Dmitry and Olga are experienced skiers who have sampled some of the world’s best resorts. They’ve already been to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. In each resort they’ve been both surprised and disappointed. Here in Qusar, they found themselves surprised by the warm atmosphere and great location. No wonder, just two to three hours from sunny, snowless Baku and you´re in a winter paradise.
The resort has an amazing location. Surrounded by the Greater Caucasus, the Shahdag Mountain Resort commands a stunning panorama, almost 2,500 metres above sea level. Throughout history, this north-east corner of Azerbaijan has been a gateway between Europe and Central Asia. An ancient pulse throbs through an area of untold natural beauty. It’s a magnet for sports enthusiasts and lovers of pristine nature alike. Shahdag’s climate suits year-round sports and leisure, with winter lows of -20°C to pleasant summer evenings of 20°C. Fantastically fresh air and soothing silence are a welcome contrast to the polluted city.
As the president noted in his speech at the opening ceremony, the resort is important for the development of the economy in general and tourism in particular and promotes Azerbaijan to foreign visitors. While a great deal of work has been done since 2009, this is still just a fraction of the whole project. Nevertheless, the resort opened to visitors in December 2012.
Visions of Azerbaijan made the short trip to the Shahdag Mountain Resort to venture out onto the ski slopes.
Winter has been relatively warm this year with little snow, so as we headed for the Caucasus the only snow we saw was on the mountain peaks. Where is Shahdag? we asked ourselves as we drove along the newly constructed highway west from Qusar into the mountains. And at last we saw it, a great panorama of white mountains opened up before us, with the resort nestling in the middle. At first glance, the resort looks big but with unfinished construction work.
Muhandis Giyasov, the Shahdag resort’s senior engineer, met us and showed us facilities still under construction. The winter resort is almost complete. Three cableways lead up from the centre of the resort. The longest is 1,800 m with 101 seats for four people each. The cableway rises to the top of a peak where a glamorous glass restaurant is to be built soon. An artificial lake is also to be constructed, which will operate as an ice rink in winter and picturesque pond in summer. Muhandis Giyasov is enthusiastic about the plans for the resort:
As you can see, a lot of work is waiting to be done. Only 10 per cent has been done so far. When the rest is built, you won’t recognize it here. So many different projects are planned. It will be a great resort soon. In five to six years all the work will be finished.
He told us that the resort has an artificial snow system with snow generators installed on all the slopes. Equipment is provided by reputable companies from Austria, Sweden, Turkey, the USA, and Italy, including Italian company Techno Alpin, which is a world leader in the production of artificial snow.
Skiing on the King of Mountains
We were pleasantly surprised in Shahdag to see how many children could ski and how many families were enjoying their leisure time. We saw for ourselves that skiing is not just a sport, it’s a source of endless laughter. Tiredness melts away as soon as you’re on the slopes and falling over just leads to more laughter.
Snow is like chocolate that reminds you of childhood
Some 3,000 people visit the resort every month, Mr Giyasov said, a mixture of families and young people.
It’s very good to have so many young people here. We calculated that about 50 per cent of our visitors are young people who come here to spend their weekend. Many of them haven’t skied before, so they begin to learn here. We have special trainers from Andorra and Spain who help beginners to make progress. As you can see, different people are here – local people, tourists, expats… they all have a lot of fun.
An expat from Canada, Vugar Ali, is one of the frequent visitors to Shahdag. He has been living in Baku for two years, working for BP. Back home in Canada, Vugar often went skiing. So when he heard that Shahdag had opened, he was very happy. He has been a regular visitor to the site since it opened.
It’s a good place for skiing. I can’t last long without skiing, so I often travel around the world in search of ski resorts. Last year I was in Gudauri, Georgia. I liked it there, but I should say that the best place is here.
Orkhan is also a frequent visitor to Shahdag. He is from Baku where he works as a photographer. He confessed he is a fan of snowboarding, but he discovered Shahdag because of his job. He came to take some photographs and at the same time found the ideal place for snowboarding.
I used to go to Georgia, to Gudauri, because it’s close by and cheap. Now I’m happy to ski here, in my own country. It’s great! Snow leaves lots of impressions. It’s like chocolate that reminds you of childhood.
Lack of music
Dmitry and Olga, the ex-pats from Russia, see great prospects for the Shahdag Mountain Resort. They consider it one of the best resorts in the region, especially with the ambitious construction plans.
Nice weather, good location, perfect conditions, nice service and tasty food – all this is great. The only thing we think it should have is music. It would be cool if there were more cafes and bars with live music, discos and dance floors. You know, after skiing and other outdoor pursuits, people need something invigorating and passionate. Also more accommodation is needed. We couldn’t find any free rooms for next weekend in the hotel here. All of them are full.
As Mr Giyasov told us, two hotels recently opened – they are the four-star Zirve Hotel and Gaya Residences that pride themselves on a relaxed ambience and good service. Another hotel, the Shahdag Hotel & Spa, is to open soon. It will be a five-star complex with luxury its watchword. There is also a plan to build a big campus with accommodation and entertainment for young people.
Golf and cycling coming soon
Skiing is not a cheap activity, so what does it cost in Shahdag Mountain Resort? The resort’s press secretary, Narmina Rustamzade, acknowledges that pricing is an important part of the tourism business.
The management has set us the task of setting prices in such a way that the resort is accessible to people with different incomes, to a wide range of people. And now we can say that the price of our services will generally be lower than in Europe, even though the equipment in the complex was purchased from leading international companies, known for the high quality of their products.
At the time of writing, March 2013, the hire of one set of skis at Shahdag costs AZN 14 (almost $18), while a complete set of skis and special clothing costs around AZN 50-60 ($63 to $77).
A standard single room costs between AZN 80 and 100 ($101 to $128) per night, while a double room costs between AZN 100 and 120 ($128 and $153).
More accommodation is planned for the future, which is likely to increase the range of prices available.
Shahdag Mountain Resort is less than an hour’s journey from Qusar via the new road to Laza. A direct bus service from Qusar to the resort is planned. It takes under three hours to get to Shahdag by car from Baku.