We flew into Istanbul from all over the world; a mess of late flights, missed connections, and an email chain with everyone’s travel details that I refused to read. You arrive when you arrive. In fact, I hadn’t read many of the trip planning emails. I’d bought a ticket from Munich to Istanbul to the Eastern municipality of Erzurum and was hoping the rest would organize itself.
My flight lands in Erzurum at 1:00 a.m. I remember part of the name of our accommodation and that it looks a little like the Grand Budapest Hotel. I walk into a cold, snowy wind just outside the airport and a taxi driver already has my luggage and is running with it to his cab. I can’t tell if he’s cold or impatient, but there’s no time for concerns of being a single female jumping in a late-night solo cab in a foreign country because we’re already driving; the taxi driver speeding up to keep momentum as we crush through snow drifts that have started to cover the lit thoroughfare. We zoom through Erzurum, a university town where primitive stone tools of the Paleolithic era have been found, and start climbing towards the mountains. I doubt the two-wheel drive sedan, but the taxi man’s heavy foot keeps us going. It’s always refreshing to interact with people who won’t take “no” for an answer, even if it means you’re part of their late-night, snowy-road speed rally. Bravery is usually contagious and I welcome this guy’s balls-to-the-wall, can-do attitude. I see the Turkish version of the Grand Budapest and start to get sleepy. Tomorrow I’ll meet the seven strangers that will be my trip mates and we’ll go skiing in Turkey.
Before arriving there had been some hesitation. Longtime friend and ski photographer, Re Wikstrom, and I had decided to go on the trip and then cancel multiple times as news from nearby Syria escalated. Additionally, the U.S Embassy warned of the “possibility of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests, from both transnational and indigenous groups.” How does one assess risk from afar and with information from multiple sources that haven’t been deemed completely objective? Re reached out to a few contacts that had been living in Turkey over the years to try and grasp a more honest view of the situation, but even from personal accounts, experiences and memories varied. Travel risk assessment is just as ambiguous as making decisions in the mountains. Your tolerance of the danger is only relative to what you think you’re receiving from the gamble. Each person reads a different hazard. And reward. In Turkey, I had no idea what to expect.
Breakfast is olives, rosehip and apricot marmalade, honeycomb, Nescafe, and meeting Babak, an Iranian mountain bike and climbing guide joining us. Babak has taken an 18-hour bus from Tehran to meet us in Erzurum. He doesn’t ski much, but Erzurum was close enough to his hometown of Tehran to sample the Turkish mountain delights. He is a smile. If you boiled him down, took away his name and words, he’d be an incredible set of teeth and lips that are warm and embracing.
Slowly, the rest of the jet-lagged group trickles in from Milan, Seattle, and Pittsburg joining us for the raw honeycomb and goat cheese spread. They are all just ordinary people, but it is always so easy to underestimate the effect complete strangers will have on you when you first meet. This conglomeration of backgrounds, hometowns, and names is no different.
The Palandöken Ski Area near Ezurum has two lifts and one tram not in operation. As we approach the first lift, we catch glimpses of Turkish flags whipping in the freakishly strong wind and hear what sounds like club music blaring from huge speakers sitting in the snow. One side of the mountains boasts dirt and rock, while the north faces fight to preserve some snow in a battle against the wind. The skiing looks mildly interesting, but a Turkish coffee sounds better. Still, for an $18 lift ticket we venture onto the seemingly flat groomers amidst hundreds of beginners sending themselves down the mountain. Many Turkish people may forego formal instruction in skiing, but they make-up for that in spirit. I watch many shaky legs wildly steering the planks below them, hands in the air, smiles on their faces. I am almost positive that we saw people tear their knees up that day, but pain can easily be hidden behind the endorphins of a new experience. I know the feeling. No amount of biting wind or agonizingly flat groomers can kill this moment. We are skiing in Turkey.
We carve around until one of the two chairlifts is shut down for avalanche danger. I don’t really care about the reasons why (and I am pretty sure there isn’t enough snow on the nearby hillsides to avalanche), there’s already a gravitational pull towards the hut playing dance music that a handful of teenagers moves to. I love skiing, but dancing in a foreign country is something special. Moving to strange music in a faraway location is just so glamorous and it keeps you honest. There’s nothing like seeing how un-groovy someone might be but through an impromptu 3 o’clock hoedown in a foreign land. Plus, we have a four-hour drive to the mountain hut we’ll be staying in for the next week, so it’s best to move erratically while we can.
A shuttle bus picks us up at Palandöken as the sun falls and we cruise into Erzurum. Babak insists on grabbing bread, so the shuttle driver stops in the middle of the road and lets him out. Cars honking, traffic stopping, Babak runs inside holding up different loaves in the bakery window for us to inspect from the shuttle. This feels a lot like causing a scene in a place where we don’t necessarily want to be noticed. Re and I had decided to come on the trip because we deemed it worthy of any risk, but I still cover my blonde hair and walk small, trying to fade into the setting of Turkey. Babak and his bread exhibition is exactly the opposite. The cars are still honking and Babak is just still smiling, waiting for us all to give a simultaneous thumbs-up on the bread selection; every person walking by stares at us in the shuttle. Finally, he returns with the twins, two loaves stuck together, that he feels were given approval. All of us from the car had just seen identical loaves flying. Regardless, we have bread and Babak back in the vehicle. The driver continues East.
