Chaos in the Caucasus

Travel
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Guduari, Georgia

It's nearly six o'clock on a March evening, and although the last rays of light are still painting the peaks in the central Caucasus, darkness is unfurling along the surface of the Georgian Military Highway, 5,000 feet below. Clenching a cigarette between his teeth, Vazho mashes the accelerator to the floorboard of his tiny Russian Lada—a car the size of a refrigerator—and rams us through yet another avalanche zone. If a slide releases, it will crush the Lada like a cockroach. For more information

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I've spent most of our 45-minute drive listening to Vazho expound on his favorite subject: Georgian concubines. Although he distributes most of his taxi profits among local call girls, Vazho has never sampled the services of hookers beyond the Caucasus—and there are many things about American prostitutes he'd like to know. His voice is like sandpaper: How skilled are they? How much do they charge? How often do we avail ourselves of their services?

Normally, this kind of conversation might qualify as charming travel banter. But in his eagerness to expand his perspective, Vazho has neglected to impart a key piece of information. When he picked us up, the Lada apparently contained less than a teaspoon of fuel—a piece of news Vazho relayed to Shota, our Georgian guide, several miles after blowing past the last petrol station.

With the light fading and time running out, Shota has ordered Vazho to continue hurtling toward our rendezvous. For the last few miles, we've been slowing down at every hamlet and farm so Vazho can roll down the window and scream, "BENZINE? Has anybody got some BENZINE?! The only response comes from a confused cow in the middle of the road, which emits a lugubrious moo as we lumber past.

"This is horrible—horrible! wails Shota, covering his face in his hands. "We're never going to get out of this place.

I turn to photographer Pete McBride, hoping he can provide a more positive assessment of the situation. Thanks to the deluge of avalanches, we've been trapped in this valley for six days, and now it looks like we're going to miss our only chance for extrication—a military helicopter waiting just a few whiffs of benzine away.

"You know, this might be really beautiful, he muses, gazing at the steep fields of powder on which, thanks to the incessant slides, we've barely managed to cut a single turn. "If only I weren't trying to escape from the worst ski trip of my entire life…

"Yeah, Pete, but are we gonna make this chopper or not?

"Oh, that? He pauses, weighing the odds. "I'd say that right now, you and I are totally screwed. [""]The Caucasus Mountains thrust more than 15,000 feet into the air and extend nearly 700 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, a wall of snowcapped rock that severs the Russian steppe from the plateaus of Turkey and Iran. Along the southern side of this fault line sits the Republic of Georgia, a crossroads between Europe and Asia that for more than 2,500 years has served as a battleground between marauding armies of pagans, Christians, and Moslems. During this time, the capital city of Tbilisi has been captured so often—29 times, by one reckoning—that within a 20-minute walk of the city's McDonald's, one can find a Jewish synagogue, a Sunni mosque, a Georgian basilica, an Armenian church, and a Zoroastrian fire-worshippers' temple (plus a notorious den of Turkish baths where the likes of Vazho conduct their amorous assignations).

The most recent cataclysm to shake up this part of the world involved the demise of the Soviet empire. In April 1991, the citizens of Georgia declared independence from the USSR, and then watched as their fledgling republic performed a sickening swan dive into chaos. In the ensuing 14 years, the country has endured one civil war, two government coups, a handful of presidential assassination attempts, and armed insurrections from a pairf semiautonomous provinces that decided they'd be better off rejoining Russia. These events opened the door to a wave of crime, gang warfare, and corruption that virtually paralyzed Georgia's government, sending the economy into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

Ordinary Georgians responded to this mess the same way they've always coped with adversity: by seizing upon every setback as an excuse to drink as much wine and vodka as possible. This tradition goes back many centuries; among its other claims to fame, Georgia is believed to be the place where people first began cultivating grapes. In recent years, though, Georgians have applied a new twist to their most beloved pastime. Each Friday evening during winter, Tbilisi's elite pack their bags and drive two hours north to a small ski resort called Gudauri.

