A ski journal from Eastern Anatolia, Turkey
08.56 How many ski bags and skiers can you fit in a Fiat Punto? Not many appears to be the answer, as we survey our lift from Ovit Mountain to Palandoken resort. Mike, resplendent in Welsh rugby jacket – and very much the sensible side of our operation – must sit in the front, as he’s a good deal taller and more muscled than me. I on the other hand have 150 or so minutes to practice being smaller than nature intended. “All right back there?” asks Mike, trying to grab a picture of me through the battlefield of backcountry gear that is the back seat. I reply with my friendliest swear words, volunteering an alternative use for his shovel and probe.
09.45 The bad news (bar my future requirement for an on-call chiropractor) is that we have a near-side puncture. And are on top of a high and exposed pass. The good news is because I’m wearing boat shoes (the international symbol for a moron) no one asks me to help. “Who knew space savers could do 90mph?” says Mike once we get going again, speeding through various tunnels. I wonder if I can put on my helmet, and still appear confident in our driver, as we surge south towards the city of Erzurum and Turkey’s most celebrated ski hill.
11.42 Palandoken stands like a single white pyramid above the medieval city – “lovely fortress,” says Mike. You can see the mountain from miles away, but I’d not describe it as pretty, or scenic. Erzurum, mid-sized (population pushing 400,000), and a bit Sheffield (large university, hills everywhere, gritty in parts but friendly) offers more of the same.
13.22 Erdem is Anatolia’s answer to Crystal, Inghams et al. In short, he is a one man come-skiing in Turkey operation (skiturkish.com). You name it, he can fix it we are assured over the 100 lira (£5) buffet lunch at our hotel, the Palan. I don’t dare tell him, as we look out over the slopes, that what I really want is for him to make some of the bread on my plate disappear. They have, count them, 11 different types, and well, you have to try each one, don’t you? I think I catch Mike raising an eyebrow as my war with wheat rages.
14.16 Skiing may be easier without trying to digest a dozen kilos of unleavened bread. But the slopes are in excellent condition – although without much powder – and running very nicely, thank you. The top of the hill, Büyük Ejder, or Great Dragon, is closed (Erdem will not be pinned on why), but it’s only the final, and short, lift to the 3,180m summit, so it’s no great problem having to make do with everything below the start of the 4b or 1b runs. “Interesting fact,” says Mike, pretending to read the definitely not by James Niehues piste map, “did you know all the runs are named after pencil thicknesses?”. Yes, I reply, I did, with 12b my favourite. Lovely soft lead and also part of the longest piste in Turkey… at a shade (oh, come on!) under 7.5 miles.
15.22 The wonderful winter light in this part of the world reminds me of Morocco. Making the terraced slopes feel more than a little African as we take another very-nearly-top to bottom run. We’ve yet to find anything too challenging in ski terms, but there’s enough, with just over a third of the 28 runs classified black. While if carving and cruising is your thing, there’s little traffic and only a minute or so queueing even for the gondola.
17.30 As darkness falls, just a hardcore couple of dozen skiers remain, lapping the 1,950m ropeway and mid-station chair (you can’t get any higher). It’s peaceful and memorable with the city lights twinkling away 10km below us. Nor is it cold, or windy or too dark (very Japan in that regard). And all for just 140 lira (£7). That’s for all day, at the weekend. With a half-dozen decent lifts. While come during the week and it’s even less; or don’t want night skiing and it’s even less than that lesser amount. Heavens on a high speed, it’s so inexpensive to make you come over all lottery winner and blow your money instead on slope-side overpriced foreign lager at the Başköy village base.
19.08 Which is exactly what we do after, encountering a trio of children conducting ear-torture-by-piano in our hotel lobby. Dear me, I’ve met bin lorries that make less racket… Anyway, Sway hotel (five minutes down the road from us) is just the job. Modern, seemingly childless, and with outside heaters and plenty of après action. It even has its own… private slopes! “Showing off a bit, isn’t it?” I shout to Erdem, making myself heard above the Euro-pop-swaying throng of Turks, Germans and the odd Scandi. “Small, good for learning; you pay extra,” he confirms. “Is a day’s skiing there more or less than the price of this beer,” says Mike, with the look of a man who is already plotting to bring his girlfriend back here.
