:: t+15d // Elbrus


Elbrus! The highest summit of Europe, as some say. 5652m – an enormous volcano with a twin peak. An amazing mountain. And likewise amazing its skiing areas is: a fascinatingly monumental russian cable car from sowjet times leads up as far as 3450m. Subsequently, further lifts go up almost as far as 4000m, all this in a unique breath-taking scenery.

However, we are unlucky again: a sever snowstorm is shaking the concrete of the old sowjet buildings, still, the cable-car is withstanding up, taking skiers up to the second station at 3450m. The wind is brutal, and the snow is piercing the face. It is an adventure, not more and not less. Of the unique potential of this mountain we will see only a tiny bit, but it remains an unforgettable day anyway.

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The cable-has the particularity of not being level with the platforms – which are icy and in combination with the swinging gondola tricky beasts.

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The visibilty mostly is very poor – and the storm breathtaking. We do a few runs until the early afternoon – and finally find ourselves defeated by the mountain – for this time.

While silently driving down the valley again, we will need to take a decision. The weather keeps being pretty unstable over the next days, and in worst case we are probably going to see as much snow and rain as we had seen over the last week. Moreover, the strong winds have shifted a lot of the recently fallen snow which makes the snow conditions (and the avalanche conditions) difficult. It seems, it is time to leave the Caucasus for this time. As impresseive as these mountains are: spring is probably the preferable time for skiing.

This leaves us with two options: the sourther itinerary to Georgia, Turkey and the Balkans. And the norther itinerary to Scandinavia. The southern road involves risks of more bad roads, political insurgency in Turkey after the latest attacks in Istanbul and instable weather conditions and suboptimal snow-conditions. The northern itinerary invovles thousands kilometers of drive, possibly very low temperatures and hence several unknowns. Not an easy decision.

We decide to take the night to check latest reports on the web, and think about it calmly. And hence we approaching one last time our beloved Grand Hotel Kavkas in Naltschik. A beautiful night-time walk through a parc and a nice dinner (though involving screening an Amercian comedy ressembking Eddi Murphy’s style and synchronised in Russian, which feels somewhat weird 😉 ). Let’s see what the next day is going to bring.


::: t+14d // Dombai


Finally the new day dawns fair. The deep hanging, depressingly grey clouds of the previous day have vanished and reveal high-alpine mountain scenery surrounding this narrow end of the valley, in which lies Dombai – one of the classic ski resorts of the Caucasus.

One of the more peculiar things about skiing in Russia (and some of the other states formlery part of the Sowjet Union) is that it is not too extraordinary that one and the same mountain has been developped by several independent lift companies over the years. In Domabi, e.g,, there are three of them. That means that you can choose between three independent chains of lifts to get to one and the same summit, each of which requires an independet skipass (=payment). They all serve (more or less) the same slopes. Sometimes, giving some Rubel to the lift’s operator helps, if you want to use one of the other lifts once (in Dombai we did this once on the highest lift, which is relatively new and not part of the company at which we had bought).

We choose a classic line: the chain of four chairlifts dating back a couple of decades, which will lift you to the top at over 3000m altitude in no less than 54 min (sic!). Lots of time to enjoy the vintage lifts and the great panorama. Tickets are sold in a little office with a desk in the valley.

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The first leg: a vintage single-seater charilift, which has the peculiar particularity to pass “under” the tree (instead of between or above).

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The stream of bad weather is casting first sign upon the sky, though…

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Fallen poser… 😉

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Dombai, too, is a very “lively” skiing area: seemingly hundreds of little stands will try to sell your seemingly anything you may or may not need. This is where I finally understood, what a “ski-basar” really is. 🙂

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The weather gets worse and worse in the afternoon, the air temperatures drops significantly and a chill wind keeps whiffing over the exposed mountain flanks. In the late afternoon we are skiing down back into the valley, stow our skis and start to drive down the valley.

While Dombai and the Elbrus, where we are heading next, are spaced less than 50km as the crow flies, the road takes a long detour, which makes a 5.5 hour drive. We following the road back out of the valley as far as Karachaevsk. From their a small mountain roads heads eastwards.

