Horse-backcountry-skiing in KyrgyzstanJuly 8 2017
Can a new extreme sport preserve an ancient culture? That’s what a Kyrgyz man from Kyrgyzstan named Emil Ibakov is testing with his invention of “backcountry-horse-skiing.” Climate change and urbanization are fueling the extinction of a 2,000 year-old nomadic lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan. But Emil’s new sport, which uses unique steppe horses to climb mountains and ski the backcountry, collides a mastery of ancient steppe horsemanship with modern alpine ski touring. It brings nomadic culture into the modern world of adventure tourism, and Emil hopes it just might save his heritage.
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It's been over a month since we've been back and the culture shock of coming home from expedition is real. Alex and I are cranking away on the edit and we have an army of translators working to create captions for everything we shot. Leave it to me to make my first major independent film a foreign language film with 4 different languages (Russian, Kyrgyz, German and English). Stay tuned for more!
As we wrap up our last days in the field and head back to catch our flight out of Bishkek, I'm left with more questions than answers. In that sense expeditions and filmmaking have tremendous overlap - you never really digest what happened until you come home and begin to sort through it all, whether in your heart or in the edit room.
One thing that's certain, however, is that I could not have asked for a better team for this adventure. I dedicate this last post to our epic team - Alex Pritz, Jack Weisman and Katya Borisova, our wonderful hosts - Emil and Gulmira Ibakov, and the village of Jyrgalan. I'm happy with the footage we got and with everything I learned but I always feel like an expedition is a success if in the end I feel connected to my team and the locals who let a crazy film crew into their lives. Now it's up to Alex (my codirector) and I to do this story justice and piece everything together.
Huge thanks to the National Geographic Society for helping us shed light on an often overlooked culture and part of the world. Excited to see the final documentary film come together.
Over the next few days we continue trying to wrap our minds around this story - the interactions between horses, ancient culture, mountainous environments, economic development and tourism in this small village. We shoot traditional horses kicking up snow to eat grass, interview locals about the tourism boom and village life, spend time with tourists understanding how they experience this place as outsiders. Emil even hosts a training with USAID for Kyrgyz people from mountain towns near and far to learn backcountry ski guiding and best practices for tourism development. We notice many of the younger generation in Jyrgalan are starting to pick up skiing from their interaction with tourists, showing a further cultural sharing and mixing. The more time we spend in Jyrgalan the more the whole thing looks like a large experiment in development - both economic and cultural. It looks like the village will never be the wilderness it was before the Soviet Era, nor will it return to its coal mining boom, but something else is being created. While I started this project interested in cultural preservation, I'm realizing what we are really witnessing is culture in transition.
Emil is pragmatic. He tells us no one cannot stop the tide of gloabalization. But I sense he doesn't see globalization as a bad thing. Instead it's a reality in which he must operate to survive, in which Jyrgalan and Kyrgyz culture may actually thrive if they can adapt with the times. Nomadic horsemanship, coal mining in the Soviet Era, and now ski tourism are all blending together to form Jyrgalan's modern identity. And I see potential parallels for the story of Kyrgyzstan as a country overall, seeing a resurgence of its traditional culture in the context of the modern global economy.
We spend the next few days in Ak-Suu in a winter yurt camp run by Slava, a local Kyrgyz-Russian Ski guide. The fact that a Kyrgyz-Russian is opening a yurt camp shows a lot of the cultural fusion and overlap that has happened for both Russians and Kyrgyz after 2 centuries of cohabitating and mixing in the region. It finally hits me just how complicated this country's fabric truly is. The story here is not just about nomads, galloping horses and eagle hunters. Nor is it just coal mines, factories, and centralized government of the Soviet Period (which by the way, as I mentioned, was actually a period of prosperity for Jyrgalan). Nor is it just a story about developing local tourism in a modernizing world. When we tell stories we have to distill things into a simpler form and communicate them. But I wrestle with all of the layers here.
Today is my 25th birthday and Emil and his wife Gulmira treat me to a dinner with their family, a cake, endless singing and a few polaroid snaps. Tomorrow we head out of Jyrgalan to Ak-Suu yurt camp for some more backcountry skiing in a remote winter yurt camp in the mountains nearby.
The next few days are spent intimately getting to know the village of Jyrgalan. We spend time with the horses who roam the hills and streets. We interview locals.
