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Asia travel

Skiing with Borat: Hong Kong adventurers take on Kazakhstan

The Hong Kong chapter of the Explorers Club head off on their first expedition for three days of mountaineering, snowshoeing and skiing in Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan range

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2017, 8:03am

“Skiing with Borat”. It seemed an apt title for the WhatsApp chat group ahead of our trip to Kazakhstan, considering that comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional reporter is, for many of us, the only reference point we have for the Central Asian country. We were about to head off on the inaugural expedition of the Hong Kong chapter of The Explorers Club: three intense days of mountaineering, running, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing in Shymbulak near Almaty.

Founded in 1904 in New York, and dedicated to research and exploration of air, sea, land and space, the Explorers Club counts amongst its accolades the first summit of Everest, first to the North and South Poles, first to the deepest point in the ocean, and the first to the moon. James Cameron, Edmund Hillary, Roald Amundsen and Buzz Aldrin are all members. As am I – the Explorers Club recently formed a chapter in Hong Kong.

Explorers Club’s Michael Barth on how Hong Kong can lead new golden age of exploration

Knowing the group I was joining, I was aware this would be no ordinary ski trip. We’d be working on snow skills development, physical training and team-building ahead of upcoming bigger expeditions. Led by Hong Kong Chapter chairman and Bhutan expert Michael Barth and club director, pilot and world record holding adventurer Matt Prior, our team consists of highly qualified skiers, medics, endurance athletes and photojournalists.

It soon becomes apparent that the only Borat on this trip is me. I’ve never had much skiing experience. The only two possible roles I might play were comic relief, or a prop for emergency rescue training after my inevitable crash.

Our trip takes us to a small outpost called Shymbulak on the Tian Shan mountain range, which would be our base. Recently declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations, the Tian Shan range, which literally translates as “the Mountain of Heaven”, spans a vast swath of Central Asia and is home to a diverse fauna and flora, including snow leopards, golden eagles, brown bears and vultures.

A former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan sprawls over nearly three million square kilometres, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west, to the far reaches of China in the east and Siberian Russia to the north.

Its geographical diversity is reflected in its people, a product of Kazakhstan’s location on the Silk Road for more than two millennia. The unique blend of Northern Europe, Arabia and Asia makes for a fascinating contrast, especially coming from Hong Kong, a country that bills itself as modern Asia’s world city. Over the next few days we’re thrust into a culture that is, in many respects, ancient Asia’s original world city.

Our first day is mainly focused on preparation and acclimatisation. Shymbulak sits at about 3,000 metres elevation, and our planned excursions will venture above the tree line and into deep snow, with an average temperature of less than minus 10 degrees Celsius. The lack of oxygen is noticeable, with any strenuous exercise burning the lungs and robbing the breath.

Photographer Palani Mohan on capturing the last Kazakh eagle hunters of Mongolia

Most of us wake up with a headache the next morning, which we decide is probably due to the elevation, although a couple of local Almaty-brewed beers to celebrate our arrival may not have helped. But we figure the best way through it is to plough straight in, and after a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs and toast we get outfitted and ready to familiarise ourselves with the area. The rest of the team spends the day skiing the back-country, expertly forging new paths in the snow. Meanwhile, old Borat here works awkwardly trying to stand up like a newborn calf, my ski poles jutting out at odd angles propping myself up, whilst local skiers a quarter of my age whizz by and smile.

After a morning’s practice and a little very apprehensive skiing, I meet up with the rest of the team over a late lunch, which turns out to be an experience in itself. The Kazakhs are descendants of nomadic horsemen, and ultimately the great Khans, so horses have played a vital role in all levels of their culture. Horses also feature heavily in their gastronomy, and is the predominant meat, served in nearly all manner from steaks to casseroles to pasta sauces.

We decide – in the spirit of cultural discovery – to try it. I confess the idea of horsemeat steak is a little too much for me at this stage, so I opt for the horse casserole. It’s surprisingly good, similar to venison, and makes me wonder why we place certain cultural boundaries and values on different animals. My teammates agree that the horse is rather tasty; the fermented camel milk we have for dinner, however, is an acquired taste.

The next couple of days are filled with hiking, skiing and exploration, although the highlight for me is our snowshoeing expedition. One of our team went to great lengths to secure sets of snowshoes for us, which are put to good use climbing to the top of one of the Tian Shan mountains, with a summit of about 3,660 metres.

The snowshoeing is physically demanding, requiring significant fitness and aerobic capacity, especially in the thinner air. Being an experienced runner and athlete, I have a brief moment of victory and pride when I am able to help lead the team and break through the snow, carving a path right up the mountain. Finally Borat has found his role in the group.

For me, Kazakhstan is an undiscovered gem. It’s welcoming and friendly, and culturally unlike anything I have ever experienced. It’s also surprisingly accessible. Its largest city, Almaty, can be reached via a direct six-hour flight from Hong Kong, and the minimal time difference makes it an excellent option for a long weekend. With options for adventure or relaxation, there’s something here for everyone. On the return flight to Hong Kong we all vow we’ll be back, and we’ll bring our families next time.