The Caucasus always gives a somewhat remote, not to say “wild” feeling when driving its roads, especially its side roads. This one passes a few isolated houses still in the beginning, but soon these will disappear, leading for kilometers through a dark wild countryside, and no lights and domiciles come into view for what seems ages. Kilometers and kilometers the narrow road whinds up into the mountains in several bends, the tarmac starts to freeze and is finally nothing but a thick layer of ice on the windy pass around 2000m of altitude. A treacherrous drive, less because of the ice itself (with some experience and the help of the studded tyres this can be handled), but more because the icy surface is highly uneven, full of deep holes and severe threats to the car’s suspension.

Finally, an hour or so later, the lights of Essentukskaya ( – please learn all the villages’ named in the blog entry by heart until next Tuesday 😉 – ). We run into another police check-point- there must have been more than 25 over the last few days. This one is a slightly smaller road, and the control runs less professional than the previous ones. After the usual russian words requesting several documents, the police officer suddenly requests a translation. I find this highly unusual. None of the previous ones ever even asked for a translation (the symbols on the driving license are pretty self-explaining anyway). So I keep insisting that I would not have a translation, but that the symbols should do. The police officer requests me to come into the post. A gloomy gangway into a backyards, dogs running around me, then I find myself back in a somewhat shabby room, face to face with two police officers. I am pretty sure I know what they are after: money. So, this is going to be a game of patience. We are playing the game for some 15 minutes, until I receive my documents back and leave the check-point: without paying them any bribe.

We continue on our road, the traffic around Pyatigorsk at night is even worse than in the dayilight, and it costs lots of concentration to prevent accidents (including those which would not be your fault, but still in fact a desaster for us). It is late in the evening when we turn into the valley to Terskol. Tomorrow we are expecting another fair day at Elbrus by the forecast, but the signs in the sky clearly indicated the opposite today. And really, a strong chill winds is blowing down that valley and it begins to snow again.

We run into another checkpoint, and again I am being asked to come into the station – allegedly because I did not stop at the stop sign (which is halfly true: you usually slow down and then slowly pass-by to allow the police officers to stop you if they want, but nobody stops to a full halt in order not to slow down the traffic).

The storm is rattling the small container and inside the chief-officer is a bald and suqare guy, with a head as large as a mellon. He starts talking, mostly in Russian with a few English words in between. Then he looks into my documents, before he suddenly turns direcly at me and shouts (in German): “(C)Hände (C)hoch!!” (- Hands Up!! ), forming a gun with his hands and pointing it at me. I keep still and look into his eyes – I remember this kind of games from my Russian colleagues in the army, ages ago. And, as expected, he starts laughing in a deep voice : KHAKHAKHAKHA. I join the laughter in the same way. He pats my shoulder, the affair is sort of settled. I receive back my documents, and we drive on. Somewhen after midnight we find our small hotel in the forlorn corner of the valley, snow swirling heavily in the wind. A thin young girl, with a face the eyes of which appear to have seen decades of life and marked by lines, receives as silently. I wonder whether I find her beautiful, or haunting… I suppose both…



::: t+13d // Arkhyz


We hit the road early this morning, way before dawn. Another gloomy day dominated by the thick dark clouds being pressed into Caucasus from the Black Sea by a another depression.

We are using the day to move back to Dombai, which is a day’s journey back to the East in the heart of Caucasus – one of its famous and classic skiing areas. As the forecasts predicts good weather only for the next day, we intend to use the day mainly for driving, another car repair and short visit to the skiing area of Arkhyz, which however is not very promising (but for lacks of alternatives…).


We find a Shinimontaz, one of the uncountable tyre mounting services. The wheels are still shaky at higher speeds, and when the wheels are taken down a severely deformed rim turns out to be the reason. I look at the mechanics and say “Disk kaputt” in (very) rudimentary Russian. The start to laugh: “Nie kaputt!” (or so). Some minutes laterthe rim is being pressed into form again, and re-balanced. The wheel is spinning on another machine: the value are optimal.

