Nestled in a wooded mountain valley just outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan, Medeu is an outdoor skating rink notable not only for its breathtakingly beautiful location, but also for its distinction as the highest Olympic-sized skating rink in the world.
Sitting 1,691 meters (5,548 feet) above sea level, Medeu was originally built in 1949 and serves as an illustrative example of the scope, ambition, and slightly odd superlative aims of Soviet-era construction projects. Consisting of 10,500 square meters (over 110,000 square feet) of ice, it was one of the top speed skating venues in the world from its opening in 1951 right up until the disintegration of the USSR. During that period, some 120 world records were set at Medeu.
Additionally, the site served as the home rink for the Almaty bandy team Dynamo Alma-Ata, and also hosted several international bandy games. Bandy is basically hockey — in actual fact it predates hockey — played with a ball instead of a puck. In 1972, Medeu transitioned from natural ice to artificial ice, and its unique artificial ice freezing system is still in use to this day.
The facility fell into disrepair after the fall of the Soviet Union, but has been revived in the past decade, being used as a centerpiece for (unsuccessful) bids by Almaty to host the Winter Olympics, and serving as center ice for bandy matches in both the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2012 Bandy World Championship.
Visitors who are neither Olympians nor professional bandy players can nevertheless enjoy a recreational skate on Medeu’s storied ice, or take a panoramic climb to the top of the dam south of Medeu, which protects the valley from mud flows. One Medeu enthusiast states that the rink’s “unique location makes its ice superglidey,” which is a rather dubious claim (although the Wikipedia entry for the Utah Olympic Oval — elevation 4,675 feet — claims that “low air resistance” at that elevation led to the extraordinary number of records set at the 2002 Winter Olympics, so maybe there’s something to it). However, the same enthusiast goes on to say that skating at Medeu, “surrounded by mountains and fir trees, spurred on by Russian pop music: it doesn’t get any better.” Now THAT sounds right on the money.