In the penultimate entry of our strange skiing series, Tristan Kennedy hits the slopes of Kyrgyzstan, sampling fermented horse milk and the bloody sport of buzkashi as he goes.
"I think I may have just bought these two," my friend Dan says, gesturing towards the two animals in front of him.
In all my years of snowboarding in the Alps I’ve bought beef in many forms – as entrecôte, in bolognese and on pizza. I’ve even tried steak tartare. But I’ve never been sold a live-and-kicking cow before. However Karakol, with its bustling animal market, is a long way from the Alps.
Kyrgyzstan might seem an unlikely place for a snowboarding holiday, but the small town of Karakol is something of a mountain sports mecca in the former Soviet Union.
Having made the pilgrimage to the 3,040m-high (9,970ft) Karakol Base Camp – completing a large slog of the journey in a fifth-hand Audi driven by a man with gold teeth – me and Dan were itching to strap up and hit the slopes.
Karakol may be Central Asia’s highest resort but it’s certainly not its biggest, with just four lifts connecting a handful of fairly unchallenging pistes. But the powder is light and fluffy, the norm here thanks to the country’s continental climate, and we glide giddily towards the lift base.
Among the locals who are skiing or snowboarding, the general standard is not exceptionally high. A few talented individuals make the most of the perfect powder, but the majority appear to be beginners, wobbling down the slopes in ill-fitting gear.
We reach the summit and waste no time in heading down. We lap the chairlift, wind our way through glades of fir trees and silently marvel at the surrounding Tian Shan peaks.
During a pitstop on the slopes I get chatting to Sergey, a Khazak. He’s bemused to find a visitor from ‘the West’ on the slopes of Karakol, but explains the area is popular among regional tourists like him. Not only does it offer better off-piste riding than his local resort, but “it’s much cheaper to come here for the weekend than go riding in Kazakhstan”. I can well believe him – at 1,200 Kyrgyz Som (roughly £12) for a day’s lift pass, the value for money is ludicrous.
Lunch, when we stop for it, is similarly cheap. Outside a plastic gazebo on the side of the slope a Kyrgyz man, who, like our driver, sports a shining set of gold gnashers, cooks up shashlik kebabs served with lashings of raw onion. It’s a far cry from the Michelin-starred restaurants of Courchevel, but tasty nonetheless.
We wash it down with a glass of kymyz, a traditional Kyrgyz tipple made of fermented horse’s milk. It’s fizzy, slightly viscous and absolutely disgusting, with a taste that resembles gone-off yoghurt. Having recently read about a tourist who was deported for mocking a local horse dish, I grit my teeth and nod with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. The waiter returns a gold-encrusted grin.
Horses play a big part in Kyrgyz culture; back at the animal market, having convinced our would-be cow sellers that our interest in their calves is purely photographic, we watch a group of local guys warming up on horseback for an evening game of buzkashi. It’s a Central Asian game that’s usually described as a form of polo, the primary difference being that a headless goat carcass is used instead of a ball.
Teams of up to 10 players ram their horses into each other and attempt to wrestle the sorry carcass off the opposition using almost any means possible. Dust, hooves and sometimes fists fly as everyone piles into the scrum. Many of the players wear Soviet-era tank helmets to protect themselves from their opponents’ horsewhips.
When a breakaway is finally achieved, the player gallops down the field with the dead goat flopping over his saddle before hurling the hapless animal into the circular pot that serves as a goal.
Dan turns to me as I explain the rules of the impending spectacle.
“Well that certainly sounds… different,” he says, half intrigued, half horrified.
I quickly retort back: “As après-ski entertainment goes, it certainly beats a game of table football.”
NEED TO KNOW
Flights from London to Bishkek start at £320 return, with a stop over in Moscow or Istanbul.
One-day lift pass: £12; one-day ski or snowboard rental: £10.
Where to stay
Yak Tours Hostel is the best budget option in Karakol, an old Russian-style wooden building with comfortable rooms and a garden (tel: +996 392 256 901). Beds start from £3 per night. Hotel Amir caters for the upper end of the market, with double rooms starting from £40 per night (tel: +996 392 251 315; www.hotelamir.kg). Alternatively you can stay in the hotel at the ski base itself (tel: +996 392 251 494; www.karakol-ski.kg), where double rooms start from £30 per night.
Planning your own ski adventure?
Check out our ski hub: updated for the 2015/16 season, it provides insightful information on over 100 popular ski resorts, including details on accommodation, nightlife and skiing facilities – gory horseback sports optional.