Letter from Goderdzi: Georgia’s hidden ski gem, where locals are fighting to preserve village life

24 February 2021
Text and images: Arina Abbott

Peeling away from Georgia’s subtropical Black Sea Coast, one wouldn’t expect to find a haven of snow-laden hills at the end of the rugged road. Just 100 kilometres from Batumi – the Adjara region’s eccentric coastal capital – is Goderdzi, a mountain village that’s home to one of Georgia’s youngest ski resorts. In 2011, under then President Mikheil Saakashvili, work began to transform Goderdzi from a quiet village to a bustling resort town. But as this development ebbs and flows, it’s the charm of Goderdzi’s mountain life, rather than gleaming hotel complexes, that draws Georgians and international visitors alike to the slopes.

Charm and, of course, snow, remarkable quantities of it. After an excruciatingly dry season in the north of Georgia, we caught wind of Goderdzi’s brewing storms in the south and set off.

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“I remember when I was a child, there was a storm so huge that it completely covered me,” chuckles Emzar Geladze, a lifetime resident of Goderdzi. While I wouldn’t wish such terror upon anyone, these conditions are exactly what my fellow skiers and I hunt for — powder chasing, some call it.

Goderdzi’s location is what affords such phenomenal conditions. Fierce storms churn in the Black Sea before dumping atop the rolling hills of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains abutting Turkey. Much to our glee, one such storm trailed us up the valley.

Equipped with ski touring gear and avalanche safety training, we prepare to explore beyond the resort along the exposed ridgelines above Goderdzi Pass. Following a dizzying venture into the blank slate of a snowstorm, we descend to find refuge in the forest — one of Goderdzi’s treasures.

It’s only natural that Tornike Matsaberidze, a Georgian ski guide, would be drawn to Goderdzi. “It’s such a mystical place,” he says with a grin. While Gudauri, Georgia’s largest and oldest ski resort, offers many more kilometres of lift-accessed, high-mountain ski terrain close to Tbilisi, Goderdzi offers charms that its Greater Caucasus siblings do not — skiing among petrified summer huts, the authenticity of local hospitality, and vivid sunsets that Tornike says are matched only by those cast over the sea.

“People come for the vibes. They come to experience the local people and the views of the wooden cabins”

But it’s the forest Tornike speaks of most fondly. He owes his livelihood to these trees. In summer, he picks pinecones belonging to the Sochi tree, a Caucasian fir prized by European importers as the perfect Christmas tree. In winter, the forest shelters Tornike, his clients, and the snow from the elements.

Throwing aside the curtains the following day, we’re overjoyed to find the sun glinting off the soft curves of the freshly fallen snow. Today, we opt to explore the trees of the beech forest — the Sochi firs’ scragglier, south-facing neighbours. One after another, we bounce off from a wind-sculpted lip, cheering each other on before descending into the forest. The collective energy is palpable — whoops and shrieks cut through the quiet of the forest as we wind our way to the silent huts below. We consider exploring elsewhere, but can’t seem to resist the playfulness of the undulating valley, perfectly spaced trees, and buttery snow they protect. We all agree — this is the enchanted forest.

We’re not the first to be bewitched by Goderdzi’s winter magic. Before the first snow dusts the valley, most locals pack up and head to milder locations. Others, like Emzar, would equip themselves with preserves and remain here for the winter. When supplies ran out, Emzar would don his skis and trek over the ridge for a resupply.

These days, few if any stay behind in the huts, and skis are less a means of transport than a form of recreation. Omar Iakobadze, a manager of his family’s Hotel David, praises the ski resort for attracting multiculturalism and higher incomes.

But the resort’s development was not without sacrifice. Emzar has yet to share Omar’s good fortune. Emzar was one of many whose land was expropriated by the state to develop the resort. “The government paid me 6 lari for the land. That’s worth 6 kilos of potatoes,” Emzar says. “I dug and sold potatoes to put my children through university. After I sold the land, I lost my independence.”

Summer huts line the slopes east of Goderdzi Pass

Yet it’s not so much bitterness as longing percolating in his voice. Emzar has 100-square metres remaining of his grandfather’s original 33-hectare purchase from the Tsar in 1918. He explains that he wants to run a shop and restaurant, but to do so profitably, he requires government registration that will allow him to set up electric infrastructure. He says his repeated requests have been rejected.

“The resort is developed in a very good way, and I could never achieve something like that alone. I really appreciate how it’s been built,” he explains. “I want to feel like a true citizen of my country, but I don’t because they won’t let me use this land. My ancestors protected this region and our country by blood. I fought in the 9th April War. And now I feel like it’s all been forgotten.”

Visitors crowd around Fast Food, a restaurant at the base of Goderdzi ski resort
Visitors crowd around Fast Food, a restaurant at the base of Goderdzi ski resort
Weekend visitors enjoy drinks and a picnic at the base of Goderdzi ski resort
Weekend visitors enjoy drinks and a picnic at the base of Goderdzi ski resort

Back in town and famished after our day on the mountain, we visit Fast Food, or “the Space Ship” as we come to call it, owing to its blindingly shiny interior decor. We gorge on regional specialties like sinori, fried lavash twirled and smothered in rich cottage cheese. I’m told that Lia, the cook, once owned land on the resort as well. She churns out the classics — soupy meat dumplings called khinkali, along with khachapuri Adjaruli, the region’s characteristic “bread boat” filled with cheese, butter, and egg. Business appears to be doing well.

The restaurant booms as the speaker blasts Georgian folk-pop and other guests join us for a toast. In turn, we toast to the cooks, some of whom come for a drink before returning back to work. “You get more genuine reactions in Goderdzi,” says Tornike, the ski guide, comparing the experience to that of the larger resorts. “These are the people who have spent summers with the cows in their childhood, and now they are the business owners at the resort. You feel like you’re going to their house as a guest, not as a client.”

Lia assembles khinkali (meat dumplings) inside Fast Food restaurant
Lia assembles khinkali (meat dumplings) inside Fast Food restaurant
Khachapuri Adjaruli, the region’s characteristic “bread boat” filled with cheese
Khachapuri Adjaruli, the region’s characteristic “bread boat” filled with cheese

While repeated efforts to pave the road and expand accommodation have stalled, the government’s aspirations are clear — build big. “I think the plans to build large hotels show that the government got the wrong idea about the resort,” says Tornike. “Goderdzi is not about the kilometres people get to ski. People come for the vibes. They come to experience the local people and the views of the wooden cabins.”

With ski resorts closed for almost a year due to the pandemic, the Georgian ski industry has come to a halt. But within this lull may lie an opportunity to reconsider Goderdzi’s development course. With a recalibration of priorities, perhaps there is a chance to preserve Goderdzi’s intimate, small-town atmosphere, while offering locals like Emzar an opportunity to participate in the transformation of their homeland.

By summer, the promise of a new growing season breathes life into Goderdzi’s skeletal huts. The muezzin’s call to prayer ricochets across the hills, rousing farmers to work. Cows return to graze the hillsides, producing milk for clotted cream and salted butter that locals share during the end-of-season celebration. Tourists pay a visit to neighbouring Beshumi Resort, where they hope to be healed by mineral springs. “This is the land of my ancestors,” says Emzar. “My grandmother lived to be 105 years old, and my grandfather lived to be 96. My father is 83, and he wants to marry. This is Goderzi. This is health.”

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