The Winter Olympics have begun. Athletes from around the world have arrived in Russia to skate, jump, and slide their way to gold. But with temperatures in the 50s, warm Black Sea breezes, and slushy ski slopes, Sochi could practically pass for the Summer Olympics. Great for the spectators, not so great for outdoor winter sports. So while everyone is hoping for a cold spell in Russia, you could be skiing in ideal conditions in nearby Kazakhstan.
Skiing in Kazakhstan? Don’t laugh. This Central Asian country already hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games, and it has submitted a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Long part of the Russian Empire—and then the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan has only recently appeared on the world stage. It’s now the world’s largest landlocked country, whose wealth comes from oil and natural gas reserves. And Almaty, the country’s financial and cultural center, is bordered by the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains.
Almaty, in southeastern Kazakhstan, is near the Kyrgyzstan border. It has hot summers—perfect for hiking, biking, and riding cable cars high into the mountains for amazing views—and cold, snowy winters. Temperatures are in the low 30s right now.
As you acclimate to the city and the altitude upon your arrival, look south, where the snow-capped mountains loom over Almaty. Begin your outdoor adventures at the Medeu, the highest skating rink in the world. Watch speed skaters race around the track. Figure out the rules of bandy, a hockey-like game that uses a round ball instead of a puck. Or lace up rental skates and create your own ice-skating routine to the blaring pop music.
From the Medeu, ride the gondola through snow-covered Tian Shan firs to the Shymbulak Ski Resort. It’s a perfect ski day. Bright sun, clean air, little wind, and fresh powder. After a few practice runs, ride the lifts to Talgar Pass, Shymbulak’s highest point. You have views through the valley all the way to Almaty and a steep descent in front of you. Reward yourself with a cup of coffee at Marrone Rosso or something stronger on an outdoor bench at the Sarai Bar when you reach the base. Then head back up Talgar Pass and do it again.
Tomorrow, drive east to the Ak Bulak Alpine Resort to snow tube. Return to Shymbulak to tackle the moguls. Head to the Snow-Park to snowboard along the half-pipe. Or sleep in, arrive late, and stay past dark to night ski along the lit trails. Hopefully the Olympians are enjoying their runs as much as you’re enjoying yours.
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