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...

5 comments:

  1. http://livegeorgia.ge/
    Max, this site may be useful for your next vacation in Georgia (actual weather).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey! I'm from Georgia... I really enjoy reading your blog!

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  3. Hello

    I`m Nick from Georgia, young student of Tbilisi State University. Please contact me via Email after you read this comment. I`m preparing for presentation in English with the subject of “Culture Shock” and I`ll be glad if you help me by answering some questions (so I will ask you some questions and your answers as a visitor of Georgia will be what I`m gonna analyze and talk about while holding presentation).

    thanks for attention

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  4. forgot to write mail:
    nikulina.ge@hotmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have never been on a pair of ski's before but your post plus the fact that I'm now living in Tbilisi has inspired me.
    Many thanks,
    Elaine

    ReplyDelete