As we spend more time in Jyrgalan we become fascinated with this little village and all of its complexities. Our story is beginning to transition from an academic examination of cultural fusion to a much deeper and more nuanced look at how tourism affects a small, traditional community. We are slowly realizing that tourism is seen as this pancea in Jyrgalan, something to finally bring it out of its ghost town dark age and into the modern economy. Emil's guest house and tour operation is the main game in town and Emil's dream is to turn Jyrgalan into a world-class tourism destination. He admits that many people think he is crazy for doing this, and we notice the village has not yet seen the change it hopes for. Most locals seem to welcome the rising tourism boom but aren't quite sure how to reap the benefits of this new economy. Emil is an entrepreneur and his charisma and drive are something to be admired, but I wonder about the barriers to entry for an average local to create this kind of enterprise in Jyrgalan. Tourism is Jyrgalan's best bet for economic development but can the whole village be trained in hospitality and ski guiding? Who benefits and who loses out when a small community is on the cusp of development? I also find myself thinking a lot about cultural tourism and the pros and cons of commercializing culture. As an outsider (and especially as a westerner), I can't judge or weigh in on this. But overall as our time here unfolds, I realize the layers of complexity beneath the postcard view of Jyrgalan we see when we are only visitors.
We continue to unpack the story of Emil, Jyrgalan and Kyrgyz culture through Kyrgyzstan's history. The three begin to parallel and overlap in our minds. Emil tells us that after working a Soviet factory job in Bishkek he felt the "call of the ancestors" to return to the environment of his childhood in Karakol and the mountains of Jyrgalan. According to Emil, the "call of the ancestors" is a feeling that each Kyrgyz person may experience at least once in their life, a call to action by ancient ancestors to fulfill your life's duty. Emil believes that his call was to return to areas of Jyrgalan and build up the village again. He wants to do this through ski tourism, while also providing tourists a taste of the local culture - yurts, horses, Kymis (fermented mare milk), etc.
We learn the importance of ancestors and maintaining tradition in Kyrgyz culture. Each Kyrgyz person is supposed to be able to recite the names of many ancestors by heart and oral recitation of the Manas Epic (an Odyssean-style story on the foundation of the Kyrgyz people) is still practiced today.
Emil tells us that in ancient times if a Kyrgyz person was deemed by the clan to have forgotten his ancestors and culture, he or she was deemed an "utter head" and made to wear the actual utters of an animal on his head in front of his clan... an ancient take on a dunce cap if you will.
We spend the next few days interviewing Emil (our main character) in his home and wandering the streets of Jyrgalan. Emil tells us he grew up in Karakol and would spend summers working on his grandfathers yurt camps in the hills of Jyrgalan. During the Soviet Era many Kyrgyz nomads were forced to sedentarize and form collective villages around different industries. Jyrgalan turned into a coal mining town. The town boomed in the Soviet Period. Under the collectivized model the town became totally dependent on the central government for food and supplies. The story goes that many people in town even forgot how to bake bread - everything was imported in to support constant work in the coal mine. Many Russian mining experts were also brought in and Jyrgalan transformed from horse pastures to a booming mining center. We are told the coal of Jyrgalan is some of the strongest in Kyrgyzstan.
But when the USSR fell in the 1990s and Kyrgyzstan gained independence, all mining in Jyrgalan stopped and the town fell into disrepair. No longer able to support themselves, many inhabitants abandoned their homes and the village became a ghost-town. I'm reminded of similar stories in the mines of the American West or steel-towns in Pennsylvania.
We visit the old Jyrgalan coal mine, which is still operating just to support the homes in the village. We learn that some locals stayed after the mine shut down and other Kyrgyz returned from surrounding areas to their ancestral lands. Since the mine shut down Jyrgalan is still mostly based on a bartering economy.
As expected our horse-backcountry-skiing day did not go as expected! We had about 20 people total going up the mountain which worried me in terms of load on the slope given the unstable snowpack. With no center for avalanche danger updates we relied on local knowledge and weather updates via sat phone. Our main guide was the local forester in town. In Kyrgyzstan each town and village has its own dedicated forester in charge of making sure the wilderness and animals around are staying clean and healthy, monitoring hunting and deforestation, etc. The local forester takes us up the mountain with all of his horses and kept us in safe terrain. It was still pretty crazy having ski boots in stirrups and managing horse riding and skis and deep snow (AND shooting footage for us).
