Nestled amongst Almaty’s snowy mountains, Medeu open-air stadium is one of the highest sports venues in the world — situated 1,691 metres above sea level. The ice rink on the stadium grounds is often referred to as the “factory of record-breakers” given the number of notable sporting achievements at Medeu. Some attribute its successes to the clear mountain spring water used to make the ice of the rink, while others believe it’s down to the crisp air and breathtaking natural surroundings.
The stadium originally opened its doors in 1951, in the vicinity of a sanatorium, called “Local Holiday Home”, which had been inaugurated in the 1930s. The ice rink was named after entrepreneur Medeu Pusurmanov, one of the first people to initiate and develop tourism in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range, which forms a part of the Northern Tian Shan mountain system stretching across Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Before Medeu was built, most ice skating competitions in the USSR took place in Siberia. However, the coach of the Soviet national team took note that Kazakh skaters, especially those from Almaty, would perform better than anyone else. When asked about their secret, they replied that “the ice in Almaty makes you faster”.
After a few trial runs on existing facilities in Kazakhstan, the Soviet authorities decided that the Medeu gorge would be the ideal place for their new rink. The Medeu rink took two years to complete, involving 1,300 workers. Their sporting dreams were realised on the day of the inauguration, when the USSR team set two world records and six regional records. From that moment on, the USSR national team became world leaders in speed skating — as well as figure skating and ice hockey.
Medeu has seen many renovations since its early days, but its fame — and ice skating-themed modernist details — remains. In 2011, it hosted the Winter Asian Games, and in 2012, the Bandy World Championship. The area also offers plenty of opportunities to try other winter sports — the Chimbulak ski resort is only a cable car ride away, and there are many hotels for a leisurely mountain getaway.