He was looking for wild mountains and adventure, and ended up in Georgia. Fascinated by the country’s landscapes and culture, he decided he would go again and stay longer. His story proves that sometimes, taking risks and following your heart are worth the effort. The story of Sebastian Czerniawski was written down by Wojtek Antonów.
I come from Gliwice, a city in southern Poland. I didn’t even notice when my life became focused on snowboarding and mountains. I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the snow. I started organizing trips for my friends and I managed to visit most alpine ski resorts. In Europe, there are many places that are perfect for snowboarding, but I kept looking for more: new slopes and summits to try out. As Vladimir Vysotski used to sing: “Nothing beats the mountains we know, except for the mountains we still don’t know.” I first heard of Georgia when I started looking around for something more exotic than Austria.
Heaven on Earth
According to a local legend, when God was giving land to different nations, Georgians preferred to feast and drink wine. Once everything had been given out, God asked the feasting people: “Why didn’t you ask for your own part?” “We believe in your fairness. Instead of losing time in a queue, we’d rather happily praise your goodness!” answered the Georgians, and God, moved by their attitude, decided to give them the most beautiful part of the world, which he’d initially wanted to keep for himself.
Georgia, a country on the border between Europe and Asia, certainly resembles heaven. It is four times smaller than Poland and geographically diverse: sea and mountains, deserts and icebergs, lush forests and steppes. The climate is dry and warm, and can be compared to weather conditions in Sicily. I was obviously most interested in the Caucasus and the exceptionally abundant snowfalls. The Greater Caucasus and its summits that exceed 3000 metres are the first barrier for the masses of humid air that slide over from the Black Sea. When the vapour meets this barrier, it turns into snow and covers the peaks and the valleys. A snowboarder couldn’t ask for more.
Georgia for skiers
Several years ago, Georgia wasn’t a place you would consider for a skiing or snowboarding trip. The flights were expensive, the skiing infrastructure was underdeveloped, and no-one knew what was actually happening over there. However, in 2010 low-budget airlines expanded their offer to include Georgia and tourism peaked. Legends started circulating about the Caucasus mountain range and the colossal amounts of snow. Actually, the origin of this boom can be traced back to the Soviet era, when a group of Austrians founded modern-day Gudauri by building the first hotel and two ski lifts. In those times, a lot more could be done – and with more gusto, too – so the Austrians used helicopters more often than ski lifts to explore the neighbouring summits. For many years afterwards nothing changed, and only in 2004, after the Rose Revolution, did Saakashvili open the country to tourism. More hotels and lifts were built.
When I came to Gudauri in 2013, my heart skipped a beat. Peaks over 3000-metres high, plenty of snow, unlimited skiing possibilities and the spirit of this as yet unexplored world completely possessed my imagination. I felt that I had to come back for longer.
Organizing snowboarding trips isn’t the best way to earn your bread. To make ends meet, I had to take a job at a travel agency in Kraków. It wasn’t easy and at some point I thought I should move on to something that wasn’t snowboarding. I tried and held out for an entire year. The 60 days a year I usually spent on my board turned into 20, but office work didn’t give me any satisfaction. My thoughts were constantly drawn to the Caucasus.
In the autumn, I decided I would quit my job. I informed my family and friends that I would be staying in Georgia for the winter season. I spent the few bucks I had left on a plane ticket to Tbilisi. Thanks to the friends I’d made during my previous trips, I managed to get a job at a good mountain guide agency in Gudauri.
The first season was tough. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about teamwork and working at high altitudes. What’s more, I became convinced I would push through, and that this was the right place for me. They say that Georgia cannot be put into words – one must take the trip to understand the country.
There is a belief that Georgians “were born tired and must rest.” They never hurry, which is why people accustomed to functioning rapidly, those who want immediate results, won’t feel at home here. On the other hand, the locals are very welcoming and newly-met tourists often end up as guests at boozy dinners. Alcohol is drunk by the gallon, especially the local brandy called chacha. Alcohol is everywhere and alcohol-manufacturing traditions have been perfected over thousands of years. Georgia is famous for its wines, and the above-mentioned chacha, which can contain up to 60% alcohol, becomes a staple for newcomers a few hours after landing.
It is better to communicate in Russian – English is a bit less popular, but it’s always worth a shot. The Georgian language is difficult – it took me a few years to master the alphabet, as well as several basic expressions. Nonetheless, I am getting better at giving toasts – an important aspect of social life.
A Caucasian career
When I came to Gudauri, I wasn’t planning on building a career in this country, nor was I counting on making money. At first I worked for food and a place to sleep, which turned out to be a great way to meet people and discover the mountains. I learned from my friends who were better and more experienced, then went on to become a guide myself. I started taking charge of freeriding groups, which meant off-road skiing on the wild slopes of nearby summits. A guide is responsible for the group’s safety, he chooses the routes, helps determine avalanche risk and remains the soul of the excursion. It’s a job that requires hard, physical work and serious responsibility, but it’s a passion as well, which is why it’s impossible to think of it in terms of salary and profitability. Someone who doesn’t love snowboarding, nature and teamwork would have a hard time feeling at ease in this line of work.
With time, more and more opportunities emerged. I still work as a guide, but I’ve also set up my own company. It specializes in assisting my fellow countrymen at every stage of their trips to Georgia: from finding trusted accommodation to airport transfers and organizing training programmes for mountain expeditions, as well as more serious issues, such as real-estate formalities and investment consultancy.
