Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New summer mountain biking programme at Les Arcs

Bike parc map
Over the years I have realised that a lot our our chalet guests are also passionate about other sports and activities, and mountain biking often crops up as one the most popular summer pursuits. In the last 10 years Les Arcs has been making serious efforts to make the resort a real Mecca for all kinds of MTB enthusiasts, echoing the 'something for everyone' ethos of the winter programme. Now we have over 200km of trails, including some epic forest runs (the Malgovert forest beside our chalets has turned out to be ideal terrain in an otherwise largely un-visited environment), a couple of parcs and trails for families to enjoy.  Several of the main lifts are adapted for the uplift of riders and their bikes, including Cachette, Transarc and the Aguille Rouge cable car - fancy riding a bike on a glacier!?

Steep-sided single track at Arc 2000
This year we decided to set-up a mountain biking holiday programme for the 8 weeks period when the lifts run, based at our chalet L'Aguille Grive at Courbaton (Arc1600). This chalet seems ideally placed, as it's virtually on the 'mythical' No.8 forest trail (8.2 km and 810m vertical),  and only a few hundred metres from Cachette and the funicular, which is a vital cog in the MTB uplift network. The fabulous views across the massif de Beaufourtain, plenty of space for bikes and barbecues, the sunny hot-tub and comfortable en-suite rooms seem to be exactly what the biking fraternity need after a hard day in the saddle (or sometimes out of it!).

And so was born, and we are taking bookings for the 8 week period from Saturday 2nd July to Saturday 27th August 2016. There are also plenty of other things to do in Les Arcs during the summer season, ranging from the chamber music festival to golf and archery. This was all part of the original thinking behind Les Arcs, but now as there seems to be increasing interest in activity-based alpine holidays the prescience of its founders is paying off. Les Arcs was recently features as one the top 10 best resorts for mountain biking in the Alps.

All the details are on 

and there's general information about summer in Les Arcs on

Finally, a video of a descent of the No.8 trail in the Malgovert Forest:

Monday, January 18, 2016

What's 'Mille 8'?

I've been asked the questions 'What's (a) Mille 8?' quite a few times since the season begun, and I realised I didn't really have an answer except  to recite a list of the new features incorporated into Les Arcs new, much-hyped offspring: toboggan run, swimming pool, some odd wooden huts, a short bump run, and so on....

So I decided it was time to take a proper look and talk to some of the people involved in Mille 8 to try and understand not only the concept but what it brings to Les Arcs and its visitors. Is it really the 'new space for novel experiences' claimed by ADS, or is it an over-hyped attempt to stimulate a stagnating market?

The origins of the Mille 8 stem from the '4 'till 7' problem that many major ski resorts have tried tackle in the light of decreasing revenues from lift pass sales and ever increasing costs. The idea is that from the end of skiing until dinner time people don't have much to do, especially families who aren't likely to sit in bars or be interested in noisy aprés-ski (not that Les Arcs has much of that!). So rather than retreating to their apartments, get them out with memorable things to do and, most importantly, get them to spend more money.  The increasing accommodation infrastructure at Arc 1800, including the massive Alpage de Chantel project (which will, when finished, increase the number of beds by 40%),  justifies substantial improvement in piste-side equipment and will provide a large captive market for innovative new attractions.

Perhaps the most tangible benefits of Mille 8 have been the three new replacement lifts - Villards, which really only services the Mille Huit activities. Dahu provide pedestrian uplift to the new Chantel development and the new Carreley chairlift eases theVagere  bottleneck with quick access to the Col de Frettes, once the destination of the old Arc 1600 'Arpette' lift. The old, slow Villards and Chantel chairlifts, which date back to the 1970s, have gone, and overall there has been a significant net increase in uplift.

Mille 8 occupies a formerly wooded area just above resort, which was deliberately left in tact when Arc 1800 was built in an attempt to integrate natural features of the mountain with the harsher 'urban' resort. This had been successfully achieved in Courchevel 1850 some years earlier (Roger Godino, co founder of Les Arcs, described the resort as the 'sister' of Courchevel). Some older pre-resort buildings have been pleasingly renovated and incorporated into the new infrastructure, mainly as golf schools (more about golf later..).

The main snow-accessed features are:

Le Luge - a 1 km tobbogan run
Le Cube - beginners area at the top with covered moving carpet lift
Les Bosses - a short bump run featuring and ingenious video system that allows you to receive a short film of your descent on your smartphone
Les Cabanes - various nicely built huts and terraces, for star-gazing, barbecues, sun-bathing, etc. There's a misnamed  musical instrument at the bottom called 'Le Xylophone' which is in fact a giant glockenspiel (metal not wood) which you can 'play' with your ski poles.
There is also apparently a pedestrian path, Les Sapins, but I couldn't see any signs for it and I'd no idea where is started.