There are definitely still some growing pains for the local guides, managing tourists who have never ridden horses before. But overall the day is a massive success and the tourists are on cloud 9 from the horses. I realize for the first time how special of an experience this is - to be out there in the wilderness in deep snow, getting to experience something with such a deep history to the region (horsemanship) blended with something that has the potential to modernize and economically develop the region (ski tourism)
We gathered with the German tourists around Emil as he explained how he came up with the idea to use horses to climb into the snowy backcountry to access ski routes. Emil explains that horses in Kyrgyzstan have been used to carry loads in deep snow for centuries. In ancient times Kyrgyz people would strap firewood to the horses and take them up and down the mountains. The Kyrgyz horse is unique in that it is furrier, can carry heavier loads and walk farther distances in deeper snow. It can also kick up snow to access grass underneath. Apparently Emil's ancestors even strapped snow shoes to horses to allow them to trek long distances in deep snow. Riding horses is second nature to most Kyrgyz people. Many of them begin to ride as early as age 3.
But it's not just about culture. Kyrgyzstan has lacked the infrastructure for many lifts and resorts. And most tourists want to travel there in winter for the backcountry skiing specifically. When Emil began to ski he realized the snowpack was so dense and deep that skinning would take much longer. Yet there was not enough infrastructure for new chairlifts and snowcats and heliskiing is expensive and bad for the environment. Horses, however, are everywhere and a much lower barrier to entry for locals looking to organize and guide ski trips. Not to mention that it is a crazy unique experience for tourists who get to free ride while also experiencing a core pillar of the local culture.
We finally make it to the village of Jyrgalan and are greeted by Emil, our main character in the doc and pioneer of free riding and horse backcountry skiing in Jyrgalan. However, as most expeditions go, there is a sudden change of plans - we are told that tomorrow we will be experiencing and shooting horse-backcountry-skiing with a group of German tourists that have signed up to try it as well. We're thrilled but for our first day in the field this is super intense. We thought we'd have a few days to get settled before doing our hardest shoot of the doc.
Horse-backcountry-skiing has never been filmed before and requires some expert rigging with camera gear. Not only do we have to manage ourselves with large cameras on horses (read: live animals that can sense fear and have a will of their own), we also have to account for avalanche danger and skiing in the deep snow. As I mentioned before, Kyrgyzstan has a continental snowpack and the snow is especially deep and unstable this season. Sometimes you can be up to your chest. I'm insanely nervous for our first day. We do a quick avi safety refresher and spend the night prepping batteries, hacks to keep the gear warm, and 3 types of cameras (DJI Ronin for motion stabilization included). I'm so nervous that I barely sleep.
In Kyrgyz, “what is your name” is the same phrase as “how is your horse?”
As we near Jyrgalan we are continuously shocked by how pervasive horses are. They really are everywhere, a staple of the visual environment and a way of life. Before we left on expedition I spoke with horse expert Jacqueline Ripart, a French woman who has made it her life's passion to reintroduce the purebreed Kyrgyz horse back into Kyrgyzstan via her non profit "Foundation Kyrgyz Ate" (YKA). Many of the purebreed horses were mixed with Russian breeds during the Soviet Era and as modernization intensifies, much of the traditional practices of Kyrgyz horsemanship are lost. Jacqueline explained to us that horses are more than farm animals in Kyrgyzstan. They are transportation, food, friends, members of the family...an entire lifestyle.
We will be spending the next few weeks in the village of Jyrgalan, but traveling there is far from easy. From the town of Karakol, the road climbs and narrows. We cross snowy passes and windy bends through the mountains. En route we stop to shoot a traditional Kyrgyz cemetery. Katya, our field producer and guide explains that cemetaries in Kyrgyzstan are relatively "new" - meaning they have been around for a few hundred years instead of a few thousand years. Traditionally the Mongols had open-air burials but with time and gradual sedentarization beautiful cemeteries developed. Many of the burial structures are modeled after the traditional Kyrgyz yurt. Kyrgyz culture is heavily ancestor based and many of these cemeteries persist throughout the country.
Made it into Kyrgyzstan and making our way to the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Mountain Range (the Tian Shan). Day 1 was spent on the road to Karakol from the capital Bishkek, driving down the windy roads of the high desert and shooting footage of the unique Kyrgyz horse around lake Issyk-Kul. It’s rare to find purebreds these days but you can still tell these horses are smaller and furrier than the North American or European breeds. You can also see them grazing on grass alone and roaming the steppe, outside of stables.
So how do you pack for a horse-skiing documentary in the remote regions of eastern Kyrgyzstan?
That's where the fun of expedition packing comes in, especially when you're an adventure filmmaker and photographer. We've got quite the kit going and this is just the half of it. Usually when you pack for an international expedition that involves some sort of adventure sport you already have an enormous kit full of clothes and equipment (puffys, base layers, hardshell layers, ice boots, ropes, skis etc). But with a crew of filmmakers and photographers we also have to pack all of our media gear. As a producer I spend months honing my excel spreadsheets for our packing list and budget, making sure every single piece of gear to the last AA battery is accounted for. No Clif Bar can be left behind! And then even when we do pack everything perfectly there's always the infamous TSA reshuffle as we try to get all of the bags in the right weight range and make sure everyone can carry on their most valuable equipment (especially some of those peskily flammable lithium batteries that can't go in checked baggage). Bags often arrive late or get lost so I always try to organize my crew's carry-ons based on what we absolutely need to complete the expedition at a minimum, both in terms of camera equipment and outdoor gear.
It sounds like a lot to think about but it quickly becomes second nature and most of us have developed our own weird little packing systems. Sometimes it's not so much what to bring as what to bring it in. Here are the 5 main bags I used for this trip (and almost any other trip):
- "Big Blue" - my Speed 50L Black Diamond backpack that can pack down to a carry-on one minute and be taken on a multi-pitch ice climb the next. Using it as a carry-on for my camera equipment, laptop, toiletries and extra clothes in case bags are lost.
- The North Face Base Camp Duffel - It's massive, turns into a backpack and is really easy for yaks to carry in the Himalaya or for horses to carry in the Tien Shan. For this trip I packed everyone's ski boots and helmets in here, along with med supplies, snacks, and layers.
- Rossignol Super Haul ski bag - I fit three Alpine Touring skis in here and poles, plus avalanche safety gear and miscellaneous other items. Shoutout to Tahoe Sports Hub for hooking us up.
- Pelican Cases - For our precious camera gear. Especially that Google VR camera in the bottom left corner. We're carrying that on for sure.
- Ziplocks - I never travel without them and I take all sizes. They can fit medical supplies, electronics or snacks. They can be used as makeshift gaiters so your feet don't get wet or as dry bags for your clothes. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
See below for a peak into some of our media gear!
T minus 2 days until we leave for our Kyrgyzstan expedition so I'm reviewing a bunch of the books I've been using to do research over the last year. One of my favorite pieces is this old article in a 1936 copy of Nat Geo Magazine, titled "With the Nomads of Central Asia" by Edward Murray. It has incredible illustrations and photos from Murray's time living on the steppe. Pretty surreal to be on the brink of adding to that legacy and taking a look at modern nomads. That 1936 copy of Nat Geo is definitely one of the oldest (and coolest) things I own.
We are about 10 days away from heading out on our National Geographic expedition to eastern Kyrgyzstan. The Tian Shan mountains are no joke this time of year and Kyrgyzstan is notorious for its continental snow pack. That means cold and dry conditions like Colorado in the US that are perfect for high avalanche danger. I spent the last two weeks in the backcountry of Lake Tahoe, CA training in avalanche safety with Adrian Ballinger’s company Alpenglow Expeditions. I want to make sure I have the tools to keep myself and my team safe in the field. Highly recommend Alpenglow for AIARE certification and any big mountain expedition training. Check out the photo below!
I am honored to announce that we received grant funding from the National Geographic Society for our expedition.
Noam Argov - the expedition PI - received the Early Career Grant from NGS to see this project through. The official project start date is scheduled for Jan 27, 2018. We will be embarking to Kyrgyzstan on that date to document horse-backcountry-skiing and the preservation of nomadic culture through extreme sports. Stay tuned!
Our expedition involves making a doc short about Emil and his creation of fusion sports in Kyrgyzstan as a means for preserving and sharing his culture. Backcountry-horse-skiing uses unique mountaineering Kyrgyz horses to trek on snow and climb into the fresh powder of the Central Asian backcountry, a cultural spin on chasing pristine turns in untracked places. Emil is taking a risk, as he tries to fuse nomadic traditions with the world of adventure tourism, hoping to create new economic systems for Kyrgyz nomads without losing their culture. Focusing on Emil’s perspective as an entrepreneur in his community, we will get an intimate look into what drove him to take on this new adventure and how it can ensure nomadic traditions become part of the modern age.