15 January 2010

Skiing at Gudauri

The adventure which is skiing at Gudauri, north of Tbilisi and about halfway to Russia, starts with a wish.  Our wish was to see snow this season, because as it does get cold seasonally, the climate in the capital does not often provide for snow.  So, the wish was there a long time ago--snow.

This Mandarine Man (in lieu of a Snow Man) represents our boredom, inside, with no snow. He looks pretty powerful, but he's actually only 10 cm tall. Much like us stuck at home, it seems much more difficult to change than it actually is. 

Procrastination is the next hurdle to overcome.  Though one may have the urge to do something, one may not have the means.  He dismisses any winter trip because travel will be difficult, equipment must be found, and schedules must be changed.  Procrastination is overcome when an acquaintance suggests a trip together, allowing the party to pool its communal woes, wishes, and responsibilities.

And that is how it started.  Darren, a acquaintance I met through my banya group, came to town to visit in-laws, and suggested we make the trip.  Two days of skiing, one overnight stay, and...snow!  He offered up his father-in-law's purple 4x4 Niva to get us there.  He suggested a guest-house where he had had some good experiences.  He pointed us in the direction of equipment rental (through the guest-house owner) and after arranging a departure time, there was much rejoicing.

Off we went in our purple Niva. 

He generally smacked of a fearless consciousness and patience with Georgia.  It was understood.  He was of a different vintage.  Darren came from a time not too long ago where political killings were the norm, there wasn't electricity, and the presidential cabinet owned all the hotels in town.  So, when we encountered a massive, slow-moving queue for lift tickets, he patiently stood in line while we began griping about the lack of efficency. The other skiiers around us were not nearly as frustrated as us, for they had bottles of wiskey to take pulls from and finish before they reached the cash desk. It was 10:30 am (very early for Georgians).  Upon reaching the cash desk where a single woman was selling tickets (the talented individual happened to be texting on her phone), she nearly handed me a 100 GEL note (approx. 65US$), thinking I had put it down to pay for tickets--I did the honest thing.  We were sure the magic that is skiing would begin.

Not so.  Lift lines in Georgia are a lot like democracy in Georgia.  Everyone knows how it's supposed to work in theory, and gripes when it does not, but does nothing practical about it.  We waited at the "end" of the "line" which is more like a dog-pile of thirsting sailors competing for the last cup of grog on an infinitely long voyage.  men were pushing their children between other patrons, women would take off their skis and give a suggestive smile, as they passed by others in the cluster*#%@, walking on others' skis as they passed.

This would not annoy so much if each of the seats on the lift were occupied.  Georgians seem to have this puppy-like need for social connection; so much so that if one wrestled his way to the front, able to look at the empty chair beckoning him as it turned around the center of the cable-wheel, intoxicating all who could only just glimpse it through a crowd usually only seen at papal masses and UNHCR camps, he would not move to seat himself.  He would stand.  He would wait.  He would yell to his freinds behind him, only centimeters from others' ears and blocking others who did have their whole posse, to hurry their slow butts up. 

And so the day had begun, triple-chairs floating away into the distance empty, empty, then with five people, empty, two, one, three, empty, four, empty...

Once we made it up the first lift, feeling confident about having our rental gear, lift tickets, guest house figured out, and our lives from the first lift-line, we realized that the greatest challenge we would yet face on this trip was the line for the second lift. Many people took off their skis to get through the turnstiles, others pushed ahead or through the line, children were stuck, unable to get themselves up the small, icy hill to the lift because they would begin to slide backwards.  Several vendors were prepared for this, offering all manner of spirits on the slopes at 10,000'+, pictured below.  I was scared at this point for my life.  I can deal with reackless skiers, but with drunk skiers I have had little experience.

The very British Darren charged ahead, experienced, cool, with his skis in hand, while we spent a very angry hour with our skis on, but going nowhere. Other skiers began standing on top of our skis, trying to get as close to the front as possible. Others jumped the turnstiles without any concern, even though I have never seen turnstiles jumped in the Tbilisi metro. We found it necessary to push, just to keep our place, but once we reached the lift itself, we saw all the people who had cut us in line were waiting at the actual lift--for their friends to show up and meet them. Thus, there were dozens of people in the front of the lift line, but alas, as before many of the (quad) chairs were going up with only 2 or 3 people in them...some were empty. We had a pretty short fuse at this point.  Below is a photo from the next day, monday, when the place was nearly empty.

Note the lift line being jumped. 

Luckily, Georgians are pretty pitiful skiers.  The steeper, windier heights scared most of the normally fearless Georgians.  We decided to spend the rest of the day on the upper parts of the mountain, and did not have to navigate that particular lift again. We began skiing and finally noticed just how gorgeous the scenery was. It was not a huge resort, with only a few hotels, so when you came down the slopes, you saw tremendous, snow-covered mountains, instead of highways and condos (but they're coming soon).

Quite specatacular indeed.  From the top of the highest lift, one could see the 5033 m (16, 558 ft) stratovolcano summit of Mt. Kazbegi (behind us), and the mountains of South Ossetia, Chechnya, Ingushetia. The views could only compare to what we've seen on top of 14ers, in terms of distance and multitude of peaks in view. 

Kazbegi was beautiful, with her main glaciers in full view. 
After two days, we were ready to come back.   We had not had enough skiing, but life has to happen some time.  We have come to miss the stray dogs in the lift lines, and the inviting, undeveloped atmosphere of  the base of the resort, what Georgians think is a tourist economy. 

Old needs die hard.  Fulfilled with the knowledge that snow existed inside these borders, mandarine-man-o-cide was the most effective way to go.  Sora brought her wrath upon him, and we ate him.  But before we did so, we wisely secured his power of attorney.

Nic & Sora


  1. Oh the adventures you two are going to have in your memory book! Just think how appreciative you are going to be back on US slopes whenever you return -- you are going to return someday, right?

  2. At least they had Beck's Beer available! Jim


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