Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bakuriani



A lucky shot of the Didveli Slopes in Bakuriani.

So before I can finish my long awaited final words on Vietnam, thus bringing closure to my Southeast Asia thoughts, I must quickly gush about my weekend in Bakuriani.

I had been planning a ski trip ever since I got back from the winter break. Initially I thought we’d (from the outset, many of my fellow TLGers were quite enthusiastic on joining me, but due to various factors, I could only muster up eleven friends [eight of which were TLG]) go to Gudauri, which is the ski resort about an hour and a half north of Tbilisi on the way to Mount Kazbegi. I decided on Gudauri because I had heard it offered the best skiing in the Caucasus for both difficulty and variety. But after researching the situation further, I made the executive decision of switching our destination to Bakuriani. Again, this was for various reasons, but it was mainly monetary since Gudauri is more expensive in just about every facet.

Bakuriani is a ski town in south central Georgia, located about thirty kilometers east of Borjomi and three hours by marshrutka from Tbilisi. It’s known for its mineral water (my personal favorite in Georgia) and being the home to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian Olympian who was killed on the luge course in Vancouver last winter. But before I went, that was the extent of my knowledge. The only other information I had heard about the place was that you needed a car to take advantage of the skiing, because there are several different ski slopes in different parts of the town (this is partially true, but the slopes are big enough to keep you occupied for a day, so in theory you could come for a three day weekend and ski a different slope each day).

But Bakuriani also offers more activities for those who don’t want to ski. It’s really like a winter fun park, where you can go snowmobiling, quading, horse back riding (which a few of my friends took advantage of), and ice-skating. Bakuriani also offers ski-town type amenities: bars, clubs, a hookah lounge, movie theater, and upscale ski-resorts. Guduari, on the other hand, is the definition of a ski village where if you’re not skiing, there’s not much else to do.

This is the type of attraction that you will only see in Tbilisi and Bakuriani: a horse-drawn carriage.

So Bakuriani it was, but where to stay? A fellow TLGer forwarded me an email she had received from another teacher who had stayed at a ski school in Bakuriani named IkiSki that also doubles as a guesthouse. It sounded interesting and reasonably priced, although when I say reasonable, I’m comparing it relative to Georgia. I am not comparing it to skiing and mountain accommodation elsewhere in the world, where skiing vacations can run you into the thousands of dollars. IkiSki also had skis on hand for rent and provided transportation to and from the slopes. So I emailed the address on their website and asked about available accommodation on certain dates.

I got an email from a guy named Irakli telling me he wasn’t there this season, but that he had forwarded my email to his mother, Lali, who ran the place and spoke/understood English. Sometimes that qualification is used quite liberally; even in the capital city of Tbilisi there aren’t many people who know competent English, so I had my doubts that Lali of a small ski town in Georgia would be able to communicate with me flawlessly. But my doubts were quickly put to rest as Lali walked me through the details (the guesthouse is 45 Lari a day/night for a dorm style bed and three meals, while they rent equipment in house for 25 Lari a day, all of which includes transportation), and patiently accepted my constantly changing plans (the first and last time I will try to plan anything for fellow TLGers; we change our minds as often as we change underwear).

So it was all set, people from West Georgia would head to Bakuriani Friday morning in order to arrive for a three o’clock meal, while our friends from Tbilisi would be leaving after the workday (damn responsible Tbilisi people making us Mingrelian teachers look bad) and arrive in time for a nine o’clock dinner, which ended up being svadi (Georgian BBQ) cooked in the fireplace… but back to getting there. When we rolled into Bakuriani, Lali and her husband Victor came to transport our bags, and only allowed us to walk the five hundred meters to IkiSki after telling them a taxi wasn’t necessary.

A shot of IkiSki from the road, with a few of my friends hanging on the bottom deck.

From the outside, IkiSki looks exactly like any other ski chalet: log cabin exterior with a stone base and a giant slopping roof. Now, seeing this type of building in, say, Chamonix, France wouldn’t make you think twice, but in Georgia, it stands out. A majority of the developers who planned the hotels in Bakuriani weren’t really worried about achieving an authentic look (and the same goes for most other Georgian tourist destinations I’ve been to, like Mestia and Batumi). The goal is to build quickly with aluminum siding and concrete, slap a fancy English name on the front (we saw one named Hotel Ch√Ęteau Palace), and let the money roll in.

So it was nice to see such an exceptional building in which IkiSki was ran. But in Georgia, the outside of a building can be deceiving—just ask some TLG village teachers, where a new coat of paint on the outside of their school is more vital than working chalkboards. Yet after I stepped into the dry room (a small room near the entrance to most houses in consistently snowy climates), I knew IkiSki was legit.

This is the common room. God, do I miss that fireplace already. In the background is the communal eating area.

Any words won’t do this place justice. It is amazing. Magaria. The place is all solid thick timber, gracefully decorated, and defined the adjective homey. At some point or another over the weekend, each of us mentioned how much we would have loved to live there. It’s about as close to the perfect ski chalet as you can get. But it’s more than that; the winding green wooden staircase (that runs all four stories), shared sleeping rooms filled with bunk beds, and the unequaled common area, all of these features give the whole place a clubhouse type of atmosphere and feeling. But how in the world did this immaculate beauty of a lodge end up in a former Soviet Republic? (Side note: I will not hide my displeasure with Georgian architecture, which I primarily blame on the soviet era and it’s utilitarian concentration. I would say that things are getting better, but then I think of the Presidential Palace and have second thoughts).

A shot of Lali and myself on the IkiSki porch. Trust me, she wasn't nearly as scared of me as this picture indicates.

Lali is an older Georgian woman from Bakuriani, opened IkiSki in 1998, and ten years ago built the current building that houses all the instructors, students, and Lali’s family. But Lali is no ordinary Georgian Bebia even though she does have eight grandchildren. She has done heaps of traveling, won the Bakuriani over-fifty ski competition a few years back (her trophy is humbly displayed on the mantle of IkiSki’s magnificent stone fireplace), and has a quick wit with a fantastic sense of humor. Oh, and she speaks perfect English. She reminded me of Serena, the mother of the host-family I stayed with in Italy. Both were petit older ladies with boatloads of energy and constant smiles, while they shared the same relentless intuitive nature.

But probably Lali’s best characteristic—and the most unusual given her nationality—is her attention to detail. She was on top of everything: fitting the skis, figuring the sleeping situation, transportation, meals, and agreeing on exact times for any and every activity. In fact, she was so acute on time schedules that when one of us was late or caused a delay, she would jokingly point out that we had been in Georgia too long and were taking after one of the worst Georgian traits: tardiness.

Lali's husband Victor and one of the ski instructor's Irakli, enjoying the morning sunshine from the top balcony.

Lali’s son Irakli (who I had first emailed) worked as a ski instructor in Vermont while studying in the U.S. and currently lives with his American wife in Cambodia, while her daughter was a Tbilisi model before marrying a Georgian National Rugby player, and her third son lives in England. Lali’s husband Victor is a former Russian physicist from Vladivostok (the Juneau of Russia that sits on the Sea of Japan all the way across Siberia) who quietly understands English although doesn’t use it as much as Lali, is constantly displaying a hospitable smile, and doesn’t mind socializing with the rap-listening and vodka-drinking ski instructors. So needless to say, it’s an unusual Georgian family.

So when Lali built IkiSki, she had her architect friend draw up the plans and used only local material for the construction (the stones for the foundation and the hearth came from a quarry five kilometers up the road). Every inch of IkiSki had at least a little bit of thought put into it. On the first floor is the dry room, equipment room, and then the common area, which is similar to something one might see in an especially cozy European hostel: giant fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs strewn about, a CD-player with surround sound (without a doubt, the best music collection I’ve come across in a Georgian household: The Doors, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone), a DVD player with projector to show movies, and an excellent coffee table (something I rarely see in Georgia) on which we were constantly playing chess or nardi.

My buddies Joel and Mic getting into some heavy nardi in the common area.

There is also the eating area and kitchen on the first floor, to which we had free reign, but for the most part we tried to stay out of the way of the IkiSki cooks who made all our delicious meals, which were prepared based on our requests (Lali even had them make sats’ebeli [spicy Mingrelian tomato sauce] after I mentioned how much I loved it). The second floor has all the dorm rooms where we slept. It also has a foosball table, which was unfortunately missing an actual foosball (there is a Ping-Pong table in the basement as well, but with only one paddle. As Lali said, “You can’t have nice things with kids around.”). The third floor, where Lali and Victor stay along with the ski instructors, wasn’t off limits to us adult guests, and anytime we wandered up, there was a good chance of being offered coffee, or more likely a shot of vodka or a beer.

IkiSki runs as a ski school during a majority of the ski season. They offer twelve-day camps, in which kids from ages six to fourteen will come, learn to ski, and have fun for about two weeks. Usually they rent out any extra beds if they aren’t to full capacity on the second floor, but luckily for us, they had just finished their season so there was plenty of room and no kids around (we teachers get enough child-time during the work week, so we had no desire to feel like we were at school on our weekend vacation). There are four Georgian ski-instructors who run the everyday skiing, speak better English than some of our co-teachers (Disclaimer: Just kidding TLG!), and are fairly young. They made good company, loved to party (I’m pretty sure they were more or less letting loose after a long season of instructing), and were more than helpful when it came to fitting the equipment.

My friends Tom and Dirk with one of the other ski instructors Dato, who if anything can be said about, loved to party.

