Turkish Delight

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Turkish Delight

"Skiing in Turkey?"

That was the reaction of everyone I knew when I told them I was about to travel 6,656 miles to ski in a semiarid Middle Eastern country where camel wrestling is a popular spectator sport.

The fact is that Turkey is 60 percent mountains-a higher percentage than Colorado-and has a dozen ski areas scattered across its high, snowy peaks, with lofty plans to expand current resorts and build several new ones. If the architects of Turkish skiing have their way, within 10 years their resorts will be packing in throngs of European skiers seeking a new adventure or a less crowded alternative to the Alps. The Turkish resort Palandoken already draws major crowds of Russians who would rather ski there than in their own country. But if Turks really want to expand the number of foreign visitors who come to their country to ski, they will have to change a few things.

My plan is to explore Turkish skiing-and its challenges-by visiting the country's three best resorts. Starting in Istanbul, I'll head east until I reach the remote mountain regions in the deep interior of the country, where its highest peaks rise more than 12,000 feet above the steppes. After spending a few days in the cosmopolitan city, wandering among its palaces, bazaars and mosques, I begin my journey by setting off for Uludag (pronounced OO-la-daw), which translates to "Great Mountain," Turkey's original resort and still its most popular.

My hired driver, Necip, expertly weaves his gray Renault sedan in and out of the chaotic Istanbul traffic in a lashing rainstorm. He pulls onto the deck of a ferryboat that soon begins churning its way across the Sea of Marmara. After the half-hour boat ride, we leave behind the part of Turkey that lies in Europe and head into Asia Minor, where the country's ski resorts are located.

When we arrive at Uludag, my first impression is that it looks like a quaint Austrian ski village, with pastel-colored, chalet-style hotels lining its snow-covered streets. I change into my ski gear, rent skis and boots in my hotel, walk up the short path to the nearest lifts and immediately run into one of Uludag's biggest problems. After buying a ticket for five lift rides for about $5 at a tiny kiosk, I grab a T-bar that pulls me through some trees but ends at the top of a beginner run. When I race back down to another T-bar 50 feet from the first one, I find that my lift ticket isn't valid there.

In Turkey, the ski areas have been built and maintained mostly by resort hotels, with various independent owners installing their own ski lifts. Often, a ski pass is only good for one group of lifts, or sometimes just a single lift. At Uludag, for example, nine owners operate the 13 lifts, and you have to buy several lift tickets to ski the entire area. The prices are reasonable enough-once you have converted Turkey's wildly inflated currency into dollars. At current rates, 1 million Turkish lire are worth about $1.70, and the lift prices work out to be around $1 per ride. It can get very confusing. I end up sticking to a few favorite runs to avoid having to fumble with seven different lift tickets stuffed in my pockets and dangling around my neck.

Uludag, it turns out, is Turkey's version of Aspen, Colo. It has respectable ski numbers for Turkey: 25 trails, 13 lifts, 1,821 vertical feet. But in Istanbul, I had heard that the resort is known more as a party town than a ski town, a place where wealthy people ski, social climbers go hoping to meet the right people, and aspiring actors and fashion models stand around in ski clothes, waiting to be discovered. Uludag didn't disappoint.In Turkey it has become hip to knock Uludag for its poshness, in much the same way Americans knock glitzy Aspen. Within my first 10 minutes of skiing, I meet Osman Karadeniz, a tanned 39-year-old from Istanbul, who tells me that he owns several power plants and an international yacht-charter business. He has been skiing Uludag for yearbut doesn't come that often anymore. "It's become too crowded," he says, complaining about day-tripping non-skiers who ride the lifts, picnic and admire the views. He gives an aristocratic poke of his ski pole toward a chairlift overhead that's carrying locals from the nearby lowland city of Bursa dressed in street clothes and hiking shoes. "There isn't even anyplace to park now," he says with a shrug.