06.03 We have an early start to make, with Erdem keen to show us his favourite mountain, Sarikamis. A quick Google the night before shows this as a two-hour drive, and as I hop out of bed, fumbling for thermals, I thank Ullr, god of ski hangovers, that the worryingly named Disco Lodge, adjacent to Sway, was devoid of action as we passed it on our way home. Because, had there been people dancing on tables, downing raki from each other’s ski boots, well, we would have had to investigate.
10.58 Unlike old dragon pants Palandoken, there are plenty of trees at Sarikamis to go with the so far uniform in Turkey (from our experiences anyway) digital barriers and high-speed lifts. Meaning there really should be more British skiers here. It would save you a packet, especially as a family, with today’s day pass 110-lira (£5.50). Still need a nudge? Is that a high-speed six-person chair before me?
10.04 Maybe I’m missing Japan (and Mike and I are principally here as our favourite Hokkaido is Covid-closed at the time of travel), but it feels like there are echoes of Asia everywhere. Lifties smile, patrollers do little bows/nods, half the traffic appears to be people in civvies going up just for the view and a photo; while the hills are not European-Alps steep… but enough.
10.12 Or Sarikamis would be, if it were all open. It’s fine, as we’re exploring and just here for today, but Amirali the Iranian who we get chatting with points towards the backside of the mountain (yet to open for the season, and still a little bare) and says this is where it’s really at, and therefore we must return in February. Which is when snow cover is best, in this close to the historic city of Kars spot (but more on that later).
12.23 With the most promising part of the mountain shut (and no artificial snow making at Sarikamis) it’s all about trees. Nicely spaced in the main, not too dense, and on a hill so easy to navigate that I don’t even collect the offered piste map. Big, flat base area, half-a-dozen hotels, various apartments, something like 2,000-beds according to encyclopedia Erdem. It has the feel of some of southern Colorado gems resorts I’ve visited. Not huge, but in good snow easily worthy of a 24 or 48-hour diversion. While if you have children, learners and all that – they’ve everything you need (nice modern hire kit, seemingly orderly and organised ski school etc).
14.19 Orta Café, we wish to pack you up and take you with us to every ski resort we ever visit. You are a wonderful cross between a North London kebab shop (with large pictures behind the counter of everything you can order, complete with handwritten price scrawl) and a showing-off-skyscraper lobby, thanks to your oodles of glass and chrome. Panini, chips and drink for two, from smiley and helpful (despite the language hurdle) counter staff? Yes, please, for a total of just £5.
17.03 Snow and sasa has been the afternoon activity. Again, rather like Asia (in early season) pick your way through the trees and vegetation for careful, yet involving joy. After a quick tour of newly opened, plush and slopeside Kayi hotel (Erdem knows boss Bora, of course!) we’re off to explore Kars.
19.22 Sorry, I meant historic Kars, as you are not (on pain of deportation from the province) allowed to refer to the city without that first bit. Because it’s got a castle, cobbled streets, and Russian imperial buildings from Nicholas II’s time, after the tsar had a tizzy, demanding them during the Russian occupation of the late 1800s.
21.02 Erdem is in charge of punishment, sorry, I mean entertainment, so takes us to the Pushkin restaurant in the old town. As you may have guessed it is very Russian, with traditional poetry, dancing and music amidst the tables. Mike and I last about five minutes, before begging to be allowed to hide in the thankfully much quieter cellar (nicer than it sounds). Our taxi driver Ahmet, who has more than a passing resemblance to Brezhnev thanks to his presidential eyebrows – so possibly knows what he is talking about in terms of Soviet grub – says we must have the Pushkin soup, then goose (both specialties of the house). We do. Wasn’t it nice of Erdem to invite Ahmet in for dinner? I say to Mike, moments before the aforementioned saint does a runner leaving Fall Line to pay for everyone.