However, the most impressive features are the 'Le Piscine' and 'Le Lodge', which could both be located anywhere and really have nothing to do with snow or snow-sports.

La Piscine
Access to Le Piscine is via a starkly impressive entrance tunnel and external lift tower. But, as with all of the Mille 8 attractions, it's necessary to trudge up the steep and icy slope in front of the Villards 'snow-front', and to cross a dangerously  fast-flowing piste to reach the entrance. I absolutely fail to see why the lift couldn't have just descended another 5 to 6 metres to the same level as the snow-front, giving safe and level access. I'm sure this in itself would increase the numbers of Mille 8 evening visitors, looking for something more interesting to do than mooching around Sherpa...

Le Piscine contains a nice, but rather small leisure pool (although actual swimming is not possible) with an impressive rock tunnel as its centrepiece. There are a couple of short water-slides (set apart from the pool itself), and various jets, fountains and waves in the pool.  Adjoining this is a suite of two saunas (one with a large window giving a great view of the setting sun),  two large steam-rooms and a pleasant 'chill-out' room with free ginger flavoured mineral water on tap. It's all very nicely done and well thought-out, despite all being on rather a small-scale. What a pity the Mille 8 planners didn't think to include the pre-existing outside swimming pool, such as you can find at Plagne Bellecote, Morzine, Les Deux Alpes, etc. Swimming in the open air in a warm pool while it's snowing is a truly wonderful experience!

Le Lodge, in true Arcadien style
Putting the icing on the cakes....
For me, the jewel in the crown of Mille 8 has to be Le Lodge, a stunning, curvaceous building truly in the 'Arcadien' style, with sloping roof, timber abutments, laminated cladding, and brilliant asymetrical windows - Bernard Taillefer would definitely be proud of this modern interpretation of his innovative style. Within Le Lodge there is a large (up to 600 places) rather up-scale restaurant, including a beautiful relaxation area with rather wacky sofas and cushions. A patissier openly makes deserts to order, and there is in encyclopaedic wine list from a stroll-through cellar. The menu is fairly typical of many higher-end establishments in Les Arcs, and there are menus from €37 for three courses. It's worth it for the views alone, those almost entirely glass walls giving stunning views in all directions.  The restaurant also has private dining rooms, with less enjoyable views across to the muddled and ugly buildings of the Chantel development. Below there is a large conference room and further dining space where concerts and entertainments take place several times a week.
€13 burger savoyard, no cutlery...
But Le Lodge contains more than its eponymous restaurant: at the other end of the gastronomic scale is the annoyingly cutlery-and-crockery-free 'Le Snack' (also referred to as 'Le Café') where everything is plastic and disposable (probably even the weird plastic stools which are the only seating available) but the 'Burger Savoyard' I ate was surprisingly good (just as well at  €13!). It seems such a shame that the attention to environmental and aesthetic detail evident elsewhere in Mille 8 is seriously lacking in this rather grim spot.

Enticing hats hide the golf simulator...
Upstairs there is an attractive showroom full of pretty hats - enticing it is, but just around the corner is a clue to another aspect of the rationale behind Mille 8. Golf is certainly not my game, but I couldn't fail to be impressed by  the life-size golf simulator, enabling virtual play on any of the world's leading courses (not, sadly including the one all around us here at Arc 1800) whilst analysing and improving your stroke. It was explained to me by the charming and US-English fluent manager that in the summer this part of Le Lodge will be the golf  'clubhouse' and the restaurant will provide for the summer golfers' needs.  This emphasis on golf makes the location of Le Lodge (and some of the other non-snow features of Mille 8) seem more logical: encouraging the summer market is obviously as important an aim as filling the '4 'till 7' gap.

However, I am interested in Mille 8 for what it brings to our world of snow and skiing. Will it really create  those 'unmissable moments' claimed in the flyer to tired families prepared to fork out €6 euros per child for a three-minute fairly slow toboggan  run, a further €8 per adult to visit the Le Piscine (sauna and steam room are extra) and a couple of hundred euros on a gastronomic meal in awesome surroundings? I certainly think more, if not all, of the attractions should be included in the lift pass: the extra expense is bound to put a lot of people off, along with the difficulty of access referred to earlier.

Mille 8 as a concept perhaps reveals  something of the hidden agenda of ADS (the company that operates Les Arcs and has made most of this investment). The many millions of euros spent on Mille 8 could equally have been used to add or further improve the  traditional skiing infrastructure (queuing for 45 minutes to get on the Arcabulle lift at Arc 2000 is certainly not an 'unmissable moment'!) and to encourage more and better skiing, and a wider appreciation of the unique environment we are in.

