Georgia might not be many people’s choice of ski destination but the huge Caucasus mountains are rapidly growing a reputation in adventure travel circles for outstanding splitboarding and ski touring. Three mountain areas stand out for skiing: Svaneti, Adjara and Gudauri. The most remote, least developed and undeniably the most beautiful is Svaneti in the north west of Georgia, where we were headed. Depending on your views on geopolitics, 15km away lies the highest mountain in Europe. The distinct volcanic cone of Mt Elbrus stands isolated and proud at over 5000m – and just inside Russia. The hills are so high here that roads can’t penetrate the high mountain passes and vast glaciers that divide Georgia from its neighbour, meaning that the area has remained relatively untouched by much of the violence and fighting, although not completely.
The downside of isolation is that as recently as 2008 upper Svaneti – and its one access road – was a hot bed of crime and bandits. The narrow mountain road was considered too dangerous by all but the most hardly travellers. More recently a concerted effort has been made to get rid of the old police force and reform them into a non-corrupt and efficient – if slightly disconcertingly widespread even in the mountains – presence. We rather stressfully got caught on the wrong side of the police when travelling but I’ll describe that later in blog pt2.
Svaneti has a fascinating history. It was so remote that it rarely got captured or invaded. Even the Russian empire failed to control the region. When they did surrender to the Russians the villagers did so only to trick and kill a visiting general – and they never bothered coming back. It was then known as Free Svaneti. This isolation meant the Georgian culture has remained the same as it has for centuries and the area is seen as a living museum dotted with inaccessible UNESCO world heritage sites. The villages are filled with tall medieval defence towers and picture postcard churches – stone on the outside but vividly decorated with stylised orthodox frescoes inside. The towers were used for protecting large families and vital supplies when under attack, much like the Scottish castle did. However the big difference is that they and the churches also stored and protected vast hordes of jewels and treasures when wider Georgia was under siege. Some of the remote churches still house treasures and remain securely locked, even for tourists. The Mestia museum houses numerous gold riches and was worth the visit.
So the trip was going to be interesting – we certainly knew that – but just how interesting we waited anxiously to find out.
We touched down into Tbilisi airport at 5.30am after 17hrs on the move so far. Dato, a friendly face from Georiders bike tours, was going to meet us there to rent us a 4×4 for our trip. After getting lost a bit at the airport and Ed getting stuck outside we saw a beast of a Nissan Terrano pull up. It was plastered in racing numbers and sponsors, with huge off road wheels and jacked up suspension – it was bad ass. Inconspicuous it was certainly not sat parked outside a busy airport. This was our wheels for the next 10 days, but first we had to get out of Tbilisi before rush hour hit!
The brakes vibrated like a washing machine, the handbrake was minimal, the clutch fading fast, but it accelerated like a bat out of hell! For £20 the tank was filled and a 9 hour drive awaited us to Svaneti. The jetlag and constant travel was taking its toll as we pulled into a service station, one of only two in Georgia. We tried to sleep but the warm sun was not helpful. We eventually gave up and headed west, eyes poking open only after strong sickly coffee.
We soon passed the town of Gori, the birth place of a certain Mr Stalin. Now home to a museum, his old train carriage and the vast empty shells of industrial buildings several football pitches in size. In front there are shadowed rows of single story houses homing refugees from the war with Russia in 2008. Both strong symbols of Russian history; one, the mighty fallen industrial USSR; the other, Russia’s more recent aggression that displaced thousands of Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both now independent quasi-Russian controlled regions. Thousands of Russian troops are located in both areas in a nod to being annexed by Russia but the local populations seem to favour complete independence.
Further on we hit the foothills of the major mountains, the cloud low and drizzle in the air. We passed a village with literally 20 stalls selling the same dark coloured bread. Then a village with 10 stalls selling terracotta pots and wooden chopping boards. Why do they all stay together in one place? It always confuses me; nowhere else did we see a stall selling bread. Surely the buying of bread is not only restricted to this short section of road?
Driving in Georgia is sketchy – basically anyone will overtake at any time, you must pull over if heading towards them or being overtaken. Simple to follow but on a blind bend is that always always necessary? Having cycled across Georgia we knew what to expect but still it left us pretty freaked out especially in our slightly fragile state.
Soon we turned off towards the autonomous Abkhazia region border and we noted armed guards at the railway bridges and a greater police presence. The car was doing fine as we climbed into the proper mountains. The huge reservoir was totally empty below us, showing the full extent of the depth – and our possible fall if the brakes failed, which did seem a distinct possibility.
Eventually, half asleep and after 27hrs awake, we rolled into Mestia in Upper Svaneti with a wet sleety rain falling and quickly found Nino Ratiano’s guesthouse. The comfy bed was incredibly inviting. However first a vast feast was prepared for us to eat.
