Winter Sports in Almaty, Kazakhstan: Skating and Skiing

Putting itself on the map by applying to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Kazakhstan is poised to become an internationally recognized gateway to winter sports. At the edge of the Tian Shan range near the border with Kyrgyzstan, the Zailliski Alatau mountains watch over Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. Whether you want to downhill skiing or extreme snowboarding, these mighty mountains will oblige at the Shymbulak resort. And if you prefer skating in circles, Kazakhstan welcomes you to its high-altitude Medeu venue. With winter sports beckoning visitors to its exotic locale, Almaty is becoming the Colorado of Central Asia.

Skating at Medeu

Near a giant dam designed to protect the city from mud and debris during summer months, the Medeu ice complex is just a short bus or taxi trip (about 15 km southeast) from Almaty. Built adjacent to a beautiful gorge in 1972, Medeu was once the training center for Soviet skating hopefuls. Now that Kazakhstan is independent, winter sports enthusiasts from around the world flock to Medeu each year to take advantage of track conditions, which are supported by a unique freezing pipe system that complements natural ice. Speedskaters regularly set and break records at Medeu due to the ideal conditions, citing a combination of low pressure, pristine ice, and protection from wind. After all, Medeu’s facilities are located about 1700 meters above sea level, sheltered in a safe gorge.

But it’s not just world-class speedskaters (like Kazakhstan native Alexander Vinokourov) who skate in Almaty: plenty of common Kazakhs and curious tourists come to escape the city and skate for fun during winter months. Medeu operators rent skates for a nominal fee at the busy complex, which was recently renovated to celebrate Kazakhstan’s independence. Visitors can stay in Almaty or at Medeu itself, as hotels and restaurants are available. Whether you want to figure skate, speed skate, or play hockey, the winter sports complex at Medeu can serve you well.

Skiing (and Snowboarding) at Shymbulak

Only 25 km from Almaty, winter sports enthusiasts will find the skiing haven of Shymbulak near the Kyrgyz border. Talger pass, the highest station, is a full 3200 km above sea level, but you can exit the lifts earlier at one of several stations if you want a shorter run. There are a total of six lifts (three chair and three drag), and the vertical drop is over 900 meters. It’s easy to see why this resort is considered Central Asia’s best place for skiing and snowboarding.

Some ski enthusiasts argue that the snow composition is especially conducive to fast downhill skiing, so the prospect that Winter Olympic games might be held here is thrilling. Many famous skiers even shun the Alps to train here in Kazakhstan. However, Shymbulak also welcomes those who aren’t world class skiers. In fact, if you’re no good on skis or a board, there is a special run for tubing at Shymbulak. Just in case you want to tote the kids to Kazakhstan, this will provide a safe, fun option. As a full scale attraction, Shymbulak has most of the amenities that Americans have come to expect in a ski resort, but it also has an exotic and slightly ominous feel that is strangely compelling.

If you’re looking for resources that can help you plan a winter sporting trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan, consider the following site: If you participate in a package, you will enjoy a hospitable welcome at the airport and an English-speaking guide to assist you with tourism. This particular company regularly works with visitors who want to ski, snowboard, and skate at Medeu and Shymbulak.

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