Mille 8 is something of the opposite, a kind of  microcosmic theme-park-on-the-snow, with artificial features, impressive though many of them are, at its heart rather than any sense of harmony with the mountain it sits upon. The original publicity for Mille 8 described the project as something like the 'distillation of the spriit of Les Arcs'. I fear in fact the opposite my be true, but perhaps we have to accept the world had moved on from the guiding inspiration of Robert Blanc and Roger Godino all those years ago.

The friendly hat and golf simulator manager summed it up nicely, 'Mille 8  is all about leisure', she said. Leisure rather than adventure, perhaps.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy Artificial New Year!

NY fireworks at Arc 1600
I've made my New Year resolutions, and one of them is to re-start my blog after a rather patchy last two years. Spurred on by the 50,000 or so visits my scribblings have attracted I'm ready to start getting behind the scenes again here in our magnificent skiing factory called Les Arcs!

No one could have failed to notice that the start of the season has been less than perfect in terms of snow cover. Nowhere near as bad as last Christmas (2014) but still definitely a snow-drought and all that implies, especially for the lower alpine resorts.  However I can safely say that all the guests we have had so far (including my own children) have been pleasantly surprised by the extent and quality of the terrain available. Much credit for this must go to the pisteurs for their hard and ingenious work spreading what snow there was into decent pistes and the ADS for managing the resort in a way that kept everyone happy.

Last week it seemed everybody wanted to be in Les Arcs, with our last few beds going to guests fleeing other resorts (such as Chamonix, Morzine, Chatel, etc) in search of a true taste of winter. However one thing was different this New Year - hardly a word of Russian to be heard anywhere, not even in Arc 1950. It seems the collapse of the rouble following  the Great Bear's foreign policy and domestic woes has made us prohibitively expensive, and of course new and better winter sports offerings are coming on-stream all the time in Russia itself after the success of Sochi.

Cachette tunnel
The big news in Arc 1600 at the start of the season has been the redevelopment of the Cachette to make it Les Arcs only world-class competition piste. A key feature has been the building of 50 metre concrete tunnel under the piste to allow the passage of ski-school groups and beginners using the Combette lift without interupting the flow of slalom skiers training and competing on the Cachette piste.

The idea of upgrading Cachette to full FIS-homolgation (slalom and giant-slalom) has been around for at least 20 years. It was a key feature of the bungled 'CSNHN' scheme that would have seen a prestigious national ski academy based in Bourg, had it not been lost to Albertville because of political dithering ( click here for the full story). There were originally going to be two tunnels, the other would have  allowed the 'Arpette' blue piste to pass beneath Cachette: now that piste will be closed or diverted on competition days.

Monster snow cannon
A further aspect of the Cachette scheme is plainly visible in the photo above - snowmaking. It was already the best equipped piste in Les Arcs, with something like 40,000 cubic metres of the man-made white stuff being applied each season.  The snow-making capacity has now been virtually doubled, and the equipment re-spaced to reduce the amount of piste-bashing necessary to spread it evenly. A small concession to the environmental impact of all this energy-guzzling eneigement, perhaps. Les Arcs, like most large ski resorts now uses as much energy on snow-making as it does for powering the lifts.

The lift company ADS proudly showed of its new TechnoAlpin TL6 snow cannons, the 1000th produced being among those deployed. These monsters are capable of making 20 cubic metres an hour (a double-decker bus?), and other 'lower pressure' jets can double that in the right conditions -   it has to be between -2.5 and -5c.

There's no doubt that Les Arcs massive investment in snow-making has really paid of this season. Not only did it allow the resort to open more skiing than most of its rivals, but the deep, compacted layer will be an excellent base for the natural snow now falling in abundance. This will also be beneficial at the other end of the season as the spring temperatures begin to rise.

Cachette piste before the tunnel
But there are plenty of elephants in the corner of Cachette, as it were. Is this the reality of global warming; are we going to have to accept that most of the snow under-ski will be artificially made in the future? Are we going to see the 'core-lift policy' (take out two lifts, build one more-efficient one, such as Arpette) turn into a core-piste policy? (put all the energy into creating one or two good main pistes with less diversity of terrain).

 If energy prices were to rise substantially some resorts might well struggle to pay their electricity bills without adding to the vicious circle of decline created by ever-increasing lift pass prices.  But At least a higher oil price would make the Russians able to afford Les Arcs again!

See also my post on the history of the Cachette piste and lift

Coming next: Mille8 - skiing dumbed-down or is this the future?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ski Republic is no more, but the revolution lives on

I'm sitting here waiting for the long-promised snow storm to hit us; we have been promised 50cm in the next 24  hours and the possibility of a 'semaine de blanc' after that. The last time we have a really big downfall was the 27th December (although there's been a fair amount of snow but in small quantities), and the chaos that ensued was well documented by the British and French press. Perhaps it's only going to snow seriously on the 27th of the month this season! In any case, we could really do with it to get Les Arcs up tip-top condition for the school holiday, which in France start in two weeks time.

