Empty Pistes And Knee Deep Powder: Snowboarding In Uzbekistan Looks Amazing...
These stunning photos will make you want to shred the Silk Road
Last winter, snowboard photographer Sam Mellish travelled to Central Asia, armed only with his camera and a sense of adventure. These pictures tell the tale of his incredible journey
It's not the obvious snowboard trip, but in late February last year I found myself in Uzbekistan.
On a 14-day independent visit, I planned to trace the ancient Silk Routes from Samarkand to access lesser-known ski resorts east of Tashkent, deep in the Tian Shan mountain range.
Speaking neither Uzbek nor Russian, with no phrasebook, arriving alone in a bitterly cold and grey Tashkent, my trip began in trepidation...
Fresh snow over the Rukhobod Mausoleum, one of many temples in Samarkand - one of the ancient cities of the Silk Road.
Alexander the Great marvelled at Samarkand's beauty, Marco Polo lavished it with praise and Tamerlane made it the capital of his empire.
To the West, it has always represented everything that was forbidden and mysterious about the East.
Samarkand’s beautifully decorated 15th Century Registan is revealed through two conifers.
I met this chap while walking the streets of Samarkand. I loved his bright yellow umbrella and factory worker style overcoat.
Daily life exploring the backstreets of Samarkand.
In front of Samarkand’s magnificent Registan Square, a central meeting place during ancient times, an entrepreneurial un-official taxi driver beckons a fare.
Everyone loves a car boot sale. Set in the old quarters of Tashkent is the Chorsu Bazaar, where traders meet daily.
Everything can be purchased from traditional obi nan (bread), clothes, produce and fresh tea. It’s also the place to exchange money on the black market.
If it's not sold from a car boot, farmers sell their produce straight off the back of a lorry outside the Chorsu Bazaar.
In temperatures nearing sub zero, local produce still sells at the Chorsu Bazaar.
On the road heading due east into the Tian Shan Mountains. Passing Chirchiq, snow-capped mountains appear.
Continue east and you'll hit Tajikistan, and just over the northern mountain range lays Kazakhstan.
The road to Chimgan ski resort through the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. After days of fresh snow many fell victim to the snow-covered road.
At one point, Wednesday, my driver, pulled over and towed a group of young lads from Tashkent to recovery.
Modernity meets tradition. Chimgan ski resort, on the spurs of the Chatkal range, is a hive of activity attracting tourists from throughout Central Asia and Russia.
At weekends it’s the place to be seen.
Horses graze in the backdrop of some mellow, free ride descents.
With well over foot of fresh snow recently, the mountain is in prime condition for scoring some powdery lines.
Locals tend to favour a different kind of entertainment however. Some tackle the freeride lines, but the less adventurous enjoy inner tube and horse rides.
Entertainment at the bottom of the lifts is much like European resorts where folk cluster to gossip, unwind and be with friends & family.
Here in Chimgan, families enjoy the toboggan rides.
Local folk get stuck into all sorts of activities, from rubber tire to donkey rides, sledge-cum-toboggan runs to horse trails around the village.
But by far my favourite was the busy Uzbek après-ski. It consisted of car-boot-cum-kebab-&-chai-stalls where I was warmly welcomed and invited to join a group of older men basking in the sun, sipping tea and smoking cigarettes.
Kebabs - or shashlik - done the traditional way in Chimgan.
Old ladies burnt incense behind wares and snacks laid out for sale before them.
In the backdrop, dazzling descents, couloirs and fresh deep snow dominated the horizon.
Despite being aimed at the family skier, Chimgan could cater for the fearless.
Infrastructure is minimal. There are no hire shops, no chic cafes nor bustling bars.
What you're left with is hardy mountain folk and makeshift kiosks selling an assortment of goods, food and drinks.
All chained up and ready for the off – an Soviet-era car provides traditional transport in the Tian Shan Mountains.
Snacks laid out for sale in Chimgan with spectacular descents in the background...
I paid 5000 Som (about £1.30) to reach the top of Chimgan’s two-man chair, eyeing potential lines each direction.
The fresh powder was barely touched, while the pistes were flooded with moguls. When I reached the top, Chimgan staff dressed in army fatigues played cards, tourists posed for photos.
The material bound to the safety fence has the feel of Tibetan peace flags, and gave a spiritual appearance to the steep craggy gullies that towered in the distance.
At the Beldersay ski resort a skier counts his Som. Or more likely, how many rides he has left. I've snowboarded all over the world, brought afternoon passes, day passes, week passes and even season passes, yet never paid per ascent.
8000 Som (about £2.20) buys you a single ride from the base of Beldersay to the western face of Mt Kumbel.
A mother sees her daughter safely onto the two-man chair lift at Beldersay resort.
The mountain peaks at 2880m, and a sharp continental climate creates extreme temperatures, bringing plentiful snowfalls, which gives great quality snow.
This was certainly the case for my late February visit. I headed up the rickety two-man chair, sharing it with a young snowboarder from Tashkent.
Fresh corduroy pistes glistened in the morning sun, adjacent to open glades.
Day trippers getting to grips with a new found sport. The area at the top of the chair was a social hub, its very own Uzbek "place to be seen".
The pistes seemed exceptionally quiet, with most people just congregating at the top of the chair, taking in the exceptional views and playing in the snow like little kids.
Ali from Kuwait came bounding towards his friends after navigating the flat and fell to the ground in a heap - all the while rocking this excellent Union Jack jumper.
I found myself surrounded by a 360 degree view of stunning mountains rolling into seemingly endless pastureland.
Before me was an open powder field of untouched snow, save one lone skier snowshoeing fresh tracks, as he cut a line through the knee-deep powder.
The rope tow was closed; I looked down at the pisted run, and back up at the untracked snow, picked up my snowboard and followed his deep footprints for my first Uzbek freeride descent.
A hiking path leads to a ranger’s refuge in Beldersay in the Chatkal Mountains. It's fair to say that the accessible terrain in Uzbekistan would be limited if you were only to use the pisted trails. But the freeriding potential seems endless.
How safe the mountains are is highly dependent on conditions obviously but I enjoyed some epic knee-deep descents.
Chimgan was gentler, while Beldersay had steeper slopes and better snow. But both had plenty to offer!
Beldersay - the sun sets on an epic day and an epic trip.
Massive thanks to the Leica Store Mayfair for the loan of the wonderful Leica M240, a camera that is nothing but a joy to use and Makia for providing outwear for the trip as well as Beldersay Hotel.
You can see more images from Sam's epic trip on his website