Karadeniz prefers skiing at another resort within driving distance of Istanbul, but he still comes to Uludag for its nightlife. He relates with pride that he stayed up drinking and dancing at the Hotel Le Chalet until 4 a.m. the previous Saturday night. "In Turkey, life begins after midnight," he advises.

Entertainment is what Uludag is famous for, I am told again and again, so I decide to find out. Lively bars, discos, casinos and nightclubs are scattered throughout the little ski village, and a variety of bands and combos play late into the night. I stroll up a side street to a hotel disco, where more than 100 young people from as far away as England, France and Russia are jammed into a small, smoky room, dancing to baseboard-rattling American rock CDs. Belly dancers are on the bill a few nights later. At 3:30 a.m., revelers are still tramping through the snowy streets, and taxis are parked with their headlights on, poised to pick up passengers.

This had been a year of heavy snowfall in Turkey, and the next morning I find 18 inches of powder has piled up. I head to the Grand Yazici Hotel's double chair, which runs to the ski-area summit and accesses some of its best terrain. Most of the trails at Uludag are short and easy, but I find steeper off-piste skiing on a broad, arcing ridge next to the chairlift.

The second time I step off the double-chair, burly Sjo Wientgens of the Netherlands is standing with a group of his Dutch friends, taking in the panoramic views of the thickly forested national park that surrounds the ski area. They've come from Holland on a ski package, and I can't help asking Sjo why he would travel to Turkey to ski when it's such a short trip to the Alps. He gives me a surprised look, as if the answer is so obvious. "For adventure," he says, "and to see another world."

Another world is waiting in the valley below when I stop skiing in the afternoon and take the winding, 24-mile road down to historic Bursa. The city dates back 5,000 years and was ruled by Alexander the Great centuries before it became the original capital of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it's a city of more than a million people. Bursa has been known for silk production since the sixth century, but I'm here for something that the town was already famous for hundreds of years before that: its healing thermal waters. I want to see how a true Turkish bath feels after a day in the snowy chill.

Necip drives me to the oldest Turkish bathhouse in the city, a magnificent high-domed building that dates back more than 300 years. This bath provides its guests with traditional garb, so I change into a pestamal, a checked cloth that men wear tucked around their waists like a towel (women use the baths at separate hours), put on wooden clogs called takunyalar and clomp to the thermal pool. Men are relaxing in alcoves around the outside of the pool, using copper bowls to splash themselves with hot water.

After soaking for 15 minutes, I move into a steamy, marble-walled room, where the masseur is finishing his previous client. Until then, my only experience with Turkish massages had been what I'd seen in Three Stooges episodes. The masseur motions for me to lie down on my stomach on a raised marble slab, and then starts working on the backs of my legs, paying special attention to a deep thigh bruise until I can barely keep from yelling out in pain. He uses his palms, knuckles and, I would swear, his elbows to knead and pummel my legs, back and arms, sending bolts of pain shooting up my sides. (I can see why Larry and Curly made such a fuss.) But to my surprise, I find that after he's finished and I have soaked in the hot water a little longer, I feel relaxed, refreshed-and ready for another night in Uludag.

Before I leave the resort, I stop at the family-owned Beceren Hotel, a snug, Austrian-style ski lodge, and speak with one of the town fathers, Haluk Beceren. The white-haired hotelier explains that skiing in Uludag began in the Thirties when the military started using it as a training area, climbing up from Bursa during the summers and ski mountaineering in the winters. Its first lift was built in 1959 to cater to "rich people and diplomats," Beceren says.

He acknowledges that the confusing lift-ticket system is one of the town's biggest problems, but adds that a lot is about to change. Seven new hotels are coming in to build lifts and expand terrain. They also plan to add snowmaking and to consolidate the lift system so that one ticket is good for all lifts. But they still have to convince some hotel owners to go along with this revolutionary idea. "The ticket machine is ready, but we must change the heads of the people," the hotelier says.

