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Caroline Hodges graduated in International Security from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 2010 and has spent much time studying and working in Russia and throughout post-Soviet space. She currently works for a humanitarian aid NGO in Kyrgyzstan. She wrote this for SRAS shortly after taking a ski trip to the depths of Siberia.

Soviet Skiing in Siberia!
By Caroline Hodges

A fresh ski slope at Sheregesh awaits you!

Sheregesh is Siberia's most developed downhill skiing resort, locked away in the heart of the Gornaia Shoria region of the Altai mountain range and nestled within miles of endless taiga. As with much of Siberia, the surrounding area is rich with traces of its fascinatingly tortured past. With the regional population rising exponentially during the Soviet industrialization drive, Sheregesh and its surrounding towns were built as settlements for the workers at the newly-established mine and from 1938 to 1941 developed alongside the Gornaia Shoria GULAG, whose 12,000 inmates constructed the local railway line.

Ethnic Germans living in the Volga region of Russia before the Second World War were amongst the many ethnic groups deported en masse to Siberia under Stalin. The descendents of those who survived the journey and the harsh conditions that followed, although now fully Russified, can still be found here. Our taxi driver up to the base of the slopes turned out to be one such descendent. Although many members of his family had in fact emigrated to Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union and he had been to visit twice, he had no intention of moving permanently. "Germany's nice, but just for a holiday," he shrugged, "and well, it's just not Siberia. The air here's clean, there's hunting in the taiga and good fishing in the rivers. I grew up here, I'm used to the climate and well, it's home." I had always wondered why anyone would actually stay in Siberia if given the chance to leave, but from the outset of the journey through the region I began to understand why: 4000 kilometers from Moscow life goes on and it's not so peculiar after all; for the region's inhabitants, life might not be perfect, but they're home.

Local cabins as viewed from a souvenir shop at Sheregesh.

Indeed, if you squint a little on the approach to Sheregesh, all the little wooden dachas look a lot like chalets. As you wind your way thorough the snow-covered mountain roads one could be forgiven for failing to notice the profusion of fur hats on board the local buses, or for overlooking the telltale abundance of birch trees in the surrounding forests; all signs that indicate that you're not actually in the Alps or the Rockies, but in the depths of Siberia. On arrival at the base of the pistes the ski rental shops have the same up-to-date equipment as one would expect from any European or North American ski resort; the ski techs are helpful, professional and (unusually) smiling. Look around you and there's the very same chairlifts, cable cars, long winding slopes and latest ski suit fashion as further West.

Yet despite the similarities at first glance Europe this is not and daily temperatures that range from a chilly minus 5 to a lung-freezing minus 40 and beyond are only the start of the story. Take the town itself for example. There may be some new chalet-style hotels gradually appearing, but the main town of Sheregesh consists almost entirely of low-rise 1960s apartment blocks; those who are not so lucky to live in such luxury make do with ramshackle wooden dachas with outside toilets and no running water. In case you missed it on the approach, the view from the mountain reveals the town to be surrounded by still-active local industry with lone chimney stacks of small run-down factories bearing inscriptions such as "Work for the Glory of the Motherland" billowing black smoke into an otherwise pristine mountain air. On the short taxi ride to the base of the slopes you pass the army posts of the local high-security prison. That your taxi is an ice-encrusted Lada with a cracked windscreen, no seatbelts and nothing but an Orthodox icon glued to the dashboard for protection is also a dead giveaway that you're not in Switzerland.

Children learn to ski at the Sheregesh bunny slopes.

On the slopes themselves, snippets of conversation between other skiers also point to the fact that we're rather east of Berlin. "What a pleasure it is to snowboard drunk," exclaims one teenager, as he and his friends contribute to the collection of beer cans near the lift queue. A skier stops at the side of the slope to answer his hands-free mobile, "it's alright, I'm free to talk" he says, heading off down the slope, a fur tail (a bizarre fashion item sold at the base of the slopes) clipped to the back of his pants waggling in the wind.

On closer inspection there's also something not quite right with the ski lift system. For a start, it is impossible to buy a lift pass for the whole ski domain. In fact, rather than a unified network, the lifts have instead been built by different private firms, each competing with each other and boasting the cheapest tickets or longest runs. "Each company fears they will miss out on some potential profit," explains Konstantin, our ski tech, as we point out this fatal flaw in the valley's coordination. What results is a rather annoyingly large proportion of time queuing at various ticket booths at the base of each lift in order to buy a ticket for that precise lift. Whilst some lifts have a top-up card system, others just provide a paper ticket to hand to the attendant and none offer unlimited ascents which, for those who want to do a day skiing all the slopes on offer means spending a lot of time rummaging in ones pockets for the correct bit of paper or plastic card for the particular lift that you want to take at any given time. Meanwhile, Russia would not be Russia without its VIPs and so of course most lift queues offer a "VIP lane" for those oligarchs who just wouldn't feel rich enough having to wait with the masses.

The road to Sheregesh – surrounded by thick snow.

There are also indications that general health and safety may not be quite to Western standards. The fact that none of the pistes are marked is the least of ones worries. A skier taking the chairlift in front of us gets tangled up as he sits on the chair and drops a pole. Already a meter or so in the air and with the lift attendant looking on disinterestedly and making no attempt to stop the lift, the skier takes his life into his own hands and leaps from the chair to retrieve the pole himself, ending up in a heap on the ground for other lift-users to try to avoid. In certain areas the lifts are no longer functional due to the massive quantities of uncleared snow that has been allowed to pile so high that the lift cables themselves are nearly submerged. In others, the chairlift is still just about high enough to keep people off the ground, but low enough to present a hazard for those forced to dodge their way between in order to pass underneath.

So all is not exactly Banff, but then if it was why would one bother hiking thousands of miles to Siberia for a ski break? Sheregesh's geographically isolated location has both its upsides and downsides. Flights and transfers are not only costly, but also time-consuming. For the European market, a flight to Moscow (four hours from London) followed by a four and a half hour internal flight to Novokuznetsk still only brings you three hours by bus from the resort. Those with more time on their hands could take a train along much of the Trans-Siberian route; 2 days 13 hours east from Moscow to Novokuznetsk. Either way, with such distances involved, it's clear to see why Sheregesh is so overwhelmingly Russian and indeed, this is what makes the experience all the more fascinating.

New ski lifts at Sheregesh.

Yet despite such difficulties, skiing in Siberia has its fair share of advantages. The remoteness of the resort means that during the week even in peak season (bar the New Year period) there are practically no lift queues and the slopes are uncrowded. You don't have to get up at 6am to find some untouched powder to ski. The current ski area is big enough to keep an experienced skier occupied for a week, with some excellent off-piste and forest skiing. What's more, the surrounding hillsides look promising for further extension of the resort in the future.

The few foreigners that make it to Sheregesh every year will be greeted by meters and meters of light, fluffy powder in daily quantities that will astonish even the most veteran traveler. They may also be treated to an as-yet unspoiled and difficult-to-match dose of Siberian hospitality. And to top it all off, at the base of the slope - the chance to have their photo taken with life-size cardboard cut-outs of everyone's favorite snow sports enthusiasts ready for action: Putin and Medvedev.

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