Though this was great repair work (4th time we needed to go to a car service on this trip by the way), the car is still not running entirely smooth… we will need to see another repair service one of these days. Arkhyz turns out to be even worse than we thought, although it may have some potential with future extentions. But today this is not yet the case, and the bulldozed slopes and careless infrastructure leave a strange feeling… like a failed attempt to vitalise a somewhat hopeless valley.

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We are finally heading down the valley, and night is falling. There is nothing much to say about this day, so I am keeping it short. Late in the evening we are arriving at Dombay, a highlight of Caucasus and with a good forecast for tomorrow. I am having a mutton soup and mutton schaschlik for dinner – suprise!

::: t+12d // Rosa Khutor


The day is dawning fair for the first time in days. The mountains are clad in thick, bright white snow, just like glued in ice.  This is promising to be the best skiing day so far.

Rosa Khutor, alike all four skiing areas close to Krasna Polyana (Sotchi) is an industrialised skiing area, lacking the high, prominent and distinct mountains which have made the central part of Caucasus famous. Still, the amazing snow conditions guarantee for a greet day in deep powder – though an avalanche risk of 4 out of 5 means keeping prudence – absolute prudence.

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Gentle runs in the woods at the lower part of the skiing area.

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Signs of the snow storm of the last days…

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Schaschlik Surprise… 😉


White Lines…


The parking has a very interesting payment system: the ticketingmachines are directly at the cars’ exit, at the gates. Almost not space to leave the car, and a traffic jams are the result. As if that was not enought, the ramp also serves a one of the main entrance for pedestrians – meaning returning skiers carrying their skis through the narrow gap between the cars and the ticketing machine… fun guaranteed! 🙂


We keep following the narrow and curvy coast highway along the Black Sea coast up north for while, until we reach Tuapse, where we are going to spend the night, to continue our drive early next morning.

::: t+11d // Gornaya Karusel

The following day is not much less gloomy than the one before, but we can’t stand another day hanging around, so we decide to go skiing on the two open slopes of Gornaya Karusel.

All in all the valley has badly suffered from the Olympic Games. Large, anonymous infrastructures: railways, highways, faceless apartment buildings… the ultimate non-lieu. From a large underground garage a few stairs lead up to the cable car. To enter the station going through a security check just like on an aiport is required. In the gondola, I open my backpack to change gloves and get ready for skiing.


A railway crossing on a free-way: somewhat unusual, at least to us.

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The first gondola leads to the upper ski resort, despite of the bad weather many people are outside, children and grand parents, a merry life, lots of music, food stands, all sorts of winter sports.

Otherwise, the skiing area has witness enourmous bulldozing of the slopes, which does not make ski runs more intersting and environmentally is a nightmare. Still, the snow is great especially on the closed runs.

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After the first run, I want to take my wallet from the backpack – but the back pack is gone! I must have forgotten it in the gondola! This is a nightmare, because several important documents are in that wallet (plus some money, but this in worst case can be replaced more easily than e.g. the car’s documents which we will need at the manifold police checkpoints and also at the customs when we will leave the country). I am getting desperate…

At the gondola station we are approaching one of the operators. He is, again, extremely helpful. He allows me to use his smart phone to translate from English into Russian what the issue is. It takes two phone calls and less than five minutes until the backpack is found. I am being offered a cigarette (which I gladly accept), and he phones somebody else who speaks English to allow for a bit of conversation. We have a very friendly talk, while the backpack is being sent by cable car and ten minutes later I have it back with all my documents. That was an amazing experience.

We spend the rest of the day doing some skiing on the ungroomed slopes in the fresh snow, before we return downwards, this time to a hotel is Krasna Polyana, the main ski village, to go to Rosa Lhutor tomorrow.

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::: t+10d // Sotchi

The sound of the rolling waves comes in through the open window. Dark clouds are hanging low, and rain keeps falling. We have checked into a hotel directly at the coast at Adler, south of Sotchi and near the border to Abchasia, the republic of Georgia that declared (a widely unrecognized) indepency in the early 1990s.