Participants in the Gudauri Diaspora—which often includes President Mikheil Saakashvili and his gorgeous Dutch wife Sandra Roelofs, leading members of parliament, and the staff of almost every foreign embassy in town—spend most of the weekend inhaling vast amounts of alcohol while offering toasts to the hope that things will get better. Many of them also attempt—assuming the colorful rumors are true—to fornicate their troubles away by indulging in spectacularly ill-advised love affairs. In the mornings, they walk their hangovers over to the base of the main chairlift, purchase a ticket for 20 laris (about ten dollars), and ski what amounts to a fairly tame collection of groomed runs, which, upon further investigation, Pete and I wanted nothing to do with. The heli-skiing offered by a Swiss outfitter, Alpin Travel, was intriguing, but we were put off by its astronomical prices and a troubling policy that strictly forbids jumping.

So we decided to bypass Gudauri's snowplowing politicos and travel up the Georgian Military Highway, an artery connecting Tbilisi with southern Russia that threads through the heart of the Caucasus. We'd systematically pick off dramatic descents until we reached the northern border—at which point, Pete and I thought it might be kind of fun to link up with some Georgian border guards and talk them into using one of their military choppers to drop us off on some unskied peaks inside neighboring Chechnya, a war-shattered republic where the Russian army has been slaughtering Islamic rebels for the better part of the last decade.

Initially, this idea struck us as rather bold and cutting-edge, a chance to explore the outer limits of both backcountry adventure and the international war on terror. Our biggest challenge was finding a guide who possessed enough tact and business savvy to refrain from pointing out that, all things considered, our plan was really quite asinine.

Which is where Shota Elisashvili came into the picture.[""] Shota, 61, was born near a corner of northwestern Georgia said to contain the highest villages in Europe. He taught himself to ski using a pair of wooden skis from Ukraine and a Russian translation of Jean-Claude Killy's classic manual Ski a la France. He was also a gifted rock climber and mountaineer, placing fourth in a prestigious speed-climbing championship on the limestone cliffs of the Crimea in 1973 and eventually earning the coveted title "Soviet Master of Sport.

After spending 15 years at university studying mining engineering (classes took a backseat to sport), Shota went to work for an unusual branch of the Georgian government called the Laboratory of Lifts. There he designed and constructed ski lifts for small resorts throughout Russia and the Caucasus.

He didn't earn much as a lift engineer, but the job allowed Shota to spend as much time as he wanted climbing and skiing. He would disappear for weeks at a time, roaming the mountains and subsisting on raw garlic, pork lard, and a handful of uncooked eggs (which he would store above the webbing of his climbing helmet). His hands are huge and strong; his English is smooth and refined; and his eyes, which are brown, tend to exude both sadness and rebuke—especially when talking about his life before the watershed events of 1991. "I had a paradise in Soviet times, he recalls. "I didn't have a lot of money, but I was free.

This agreeable, if subsidized, lifestyle ended abruptly during the postindependence economic collapse, when Shota—along with almost everyone else in Georgia—lost his job. He landed on his feet by offering guided skiing and climbing trips to foreign tourists and wealthy Georgians, charging as much as $125 a day at a time when average incomes were less than $300 a year. Within a few years, he had enough money to purchase a used Nissan Patrol from a friend at the UN. It had armor plating as protection against land mines, and a bullet hole in the driver's side door.

While neighbors were forced to sell off their homes and furniture, beg in the streets, or flee abroad looking for work, Shota's business boomed. And thanks to all this success, he has come to despise the free market. "The problem with capitalism is that everyone must think every minute how to survive, he says. "Everyone is always running in front of the locomotive. If they are fast enough, they survive. If not, they die.

Part of the reason Shota has done so well in business is that no challenge seems to faze him. Pete and I got our first glimpse of this quality when we met him in Tbilisi, opened up our maps, and laid out our deluded proposal.

"Why not? he said with a casual flip of his hand. "We'll head up the Military Highway first thing in the morning.[""]The Georgian Military Highway runs 128 miles from Tbilisi to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, on the north side of the Caucasus. Over the years, the list of famous figures that traveled this thoroughfare (which the Russian army completed in 1817) has included legendary writers like Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin. On more than one occasion the road was also used by Georgia's most infamous celebrity, a cobbler's son named Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili—better known to the world as Stalin.