I wake up to my head bumping against the glass. Our shuttle driver is passing a semi truck on a two-lane road into the mountains. Then a truck with a canvas cover passes us. We wait and then swerve around the small Renault that is likely traveling its last kilometers, puttering along in an attempt to keep moving. This continues for the next two hours and had likely been going on for the two hours I was sleeping. Passing, getting passed, making moves. There’s no cruising in Turkey.
Of the two weeks I spend in the country, I learn exactly this: there is no cruising in Turkey. The culture is lively, interactive, and communicative. If there’s a truck blocking the alley, you don’t wait and see if it’s going to move. You approach, hands flying wildly, yelling or what seems like yelling, in Turkish. The truck moves. Life goes on. In Turkey, you bargain over tea, you share moments in a cigarette break, and clap loudly encouraging others to dance the Kolbasti. It is how I imagine the Grand Bazaar of the Ottoman Empire; vendors calling out to passerby, deals being made, and interaction constantly happening, which is only slowed by sharing cups of çay (Turkish tea) or the calming effect of Shisha.
At some point in our four-hour adventure race, the road gets snowy and the shuttle tires spin determinedly on the slippery surface. We stop and wait in the dark for Ismail, the owner of Kaçkar Pension in Olgunlar—our home for the next week of ski touring. He arrives in a shiny, new Nissan truck with a camper shell that doesn’t look like it lives in Turkey. Half of us load our gear into the truck, including all three women on the trip, and jump in for the remainder of the drive up to our lodging. The road climbs and switchbacks past small houses pieced together with many different types of building material and mosques with minarets illuminated, pointing into the night sky. I feel far away from home.
Olgunlar is a small village decorated with about twenty structures. One of them is the Kaçkar Pension, a mountain hostel run by Ismail and his family. The others, small homes decorated with Turkish flags and shades drawn. In the days to come, we see faces curiously peering from the windows of these abodes, wondering whom the new tourists are skinning through their village. Olgunlar seems to be guarded by two large German Shepherds wandering the tiny enclave, sniffing out the foreigners. Andy, a software engineer living in Seattle and working for Facebook, is the first person in our group to come across one of the dogs. He has his biggest scare of the trip, only to find out that the beastly Alpha-male of a dog is as gentle as a kitten. So often, things aren’t what they seem.
Secluded in our little Olgunlar hovel, Turkey is not what it once seemed. The sons of Ismail are young, educated, and interested in the people who come to visit their hometown, including American female skiers. They pray when it is customary (including the pre-dawn fajr prayer before preparing breakfast for the guests), teach me about Ramadan, a few necessary Turkish words, and how to dance the Kolbasti, but also respect with interest and curiosity, the customs of their verbose and excited American guests. The exchange between us and them (if really any kind of divide actually exists) solidifies the trip. Discovering these people and learning about their life, which is so drastically different than my powder-hunting path, is the whole point. No amount of skiing can trump this discovery. I literally let my hair down. The people of Olgunlar allow me to be me and I respectfully indulge in them being them.
The mountains surrounding the small village are big and beautiful, the kind you search the world to ski. From far away, atop mountain ridges deep in the valley we can hear the prayers sung from the speakers of the local mosque, a reminder that we are in a foreign land with unfamiliar mountains and no amount of ego or bravery insulates you from their danger. On our first day skinning we remotely trigger a deep slab avalanche. In the days to come we tip toe around enjoying the mountains, but mostly looking, causing the snow to careen down in slabs, both skiing and walking. The culture has opened its door to us, but the thing we are most familiar with, the mountains, are making us trespass with trepidation.
Our days are spent walking valleys and skiing ridges. Some days we just venture up to the small hillside behind our hostel, taking a few laps on what we’ve coined the local ski hill. At the top of the pitch we dedicate a large, flat spot as the picnic zone, where over the days we eat figs, have handstand exposés, wrestling matches, and one ridiculously funny meltdown, freak-out between me and Kevin from Pittsburg, when we realize the conditions aren’t going to allow us to ski everything (anything) we want. We both lose it in the way that our laughter about the small things comes with tears in our eyes that stain our cheeks with the shame of traveling across the world to shred skin tracks. Sanity slips away as we realize we can’t plan big ski objectives and will instead need to feel satisfied with skinning through the valleys and then skiing back down our flat, sun-crusted walkways.
At night I learn how to dance the Kolbasti with a group of art students preparing for an upcoming festival in Olgunlar. During the day while we “ski” they sculpt bears, bulls, and other creatures out of the snow and watch Ismail’s sons try to ski with gear they’ve collected from the 80’s. One night they ask to learn some American dance moves. I teach them how to do the sprinkler and the shopping cart to Rick James’ “Super Freak” mostly because I don’t know any country and don’t know how to line dance. I know they were expecting something that involved a cowboy hat. Still, I think my blowout shindig made them smile.
We set off a final avalanche on our last day skiing from Olgunlar. It is large enough and close enough to one of the folks in our group that I start welcoming my upcoming week in Istanbul. We had floated on through the mountains for many days and it had come to the point where it was obvious they were asking us to stop. Time to move on. I despise forcing ski objectives in a range and snowpack that doesn’t want to be skied. Things always change. Maybe next year.
I begin my week in Istanbul with plans to ski Mt. Damavand in Iran with Babak and a trek in Mongolia with Greg, the organizer of this trip. One mountain adventure always leads to another. Strangers become friends and a place that once seemed unsafe becomes home, one funky dance move and Turkish tea at a time. It is always at the end of a trip like this that I question why there had been questions in the first place. To think of missing out on these moments because of reports from the news or one country’s government warning of another country’s dangers is the greatest risk. So often, things aren’t what they seem.