There are so many places for skiing in the World so why should we always pick just Alps?! I gave a go to skiing in Balkans last year and this year, my choice was Georgia. And because I was in Georgia already, I did a quick break and went skiing to Armenia too. How was it?
Georgia is a middle-sized country that has a significant part of Caucasus on its territory. Thanks to that, there are many mountains 4000 m a.s.l high. Caucasus is not covered by too many forests and is not as rocky as Slovenian Tatry or Alps. This is why Georgia is a paradise for free ride lovers. There are three well-known ski resorts for a casual skiing – Gudauri, Mestia and Bakuriani further to the south of the Small Caucasus.
Mestia is a small town surrounded by high mountains all around. It is about 100 km away from Kutaisi as the craw flies. However, by a car it is about 250 km and 6-hour journey. The town itself lays 1500 m a.s.l. The local roads are not too busy so after a few days of heavy snowing it is accessible only with a four wheel drive or snow chains.
Probably a half of all tourists here were Czechoslovaks. When the weather was bad, it was the vast majority.
There is extremely cheap accommodation here, it starts from 5 €/night. But be careful! Just like us, you may actually end up in a summer time cottage, where you’ll be happy if you don’t freeze to death. There are also some shops in the town, few pubs and two ski rental shops. I’d personally recommend the one right behind the bus station. A European-looking chap runs the shop and it seems that he knows his horses pretty well. Besides, his offer is not bad either. I borrowed free ride skis including the other equipment as well for 50 Lari (16 €) and they were probably the best skis I’ve ever had a chance to put on. You can choose in this area from two ski resorts.
The more accessible ski resort lay right above the town. In order to get there you can take a cableway and there you can change and continue further with another cableway or use the shorter ski lifts. The whole resort is in a forest area and they say that there is an incredible forest free ride. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try it at all. I heard that it’s not frequently visited resort so there is a lot of space to enjoy snow-groomed slopes.
A bigger and newer resort is located 20 km away from the town and it’s 800 m higher in the mountains. There are supposed to be four cableways and one ski lift, which I personally didn’t see. It was quite a shame that there were only two cableways in service. The first day even just one of them was working due to the weather conditions. The slope to the lower cableway is extremely shallow and long, therefore it is ideal for riding down head over heels. The second cableway has more to offer. There are large free ride fields around. They are suitable for free ride beginners because the slopes here are not too steep. In addition, there are no rocks and dense forests. One does not need to be worried about getting lost or falling somewhere from where it would take a long walk back up the hill.
Gudauri is something like an Alpine village in Georgian mountains approximately 120 km to the north from Tbilisi. This place definitely wouldn’t offend any Après-Ski devotee. You can enjoy a selection of modern hotels straight at the slopes, bars, restaurants, loud music, tandem paragliding… And everything is right in a middle of the mountain area. In the main area, called The New Guduari, I found four different ski rental shops. The services offered here are unfortunately much different from what I experienced in Mestia. I was hoping for better standard, especially because of the prices of a day ski rent that actually doesn’t get lower than 40 Lari (14 €). The shopkeepers usually have no idea how to adjust or maintain skis correctly, they even had no clue what is the difference between free ride and free style skis, needless to mention their idea of what carving skis are.
The resort is located 2000 – 3000 m a.s.l. and that guarantees enough of snow at all slopes (70 km of trails in total). There are eleven cableways and ski lifts in total. I heard about an amazing new slope with cableways on the north side of the mountain. Unfortunately, I got the information too late and managed to get there right before the closing time. There are plans to expand the resort further towards Russia in the future.
The slopes are not usually very steep. There are just few fast but short slopes. They are well snow-groomed thought, so that makes them perfect for any modest skier.
About the free ride, the situation is quite similar to Mestia. There are great opportunities for a very easy free ride with a fresh snow. Some slopes are accessible by only a few minutes’ walk up the hill so the powdery snow lasts longer and is not rutted straight away. I reached this place 3 days after a snowfall. Therefore, I returned my free ride skis directly after the first ride because not even a meter of snow remained untouched. The only well looking location was on the highest peak but the cableway was not in service there. I think it was really the only area nearby that had any potential for satisfactory the free ride. In general, there were not that many places to get lost (unless you take a walk further up from the cableways) and there were no trees.
