Kyrgyzstan made headlines this spring for deadly political clashes—but we were there first, riding fresh and making friends.

You can travel the world on your snowboard, and the five people who took this trip are living proof. But here’s the thing—you can’t keep going to the Alps every time you step on a plane. Real adventurers have to get out of their comfort zone sooner or later. This is how Transworld and friends ended up in a mysterious former-Soviet country bordering China—a place called Kyrgyzstan.

We know you’re probably not gonna run off and book a ticket to somewhere you can’t pronounce after reading this. Not just because it’s remote and rugged. Not even because Kyrgyzstan ousted its president in a series of bloody riots a mere month after we left (timing is everything!). We just know that if you have a couple grand to spare, you’ll probably hit a heli lodge in B.C. or something. And that’s okay. At the same time, though, someone has to go to these wild places and ride—just to find out what’s there, because despite the lure of the adventure, there’s a lot to be learned about the world by seeing it from the deck of your snowboard.

However. Not every rider is cut out for the kind of trip that, going into it, you know will be both enriching and a little horrifying. You’re absolutely not ensured bluebird skies or blower pow—simply a unique foreign escapade. And we were definitely headed into the unknown. On the up side, there weren’t any State Department travel warnings at the time. On the down side, we were hard pressed to dig up any visitor’s information at all. It was almost a vacuum of info. We were mostly navigating on Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” and a vague itinerary from our contact, Samuel Maret—a European expatriate running a tour company called Nomad’s Asia out of Bishkek (the Kyrgyz capital).

To be fair, it’s not that horrifying things actually happen on voyages like this, necessarily—usually it’s our own bullshit that breaks us down. When we went to India a few years back, Ryan Thompson—a notorious germaphobe—literally made himself sick worrying about all the microbes floating around in the food and water. By the end of the trip, he was weak, paranoid, and eating nothing but energy bars he’d stowed away from the home country. It was a panic-button situation—times 1,000.

Lucky for me and photographer Eric Bergeri, my trusty travel wingman for the past three winters, we had a rock solid crew headed to Kyrgyzstan. Eric’s friend, a French freestyle destroyer named Sylvain Bourbousson, was on board from the beginning. After haggling with a few other prospective pros, I emailed Canadian firecracker Robin Van Gyn, and the next morning, bing! A message in my inbox. “That sounds amazing! I am 100-percent down for that trip.” Then, a quick inquiry to Colorado elicited this response from shred-vet Chad Otterstrom: “Hey Jen, Yeah, count me in, that sounds awesome.” Ass-kickers, both of ’em. Usually it’s, “Who else is going?” Or, “I don’t know—will there be a filmer?” Or my personal favorite, “I’m gonna be busy competing in the Olympics,” (an excuse I totally let slide).

So we had a good crew with good priorities, those of adventure and personal enrichment, and that makes any trip. Now, there was lots to learn. Kyrgyzstan is incredible—a mountainous territory containing 40 different tribes hailing from a nomadic culture that traces directly back to Genghis Kahn. The northwestern Himalayas sweep down onto barren, wind-scoured plains where, outside city limits, people mostly live off the land. Not all that long ago, the Kyrgyz were widely nomadic—roaming the steppes year round and sleeping in yurts. However, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin established borders for the “Stans” in World War II, he also encouraged (forced) the territory’s tribes to settle (because it’s pretty hard to lord over a nomadic population).

Anyway, the Kyrgyz are super proud and full of grit and fire. They drink amphetamine-strength black tea all day and, on holidays, play polo with the body of a headless goat (the game’s called Kok-boru). Plus, after enduring decades of Soviet occupation, they’ve overthrown their government twice in the last five years. And George Bush was in the White House for how long? Kinda makes you feel lazy.

I gleaned as much information as I could about Kyrgyzstan and its lore from the backseat of the tour van—but it wasn’t easy. As the comedy of fates would have it, the guide appointed to us by Samuel didn’t speak English. He had a heart of gold, but, bless him, Azamat’s third language after Kyrgyz and Russian was French. Like most Americans, I max out at one language—American. Thus, much like in a game of telephone, I’d always get the diluted second-hand story. Azamat would point to a sign or a landmark or whatever and serve up some fascinating fifteen-minute tale en français. Later, either Eric or Sylvain would give me the severely abridged translation, out of laziness I assume. “That’s it?” I’d ask, confused, notepad and pen at ready. “Did he say anything else?”

In the summertime, the city of Bishkek is lush and gorgeous, packed with so much flora you might mistake it for a forest. Or so we heard. Winter is a cruel mistress to any city, and Bishkek in February was all mud puddles and shanty cig shops. We were quick to split for the surrounding mountains. Ak Tash, or “White Stone,” was our first stop—a café and an ancient T-bar at the base of some savage mountains.

First run, Chad broke the T-bar—I’m not sure how? I don’t think it’d had much use recently. When it was working again, we found a powder stash off to the right and then just went with it—riding down past the cafe, down past the tour van and the sheep nibbling dried grass, down through rolling hills decked in silky snow all the way to the valley floor. The sky was huge and the foothills were stacks of maroon off in the distance. I thought about wolves hunting the steppes in some Russian folk story. Back in the van, Azamat confirmed that in the Naryn province to the south, wolves often hunt humans waiting out at lonely bus stops—but only in the dead of winter when tastier food sources are scarce. This zone had the jackals, though—which are, according to Sylvain’s translation, “small, ugly dogs that attack in packs and eat you while you’re still alive.”