After loading our skis into Shota's Nissan, we headed out of Tbilisi through a series of densely forested river valleys. Within a few hours, we were deep within a range of snowcapped peaks. We stopped off briefly in Gudauri before we wended north over 7,805-foot Cross Pass and eventually arrived in Kazbegi, a town that is rumored to boast immense charm and appeal during the summer. In the dead of winter, however, Kazbegi is something else entirely. Not a single restaurant or cafe is open and commerce is restricted to a few metal kiosks alongside the highway peddling wine, vodka, cigarettes, candy, and toilet paper. The potential for great skiing around Kazbegi is impressive: Vast bowls and steep, 5,000-foot-long couloirs surround the town. When the weather is bad, though, residents mostly remain indoors and the streets are taken over by herds of mud-spattered cattle nosing through trash in the gutters.

When we arrived, the entire valley was socked in by fog. It began to rain. With a front moving in, Shota pulled up to the town's only hotel, which is surrounded by broken chunks of asphalt and half-frozen cow pies.

The Hotel Lomi has five rooms, one bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. The lobby is decorated with heavy brown drapes, 10 metal folding chairs, and two bowls in which a pair of goldfish and a sclerotic guppy drift in a haze of brown water. Next to the front door (which is also brown), there's a cable television set, where a group of local men gather to spend their days and nights watching Brazilian soap operas that have been dubbed into Georgian.

The Hotel Lomi is warm, dry, and relatively quiet. Nevertheless, I found the place a little too brown for my taste, and was glad we'd be staying for just one night.[""] By morning, the storm had gotten worse, so we decided to wait it out. While the rain switched to heavy snow, we studied our smooth and refined; and his eyes, which are brown, tend to exude both sadness and rebuke—especially when talking about his life before the watershed events of 1991. "I had a paradise in Soviet times, he recalls. "I didn't have a lot of money, but I was free.

This agreeable, if subsidized, lifestyle ended abruptly during the postindependence economic collapse, when Shota—along with almost everyone else in Georgia—lost his job. He landed on his feet by offering guided skiing and climbing trips to foreign tourists and wealthy Georgians, charging as much as $125 a day at a time when average incomes were less than $300 a year. Within a few years, he had enough money to purchase a used Nissan Patrol from a friend at the UN. It had armor plating as protection against land mines, and a bullet hole in the driver's side door.

While neighbors were forced to sell off their homes and furniture, beg in the streets, or flee abroad looking for work, Shota's business boomed. And thanks to all this success, he has come to despise the free market. "The problem with capitalism is that everyone must think every minute how to survive, he says. "Everyone is always running in front of the locomotive. If they are fast enough, they survive. If not, they die.

Part of the reason Shota has done so well in business is that no challenge seems to faze him. Pete and I got our first glimpse of this quality when we met him in Tbilisi, opened up our maps, and laid out our deluded proposal.

"Why not? he said with a casual flip of his hand. "We'll head up the Military Highway first thing in the morning.[""]The Georgian Military Highway runs 128 miles from Tbilisi to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, on the north side of the Caucasus. Over the years, the list of famous figures that traveled this thoroughfare (which the Russian army completed in 1817) has included legendary writers like Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin. On more than one occasion the road was also used by Georgia's most infamous celebrity, a cobbler's son named Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili—better known to the world as Stalin.

After loading our skis into Shota's Nissan, we headed out of Tbilisi through a series of densely forested river valleys. Within a few hours, we were deep within a range of snowcapped peaks. We stopped off briefly in Gudauri before we wended north over 7,805-foot Cross Pass and eventually arrived in Kazbegi, a town that is rumored to boast immense charm and appeal during the summer. In the dead of winter, however, Kazbegi is something else entirely. Not a single restaurant or cafe is open and commerce is restricted to a few metal kiosks alongside the highway peddling wine, vodka, cigarettes, candy, and toilet paper. The potential for great skiing around Kazbegi is impressive: Vast bowls and steep, 5,000-foot-long couloirs surround the town. When the weather is bad, though, residents mostly remain indoors and the streets are taken over by herds of mud-spattered cattle nosing through trash in the gutters.

When we arrived, the entire valley was socked in by fog. It began to rain. With a front moving in, Shota pulled up to the town's only hotel, which is surrounded by broken chunks of asphalt and half-frozen cow pies.

The Hotel Lomi has five rooms, one bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. The lobby is decorated with heavy brown drapes, 10 metal folding chairs, and two bowls in which a pair of goldfish and a sclerotic guppy drift in a haze of brown water. Next to the front door (which is also brown), there's a cable television set, where a group of local men gather to spend their days and nights watching Brazilian soap operas that have been dubbed into Georgian.

The Hotel Lomi is warm, dry, and relatively quiet. Nevertheless, I found the place a little too brown for my taste, and was glad we'd be staying for just one night.[""] By morning, the storm had gotten worse, so we decided to wait it out. While the rain switched to heavy snow, we studied our maps and read. That night, we lay in our beds, listening to avalanches roaring down from the mountains. We awoke to more falling snow—and the news that Cross Pass was snowbound, all traffic blocked. Twenty miles along the highway to the north, up near the Russian border, the story was the same. We were cut off.

Gradually, the hotel began filling up with stranded truck drivers in dark trousers and sweaters. By afternoon, more than a dozen men had shown up. The new arrivals joined the Brazilian soap-opera fan club until the storm knocked out a power transformer and the television went dark. Then, the Georgians embarked on a marathon backgammon tournament at a table next to our pile of ski gear. In between games, they conducted long, passionate arguments, punctuated by much laughter and hand waving. After an especially lively discussion on the afternoon of day three, everyone agreed to chip in some money and, for 120 lari (about $60), they bought themselves a cow.

Actually, it was a four-month-old calf, purchased from a local farmer and butchered with a hatchet in the kitchen. That night, in the lobby of the Hotel Lomi, the travelers hosted an impromptu Georgian feast.

Pete, Shota, and I were summoned from our room as the guests of honor—and as such, were obliged to participate in a frightening number of toasts. Under the direction of Badri Dolidze, a retired military pilot who had been elected the evening's tamada (toastmaster), we raised our glasses to love, to hospitality, to the honor of Georgian women, to the memory of our homes, to peace, to friendship, to the beauty of the mountains…and to a bunch of other things, the details of which were irrevocably lost amid my hangover the next morning. I also recall some singing that involved someone standing on his chair. And I remember something Shota said to me in the middle of the celebration.

"We Georgians are optimists, he declared with a quiet smile. "Other people in this situation might worry and be depressed. But what did these guys do? They got a cow. They threw a party. And now here we all are, having a nice time. This is what makes Georgia such a special place.[""] By the morning of day four, the Hotel Lomi had begun to feel less like a seminar on international brotherhood and more like a prison bunker. Pete and I decided we could either drink ourselves to death, or we could get out and do some skiing.

So much snow had fallen by now that virtually every peak was avalanching repeatedly. Each morning, the previous night's load would violently cast itself off, sometimes stripping entire faces down to the bare earth. By midafternoon, recharged with fresh snow, the same faces would slide again. Kazbegi itself was safe, but along the entire length of the valley, more than 130 cascades had obliterated fence lines and buried quarter-mile sections of the highway beneath lumpy debris fields that rose 20 and 30 feet into the air.

Attempting to ski most of these slopes would have been suicide. But there was one climb, not far from the hotel, that seemed doable.

Directly above the town looms the second-highest peak in the Caucasus, a mountain cloaked in legends and myths. Somewhere near the 16,558-foot summit of Mount Kazbek there's rumored to be an ice cave containing the tomb of Christ, the tent of Abraham, and the manger where Jesus was born. (It's kind of like a yard sale at the Vatican, but harder to reach. What, no Shroud of Turin?) As if there weren't enough attractions, the upper slope is supposedly also the spot where the Greek hero Prometheus was chained in punishment for giving humans the gift of fire.

Our goal was much more modest than Kazbek's storied summit, which we had yet to glimpse. We simply wanted to put our climbing skins on and ski tour up to a 14th-century church called Tsminda Sameba (the Church of the Holy Trinity), which stands at the top of a thickly forested escarpment about 1,000 feet above the base. And then, by God,

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