The Lipstick Productions crew have shown in their last two movies that they’re not shy of hitting the road less travelled. Last winter, with our Photo Ed in tow, Ana Rumiha, Basa Stevulova, Diana Sadlowski, Julia Baumgartner and Urska Pribosic struck out to the complicated region of Georgia...
Words by Julia Baumgartner. Photos by Sami Touriniemi.
I first heard about Georgian mountains from a friend last year. I sort of geographically knew where Georgia was but always felt it was one of those phantom countries not colliding with any of my interests. I wasn't even sure whether it was Europe or Asia; I’d soon come to realise neither were they. Yet now, after this experience, my feeling is that Georgia is a small country on the crossing of rich natural and cultural history with stories to tell.
Georgia is a mountainous country in the South Caucasus, located in a transcontinental zone between Europe and Asia. Geographically, it is divided into eastern and western halves, Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges, which have shaped Georgia’s complicated history and made uniting the country as difficult as repelling the outside forces.
It has been influenced by the Greeks, Persians, Mongols and the Byzantine Empire, which is still clearly evident in its capital, Tbilisi. It kinda looks like three different Hollywood sets: one for Wild West, another for the King of Persia and the third for Alexander the Great.
Somewhere in the 19th century Russia invaded Georgia – they obviously needed a shortcut to transport some war stuff or something – so they built the Transcaucasus railway the region, uniting the country’s transportation route for the first time in its history. Georgia finally became independent with the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, but due to its geography it stayed internally divided by numerous ethnic groups that did not fully want to incorporate into it.
I arrived to Tbilisi in the middle of the night, quite tired, hoping that the guy I arranged transport with really exists and would be waiting for me. I always get angry when people ask how sketchy Croatia is but I couldn't help being worried at what Georgia had in store for me.
Somehow they’d managed to straighten things out when we arrived, squeezed them into the van and started our two-hour journey to Gudauri resort. It was pitch black and we were driving on the old military road, which is the only road connecting Georgia and Russia, yet still it felt like we were the only people out there. Arriving at the resort, an extremely hospitable group of men transported us with the snowcat up the hill to our hut. It was still cloudy and very cold so we couldn't see anything and went straight to bed to get some much-needed sleep.
THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
Waking up the next morning left us all speechless. We realised were on the top of the world. Wherever we looked were endless white mountains loaded with untouched terrain. Although we were hyped to start early, the hut owners made it clear that since the resort doesn’t open before 10am we should not wake them up for breakfast before 9:55 either.
Being stuck at 2700m we didn't have much choice but to wait for the old bread and sausages none of us really wanted to eat (this was also the moment that Sami, a vegetarian, became aware that he was going to be hungry for the rest of the trip).
A couple of runs in the resort were enough to see it was too flat to find good spots so Oleg and Sashka (the mountain manager) took us back to the military road and drove into the pass. Wherever we looked we saw windlips, possible landings, crazy lines and helicopters flying rich Russians around. The road was full of huge trucks being pulled uphill by even bigger trucks so stopping and scouting for spots was usually quite dangerous.
We soon found the perfect spot for a kicker, built it and hoped that the heli wouldn’t drop off the tourists in our landing, which of course happened. Extremely hungry and exhausted from the whole day we nevertheless accepted a toast with pure Georgian Vodka, and that's when their culture hit us for the first time.
Georgian tradition is to have the main man at the table who will say the toasts and is called Tamada. This guy basically just pours drinks one after another and says the most random toasts so often that it's impossible to have any kind of conversation in between. The feeling I also got was that Georgian women are not used to being as free as we are and most men won't even shake woman's hand, which I found particularly amusing and did it by surprise every time I got the chance just to enjoy their facial expressions.
For the next few days we were full of ideas, which mostly didn't work out as we planned for one reason or another. Eventually we found a big tube which we decided to jib exactly on a day when I took my big powder board and had no choice than to go back to the hut and switch boards while the others were shaping.
On my way back I was walking through the village and I noticed lots of wild dogs but wasn’t really afraid of them. Well, this time they were eating and the biggest one decided to attack me, so he bit my leg while my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. I was lucky enough he let go and let me live. There was nobody around to help me so I wouldn't have stood much chance.
When I thought about it later this place was a bit of high tech in the middle of essentially wilderness. New chairlifts, couple of hotels, couple of helis, one store and a lot of poor local houses with people not really interested in winter sports at all; they were just there trying to make their living.