Which brings me to my next subject, the Kyrgyz diet. Food is a powerful component to traveling. Albeit subconsciously, people become quite attached to their tastes and routines. I’ve seen grown-ass riders reduced to infancy after a week with no Starbucks. On the other hand, cuisine is a huge source of local pride. In Japan, if you refuse a be-tentacled morsel that your host has offered just because you think it’s gross, you may as well be saying, “F—k you.” I’m a vegetarian—which has its challenges when you’re on the road—but it’s also gotten me out of some hairy situations. “No, thank you, I’d love to try your pig’s foot soup, but, you see, I’m vegetarian.”

Much like with wolves and jackals, meat is a primary food source of the Kyrgyz. It’s tradition—back in the day, nomads weren’t in one place long enough to farm for grains and vegetables. Azamat told tales of national festivals where a village would eat an entire horse from the inside out—bone marrow to blood sausage. You’d recover from the gluttonous meat-fest with a soak in the tub, which apparently aids digestion.

This rich, gamey cuisine had an interesting effect on our crew’s psyche. It began with Robin adventurously ordering a meal thus: “I’ll have what he’s having,” and gesturing to a guy in a bulbous fur hat sitting across the room. She ended up with the Kyrgyz national dish, besh barmak—boiled meat and noodles. This included “things from the inside”—discs of hard white fat wrapped in liver and yellow, chewy nuggets of … brains? Stomach lining? She pushed her food around and gamely ate a few bites.

“This … has a really strong taste,” she said.

“What’s it taste like?”

“Animal fat.”

The theme continued once we reached the mountain town of Karakoal with such delicacies as rice and liver and sheep’s lard ravioli. Pretty soon, everyone was demurely claiming “vegetarian.” For my part, I ate well. Fresh bread came hot from an earthen oven, the local almonds were righteous, and when all else failed, there was always cabbage salad.

The bulk of our trip was spent in Karakoal, a remote village down the road from a ski resort of the same name—Kyrgyzstan’s biggest. Our guesthouse entailed a few utilitarian rooms heated by coal fire and a central dining room table around which we ate all our meals. With the exception of our long days on hill, we never went out in Karakoal, not once—partly because of jet lag, partly because the streets were dark and we weren’t sure what we’d find out there.

On trips like this, when you’re removed from modern-day escapes like phone, Facebook, and television, people’s personalities really come into play. You hope you’re traveling with people who you can at least stand. I’m happy to report that everyone power-bonded with ease, and we successfully wiled away many an hour by very simply talking—just like they used to do in the olden days!

As stated before, Chad’s a real ass-kicker. Snowboarding isn’t a right to him—it’s a privilege. He’s down for an adventure anytime, even of it just means a weird stamp in his passport, and he maintains a crucial balance of low-key cool-headedness and “f—k it!” The latter came into play on an extra-dicey cliff drop, something Sylvain scoped off the side of the road. The landing was thin at best and sent you hauling balls into a riverbed. Not only was the drop not Chad’s idea, it was early in the morning and getting towards the tail end of a long trip. However, refusing to let Sylvain hit something so hairball alone, Chad strapped down his boots and sent it—launching past the rocky precipice and tweaking, as if he actually had some desire to be there. Man, Chad, thank you for being a trooper. 

It quickly became clear to me why Eric takes Sylvain on every trip possible. He’s one of those golden people. Literally, everyone likes this guy—if not for his gleeful disposition, then for his style and supreme shredding. He always wants to ride and loves to hit the hectic stuff no one else will touch. Truth be told, he had so many shots at the end of the trip that we had to be like, “Can you just sit this one out?” I don’t know why Sylvain isn’t more of a household name in North America, except that maybe it actually has to do with his name—not American-sounding enough, or something.

Anyway, Sylvain’s amusing, elf-like presence always lightened the mood. When we’d been wallowing for hours through terrible sugar snow at Karakoal—all sweating and swearing to ourselves—he trudged up calmly, lifted a handful of the crystalline snow grains and let them sift through his fingers, and exclaimed, “It’s just like we take for the tea!” Giggling, he continued on his merry way.

As for Robin, she’s now one of my favorite female snowboarders. She just knows how to deal. Take her to a rural Kyrgyz latrine and she’ll know to throw the toilet paper in the trash, local-style, instead of down the pot where it’ll clog the septic system. Take her to a foggy, rock-peppered zone and she’ll find a line. Build a kicker and she’ll backside 180 it. Put a bottle of vodka in front of her, and she’ll drink it. Canadians have long been my travel companions of choice, and Robin is simply more proof of why.

On the morning of April 7, about a month after we’d exited Bishkek via Istanbul and a vodka hangover, the BBC was ablaze with the headline, “The government in Kyrgyzstan is struggling to retain power as deadly clashes escalate between police and thousands of protesters.” Like a flash, I pictured my new Kyrgyz friends. Was Samuel okay? Had Azamat lobbed any Molotov cocktails? Was Yuri, our crazy van driver, bellowing Russian cusswords in the middle of the fray?

I sent Azamat a quick electronic message. “Are you okay?” About a week later, relieving news: “We are all good here, Jennifer!” It seemed his English was improving.

Last I heard, things had quieted down a bit in Kyrgyzstan. President Bakiyev—a corrupt slimeball who’d governed like a Mafioso, was hiding in Belarus, and an interim government was being created.

However, all that’s kinda beside the point—because we were down with Kyrgyzstan before it was in the headlines. We were down with the sweeping Himalayan vistas, both haunting and majestic. We were down with the local snowboarders, who learned to ride by side-slipping the mountain at 60 miles per hour. We were down with the wild tales of hunters kidnapped by Yetis. We were even down with the city’s scrappy stray dogs and the shanty corner shops. Although truthfully, none of us may ever make it back that way again, it’s good to know that we’ll always have friends in Kyrgyzstan.

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