Equipment fitting was actually one of the first things we did when we got to IkiSki on Friday. It was too late to go up to the big mountain of Didveli, plus we consisted of four beginner skiers with two girls being first-timers. We thought about walking over to the bunny slopes that were right down the road, although it didn’t make sense to pay the 25 Lari rental fee for the entire day when we would only get in a little more than an hour of skiing. But when Lali could sense our hesitancy, she immediately told us she wouldn’t charge us for Friday, quite a generous offer that convinced us all that despite her unique character, she still had a bit of Georgian in her.

My Georgian friend Nino catching some rays on the IkiSki front porch

So I’m already 2000-words into my IkiSki love affair, but I have to wrap this up soon. All I can say is that if you are ever thinking of going up to Bakuriani, check out IkiSki. I know it might not be ideal when the kids are there, and it is a bit expensive (at least for TLGers making 500 Lari a month), but the accommodation and the company of Lali and Victor are well worth any baushvebo (children) inconvenience. Also, they are in the middle of adding to the main building a completely separate guesthouse with private rooms and bathrooms, which they hope to have done by next season. Other plans include possibly turning the basement into a full-fledged bar with a sauna, while I did hint that the front porch (which has a perfect view of Didveli) had ample room for a hot tub.

The map of Bakuriani near the center of town, you gotta love the Georgian tourism office's persistence about being part of Europe. But not only is Georgia a part of Europe, Europe started here. Take that Greece.

As for the skiing in Bakuriani itself, we came at the worst possible time. The recent rising temperatures had melted a ton of the snow, and the weather on Saturday was terrible: wet and windy (when it’s windy, they close the second lift on Didveli which cuts out any challenging runs or steep descents). But our plans for an early exit on Sunday were dashed when we awoke to a shining sun, no wind, and a slight temperature drop, meaning the snow would have hardened overnight. All of which led my buddy Mic and I to give Didveli another go. It ended up being excellent skiing despite having to stick to the groomed runs. It was still patchy in some spots, but all the other skiers tended to fly down the middle of the run, leaving the outer edges untouched and as close to powder as one can get given the conditions.

And finally, the view at the top of Didveli on a clear day is stunning; on Sunday I could see all across the Southern Caucasus and into Armenia. Needless to say, if I’m in the area next winter, I definitely want to come back when the season is in and the snow is good. It seems like a big enough ski space, while apparently one of the other slopes offers some of the more challenging runs in Georgia.

But I may not have to wait until next winter, because Bakuriani also struck me as an awfully pleasant place to spend a summer weekend. As mentioned before, there are plenty of other activities to keep you occupied, and the hiking has to be challenging and sprawling. In fact, Lali mentioned a 25-kilometer hike to a glacier lake that particularly piqued my interest. So perhaps I’ll go back before the snow falls again. I know that if I do, I’ll be staying at IkiSki.

A shot of Didveli from the road near IkiSki. If you haven't noticed, I figured out you can do some pretty amazing things with iPhoto...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sweet... Sweet Shuki

Easily on of my favorite pictures I've taken in Georgia
Recently I started rereading Wendell Steavenson’s Stories I Stole, which is a personal account of the two years Steavenson spent living in Georgia from 1999 to 2001. If you go all the way back to the point where I reignited the blog and switched the focus from Pittsburgh Sports to my travels in Georgia, I mention Steavenson’s book as possible reading material for those unfamiliar with Georgia.

I remember reading Stories I Stole the first time and thinking, what am I getting myself into? I was halfway through the book before I even left the States (the second half of the book drifts away from Georgia and focuses more on her personal struggle and relationship with a German photographer), and though I had read other content telling me the country was in much better shape since the Rose Revolution, I was still a little startled at how bleak a picture Steavenson painted in her stories.

This is from my recent hunting experience in Martvili

Some of the aspects of Georgian culture she reflects on have stood the test of a decade and still hold true today, including this very prescient passage regarding the drinking culture of toasting, tamada, and suphras:

It was a kind of aggression. When they did not know you well, they filled your glass and filled it again and carefully watched how you drank it. This was their measure of you; this was done to disarm you… The quantities, however, were still very large and could provoke either love or violence. This was the Georgian way, friend or enemy with nothing in between. History was lost in tradition, drinking a way of remembering and forgetting at the same time. (pg. 10, Stories I Stole)

That was the good stuff that I was looking forward to. The more alarming characteristic was laid out in the next 18-pages in a chapter entitle Shuki. Now, all Georgians and anybody else who has spent significant time in Georgia understand what shuki means—power (actually, literally, it means light, but that's neither here nor there). And I’m not talking about Saakashvili power, I’m talking about the type of power that keeps the lights on, the hot water flowing, and space heater pumping… electricity.

