If you were to suddenly wake up and have to guess where in the world you were, the landlocked former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan might throw you a curve ball with its beguiling mix of cultures cemented at the geographical crossroads of history’s greatest empires.
Arriving from Heathrow on a overnight flight to the capital, Tashkent, famous for its cavernous metro system, teeming bazaars and shimmering turquoise domes, I heard the Islamic greeting assalomu aleykum at every turn — but with a Turkic accent. And this amid shop signs on imposing Soviet-style blocks shouting Vino/Vodka in both Russian Cyrillic and the more familiar Latin alphabets. Uzbekistan isn’t famous — yet — as a holiday destination, but a change of government in 2016 has focused on attracting tourists and I was here to test out the fledgling ski scene.
I met my guide Nodir and set off on the 90-minute journey to brand new ski resort Amirsoy, nestled 1,600 metres up in the Tien Shan mountains, which is about as far from fondue sets and Sloanes swishing in the Alps as you’re likely to get — especially with day ski passes starting at a bargain £15. I had a civilised early check-in to the aptly named Le Chalet hotel: 40 pretty, private cabins dotted around a picture-perfect valley next to one of the pistes. They all feature roaring wood fireplaces, marble walk-in rain showers and full, modern kitchens to whip up a hearty après ski meal.
It was midday under a sparkling sun by the time I hit the slopes and, being an avid, well-travelled skier, I was impressed. Amirsoy boasts entirely new facilities, from its showpiece gondola rising to nearly 2,300m right down to the hired ski boots that still have that ‘new shoe’ smell. Size-wise it’s still modest compared with many of the Alps’ favourites and the terrain so far is best suited for intermediate skiers who love flying down steep corduroy cruisers. The views from the top reveal the rugged wilds that are the hallmark of this part of Uzbekistan.
The current resort is only phase one of an ambitious project, however. After I hopped on the back of his snowmobile, Amirsoy’s operations director, Thomas, took me to a secluded neighbouring valley where plans are well underway to build a lift to an even higher peak, as well as an exclusive hotel.
After a shaky warm-up run I ventured off the groomed pistes and then up into the untouched powder of treeless ridges and down into gullies between stunted cedars.
I could have spent the whole day carving fresh tracks, but my need for speed led me back to Amirsoy’s fast, manicured slopes, which stretch 3.5km top to bottom. If you need an extra shot of adrenaline, Uzbekistan’s untouched peaks are in reach by booking a heliskiing tour. Central Asia Adventures offers packages for advanced skiers, and flies hulking Russian-built transport choppers, a unique experience thanks to the retro Cold War vibe.
Meals for Le Chalet guests this year are served at the Olive Garden, housed in a semi-permanent, transparent geodesic dome. A quick hotel shuttle (no seatbelts — the Uzbek norm) took me to breakfast past Soviet-style guards in fur-flap hats, whistles chirping to direct traffic. Uzbek curiosities such as horse meat sausage and pumpkin crusty bread were served alongside warm croissants and creamy lattes.
Dinners were an Italian affair with loaded pizzas and the most tender rib of beef imaginable — not to mention a varied wine list including Uzbek vintages. And as local custom dictated, beef shashlik straight off the grill washed down with a few short glasses of warming Gold Uzbekistan vodka made for an après treat.
I headed back to teeming Tashkent and for the first time in my life I was happy to get stuck behind a snowplough, which forced my driver to follow the speed limit — at least until he overtook it. While Amirsoy really was first-rate, I was almost more struck by the feeling that I was peeling back the layers from what had been a geographical and cultural blind spot for me. Each shared gondola to the top was a little window into Uzbek culture. It’s only been open for a month and is attracting more curious locals than skiers, many with babies in tow, too. It seemed like nearly everyone I sat with was in a gondola for the first time; I learned ‘Ooooh’ and ‘Ahhh’ are the same in Uzbek as in English, and seeing their faces light up as the valley shrank below us was nearly as rewarding as the skiing. Next time I’ll need to stay longer to discover more of this fascinating country.
Uzbekistan Airways flies direct to Tashkent from £490. Two bedroom cabins at Le Chalet by Amirsoy from £270 per night, including breakfast (email@example.com)