Backcountry-Horse-Skiing in KyrgyzstanJuly 8 2017
Can a new extreme sport preserve an ancient culture? That’s what a nomad from Kyrgyzstan named Emil Ibakov is trying to prove 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 preserve and even popularize nomadic lifestyle.
For this project I will make a short film documenting Emil’s innovative approach to cultural preservation. The project focuses on Emil’s perspective as an entrepreneur in his community, how he created this new adventure sport and how he hopes it will ensure nomadic steppe traditions are maintained in the modern age. Centering on the local perspective, I will document modern nomadism, cultural elements of backcountry-horse-skiing and firsthand accounts from community members.
We will be hosted in Emil's guesthouse in his village of Jyrgalan, partnering with Mountain Cluster Association and Jyrgalan Destination Management Organization. I am also employing Katya Borisova, one of Emil's partners and a local mountain guide fluent in Russian. She will get us access to the region’s yurt camps and backcountry-horse-skiing areas. I will also work with National Geographic explorer and expedition cinematographer Max Lowe to capture the steppe’s changing cultural geography in the context of adventure tourism.Read background
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Across the steppes of eastern Kyrgyzstan, nomadic communities are seeing their traditional lifestyle disappear. Facing receding glaciers, declining precipitation and expansion of urban centers, nomadism often results in poverty. However, in a small village in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region, a nomad named Emil Ibakov is taking an innovative approach to preserving his traditional culture and lifestyle. Emil is attempting to keep nomadism alive by integrating it into a new adventure sport: “Backcountry-Horse-Skiing.” Rooted in 2,000 years of heritage, backcountry-horse-skiing fuses equestrian traditions of the Central Asian steppe with modern alpine ski-touring. Using yurt camps as bases, participants ride steppe horses up the mountains with skis strapped to the horses’ backs, and then riders backcountry ski the alpine terrain. It creates a hybrid outdoor experience that allows Emil to practice steppe culture, while attracting travelers to Kyrgyzstan and teaching them about his traditions.
Krygyz nomadic culture is disappearing because steppe lifestyle (yurts, mobility, horsemanship) is increasingly unlivable. Nomadism is a food producing economy, relying on climate patterns to move livestock. Droughts and land degradation mean modern nomads find it hard to move around, causing poverty and agricultural uncertainty that forces abandonment of steppe life for the city. Because the lifestyle core to nomadic culture is disappearing, nomads are looking for new ways to make a living while maintaining their culture. Recognizing adventure tourism as one of the fastest growing sectors in Kyrgyzstan’s economy (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016), Emil is attempting to preserve nomadic traditions by blending them into a new adventure sport he can share with local communities and travelers. He hopes backcountry-horse-skiing will help steppe culture survive and influence the modern world.
How can backcountry-horse-skiing preserve nomadic culture? The traditional steppe horse is unique from any other breed, making its mastery core to Kyrgyz nomadism. Unlike sedentary breeds, steppe horses survive on grass and have unique hooves that kick through ice and snow to climb alpine terrain (like crampons or ski-skins). Moreover, skiing and alpinism is recently integrating into Kyrgyz identity. With 80% of the country covered in mountains, the Soviet Era brought outdoor education, mountaineering, and ski resorts to Kyrgyzstan. In the post-Soviet period, there is now a knowledge transfer of alpine skills to today’s nomads. Combined with post-Soviet resurgence of nomadic nationalism, the dual legacy of horsemanship and alpinism creates a ripe environment for backcountry-horse-skiing.
This story uniquely highlights Kyrgyz nomadism and the invention of a never-before-seen hybrid sport. Most narratives about Central Asia focus on the Mongolian Empire or Silk Road, while countries like Kyrgyzstan are rarely shown. The few narratives about Kyrgyzstan focus on its terrain and outdoor sports, but lack social and cultural context. I want this story to humanize Kyrgyzstan, showing adventure sport and geotourism from the perspective of its inventors and specifically documenting the new invention of Backcountry-horse-skiing. Instead of painting Kyrgyz nomads as victims to modernity, this story focuses on the nomads innovating traditions to preserve them.
Aside from the impending disappearance of Kyrgyz steppe culture pressing the timeliness of this project, this story also comes at a time when the concept of “nomad” is pop-culturally relevant. With yurts touted as “glamping,” and “digital nomad” used to describe today’s remote tech worker, there is a unique opportunity to educate audiences about the history and people behind these trends. Finally, the Issyk-Kul Region in Kyrgyzstan is becoming a hub for adventure sports in Central Asia (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016). Its nomads are at an inflection point in the economic role they play in Kyrgyzstan’s tourism. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples’ roles in shaping their country’s tourism industry is often overlooked, allowing for later exploitation. An example, which I work on first-hand, is the Sherpa of Nepal’s Khumbu Region and the high but hidden price they pay on Everest expeditions from years of being downplayed in the Everest narrative. I worry a similar fate for Kyrgyz nomads if we fail to capture their influence on Kyrgyzstan’s adventure tourism.
This project’s goal is to highlight a disappearing nomadic culture and the invention of an adventure sport as a tool for that culture’s preservation. It also aims to tell the story from the perspective of an innovator within the community at risk. While I’ve researched adventure tourism for sustainable development over the last 5 years, there is a lack in field research about its effects on cultural preservation. I see this project as a crucial first step for enhancing this knowledge and for showing audiences some of the most innovative ways communities are using tourism to survive. I hope sharing this story of ingenuity inspires other communities reconciling their traditional livelihoods with modernity. I also hope this story is a call to action for consumers of adventure tourism. What may be an adrenaline-inducing travel experience for one person, is a fight for the cultural preservation and livelihood of a community. I want this project to make us more thoughtful travelers, looking beyond the mountains we climb and ski to understand the cultures and and histories behind our exploration. A final objective is to drive more traffic to community-based geotourism in Kyrgyzstan, as these initiatives are crucial for the cultural and economic survival of nomadic communities.
In terms of capacity building, the project’s beneficiaries are the communities of Issyk-Kul Region, specifically in Karakol and Jyrgalan and Ak-Suu valleys. These communities increasingly rely on tourism for their livelihood and will gain from exposure to global audiences. Kyrgyzstan was recently ranked in the top 10 countries for a tourism boom by 2025 , as its contribution of tourism to GDP is one of the fastest growing globally (World Travel and Tourism Council 2016). I hope this film will not only increase Kyrgyzstan’s tourism, but also enhance tourism infrastructure development, a current barrier to tourism growth. Moreover, the UN World Tourism Organization noted adventure tourism as a unique tool for enhancing cultural heritage and raising awareness about biodiversity and conservation (United Nations World Tourism Organization 2014). This project’s potential to increase adventure tourism in Kyrgyzstan can help combat environmental concerns threatening the preservation of nomadic culture. Lastly, this film could bring additional outdoor vocational resources to the region. Increased training can fuel geotourism ventures and increase the safety margin for guides and tourists. Kyrgyzstan’s Community Based Tourism Association (CBT), which employs and trains nomads, will especially benefit. I hope a film in which an indigenous population is innovating its country’s tourism will fuel capacity building at a grass-roots level and avoid future exploitation of nomadic communities.