Although travel to Almaty, Kazakhstan was long, it was altogether quite unremarkable. I spent 33 hours traversing the longer direction from Anchorage through Denver, Houston, and Frankfurt. The most exciting part was realizing that I got to fly on an Airbus A380 from Houston to Frankfurt . Relative to normal ski destination flights and flights to and from Alaska, getting on a jumbo jet was exciting.
Almaty on the other had has been quite remarkable. Even arriving in the wee hours of the morning, we were greeted by the odd mix of this post-soviet republic. A whole host of volunteers carried bags and tried to herd us foreigners into busses. This mess was enhanced by the matching Bjorn Daehlie jackets of the Norwegian team and the US contingent that had arrived simultaneously. Most of these volunteers spoke English quite well, but it quickly became clear that this wasn’t a result of education in Kazakhstan as much as going to school elsewhere, such as Ohio or Cyprus for a couple of attaches helping out. Navigating around this scene in the airport was the dour older generation without a word of English spoken.
Driving into the city continued this trend. Modern glass castles and skyscrapers jutted randomly from the cement city. Once outside of the city center, twisting yellow pipes tried to tie it all together snaking between houses, over and under roads, and decreasing in size in the most unnecessarily intricate piping network I have ever seen.
A late breakfast and lunch soon after treated us with fruit loops and fries to return some hope for normalcy to the trip. US ski team past experience has shown that the food gets whiter the with travel further east, but kiwis and veggies appreciatively countered this trend. A few hours later, we suited up for a first trial of the competition venue. The Canadians had been spreading mixed rumors at lunch, so we departed for the venue a little apprehensively.
While we gained some elevation, it was not enough to emerge from the smog covering the city. Also as the organizers had only finished construction of this new venue within the last couple weeks, they couldn’t rely on the natural snow coverage. Instead some rocks were still present and a single desperate snow cannon added snow. Like Anchorage, the Almaty snowmaking system was left at a quarter of its capacity due to water pressure limitations. However, the workers were laboring to remedy the snow situation. Although a bit rocky and quite hazy, the skiing was nice. We looped, twisted and climbed around a hillside switching back higher and higher before a quick descent into a banked corner. TV platforms were being set up ready to capture our defining moments as well as the potential carnage always present with fast descents into corners. Skiing the second morning further improved all of our outlook as we crested above the smog and were able to look down on the city’s skyscrapers straining to escape the smog.
If the smog does clear out, the place would be pretty amazing. The Tien Shan Mountains tower above the city and the venue hinting at the magnificence of the area. With smog or without, this is U23s so excitement and competition is high, but we are all hoping for a bit of wind.