The ski pass, food and accommodation are a lot more expensive then in Mestia. Apparently, they are trying to go into a competition with Alps not just with the amount of cableways and slopes but with the prices too.
All in all, this is a perfect family resort offering simply everything that skiers could possibly require. It’s ideal for free rides too but only after a fresh snowfall. It’s pretty expensive place though.
I haven’t been to this resort. It is located a bit more to the south, lower in the mountains. I presume that the snow conditions are not therefore as good as anywhere else. According to the available information, it is a family resort ideal for any undemanding skier. Likewise, in Mestia, this resort consists of two individual areas. Nevertheless, here the parts seem to be much closer to each other.
Armenia is a smaller neighbour of Georgia. The mountains here are not that high, however they cover the most of the country’s landscape. Even the average height of the country (1800 m a.s.) is higher than in Georgia (1430 m a.s.l.). Armenia is less demanded tourist destination so it makes the country a little bit more exotic.
There is just one big ski resort in Armenia and it is called Tsakhkadzor. It was to my great surprise that not everybody in Armenia actually is familiar with the place.
This ski resort is just 55 km away from Yerevan, not far from the main road between Tbilisi and Yerevan. This place also tries to compete with European ski resorts. There are many hotels of different quality in the town but they are quite reasonably priced. Ski rental shops are located directly in the resort. Even though the upper shop looks nearly professional and has a massive selection of skis, the staff has very basic knowledge and technical conditions of the equipment is far from being good.
The most pleasant thing about this resort was its atmosphere. There were just few people spread over the 30 km of slopes. The resort has five ski lifts. One of them was out of order, however it was no obstacle because it has been substituted by another. The other two ski lifts were alternately in service. The only queuing (in a sense that the next available seat was the fourth on average) I experienced was at the main ski lift. Mainly tourists, who wanted to get halfway up the slope, where they were riding snow scooters, inflatable rings or they were just running around and taking selfies, have used it.
The slopes were generally not too steep and perfectly snow-groomed. I had quite nice time there while training carving skiing, especially thanks to the length of the slopes.
It was a bit complicated with the free ride there. It had the greatest potential here considering all ski resorts I’ve visited here. The peaks of the mountains are without trees and quite steep. From the middle part of the slope down, there was a forest with quite easy passage through. At the lower part, there were a lot of stones and rock formations. It’s a pity that the whole resort is exposed to a wind. It is because there is a enormous high plateau right below the resort (at nearly 2000 m a.s.l). Probably this was the reason that the snow on the top of the mountain has been blown away and whatever was left was just too frozen and hard. There were also some grassy spots at all levels. Luckily, I never come across any stones and dirt spots, so one just needed to be careful and everything was fine. These conditions were not the best for the free ride though. There was an area of powdery snow in the middle of the slope between the first trees but it has been already occupied with a great joy by several snowboarders. I couldn’t take my part in because I had purely downhill skis. In this area, one had to be careful and watch out for streams or holes between stones covered by snow. If there was just one extra meter of snow, it could have been perfect. However, it’s difficult to say if there is more snow usually.
There is an interesting fact about this place, it actually applies to the rest of Georgia as well at some extent. I’m talking about the staff. It seems that work force is free here. Considering that there is a couple of dozens of skiers, the number of staff is somehow equal. One person is checking if the skiers are arriving to the ski lift turnstile correctly, the other helps you to turn the turnstile (so that you don’t get bruises on your knees), next person watches how you’re getting on a belt and the last one slows down the seat so that you can get on in a full comfort. Simply, everybody is doing anything so that it gives an impression that they are doing something at all. Truth to be told, Georgians are usually not bothered about anything and just stand there having chitchat.
Had the snow and weather conditions been ideal, I’d consider Armenian Tsaghkadzor the best resort. Unfortunately, I don’t know how often such conditions occur here. I’m afraid that not very often. If you prefer less frequent ski resorts than your option is definitely Mestia. Gudauri would be the best choice only for those, whose focus is skiing and spending money during the evenings. It is certainly the best place for such activities. However, it is lacking the exotic spirit.
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