These are the mountains of Samegrelo, quite stunning on a clear day

In Steavenson’s stories, she describes a sort of third-world Tbilisi in which you might get an hour of shuki in the morning and an hour at night. A Tbilisi where only 20% of the residents would pay their power bills, while a majority of those who didn’t would just bribe an official to reset the meter (including Steavenson herself). A Tbilisi where candles gave you light and tchatcha gave you warmth.

But that was ten years ago (the back of my head says, 2001 was ten years ago? Jeebus, am I getting old), so it didn’t surprise me all that much when I got to Georgia and didn’t experience any of the shuki problems Steavenson so excellently described in her writing. Every couple days the power might go out for a few hours, but it was never for all that long and never caused that big of a problem (the main reason for blackouts was weather [rain, snow, wind], although sometimes there was no rhyme or reason to the sudden darkness). When it did hinder a deadline or a teaching priority, at first it was problematic, but like all other inconveniences in Georgia, you just adapt and get used to it—roll with it as my Dad says.

The landmarks of Tbilisi seen at dusk

Now, I live in a village of Samegrelo, so I’m sure that some people have it better than me especially Tbilisi, but also including even those who live in the towns and cities of West Georgia (except for Guria, nobody cares about Guria). Hell, even Martvili, which is ten kilometers farther away from the main power grid, would have shuki while I was reading by candlelight in Bandza. Nevertheless, I think I have it pretty good; some of my fellow TLGers were and are much worse off (like my friends in Guria, where they might go multiple days without shuki despite immaculate weather).

It’s almost a contest between teachers to see who has it the worst. Well, I have to walk a kilometer to use the communal out-house, or I’ve only eaten bread for the past week, or the always pleasant, You don’t even want to know how long it’s been since I showered. But usually it always comes back to shuki, and when it does, it’s always a score of hours or sometimes days, You had power for three hours yesterday? I would kill for that.

The nicest building in Bandza; our Police Station

Well last week, I think the shuki issue tested almost everyone’s patience. There were unbelievably strong windstorms (at times, I found myself running at a standstill during my Friday jog) throughout West Georgia starting last Wednesday, which continued until Sunday morning. Thus, power was cut in and out throughout the region for the past week (they are still getting things together).

This is probably the worst I have had it since I got here, which really isn’t that bad compared to some (as mentioned, Guria has it rough) and definitely nothing compared to how it was ten years ago; but it does make you realize how lucky you are when you do have power. For me, it really doesn’t matter as long as my Kindle is charged up and I have candles, coffee, and matches. But it is problematic in regards to blogging, email correspondence (a vital cog in my existence), and teaching related tasks (worksheets, lesson planning, and TLG required reports).

So when you haven’t had power for a few days, you get a little antsy: I really want to listen to the new Radiohead album; I would give anything just to check my email; Can I not have to tutor Rezi and Luka under candlelight? So as I sit around and realize I’ve spent the past six hours reading The Odyssey, I might get a little down on myself and the situation. But then! Something flickers, the light on my electronic regulator turns green, and the magic of shuki lifts my spirits like a long awaited text message from a deep crush.

The road from Bandza to Martvili; avoid the cows...

People love to use the phrase you never appreciate what you’ve got until it’s no longer there. Usually this is in reference to a relationship or a recent breakup, but it can easily fit for how we in Georgia think about that sweet, sweet shuki. This afternoon, after I got home from school, there was again no power; so I ate, read a little, and then decided to go on a run, during which I conjured up some thoughts for this very post. But when I got back to the farm, I came to the realization that those thoughts would have to be put on the backburner as my laptop was out of juice and there was most likely ara shuki (no power). But when I opened the door to my room and saw that all-important green light glowing on my e-protector, I almost did a Tiger Woods fist-pump. And now I’m writing this all before the fortune of shuki turns it’s back against me and all is dark again.

There was one line that came from one of Steavenson’s Georgian friends named Kakha that really encapsulated what shuki means to anybody who has lived in Georgia, “In England, you have electricity. But you do not have the happiness that comes when the electricity comes!”

My host-father Lasha loves to curse the President’s name when the power is out. When he sees me, he looks at me incredulously, points at a nearby lighting fixture, and utters, “Oh… ah… Saakashvili… stupid.” (Like all other Georgians, Lasha might not know the English word for smart, but he definitely know the English for sureli [stupid]). I just laugh rather than try to argue with him on how ridiculous it is to blame the President for a power-outage. But my favorite Gabunia shuki tradition comes from Luka. Whenever we are sitting in the small house trying to stay warm while reading under shared candlelight, and the power abruptly comes back on, Luka will clasp his hands together, look to the lights hanging from the ceiling, and say in English, Thank you, Misha! Gets me every time.

I guess on the Gabunia farm, Misha giveth shuki and Misha taketh away.

Beautiful nature and harsh reality, staples of rural Georgia