That night we were invited for the traditional Georgian dinner and, of course, we were the only women there. Sami was again trying to explain that he was a man although he was vegetarian and Andraz was defending his manhood by drinking as much vodka as they could pour. We were served a fatty meal that would feed twice as many people only to get just as much from another table as a present.
They were all just unreasonably overfriendly, toasting all the time, talking about how great everything was. It took us quite a while to leave and go back home to take a deep breath and get back to reality. The thing is they did everything to make us feel comfortable and help us do our thing but after the working hours our cultures just divided and we couldn't keep up with them and their alcohol.
From then on we decided to stick with our guide Oleg and his wife Vera since they were quite different couple from the rest of the village and soon we found out why. Oleg spent most of his time working as a nature photographer in Belarus but always stayed out of politics.
During the last election Belarus’s opposition newspaper asked him to work as a photographer and he accepted. Unfortunately that day turned into a tragedy. Presidential candidates were imprisoned before the election results even came, peaceful protests were brutally suppressed by riot police and the KGB returned to Belarus. Oleg took few pictures of the police brutality and after 3 days he received a warning from a friend, with whom he used to work in Belarus military intelligence, that the KGB was after him.
Realising the situation, him and his wife took the most important necessities, got into a car and drove 2500km to Georgia, Gudauri, where he had an apartment. "It's painful to shoot somebody's else pain," he says, so he stopped doing reportage photography and him and Vera found their peace in Gudauri. They loved their new life it in the mountains and started the tourist agency GUDAURI.TRAVEL, which took such good care of us too.
Anyhow, as we were eager to find out a bit more about their culture, Oleg drove us to an old village which was abandoned during the winters and the scenery was again amazing. Houses were built one on top of each other on the very steep slope looking all very shaky.
Moving between them was like climbing through labyrinths of stairs and rocks. Supposedly people use them as a summer getaway from the heat. The next interesting thing that caught our eye was a Soviet monument to Russian/Georgian friendship. It was a huge round wall that looked really tempting to be ridden. After we managed to walk our way to it through the deep snow we realized it was positioned on the top of the huge cliff. It was scary to even stand there with all the snow piling up on the platform giving the impression it might collapse any moment so all the ideas were off and we just enjoyed the view.
THE PLACE TO BE
As the end of our trip was approaching the weather got crazier. It was snowing so heavily for two days that we were stuck in our flat at the bottom of the resort, where we’d switched to a couple of days before. The roads were hidden under the snow and we were regretting our flights being booked so soon.
The last day we woke up to perfect bluebird and 2m of fresh snow. There was even too much snow and the avalanche risk was high anywhere out of the resort. We went to the bottom of the highest chairlift and waited with the rest of the happy people for it to open.
Because of this few subsequent hours of gliding through the fluffy pow, with the view as far as the horizon goes, I would want to go back there again and again. It's a place where you don't want to have cameras around but just ride with your friends and enjoy the best winter can give you.
We ate one more Khachapuri (cheesebread), tasted some good Georgian wine before setting off back to Tbilisi. Oleg told us we shouldn't go home without relaxing in a traditional Georgian bath and, although tired, we didn't regret going in.
It was like a Turkish bath with hot and cold pools and a Finnish sauna on the side. The lady washed us girls and completely ignored Sami and Andraz, which was quite funny. There certainly wasn't anything better than that hot steam after 10 days of slamming.
Well recovered we had few more hours to wander around Tbilisi and enjoy being tourists. I think none of us expected it to be so developed and modernised but there was also a strict line of old, modern and Soviet architecture. They have their own language and writing which doesn't look like anything we know and is impossible to pronounce even for us eastern Europeans but the friendly vibe was everywhere around us.
I just couldn't help the feeling that this place was still complicated and too many different influences were colliding but looking the history I guess that will never change. However, in the end we all agreed that Georgia was worth returning to. Partly because of Tbilisi and its bustling streets, but more because of the incredible undiscovered nature that fanned out in all directions.
It's still one of those places where you can come without anything and never be hungry or alone. Georgian people will welcome you as their own and share everything they have. So they did, and so we had the best time of the season. Thanks to Oleg and GUDAURI.TRAVEL for making the trip happen: gudauri.travel/en/