In today's Dauphiné I read that the beleaguered 'low-cost' ski hire business Ski Republic has finally be sold off to Danisports (already owners of the  Precision Ski franchises and brands). Ski Republic was a brilliant idea, stared by Lionel Favre in 2006. Impressed by business approach of Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of EasyJet, Favre realised that the complacent, overpriced and frequently monopolistic hire shops to be found in every european ski resort could produce even more profit if their costs were carefully controlled and they were more 'marketing driven'.

 The main idea was stunningly simple: instead of holding large stocks of equipment in expensive resort retail premises the skis, board and boots etc. were warehoused in a cheap industrial unit in the valley (in fact just outside Bourg St Maurice). Servicing and preparation of the equipment was thus done centrally, making the best use of expensive machines and technicians, and the materiel delivered to tiny retail shops (hardly more than kiosks) by garishly-coloured eye-catching vans. In addition all the marketing and order-taking was done via a well-designed website. Unlike 'traditional' ski hire shops with their extortionate mark-ups, incomprehensible and randomly-applied tarifs you knew how much you were going to pay as you paid it 'up-front'. This was good for Ski Republic's cashflow, enabling them to keep their prices low and to offer their famous 'hire one get one free' deal.

Many traditional ski shops were owned by local families whose community standing pre-dated the coming of industrialised skiing in the 1960s and 70s, and they were incensed with the threat to their perceived right to exploit and abuse tourists to the full. Consequently several Ski Republic shops were set alight, vandalised or had their door locks super-glued, tyres were slashed and SR staff threatened and abused.  But the newcomer really did cause a revolution in ski hire - eventually prices were forced down generally, price lists simplified and large discounts promised to skiers who pre-booked their equipment on the shops (often hastily and badly designed) websites. Transparency and competition led to a better and cheaper service for everyone, but also led to the domination of a few large franchises such as InterSport, Precision Ski and SkiSet. Sadly, some quality independent operations like Twinner Sports disappeared  completely.

But it all went badly wrong for Ski Republic a couple of years later. Despite quickly capturing an impressive share of the market with 150,000 pairs of skis and a turnover of nearly 5 million euros it didn't make a profit in its first two years of operation. With the 2008 'credit-crunch' banks panicked over backing even slightly unconventional businesses, and SR suddenly found its line of credit broken and unable to pay its bills. The french commercial legal processes of 'cessation des paiments' and 'redressment judiciare' ensued (designed to give a struggling business protection from its creditors while it tries to pull itself together) and M. Favre was forced to liquidate all his other assets (which included the Precison Ski brand) to keep the business going.  Since then it's struggled on, with various owners and backers invloved. Finally the Tribunal de Commerce at Chambéry pulled the plug, forcing the sale and/or closure of the remanents of Ski Republic.

Saulire with La Grand Casse (3855m)
A personal ski-hire anecdote: I remember how, as a relatively inexperienced skier, I had hired a pair of skis at Courchevel 1650. After a day or so I realised that the bindings were wrongly adjusted for my weight and ability (the skis kept coming off) and the braking mechanism on one of them was faulty and never descended to stop the ski sliding away when the binding was open.   
Predictably, as I was tackling the difficult, bumpy 'M' black piste below La Saulire, the ski came of on a bump and slid away, under the netting at the side of piste and fell 100m or so into the ravine below. I had to complete the remainder of  'M' on one ski and my backside, and take a series of lifts in the wrong direction to get back to the ski hire shop (closed of course, at 12). When it finally opened at 4.30pm  I explained my predicament, tired and annoyed at having lost half a day on the mountain.  The response: 'You lost ze ski? So you have to go and find it!' After pointing out the impossibility of this  I was told 'OK, so you 've to pay for a new PAIR of skis'. 
Too exhausted to argue I returned the next day to be told by the manager, 'Oh it's no problem, we give you another pair. I expect the pisteurs will find it in the Spring...'  I was relieved, but also confused.

I'm pretty sure the new owner Danisports will soon abandon the Ski Republic brand and the business model in order to build its other interests and improve its margins. Although the name may soon be forgotten, Ski Republic was responsible for revolutionising and important facet of the modern ski industry, formerly famed for its inefficiency, lack of customer service and ludicrous over-pricing.  I wonder what they's do with all those pink and yellow caravans?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cyprus - a threat to Les Arcs?

Everything's gearing up nicely for the winter season at Les Arcs: 40cm of snow above 1600m, and a fair amount of excitement about the Mille 8 project at Arc 1800. It includes a new fun piste in the trees, toboggan run,  obstacle courses and the most important part, the new Centre Aqualudique, with several pools, water features and relaxation/spa facilities. Les Arcs, like other large ski resorts is trying hard to cash in on the '4 - 7' period after skiing at the end of the afternoon and to enhance overall the tourists' experience in the hope they'll keep coming back! More about all this once it's all open after the beginning of the season on 13th December.

