On a recent, cool March morning in a village near Bishkek, 20 Austrian tourists boarded an aging helicopter for the 30-minute flight to 4,000-meter-high peaks. Over the course of a week, they each pay over $4,800 for 12 hours of flight time in the Kyrgyz Air Force Mi-8MTV, giving them access to some of the world’s best heli-skiing. Meals, accommodation and local cultural excursions were included in the package.
A couple of hundred heli-skiers travel to Kyrgyzstan each winter, mostly from Austria, Switzerland, Russia, and Japan, according to Peter Unterluggauer, a guide who has led tours in the Tien Shan Mountains since 2004. “The snow is very good, there is enough of it, and there are several good mountain options, so it’s easy to avoid bad weather,” says Unterluggauer. What’s more, it’s a relatively good value: Heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan costs approximately half what it does in Canada, the sport’s top destination.
“It’s very profitable,” says Mirali Mukhamedziev, general director of Muza Travel, a Bishkek-based tourism outfit. “Foreigners keep coming—most of our clients are repeat customers.”
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Myles Smith is a freelance reporter focusing on Central Asia.