When I first got to Tbilisi, I had the good fortune of staying at the Old Town Hostel, run by a very kind, generous Georgian named Giorgi. He was super helpful with all of my questions about Tbilisi and helped me through a few situations where I wasn’t able to surmount the language barrier. While I was in Tbilisi, he opened a second hostel in the alpine village of Gudauri, about a three hour drive north of Tbilisi via marshrutka.
The marshrutka ride was fairly uneventful. I actually fell asleep part of the way through and missed most of the sights on the way up. When I woke up, I found that my feet were numb; there was no insulation in the floor at all! Before I left, my host family panicked about my lack of snow gear, and Lela lent me her old pair of military boots (along with extra scarves, mittens, and hats). They may have kept my feet dry in the snow, but they definitely weren’t any warmer than my sneakers.
Giorgi picked me up from the marshrutka and I got settled into his new hostel. My room was very spacious and comfortable, with a great view of the mountains and part of the village. It took me about 15 minutes to thaw out my toes (no joke – steaming hot water was involved) before I went downstairs to hang out in the common room and catch up. Giorgi fixed an awesome lunch of kinkhali and a meat and cheese plate, before he took me out to show me the roads, village, slopes, and mountains.
Fortunately for me, but very unfortunately for skiing enthusiasts and Giorgi’s hostel, Georgia has had a very mild winter and there’s been very little snow, even in the alpine regions. Usually Georgia has excellent skiing, and Gudauri is well known for it’s heli-skiing. In fact, Gudauri was recently mentioned in the New York Times’ 41 Places to Go in 2011 article, precisely for its heli-skiing! Since I don’t know how to ski, and had no intention of learning by jumping out of a helicopter in Georgia, I wasn’t personally disappointed about the lack of snow. There was still plenty of it to freeze my toes so I was a-ok.
The actual town of Gudauri is tiny. There was a main hotel, a few residences, and then the slopes. That’s about it. I had hoped to go up to Kazbegi, which is the last town before the Russian border, but unfortunately the roads were so icy that we decided not to chance it. Giorgi and I drove a few miles north to an awesome lookout point where I was able to get some nice views of the Caucasus Mountain Range. That evening we hung out at the hostel drinking lots of hot tea, and Giorgi and one of his employees, Zaza, taught me Georgian card games.
The next morning I spent some time exploring the few roads through town.
Giorgi drove me back to Tbilisi since he had some business in town. I was incredibly grateful that my feet wouldn’t have to freeze in a cold marshrutka again! Giorgi was also super patient and stopped the truck whenever I wanted to take a picture, or buy wool socks from street vendors. He even made sure we stopped for one particular vendor, a 92-year-old woman still hand knitting all of her goods and sitting by the road daily to sell them. I was very impressed with her pluck. She was impressed by all of the wool socks I bought.
Giorgi also made sure to stop so I could finally see the new U.S. Embassy on the outskirts of town. I wasn’t super impressed with the building, especially since it’s pretty new. You’d think they could have built something a little bit prettier to contrast with the old, boring, Soviet-style architecture. I guess they’re not trying to stand out though, considering some of the bombing attempts.
Overall I enjoyed Gudauri despite the fact that I don’t ski. It was a great weekend excursion from Tbilisi and it felt good to get out of the city for the weekend and see the Caucasus mountain range up close. I’m not sure I would recommend it as a vacation destination in and of itself, unless you’re a huge heli-skiing fan, but overall an interesting stop whilst in the region. And of course, eternal thanks to Giorgi for being an amazing and generous host!
Update: Due to the lack of snow and the subsequent lack of tourists to Gudauri in the winter of 2011, Giorgi was left with no choice but to close his hostel. While Giorgi was not a Kiva borrower, this is a great example of why microfinance is so critical. With no loans to keep a business afloat until the next year, Giorgi had no options.