The skiing areas are mostly closed due to the heavy snowfalls. Visibility is zero up there and avalanche risk very high. Since yesterday, the wheels of the car have begun to run very unevenly, which concerns us – a tribute to the way less good roads that we have found in Caucasus. Hence we decide to have them checked in Sochi, and to visit the cable-car, which leads up the botanical garden, ending on a large concrete tower and showing clear marks of an in interesting sowjet architectionical style.


Black Sea Cost.



Departure Terminal of the cable-bar – I adore the architecture.


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The arrival terminal in form of high concrete tower, resembling those of coal mines in its shape.


Suspension bridge within the botanical garden.

Later that day we find a smal repair service to balance out the rims. It turns out the one is damages, but still works. With a certain effort the service people manage to stabilize the wheel a bit, but I still have a feeling that we will need to do something about it.

When that is fixed, we are driving south to have a look at the Olympic Parc, which however turns out to be a mostly boring assembly of meaningless pseudo-modern buildings – at least what we see of it, that is.

Before the night we wander the small alleys at the seaside next to our hotel and will have a VERY large mutton shashlik for dinner. Actually, mutton is pretty common in the Caucasus, and I am going to have it on several additional occasions over the following days. Not only do I tend to like the tast – it is also one of the very few things I can order in Russian.


Olympic Parc.

::: t+09d // Pyatigorsk

The weather is still not on our side. Since several days a depression over the Black Sea is pumping wet air into the mountains, which hide in cloulds and snow. We have decided to move on to Sotchi, as the next couple of days will continue to be dominated by bad weather. Sotchi firstly offers some bad weather alternatives, secondly the skiing ares of Krasna Poliana are more suitable for bad weather (both due their infrastructure and due to the fact that they are less interesting than, say, Elbrus or Dombai)). Thirdly, depressions moving eastwards, the western-most skiing areas – which are these around Sotchi – will be the fist to see the sun.

Before we start a long rainy ride to the black sea cost, where we are going to arrive around midnight, we take the cable-car of Pyatigorsk, which is a nice historic monument. Albeit we are not going to see the amazing Caucasus, including the over 5000m high Elbrus, but only venture in an icy storm up there, this is still a nice littel adventure.

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::: t+08d // Tsey, North-Ossetia


Snow covers the small parc in which the Grand Hotel Kavkas is located. While the mountains keep hiding in wild clouds, a winter morning dawns peacefully over the city of Naltschik. A city, the center of which is dominated by monumental buildings of a more classical architecture, parcs and lakes – a place of peace and rest for the venturing traveller.

That peace, however, is marking the surface, but the undercurls are more powerful than meets the eye of the casual traveller. North Caucasus has been a source of insurgency for almost three decades now. The reasons and relations are fairly complex, and the ethnical structure likewise. The Caucasus (both the Noth and the South) bear strong ressemblances to the Balkans, but holding even stronger ethnical diversifications.

There are six relatively autonomous republics in the Russian part. From East to West: Karachai-Cherkessia, Karbadino Balkaria, North-Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The peoples of the these republics speak at least one completely distinct language each (e.g. Ossetian), which do not have slawic roots (rather Persian roots, instead, if my memory is good). On the South-side of Caucasus South-Ossetia has declared itself independent from Georgia; another more or less independent republic therefore.  Apart from Russian-Orthodox Christs, all these republics have strong (if not predominant) muslim communities.

Regional Polictal Map of the North Caucasus

While I am still simplyfing a lot, all of these factors have contributed to the insurgencies of the last decades. The most prominent source certainly was the conflict in Chechnya, with the two Chechnyan wars in the 19990s and its capital Grozny being declared by the United Nations “the most destroyed city in the world” in 2002. From the late 1990s onwards the conflict swapped into Dagestan, which is the largest and ethnically most complex of the republics and which is seeing shootings on an almost daily basis to this day. In the 2000s and until this Ingushetia, a small republic to the west of Chechnya has been considered the most important stronghold of the separatists. Ingushetia has been at war additionally with its western neighbour North-Ossetia. The  western three republic seem slightly more peaceful, but have seen several attacks, too, in the last years. The Elbrus cable-car was blown up, the cities of Pyatigorsk and Naltschik have seen several attacks and thousands of police officers and security personel have been killed. One of the saddest, and most prominent  attacks was the attack on the school of Beslan, North Ossetia, which cost almost 400 lives.