Plan of Mille 8
However, I do think there's a small cloud over Les Arcs dazzling plans. Lift pass prices are up again, by about 5% as far as I can work out. Last year saw a drop in lift pass sales, accommodation occupancy and 'skier days' of around 2% - that doesn't sound like much when you remember that in previous years that figure has been closer to a 4% drop and multiply that over 10 years you're basically looking into a financial abyss.... Why not freeze lift pass prices (at least) to build some client fidelity rather than grandiose investments, I wonder. To top it all, entry to the new Centre Aqualudique or the piste de luge is NOT included in the lift pass, you have to pay between €5 and €15 euros per visit depending on which facilities you use. Mille 8 had better be good!

After my visit to Kazakhstan earlier this summer and the impressive Shymbulak ski area (perhaps one day it will become an alternative to Europe's crowded and increasingly expensive resorts?) I was intrigued to discover that you don't have to go that far to find cheap, family friendly skiing.

FFS piste et Troodos
Experienced snow-boarder and travel writer Holly Mantle has been telling me about skiing in Cyprus.  It  isn’t  yet famous as a skiing hotspot, and  doesn't  feature on any top 'ten list' of skiing locations in Europe. But, because it's still relatively unknown you can expect to find deserted slopes, untouched snow and no skittle-run pistes crowded with snakes of ski school learners. At Troodos, the main resort, prices are much lower than big european ski factories,  and it  retains some of  the atmosphere and elegance of the Swiss Alps of yesteryear; they’ve still got cosy cafes whipping up hot chocolates and refined skiers in salopettes gracing the slopes in style.

There is a good range of skiing, especially for those looking to progress. The different runs are all named after Greek gods which makes the experience more fun - telling people you’ve tamed Zeus (the big one) for example, will be sure to impress back at home. Holly points out that there aren’t too many flat sections that will force boarders to hop across the snow as you attempt to make it towards the next drop.

Troodos piste map
Skiing at Troodos, which is located in the northern slopes of Mt. Olympus (1951m), dates back to some portable lift installations set up by the British Army in the 1960s, presumably to keep the largely idle 'green line' soldiers and their families occupied. Steady development of the facilities and a new breed of local skiers led to Cyprus' participation in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and they're still going strong in several events.  Troodos has 4 main lifts and dozen or so slopes of  for all levels. The longest piste is nearly 1km long, and most of the skiing is above 1800m. The season runs from December to March, but expect the best snow in January and February. It gets pretty warm in March!

You can rent ski and board gear from the Cyprus Ski Club – they have a mixed range of equipment from the latest models to the ancient. Snowboards are a little harder to get hold of than skis, so if this is the main reason you’re travelling to Cyprus then it’s better to bring your own gear (especially if you’re a snowboarder or skier who likes to look good on the slopes). There are three main schools offering lessons and guiding.

Larnaca airport is the closest to Mt Olympus and its slopes. Flights from London take around 4 hours 40 minutes. Cyprus Airways fly into Larnaca, or Easyjet will speed you over to Paphos. In order to get up to the mountain, a 4x4 with snow chains would be the recommended option.  

Paphos Archaeologial Park
Consider combining your ski trip to Cyprus with further exploration of this fascinating island: The Paphos Archaeological Site is easy to get lost in for a day and has lots of ancient relics, mosaics and monuments dating back from prehistoric, Roman and medieval times. It’s just 4.5 euros to get in, and the mosaics in particular have been receiving rave reviews from tourists since the area became listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

There’s no need to stay at resorts close to the ski slopes, which can be expensive. The island is very small, so you can easily travel between hotels in other areas of the island by bus or car. For a taste of the ancient civilisation of Cyprus  go to the tiny village of Agros (which only has four hotels) and is famous for its rose festival and sweets cured in syrup. There are some great nature trails around that area through the mountains.

If you’d prefer more modern ciivilization, then Paphos is the best place in terms of things to do. Bars, restaurants and cafés there cater to a year-round tourist influx so you won’t be left cold and hungry, even if you’re heading out in the midst of winter.

Lift Pass Prices
Ski Lift Pass: Afternoon 12,00 euros , Full day 20,00 euros
Ski Equipment Rental: Adults Daily 12,00 euros, afternoon 9,00 euros
Cross Country Skis – Boots: Daily 8,00
Snowboards – Boots: Daily 18,00

All a bit cheaper than Les Arcs, but perhaps you really do pay for what you get when if comes to skiing.

Many thanks to Holly Mantle who supplied most of the information about Cyprus and some of the text.

More information:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Discovering Kazakhstan

Running a ski holiday business in the French alps can lead to some unexpected  adventures: I was most generously invited to visit Kazakhstan by our regular chalet guests from that country (and Russia) for a 10 day tour of this vast, largely unknown Asian territory stretching from the Urals to China.