The next day the cloud had lingered but was clearly lifting, it had dumped with snow overnight and we were heading up to go snowboarding on the 11am shuttle bus. The walk to catch the bus was our first experience of the constant cow dung. Cows were everywhere, sheltering for the winter in town and they had the run of the place, the white snow rapidly turning brown with dung. It added traction which was needed as falling over would be unpleasant. After a while you forgot the mud pavement was not earth but pure cow faecal matter embedded in snow. It’s not what you see in Verbier or Chamonix, but maybe that’s what these “Alpine villages” are lacking, a bit of genuine mountain culture like here in Georgia…?
The resort shuttle bus was even bigger than our jeep but it needed to be because the road up was snowy and icy, deep and steep.
I reviewed the resort here: Tetnuldi Review so I won’t discuss it much. It has one lift open of the three built so far and it’s free at the moment. Our adventure was going to be higher off the lifts and involve human power to get there.
On day one we rode the swanky new Poma lift to the top and then stuck skins on the splitboards to climb the peak behind. The only other westerner we had seen was an Aussie girl who came with us uphill. The skin track was super cruisey before we hit the ridge taking us to the summmit.
A huge cornice had to be avoided before we dropped in to soft north facing powder at a decent gradient. We carried on past the resort in a natural halfpipe. The skin back up left us time to lap the lift a few times before we caught the Russian fun bus back. I say Russian fun bus not because it was in a hurry but there was a loud sing along of Russian folk songs – it was quite the experience!
Back at the guesthouse our £14 all inclusive price was getting us the most gigantic and tasty dinner. Fresh bread, bean stew, chicken in garlic, borscht, beetroot salad, dumplings, seasoned vegetables, bulgar wheat, noodles, local cheese etc all prepared by this friendly lady:
We slept well with the plan of driving up the next day. The road would have been OK in the 4×4, however we took a wrong turn and started going up a steep solid snow/ice climb with nowhere to stop or turn. What felt like miles later we managed to slide around then stick the truck in 4low gear and creep back down on the ice, it was the sketchiest driving I’ve ever done. The actual road to the resort was better, but Marion was not impressed! THe end of the “road” is seen in picture below:
For day two we toured the same skin track but dropped down the backside of the resort for a couple of varied laps. We met a group of split-boarders on a guided holiday with a company called 40 Tribes. Their guide Ryan seemed a great guy to ride with, hooking up some sweet lines and taking classy photos too!
We rode a steep face away from the resort on heavy south facing snow before hiking a ridge and riding a small couloir line. We sat at the top deliberating if there was a cliff halfway down for a while, we rolled snow, threw stones but to no avail it was too far down to see, finally I dropped in to ride what was one of the best lines of the trip. We finished with a powder(ish) run down a raised ridge.
It was a good day touring – almost 2000m of ascent (and fantastic descent) as we climbed back up for one last drop. The views to Mt Tetnuldi in the intense sunshine of the bluebird day were stunning, but Mt Usba was the winning mountain with its dramatic horns rising to almost 5000m.
We drove down safely and then took some time to explore Mestia. The next day we drove up to a village we had noticed with loads of towers and a sign for an ancient 12th century church. On the way I turned a corner in the 4×4 and hit some major ice – the car couldn’t stop spinning and we stopped wedged across. Luckily we had hit nothing but we had to get out before a car came around and ploughed into us. It was reminder that we had offroad – not winter – tyres. We parked up and walked into the village instead!
On the approach we noticed that a large group of men were crowded around; I joked that it was our welcome committee. As we got closer I noticed some had huge clubs or lengths or wood, it seemed like a mob was about to mug us as a welcome to their village the traditional way; we had no option but to keep walking confidently. It soon became apparent they actually had no interest in us – instead only in two dogs the size of ponies who were viciously snarling and biting at each other. It seemed to be the weigh in for a dog fight! We detoured around and said hello. I had seen dog fights before in central Asia – not an unusual practice still it seems unfortunately. I took this picture once a bit further away and can see the size of the dog.
The church was beautiful but locked and no keys could be found. On the way back a van had appeared selling onions and potatoes and the dogs were gone.
Four men in black leather jackets walked alongside us, one smiling with gold teeth tried to pretend he was the president or maybe just he was the mafia boss here, but whatever it was was lost in translation.
Back in Mestia we set about trying to climb a defence tower. We were pointed in the direction of one in particular and found stairs and an open door so climbed up. Health and safety was not a key component of the experience as the ladders wobbled on the way up 5 storeys. It was easy to see how families could live inside these towers though. The final ladder led directly onto the roof – it was not for the faint at heart, and I stopped short of getting outside. The view was stunning; the only problem was trying to get safely back down safely though!
Our next part of the trip was leaving the resort well behind and visiting some traditional mountain villages cut off from the world all winter.