or fantastic performances of opera and ballet in Kazakhstan’s state of the art Astana Opera. Not only are they all accessible throughout the year, but in winter, fewer visitors means that in popular tourist destinations, you’ll mostly share the place with local travelers, creating more opportunities to make local connections.
New Year’s Eve, early January celebrations of Orthodox Christmas, and February celebrations of Maslenitsa are excellent cultural touchpoints during which to engage with the local community – typically on raucous nights out for the former and light-hearted but colorful celebrations within the churches of Slavic communities for the latter two. Marking the end of winter, traditional New Year celebrations of the Zoroastrian religion are still held throughout the region on the spring equinox, known variously as Nooruz, Nowruz, or Novruz across Central Asia. Expect big crowds and cultural performances on central city squares, while in villages, friends and neighbors stop by each others’ houses for short visits that often turn into long meals and perhaps even a bit of revelry.
Winter Sports in the Tien Shan
Central Asia has been a training ground for serious winter athletes since at least Soviet times – world-class ice skaters broke records for decades at Kazakhstan’s Medeu ice skating rink at Almaty, while Ala-Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan remains a popular playground for alpinists and mountaineers, many of whom stay at Ratsek Hut for ascents of 4500m+ Peaks Korona, Ratsek, Semenova Tien-Shansky, and beyond.
1. Aerial view of the famous high-mountain sports skating rink Medeo, Almaty, Kazakhstan2. Cableway to the top of the ski resort Amirsoy, Chimgan, Uzbekistan
Skiers and snowboarders are well-catered across Central Asia as well. The largest cities of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan host ski bases. In winter, pollution is often bad in these cities, so plan to stay on the slopes whenever possible. The powder is deep throughout, though the service offerings’ quality varies across the region. Almaty’s Shymbulak (the largest ski base in Central Asia) and Tashkent’s Amirsoy are both international-quality ski resorts with the full suite of on-site amenities and accommodation, but at a fraction of the cost: the max you’ll pay for an adult weekend lift pass is less than $27 at both resorts. Dushanbe’s Safed Dara and Bishkek’s Chunkurchak are a little smaller and a little less developed but worth a day trip for keen powder hounds passing through the capital cities en route to untouched snow elsewhere in each country. For a top winter experience with ski town vibes, make the long drive to the eastern edge of Kyrgyzstan at Karakol Ski Base. A top trekking destination in summer, organizations such as Destination Karakol and EcoTrek shift focus in winter to cross-country skiing, snowshoe tours, ice skating, and a suite of cultural and culinary experiences that run year-round. Winter visitors looking for a taste of everything Central Asia can offer often use it as a base to explore.
Hardcore winter athletes have far more options, though availability is often limited, and bookings need to be made many months in advance. Ski-in backcountry winter yurt camps have recently popped up across Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—Powder Nomads near Shymbulak and 40 Tribes in Kyrgyzstan are the most well-known. To take the backcountry to the furthest extreme, it’s also possible to hire a helicopter for heliskiing—both in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There’s no more efficient way to get as many runs in as possible on untouched powder deep in the mountains, though, of course, this comes at a greater cost, both financially and environmentally. For something between the two, the village of Jyrgalan in Kyrgyzstan has reinvented itself in recent years as a trekking and freeride hub with a handful of guesthouses in the center and yurt camps on the edge of the village. Guests can skin up the mountain, hitch a tow behind a snowmobile, or ride in the cozy cabin of a snowcat – but there are few seats and limited guesthouse beds to service quick-growing demand, so this too is worth planning and booking well in advance.
Hiking and Homestays: Traditional Tourism in a Non-traditional Season
Of course, just because it’s a little cold out doesn’t take the usual outdoor pursuits entirely off the table. Many of the easier hiking routes in Central Asia can be attempted on snowshoes, particularly those typically done as day hikes, while in some regions, little to no winter precipitation means business as usual. The red rock spires of Kyrgyzstan’s Kok-Moinok area, the vast deserts of Uzbekistan (which, indeed, are often far more pleasant to explore in lower temperatures), and the Mangystau and Ustyurt plateau regions of western Kazakhstan all remain accessible – while you will need to plan ahead for cold nights, travel here is otherwise no more difficult than any other time of year.
Where snows are just too deep for trekking, some regions are still open to horse trekking day trips into valleys nearby herds’ winter quarters. Typical shepherd yurt camps all move down to the villages in winter, so there is very limited scope for multi-day horse trekking in this period, but most village homestays still welcome visitors and provide a homespun take on hospitality. A winter horse trek to Son Kol lake is one of the few exceptions and an experience well worth prioritizing, is a winter horse trek to Son Kol lake. One of Kyrgyzstan’s top tourist destinations in summer, a winter visit will likely see just a few fishermen at the lake alongside your crew.
A bonus to traveling in rural areas, winter in the villages is the best time to see Central Asia’s most famous horse sport. The name varies across the region, from kokpar in Kazakhstan to kupkari in Uzbekistan and ulak tartysh in Kyrgyzstan, but the game remains more or less the same: a team of horseman battle for possession of a heavy goat carcass, and whoever tosses the body into a goal at their end of the field the most time before time expires wins. The rules may sound simple, but the competition is intense and spectators passionate – watching a game may not be for the faint of heart, but it is certainly a memorable way to spend a winter day in Central Asia.