Caucasus Skiers Find High Slopes at Low Cost

If skiing in the Alps holds no excitement, no promise of adventure, give a thought to Kabardino-Balkaria, a tiny republic not far from Chechnya, which boasts some of the finest slopes in the former Soviet Union.

After a deadly bomb ripped through a market in Vladikavkaz in nearby North Ossetia last month, spending a vacation anywhere in the Caucasus might not seem like the best idea.

But despite the unsettling proximity to such restive places, the ski resorts around Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak, have remained peaceful.

Although the number of tourists dropped off during the fighting in Chechnya in recent years, business picked back up this ski season. After Russia's economic blowout last summer, the Caucasus resorts are enjoying a revival as a lower-cost alternative to the Alps.

Compared to the Alps, the Caucasus is practically free. A lift ticket costs from 3 rubles for one trip partway up the slope on a T-bar to 90 rubles for a day pass that will take you all the way up the mountain as many times as you want.

Ski rentals are 50 rubles a day, and instructors rarely charge more than 150 rubles a day. Rooms at Cheget, Itkol and Terskol, the three hotels at the bottom of Mounts Elbrus and Cheget, are reasonably priced at 250 rubles (about $10) a night, breakfast included.

What you get is perhaps not the best accommodation, but gorgeous nature, well-maintained runs for all levels and a skiing season that never ends. While the flow of mainstream tourists starts to dry up by May, hard-core skiers enjoy their extreme sport up on the glaciers all year around.

We flew to Mineralniye Vody, or Minvody, a town in southern Russia in the heart of a region rich in medicinal springs and with a constellation of spas that have been popular since tsarist times. The ski resorts are a three-hour drive away, and at the airport our group of eight hired a driver with a minivan for 800 rubles.

We arrived at Mount Elbrus in the early evening and settled into the Itkol hotel. Although the hotel was built in the 1970s, it didn't seem terribly Soviet because of an upbeat crowd of tourists from Moscow and St. Petersburg, most of them equipped with colorful, professional ski gear.

The next morning, we rented skis and hopped on a bus that takes tourists to the lifts. Having heard of - and been intimidated by - the steepness and complexity of Mount Cheget runs, so attractive to experienced skiers, we decided to start off with Mount Elbrus.

Although Elbrus is taller - the highest peak reaches 5,642 meters - it sprawls out over an enormous territory and its slopes are relatively gentle.

At the base of the lifts we found a local instructor named Yusuf, who used vivid descriptions to explain skiing techniques over and over again until we finally caught on.

Being with Yusuf, a Balkar and a Moslem, I realized how important it is for visitors to respect the local code of behavior. For instance, he couldn't bear the sight of a couple kissing in public - "what if my sister or wife see them!" - or to hear any cursing in Russian, which he took literally.

After a few days of skiing, I had to stop because of a horrendous blister from a hard ski boot. Although discouraging at first, it actually opened up an opportunity to explore the region, which was great fun.

I spent a day sitting at 3,700 meters on Mount Elbrus, looking down at an endless rolling sea of frozen rocks, imagining myself an eagle and reading Mikhail Lermontov's poetry about the breathtaking beauty of the Caucasus. From where I was, the last stop of the cable lift, audacious skiers take a special all-terrain vehicle to the glaciers at 4,200 meters.

The next day, I teamed up with a friend to go up Mount Cheget. The lift cuts through a thick pine forest and then goes on to fly high above a steep, bare slope. At the round pavilion of the Ay cafe near the top, we got a bottle of Riesling wine and a pile of khychin - delicious, hot potato pancakes with a white garlic sauce - and had a great time relaxing and sunbathing.

We later returned to the bottom to visit the local hot spot, a marketplace where Balkar women sell their homemade wares. Warm sweaters, wild and wooly Circassian hats and dzhuraby, thick wool socks covered in colorful patterns, are piled on stands next to jars of honey, jam and pickled vegetables.

Smoke from the shashlyk parlors teased our appetites and we headed for National Cuisine, the most popular eatery, which offers delicious chanakhi, a lamb and bean soup. Sitting by the fireplace, we gorged ourselves on khychin, a variety of spicy appetizers, sturgeon shashlyk, dumplings and wine for about 60 rubles a person.

How to Get There

Vnukova Airlines and Kavminvody airline fly to Minvody from Vnukovo Airport for 900 rubles one way. The flight takes two hours. The flight from Domodedovo is 790 rubles one way, but often arrives late. Hotel reservations can be made through Moscow tourist agencies.