08.42 We are not rushing into the day, because last night (and early this morning) turned into quite the mission. Possibly not as our hosts intended – all Russian dancing – but because an almighty storm rolled in while we were enjoying(ish) our leg of goose on bulgar wheat. And with Kars the wrong way in terms of returning to Palandoken from Sarikamis, it meant 200km to cover as a blizzard attacked Ahmet’s Ford saloon. Roads were closed, military checkpoints put in place, the main man had to be bought Turkish tea laced with Red Bull to keep him going. It was both exciting and exhausting. But mainly exhausting.
09.45 Erdem has booked a visit to Konakli resort, 17km from Erzurum, and part of Ejder 3200 (who also run Palandoken). As we bundle into a bright yellow and just a little bit New York taxi (resplendent with racing skier on the door), word comes through that the 13-run resort, that’s big into race training (so steep!), has closed due to high winds. After much dialogue and arm waving, dear leader confirms: “They say they will leave one run open for you to do one run, if you want to?” “Just one run, or multiple runs down a single course,” asks Mike. “Yes,” says Erdem.
11.43 As you may have guessed, we remain in Palandoken. For punishment skiing as the wind is whipping ferociously across the 43km of slopes. The top part of the mountain is shut, and the lower gondola on slow/pause. But Erdem appears in his element, flying down 7a, an almost GS-style red, like man who’s, er, lost his schedule in a hurricane. Which he has. “I am a freerider at heart,” he shouts over the force 9 gale, “but today piste only.” Definitely.
12.23 As a little break from trying not to be blown off the mountain, our host with the most suggests we visit a slopeside yurt (the Kure restaurant dome). I know what you are thinking, but Erdem is ever the risk taker! And fortunately the giant almost-kite does not take off while we are sampling – no laughing – orchid-infused latte. The drink is popular with skiers facing a mid-life crisis, and is surprisingly palatable.
14.20 With the gondola having given up battling the elements just before 13.30, we hop in a taxi to Erzurum (for the princely equivalent of £2.50) and try to eat the Koc Cag, out of house and er, kebab. Mike has a special skill in this regard, being from the land of lambs, and I can tell even the restaurant owners are impressed by his intake, inviting him to play chef on the open fire.
As to the approved-by-locals technique once your meat is off the coals, best wrap the bread around and pull the skewer away sharpish, in a now-look-at-this magician flourish. Ideally without losing all the condiments off the table…
15.19 What is not so impressive is me setting off a small slab-avalanche. Thankfully it only carries me 20 or 30 metres (with no damage to self, or the nearby pistes) but it’s an important reminder of what can and does release, even on a seemingly benign, barely touching 30-degree face. “You never stop learning in the mountains,” says Mike sagely. Quite right, with this lesson being not to give it the full beans, in a desperate attempt to bag a turn of the trip, when you know you’ll be returning before too long anyway. Because we’ve both decided Turkey’s too interesting, and inexpensive, not to come back. And soon.
TRAVEL Fly Manchester (or London) to Erzurum (via Istanbul). With a night in the now-trendy capital on the way back working best with the schedules. See Turkish or See Pegasus and expect to pay about £300 return if taking your ski bag.
STAY Try Hotel Palan in Palandoken (three-star-ish, and two-minute walk to the lifts) and the Kayi Resort in Sarikamis (new, plush, spa/lots of facilities and ski-in ski-out).See Turkish Airlines for more info on both, and booking if you want someone to do the heavy lifting/planning for you on a multi-spot schedule.
SKI Tick-off Palandoken, Sarikamis and Konakli as a triple, making a week of it. We based ourselves at Palandoken for everything, but a night or two at Sarikamis may be a better plan, given the distances involved.