In March 2020, my 3 months in Kamchatka was coming to an end, unable to extend my Russian visa, we opted for plan B, living for some time in Georgia, as both Anya and I could stay there for up to a year. With a heartwarming send-off at the airport from our Kamchatka friends, we loaded our clothes and skis into a plane in Yelisova airport, and flew 8 hours to Moscow.
Being a total space nerd, I demanded that during one of our days in Moscow we visited the Museum of Cosmonautics. This was a fantastic experience, and can recommend it to anyone who has a passing interest in space exploration. I wish that my Russian comprehension had been better to understand more of the information panels on the fascinating extra-terrestrial probe exhibits.
I had been watching the global pandemic unfold with one eye on the news, hoping that we would not be too late to enter Georgia. Unfortunately we had a number of important errands to run in Moscow which could not be skipped. One morning, about 5 days into our stay in Moscow, our friend Taylor (who lives in Georgia), gave us the notice that the borders would be closing in 2 days. This was before our flight was scheduled!
We frantically rushed around the city visiting translators, collecting documents, all the while I took my laptop out in the taxi and attempted to book new tickets and to cancel our previous tickets on an airline website which was struggling with all the panicking customers. This was probably the most stressful day of my life. In the end we completed all tasks, and were sitting in a Moscow traffic jam with the clock counting down for our flight. The map revealed that the express train for the airport was not far, and we quickly changed course, and rushed with skis, bags and all into the train station and purchased a ticket for the next train. We bustled through the terminal with the train pulling onto the platform one minute later. We later calculated that if we had missed that train we would have missed our flight, and probably our chance to go to Georgia. We are constantly thankful to Taylor for pressing us to go early!
Our flight to Georgia was via Turkey, it required a change of airlines, and a re-check-in of our bags. The Turkish border control the officials were rather relaxed at the late hour, amusingly they seemed more interested in their phones than potential COVID laden passengers entering their country, but we couldn't complain, the airport lounge was very comfortable. Upon arrival in a snow covered Tbilisi, we were greeted by people in white suits performing thermal scans, thankfully we passed, and we quickly scrambled our way to Gudauri.
For the first few days in Gudauri we stayed in a small guest house. Some guests from Japan and Urkraine were staying with us, but we got the impression that with the resort being closed, any remaining tourists would be leaving soon, and all guest houses would be closing over the next few days.
We visited Taylor and met with his Vagabond ski instructor crew living in Lower Gudauri next to Smart supermarket. Most of the instructors had decided to stay put in Gudauri for a Spring of ski touring, figuring that Gudauri was as good a place as any to be stuck during a pandemic! Anya and I found an apartment in the same block with them, and we moved in to the community of ski bums suriviving the apocolypse, ski touring during the day and celebrating together in the evenings. One evening our Georgian friends Sopo and Kato taught us how to make Khinkali (a national Georgian dish), and another evening we celebrated half-year American Thanksgiving (throughout 2020 it was a theme to celebrate half-dates such as half-birthdays and half-christmas). Among us were people from Georgia, America, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Russia and Australia.
One of the ski tours we did together as a large group was up the Narvani valley. I had previously passed through the lower sections of this route, but Narvani valley was still unknown to me. We passed through an abandoned village, and gained a view of Kazbek along the way. We decided to take a mellow ridge line initially, and after digging pits near the top came to the conclusion that we should not ascend the final slope, the persistent weak layer for the season had not yet resolved. To my personal disapointment a member of our group had not heeded the group decision and had decided to proceed climbing the slope above us, however nothing eventuated and we all made it down safely, the snow was excellent, good fun all around!
As the snow began to melt, the smell of sewerage ascended in the form of a noxious steam from beneath the streets. A constant reminder of the lack of proper town planning, and an unfortunate symptom of the appealing ramshackle, wild-west nature of the place. Trash also was uncovered, every time we would walk we would try to pick up some but it really was a hopeless affair, with the entire mountain covered in plastic, soon to be washed down the rivers in a Spring storm. Gudauri is certainly more appealing in Winter.
Unfortunately the bed in our apartment was extremely saggy and we were sleeping on the floor instead, but with all the tourists leaving we managed to find a good deal with a new apartment in New Gudauri. We spent a day shuttling our luggage in backpacks up the hill through the empty resort on skis.
In New Gudauri, a litter of about 8, extremely fluffy puppies appeared, and became the entertainment of the children wandering between empty ski town streets, we often stopped to cuddle. We were outside with the puppies, talking with one of the building security guards, watching the children run around with them, when the police drove past and blurted something out of their speakers on the car roof presumably telling the "crowd" to dispurse. The security guard said something to the degree of "piss off" in Russian under his breath, and we had to smirk, the police drove on and the scene continued as before.
Some of the Ukrainian Gudauri residents built a shelter for the puppies next to our apartment building, but an army of security guards soon marched past our window (followed by many curious onlookers) to remove it!
While walking up the hill for a day of skiing we met Alex, an excited Frenchman towing his snowboard up the hill on a rope. He had remained in Gudauri with his partner Lena from Russia. We later spent several fun evenings trying out various Georgian supermarket wines with them before sneaking back home to our apartment after curfew.
I finally got around to finishing this post in April 2021, and hopefully a few more will follow soon about the interesting year of 2020. In retrospect, the decision to quit my job in December 2019, and live in Russia/Georgia during that year seems like a very fortunate one. A few months later and I would have missed the opportunity to spend the best year of my life so far with Anya, seperated by an ocean and uncompromising Australian government travel and immigration regulations.