Adventure is expensive
The mountains are a force of nature that charge the highest rate. Last winter, when snowfalls weren’t even close to previous records, five people died in avalanches. The Caucasus is a high, difficult and, most importantly, wild range of mountains. There is no-one to rely on but yourself. As guides who organize excursions, we try to minimize the danger. However, many of those who come rush out on their own, and sometimes they overestimate their capabilities. When an accident happens, the only thing you can do is call the police, because no such thing as mountain rescue exists in Georgia. Rescue operations are usually carried out by locals, mainly guides. Searching for avalanche victims or those in need of other help happens without governmental support. There are shortages in funds and equipment, and a helicopter can only be obtained from one of the heli-skiing companies. They help whenever they can, but on one occasion, a helicopter that was transporting the wounded didn’t even have enough fuel to get to the hospital.
Nevertheless, the situation is changing, because every year Guduari is visited by French mountain rescue professionals who train all volunteers. This growing group of specialists may become the future of Georgian mountain rescue. I have participated in a few of their operations and once barely escaped an avalanche that ended tragically. The death of a companion buried under snow is the worst thing that happened to me. We finally managed to dig him up, but the injuries he sustained were fatal. He died in hospital a few days later. At first, the accident deprived me of all the enthusiasm I felt towards working in the mountains; I started doubting whether it was worth the risk. With time, however, the negative thoughts disappeared and all I remember is the goodness – how much the mountains mean to me and what they’ve given me.
They have truly given me everything: love, friends, unforgettable moments, breathtaking views, the ability to overcome fear, and adrenaline. They’ve inspired me and allowed me to enjoy every breath. Mountains are hard to give up, despite the risks. I can only live life to the fullest if I understand how fragile and precious it really is.
As I’ve said, to understand Georgia you have to come to Georgia. The Georgians have their own specific way of being, which may seem unacceptable to Europeans. On the one hand, it must be stressed that the country used to be a Soviet state and the spirit of those times is still present. On the other hand, it’s where Asia begins. But Georgia does have quite a European feel to it, probably because it never became a Muslim country, and Georgians have traditionally been Orthodox Christians.
The country is becoming wealthier and changing before our eyes, mostly because of tourism. What’s more, 90% of profits from the industry are generated by tourists coming in from abroad. The locals have not yet developed a habit of active holidays in their natural surroundings, and the older generations spend their free time smoking, drinking red wine and eating shish kebabs. But change is coming, with more and more young people enjoying sports and tourism.
Although it may seem that the Georgian way of living favours bureaucracy and horrendous chaos, it’s quite the opposite. Administrative issues or permits are processed quickly and efficiently. Almost everything can be handled online, and founding a company barely takes a few minutes. Such productivity contrasts with the panoramic views that have remained unchanged since the 1990s. On the other hand, the capital city of Tbilisi, inhabited by half of Georgia’s 3.5 million citizens, outshines many European metropolises.
All that glitters...
The Caucasus has its flaws, but they aren’t many. Some things are noticeable only after a few years. At first, I was concerned about the nonchalant attitude Georgians exhibit towards their professional duties but, happily enough, this has never applied to the people I’ve worked with. Like everywhere else, the Georgian people are full of all sorts of characters. From time to time, tourists fall prey to crooks and scammers. Paradoxically, Georgian hospitality may sometimes feel pushy, which leads to uncomfortable situations. Women tourists should watch out for the numerous local Don Juans. However, Georgians generally stick to the same manners and social conventions as Poles and other Europeans, so things feel familiar despite cultural differences.
The problems I started to notice after a five-year stay in Georgia mostly concern politics and business. This country resembles Poland in the 1990s [a time of rapid transition to capitalism and the free market, characterized by a ‘Wild West’ atmosphere that created a few economic winners, as well as organized crime – ed. note], but some of our long-established solutions are still being implemented in Georgia. These processes are set against a background of sharp political conflicts, past wrongs that haven’t been settled, and far-reaching plans for the future. Russian and Turkish agents are involved, as well as sleazy businessmen and the mafia, just like it used to be in Poland. If you want to do business in Georgia, it’s better to find a local partner whose contacts help fresh entrepreneurship flourish in a traditional setting.
Profits and losses
I came to Georgia at the right moment. After 2015, low-cost airlines made the Caucasus easily accessible, and tourism started to develop like crazy. Due to the fact that I was starting from scratch when modernization kicked in, I gained invaluable experience and was able to notice and benefit from new opportunities.
When I came to Georgia, there were five ski lifts and a shortage of accommodation. Today, the number of ski lifts has doubled and several guest houses are being built in the area. The annual FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup will take place in Gudauri in 2023. Many investments have been planned in order to turn the region into a true winter sports centre. Fortunately, there are other regions in the Caucasus that will stay out of civilization’s reach for the time being, such as Svaneti and Racha.
2020 is the first year I’ve spent entirely in Georgia. When spring came, I was done with the winter season and set off to explore the country. I was taken aback by the coastal town of Batumi, where bathers can enjoy the sea while admiring the view of snowy mountains. The diversity of local nature never ceases to amaze and inspire me – it’s everything that counts.
Above all, I feel successful as a snowboarder. I live and work in mountains that I consider to be among the best in the world. After years of travelling and exploring the Caucasus range, I have found a home. Finally, I have my own place, and it’s impossible to put a price on this feeling.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura