Before we started on our mission Olivier suggested that we bring warm clothes in case we were able to slip away for a day from Tbilisi Georgia and go skiing at Gudauri, a resort which was some 120 km from the city. This was an opportunity not to be missed and so I was quite pleased when early Sunday morning Olivier, Jacques Gibet and I joined a colleague from the local roads agency for the drive to the resort.
After only seeing Baku during the previous week in Azerbaijan, it was great to be heading out into the countryside. We drove north from Tbilisi and then turned onto the ‘Georgian Military Highway’ which is an ancient passage through the Caucasus mountains towards Russia. The map below shows our start point and our final destination, and second image gives you an appreciation of just what the Caucuses are like – and why it took until the 19th century before the Russians were able to engineer a proper road through the area.
Since it was winter everything was frozen, but it was beautiful drive nonetheless. We travelled along river valleys and past the ancient fortress of Ananuri. Since this was the route of Georgia’s invaders, there were numerous ruins of forts along the way. We also passed a delightful church and I resolved to return in warmer weather to further explore the area.
As we wound our way further up into the mountains it became colder and colder until the thermometer on the vehicle was reading -20 C. Gibet, who is from Catalonia (Spain) had never skied in such cold weather, while for a Canadian like me that is nothing more than a fresh summer’s day 🙂
We had arranged to rent our gear and duly joined the other skiers being kitted out. What first struck me was the number of very expensive vehicles that were here. While skiing is obviously a sport of the relatively affluent in any country, Georgia is a low income country with a per capita GDP of about $1100. You would not know it by the money at Gudauri. Surprisingly, the Gini index-a measure of the inequality of income distributions-is similar to that for the USA, but perhaps that is based on old data.
When I was in my late ‘teens and early twenties I skied a fair bit in Canada, and also did some in New Zealand, but that stopped when I was 28 and I broke my knee. I ended up having four operations after the doctor botched the first one, but as I say it wasn’t too bad since I married my nurse. It was almost a year before I could turn the cranks on a bike, five years before I ran, and some ten years before I got the courage to ski again, and that was with a special knee brace. Since I did not have my knee brace with me on the mission I had to be very careful so I opted for some relatively short skis – much easier to control so less stress on the knees. Olivier showed himself to be either very good or very confident by opting for long skis (he was soon to show it was very good …) while Jacques went for a snowboard.
Snowboarding is fundamentally different to skiing, and I haven’t seen many people our age doing it. But then again, Jacques is a surf-kiter so a man of many talents. I told him the story of the time Lis and I went skiing at Nelson Lakes. There was another couple our age at the B&B and he had decided to try snowboarding for the first time. He was an experienced skier and so was not too concerned. The next day he staggered to the table, hardly able to bend over or sit down and acknowledged that it was much harder than he thought!
Once we were all set we made our way to get the lift passes and head up the mountain. There was small vendor selling hats, gloves, food and other items essential for skiing. I took the photo below because it encapsulates one fascinating aspect of former Soviet countries: they love their Vodka. Where else would find three options for soft drinks, three beers, but twice as many vodkas!
Georgia was once firmly in the arms of the Soviet Empire. It’s most famous product was one Joseph Stalin. However, in recent years it has been embracing the west with everything from the EU flags that are flown to sending its troops to fight in Iraq. In the queue for the ski lifts I saw something which was a fascinating sign of the times. Jacques has been studying Russian and he spoke to a young Georgian – probably about 10 years old. The fellow responded in English saying he didn’t understand, without knowing Jacques spoke English. It seems that the young in Georgia are not learning Russian which, while being very prudent right now, may have long term negative consequences insofar as Russia is a very big neighbour to the north.
The weather was great – a clear blue sky, which made me glad for my 30 SPF sunscreen that I always carry with me. There was a strong, cold wind which tended to cut through you, especially when riding the lifts. The views were to die for.
Olivier immediately showed his prowess and left myself and Gibet behind, so we skied together for a while before she decided to join Jacques and Olivier and go to the very top of the mountain. My knee was feeling relatively unstable without my knee brace so I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and gave the most challenging bits a miss. It was fun just being out enjoying the beautiful ski field and the surrounding mountains.
I noticed that skiing seemed to be the sport of the young, as most of the people on the slopes seemed to be under 21. It was also apparent by the very expensive equipment that they sported that these were not your average Georgians: further reinforcing my initial observation on the expensive vehicles.
We had a short break for lunch and warm drinks – it was VERY cold – and continued skiing. By about 14:00 my knee had definitely had too much. I had taken anti-inflammatory medication before leaving Tbilisi and it was wearing off. I decamped to the lodge where I sat in the sun, shaded from the wind, and people watched. I was joined by an American architect living in Georgia who shared with me stories of the expatriate life. With the number of cultural events and things to do it is anything but a hardship assignment!
Eventually the other three joined me and we skied down to the car for the drive back to Tbilisi, stopping off for a delightful dinner on the way (as well as looking at some roads). When we arrived in town we found that we had missed a demonstration against the recent presidential elections when some 100,000 people had come to protest what they saw as flawed results. Demonstrations are a regular event it seems in Georgia.
For the next three days I kept up the anti-inflammatory medication and my knee came right. It was a great day with good company, excellent weather, and amazing scenery. A nice introduction to Georgia.