Still, thie morning Naltschik lies peacefully in the morning sun, while we are driving eastwards towards North-Ossetia, where we are going to visit the skiing area of Tsey. The only skiing are of North Ossetia is located in a high canyon dominated by a large glacier.

We are passing several security posts, documents are being scanned and checked, interrogations, but all is done very professionally and friendly. Still, moving to the East means approaching the more instable zones of the regions, and the commander of the security forces is actually asking us: “But are you aware that there are also skiing areas more the west?”.


North-Ossetia alsmost seems abandoned, wide and beautiful lands and the ever dominant mountain range. We bypassing Beslan with its sad story, but also the roadsigns “Grozny 120km” are somewhat intriguing. By narrow roads we are approaching the Tsey canyon.DSC08409



The last meters we are following steep, icy roads: Studded tyres are helpful here.


A few Guys from Vladikawkas (North-Ossetia) are preparing a fire next to our car. Later they will invite me for a barbecue, although we almost cannot communicate.


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Historicy artileery, possibly WWII.

The snow certainly is not ideal, but the location is stunning – and possibly the only skiing are in Cauasus not subject to heavy snowfalls today. In the eve we drive back westwards, bypassing Naltschik and heading for Piatygorsk, where we intend to spend the night.

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The cable car of Pyatigorsk, illuminated at night.

::: t+07d // Cheget


The Elbrus. Highest of all peaks in Europe some may say. And home to two of the most amazing skiing areas of this continent: Elbrus skiing area itself, and Cheget. All of this in a stunning scenery of summits beyond 5000m of altitude.

Today, however, nothing much of that scenery wil be visible: clouds are hanging low and it’s snowing. Nevertheless we have decided we would – finally – like to ski a bit, and so we’re on our way to Cheget. Cheget is beautiful skiing area full of fascinating slopes in a stunning environment.  Snow conditions will be feeble, though, and so will be the weather. We had a great day, anyway. So here are some impressions.


Road into the Caucasus Mountains.



Myself in the Cheget Chairlift, section II.

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On Cheget’s ski slopes.

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Sowjet technology, built to survive centuries.


A Russian Val Claret?

::: t+06d // Naltschik


It is shortly after six when we hit the road again. In the center of Saratow the road crosses the railway. The railway gates are down. A lonesome worker clears the rails from the snow with a snow shovel. One minute, two minutes, five minutes, eight minutes… . We are wondering whether he is not afraid of the approaching train, and whether this work is not somewhat a sysyphus work anway. After what seems an eternity, he leaves the train tracks and approaches the little hut next to it. He hits a button – and the gates open. There has never been a train approaching, he simply closed the gates to be able to work without interference from the road traffic!

The highway south of Saratow leads through open lands. Settlements are very sparse, but the road is good and fuel stations are relatively frequent.

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Later, the sun has already risen, from a hilltop we are looking down on what looks like the frozen sea: The Wolga. It is frozen. And it is so vast here, many kilometers wide, that the far shore is out of sight!

In the late morning we arrive at Wolgograd. Given the many miles ahead of us and the limited time, we discard the option of visiting the town and just drive through the peripherie. The road are bad here, and so is the traffic, and all in all we are happy when an hour later we reach the southern outskirts to head for Elista. When a small stone hut with a large old grill and a sign “Шашлык” comes into sight, we can’t stop ourselves from having a short break. Temperatures are still hoovering around -20°C, the old grill smokes and the large skewers full of meat are somehwat inviting –  a very russian barbecue I may say. 🙂



The road crosses wide hills, the sun is setting, Elista lies behind us.

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-22.5 °C.


On icy road the studded tyres keep grip and allow for high speeds and good safety margins,

it is around midnight when we reach Naltschik. The trees are snow-ladden, when pass ancient gates into an old parc, under fresh white thick snow and beautifully illuminated. In the center stands a large old house, a domicile for tonight: The Grand Hotel Kavkas.