First, a few facts and figures about Kazakhstan. It's the largest land-locked country in the world (9th largest overall), roughly the same area as Western Europe but with a population of under 17 million. So it's possible travel hundreds of kilometres without seeing anyone, or indeed any trace of human activity.

The southern part of the country is mainly desert, and in the east  the Altai and Tien Shan mountains form the borders with China, Mongolia and Russia.The central areas in known as the 'steppe', a vast grassy plain which was home to the nomadic Kazakh tribes before they were mostly forced to settle under Tsarist and Soviet regimes.. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR.

Astana - the new capital
The capital of Kazakhstan is the glittering new city of Astana, more or less in the centre of the country and in the oil-producing region (KZ is set to become the world's 8th largest oil exporter). However, my destination was the historic city (and former capital) of Almaty in the south-eastern corner at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains. It's in area once famed for apple production, hence the name translates as 'Apple-like'; indeed it is claimed that apples were first found here.

Glaciers on Mt. Chklov from top of Shymbulak ski area

First on the agenda was a visit Shymbulak Ski Resort, half-an-hour from the centre of the city. Built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games,  it rises up the Medeu valley to the Tagar Pass (3180m), under the glaciated peaks of  Mt. Chklov. With 7 modern lifts and over 20km of pistes it's a popular weekend choice for the burgeoning middle classes of Almaty. Facilities are being constantly improved: I noticed recently installed snow-canons and plenty of smart eating-places and accommodation. You can even see two enormous ski jumps from the centre of Almaty, also built for the Asian games.

Back in down-town Almaty it was time for a beer at the soviet-style pleasure gardens of Kok-Tobe, with its own rustic 1950s cable car, amusements, small zoo and, surprisingly, a life-size statue of the Beatles, whom are apparently venerated by the country's young people.

Kazahk Beatles in Almaty park
Uzbek dancing girls
The evening was spent in an out-door Alasha Uzbek restaurant, with a cabaret of Kazakh and Uzbek traditional dancing and an acrobatic display. The food wasn't bad either, with  my first chance to try besharmak (lamb slow-cooked with pasta and onions with its stock an accompanying drink) and the central Asian favourite of plov (stir-fried lamb, vegetables and rice).

Next day, and time to visit my hosts' flagship store - their business operates 40 multi-media shops around Kazakhstan, together with a a chain of cinemas and D-I-Y stores. They also stock toys and children's goods, so currently they have a big  'Back to School' promotion, advertised in English, Russian and Kazakh. The government wants all three languages to be spoken, although the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.

Zenkov Cathedral Almaty
Nearby is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, built in the dying years of Tsarist imperialism (1905), and stunningly restored during the more liberal Soviet period of the 1970/80s. KZ is not a highly religious country, but two-thirds of the population claims allegiance to Islam, the remainder mostly to the Orthodox church.
Hydro-electric dam
In the afternoon we flew 1000km north, to the mining and metallurgy town of Oskomen (formerly Ust-Kammenogorsk), which was quite a contrast to the fast-growing lavishness of Almaty. A short taxi and motorboat ride took us to my hosts' lakeside guest-house, on the southern shores of the virtual lake created by the damming of the Iyrtush river for hydro-electric power in the 1950s. It was here, looking over the hills and moutains surrounding the lake that I began to get a sense of the size of Kazakhstan and its vast swathes of virtually uninhabited and (as yet) unspoilt terrain.  
Azia-Auto helicopter

Among the vital industrial and mining industries of Oskemen (uranium, lead, zinc, beryllium etc). new enterprises are emerging to satisfy the growing consumer hunger. Notable among these is  Azia-Auto car assembly plant, which is producing 120,000 vehicles every year.  The amiable owner of Azia-Auto, Anatoly Balushkin had kindly offered my hosts his 15 seat helicopter to fly, the next day, to Rahkmany Springs, 1000km east towards the Chinese border.

View towards Altai Mountains
Rahkmany Springs (1800m) has been renowned since the 18th century for the supposed health-giving qualities of it's radon-rich springs. It was developed in Soviet times as a kind of  health farm, with guests (or patients perhaps) staying in wooden cabins near the large, wonderfully fresh water lake. Meals are still provided in a communal canteen, which according to my hosts, serves authentic Soviet-style meals: large portions of stodgy but tasty food, with no choices and unsmiling waitresses, all washed-down with endless cups of strong tea.
Rahkmany Springs lake

Since the wholesale privatisation of state assets in the early years of Kazakhstan's independence the Rakhmany Springs 'resort' was bought by Mr. Balushkin for redevelopment as a wider  tourist centre. The log cabins have been improved or replaced with more luxurious 'chalets', and spa/health facilities upgraded, a bar and amenities for children introduced. But much remains the same and overall it has the comfortable feel of a USSR holiday camp in the 1970s.

The lake itself has been stocked for leisure fishing, but sadly this has resulted in the further decline of the 'singing frog' gracixalus quangi, a rare species threatened by the non-native fish who devour the frogs' eggs and tadpoles. This is a national park area, but there is little evidence of the kind of environmental sensitivity and awareness you'd expect to find in an equivalent European or American location.

Mertvoe river
However, it is a beautiful and unspoilt place, with treks around the lake and into the mountains and forests on foot, with horses or on mountain bikes, all of which can be hired locally.

AA rides out!
I rode a horse for a few hours (for the first time in my life!) to visit a nearby scenic waterfall.

 Mr. Balushkin kindly laid on a helicopter trip the next day, in the esteemed company of the local Orthodox bishop (they are planning to build a church at Rahkmany to complement the existing small mosque) to fly over the Belukha (white) Mountain, rising to 4500m  near the point where the Russian, Chinese,
Glaciers on Mt. Belukha
Mongolian and Kazakh border meet (known to some as the '4 corners of the world').  It is heavily glaciated and highly dramatic, the glaciers being among the oldest in the world (up to 5000 years old). The surrounding foothills reveal more gentle countryside, with meandering streams and herds of wild horses - but few villages, roads or other traces of human civilisation. 

The route back from Rahkamany to Oskamen took 12 hours by 4-wheel drive down a rough track, strewn with boulders and swimming-pool size pot-holes. Until recently ambitions to modernise and improve the road have been resisted by the government in order to preserve the environment, but I have read that a large sum of money has now been allocated to this project.  Let's hope a consequent influx of tourists doesn't ruin the pristine environment that attracted them in the first place.

My 'chalet' at Rahkany springs
The route, along the Berel river, is stunningly scenic, marred only by the derelict industrial and agricultural buildings that seem to so surround each village on the way. Relics of the Soviet times, it seems, but being such a spacious county no-one seems to renovate or knock anything down: they just build something new alongside. Planning control seems to be an unknown concept in Kazahkstan, so architectural 'style' is extremely random. Perhaps this also stems from the nomadic instincts of the people, where permanence is not regarded as an attribute for survival.  

Dispensing the kumis
We made a brief halt at a group of roadside yurts (portable nomadic tent shelters made from felt) , where local honey and kumis, fermented mares' milk,  is available for sale on on-the-spot consumption.  Our Landcruiser also needed refreshment, but all the petrol station around Katon-Karagy (the only town on the 950km route) seemed to have run out of fuel. Eventually our resourceful driver pleaded that he had an "important French delegation" on board. Apparently right on cue, without knowing what was going on, I got out of the car speaking a 'strange' language, which convinced the garagiste to supply us from the reserves that have to be kept for government vehicles.

Bukhtarma lake
Katon-Karagy is at the confluence of the White Berel and the Black Berel rivers, which then become the Irtysh, which meanders east towards China. In the 1950s the Soviet government constructed three large hydroelectric plants and dams on the river around Oskomen to provide power for the fast developing metallurgy industry.
This resulted the huge Bukhtarma Reservoir, which is 500km long and up to 35km wide, more or less the size of Wales!

My hosts' vessels and former Pioneer camp in background
My next destination was my hosts' riverside house at Clear Springs, once the site of a Soviet Pioneer camp but sold of to private owners in the early years of Kazakhstans' independence.  The old camp buildings are still there, surrounded by new holiday homes of varying degrees of luxuriousness.

The terrain around the lake (which reminded me of the Scottish islands) contains some of the oldest rocks in Kazakhstan, beaten and weathered by the capricious  continental climate in to weird and wonderful shapes and formations.  Much of Bukhtarma freezes over in the winters (they can expect 3m of snow here) but in the summer it's pleasantly warm with frequent thundery storms. In front of their new and spacious house thrives a vegetable garden, with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, fruit trees and bushes, grown for the consumption of visitors. The Bukhtarma is teeming with fish, I even had a go at fishing myself!  We had plenty of delicious meals, with freshly-caught carp and bream from the sparkling clear waters of the river.

My hosts' house at Clear Springs
It was a long, bumpy ride to get to Clear Springs, so travelling by water is a much better option. My hosts' ex-soviet patrol vessel,  which was formerly used to keep an eye on the Chinese border a few hundred kilometers upstream, proved to be an excellent way to get around.  We visited several isolated beaches in beautiful settings, but almost everywhere there were piles of litter and old bottles from previous picnics. I spent my last morning there helping collecting and burning rubbish on one particularly nice beach, doing my bit for the Kazak environment.

Almaty - growing fast!
Later that day we flew back to Almaty, arriving late but still able to visit a highly-westernised 24 hour deli-supermarket full of sumptuous imported Italian and French food and wine. Everything was written in English and obviously aimed at the emerging affluent middle class, quite a contrast to the rain-soaked stalls and soviet-era shops of Katon-Karagy. But the Kazakhstan is a country of contrasts and transition, and the President Nazarbayev's aim to make put it in the top 30 richest countries by 2050 seems highly achievable given the richness of its resources and the openness and energy of the people.

On the flight back to London I realised that more than half of its 8h hour duration was over Kazakhstan itself. I could gaze down at the vast steppe, straining to spot the rare traces of human habitaiton or activity.  What a contrast to the visibly crowded territories of Germany, Denmark and Holland. Europe's development is complete, it's gone as far as it can go, perhaps. Certainly that is not the case for Kazakhstan and, I imagine, the other dynamic new countries of central Asia.

Many thanks for my hosts, Igor and Alexander Deriglazova and their families and especially to Arseny Deriglazova for interpreting, and Dualet Yermagambetov, my guide in Almaty.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tignes Semper Vivens part 2 - visit to the old village

General view toward the barrage
Good Friday seemed like a good day to descend into the ruins of the old village of Tignes.  Sixty years ago the thriving community, with its ancient traditions of agriculture and its modern vocation as a ski resort was engulfed under 180m of water, sacrificed for electricity and the greater good of the French nation. 

Pont de Chevril (1924)
We set off from the hamlet of La Reclusaz, at the Val d'Isere end of the lake. From there we followed the old road, still clearly defined with much of its tarmac surface in tact. Below was the dramatic Pont de Chevril, spanning the Isere gorge 60m below.

Eroded landscape
From here one can clearly see the layout of the Vallon de Lac, with the remains of the hamlets of La Raie, Villard-Strassiaz, La Chaudanne and Tignes itself discernable under a deep layer of uniform grey sludge. Decades of underwater erosion has left the roots of hundreds of trees (felled for timber as the waters rose) on the sides of the basin, twisted and gnarled into un-natural shapes.

Meteorite or other alien object?
One large piece of rock catches our attention – it's like nothing else here and I wonder if could have been a meteorite or something? It wouldn't seem surprising to find such a thing in this silent, alien landscape

No sign of life...
I was struck by the total lack of any life here. not a single plant, bird or animal could been seen giving the scene a moon-like quality. I struggle to imagine how there had once been fertile meadows beside the Isére, with dozens of cows and sheep grazing peacefully while the steep sides were rich with pines, firs and wild fruit trees.

Old house remains
From a distance the ruins of the dynamited, bulldozed and burnt buildings just looked like muddy humps, but on getting closer I could see that the lower parts of many were still relatively unscathed. We pushed open the thick wooden door of one, entering a cellar room lined with hooks and brackets for shelves of cheese and drying hams. 

Through the plain grill of the window you could for a moment share the view that those villagers once saw daily; the soaring mountains above and the powerful river beside.

Further on we crossed small bridge across the stream flowing down from Villard-Strassiaz, which in the 1930s a saw-mill owner called Planton had used to generate electricity for his machines and to illuminate the village – the community's first taste of the new energy that gave it its place in history.

The density of the ruins multiplies as we got closer to the centre of the le bourg, where several hotels and a restaurant used to flourish, products of the village's reluctant acceptance of tourism as its future as the ancient, inefficient agricultural practices yielded to the post-war world.

Aubrevoir - still full of water
The abreuvoir, where once animals drank and women washed clothes still sits proudly at the heart of the village. A section of iron railing marks the edge, perhaps, of one of the flourishing vegetable gardens slotted between the old chalets.

Remains of Church of St  Jacques
Soon we came upon the largest ruin, that of the 17th century church of Saint-Jacques-de-Tarentaise. Sections of its thick walls lie jumbled upon each other, perhaps here and there are chunks of the old tower that once soared above the valley. 

The church was was the last building to be destroyed, straight after the last Mass was said here on 20th April 1952. On the same day Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church replicated at Les Boisses, at the heart of the new community that rose from the lake.

A little further on we reached the ruins of a large building, of which the lower floor was still intact. 

Rooms and corridors...
Stone sinks


The network of rooms and corridors could be accessed through the muddy doorway, still furnished with large stone sinks and a stone-slabbed bench, perhaps for some kind of food preparation.

'Le Mur'
Now we are at the end of village, as close to the huge wall of the barrage as one can get. The hum of the turbines in the power station above and its rushing out-flow waterfall coupled with the strange but peaceful atmosphere make conversation difficult. Much has been said about the drowning of Tignes, then and even now there's still much being written and discussed...

Soon the waters will retake its remains and spirit once more, and the lingering generation will pass on.  In this age of global warming and 'energy security' worries we should all be grateful for the reluctant sacrifice made this community and the astonishing achievements that this sacrifice led to.

Tignes Semper Vivens

Many thanks to Rob and Liz for coming with me and taking the photographs.