Friday, February 24, 2006

The best skiing in Central Asia

I spent a fantastic day on the slopes of Karakol’s ski base. I woke up to a nice layer of fresh snow, a present for men’s day some people joked.

I headed up the mountain in the giant green, military like vehicle (called a vahovka) that takes up the base workers. Almost 20 people, mostly men, squeezed along the three benches. Though it was early and still dark, they were in good humor from yesterday’s holiday. One man passed chocolates around.

“I was up late and my head hurts,” the friendly and honest man who handles ski rentals told me. “There was vodka and beer and a sauna and girls.”

They seemed like a nice team and after being reminded of the poverty and low wages in Karakol (people here seem to have a grey, worn look to them), I was glad to see so many people heading to stable jobs. Among them was a girl I used to work with, Natalya. She was fired because she lacked the energy and strength of character needed in her former position. But now she works in the ski resort administration, handing out ski passes, taking money for all the base services, and keeping the accounts. Her quiet and polite personality fits well with this work and she seemed happy.

On the way to Karakol, I saw so much development taking place along the shores of Issyk-Kul, people hurrying to finish before the summer season opens. Many of the structures were new, bright, and almost gauche, especially when placed directly next to a small, decaying wooden house. I worried that the rich and criminal were taking over all the good areas and business opportunities.

But seeing this base at Karakol reminded me that such expensive ventures also create jobs. Granted, virtually no locals can afford even one day’s ski rental and lift ticket, much less a night’s stay on the base (the cheapest room is $40). But quite a few people have been employed as a result of wealthier people coming to utilize these services and their lives are comparably better as a result. Yes, the rich are getting richer, but the poor are also doing a little better too.

I met lots of interesting people today. No one could seem to believe that I was there alone. But I enjoy traveling independently every so often. Not only do I have complete freedom to plan my day as I wish, but it’s so much easier to meet people. I finally met a few locals skiing, the director of a school for guides and some of his students. Skiing is part of their training to become guides. The base lets them ski for free in return for them helping out around the base.

I met a man who spent eight years in America (he wore a Green Bay packers jacket and excess weight as souvenirs). He said he liked the ski base in Bishkek that had a sit-down chairlift better. “Here you have to stand up going up and standing up going down,” he said. “You never get a chance to rest.”

I met a woman who’d come all the way from Omsk, in Siberia. I met a woman who traveled with a large group of family and children from Karabalta. She used to be employed by an international project doing internet training. Now she has her own internet cafe and IP telephone shop. I met a man from Bishkek who wants to head back on Saturday so he’ll have time to plant apple trees in his yard on Sunday.

And I rode back down the mountain in an SUV with Vitaly, a wealthy young Russian businessman from Bishkek and his family. He told me that two years ago, he had two small electronics shops. He took a bank loan for $20,000.

“I imported my goods from the United Arab Emirates,” he said. “And as soon as I took that loan, I suddenly became a wholesale, rather than a retail buyer. I got big discounts on my purchases and everything changed. Overnight, I reached a place that it would have taken me two to three years to reach.” He smiled at the memory.

He now has five shops and a $100,000 credit line.

The skiing today was just gorgeous, fresh powder snow, no lines, and few people. I often felt like I had the entire mountain to myself. After lunch, some paragliders started to fly off the top of the mountain. They wore skis and bent their legs as though they were skiing on air. They floated over the pine trees, over the mountain tops, looking out at Lake Issyk-Kul.

“Whoo-hee!” one of them cried out, as he rose up into the air, higher than the two falcons who live at the mountaintop.