One of the reasons for Uludag's proposed upgrade might be competition from Kartalkaya, a ski resort 150 miles away in the mountains near the Black Sea. If Uludag is Turkey's Aspen, Kartalkaya has the family feel of Snowmass, Colo., and is geared more for skiers than carousers. The resort makes no effort to attract foreign skiers, drawing its clientele almost entirely from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey's capital. Kartalkaya is smaller than Uludag, with only two hotel complexes, the Kartal and the Dorukkaya-each with its own lifts, of course. Mazhar Murtezaoglu, a charming elderly gentleman who operates the Kartal with his son, was living in the northern mountains decades ago when he decided to build Turkey's second ski resort. He hired Austrian consultants and built the hotel and a single lift in 1978, constructing the winding 17-mile road from the city of Bolu and stringing in electricity himself.

When I step out the back door of the Kartal Hotel's rental shop to head down to its main T-bar (still the most common type of lift in Turkey) it's snowing heavily again. Kartalkaya's two ski areas are small: The Kartal Hotel's area offers seven lifts and the Dorukkaya has six. The pistes are longer than many of those at Uludag, but only slightly more challenging. When I duck inside a slopeside cafe to warm up, I occupy a table next to five rugged-looking characters smoking cigarettes and drinking Turkish tea. They turn out to be the resort's ski patrol. Through an interpreter, they offer to show me Kartalkaya's toughest off-piste areas. Once back on our skis, we head out of bounds to spend the next few hours dipping through pine groves and plummeting down steeps of untracked powder. They're the best skiers I've met in Turkey, and we become friends skiing together, even though we can't speak a word of each other's languages.

So far, I have found the Turkish resorts to be enjoyable, but they haven't offered the size or variety of a major American resort. I have heard that Turkey's best skiing is at Palandoken, perched above the ancient city of Erzurum in Turkey's wild eastern frontier, not far from the borders with Iran and the former Soviet Republics. So I pack my gear, tip the bellman a million lire and fly into the distant mountains deep in the heart of Turkey.

Erzurum, at 6,400 feet and surrounded by high peaks, is even older than Bursa, and is said to date back 6,000 years. It's a modern city now, but you still see horse-drawn carts beside taxis, and local women wear head-scarves and burquas, the head-to-toe black coverings required by the strictest laws of Islam. The city was a key outpost on an ancient trade route and has been conquered over the centuries by Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Russians, among others.

After landing at Erzurum's tiny airport, I take a short taxi ride to the Dedeman Palandoken, the resort's t to my surprise, I find that after he's finished and I have soaked in the hot water a little longer, I feel relaxed, refreshed-and ready for another night in Uludag.

Before I leave the resort, I stop at the family-owned Beceren Hotel, a snug, Austrian-style ski lodge, and speak with one of the town fathers, Haluk Beceren. The white-haired hotelier explains that skiing in Uludag began in the Thirties when the military started using it as a training area, climbing up from Bursa during the summers and ski mountaineering in the winters. Its first lift was built in 1959 to cater to "rich people and diplomats," Beceren says.

He acknowledges that the confusing lift-ticket system is one of the town's biggest problems, but adds that a lot is about to change. Seven new hotels are coming in to build lifts and expand terrain. They also plan to add snowmaking and to consolidate the lift system so that one ticket is good for all lifts. But they still have to convince some hotel owners to go along with this revolutionary idea. "The ticket machine is ready, but we must change the heads of the people," the hotelier says.

One of the reasons for Uludag's proposed upgrade might be competition from Kartalkaya, a ski resort 150 miles away in the mountains near the Black Sea. If Uludag is Turkey's Aspen, Kartalkaya has the family feel of Snowmass, Colo., and is geared more for skiers than carousers. The resort makes no effort to attract foreign skiers, drawing its clientele almost entirely from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey's capital. Kartalkaya is smaller than Uludag, with only two hotel complexes, the Kartal and the Dorukkaya-each with its own lifts, of course. Mazhar Murtezaoglu, a charming elderly gentleman who operates the Kartal with his son, was living in the northern mountains decades ago when he decided to build Turkey's second ski resort. He hired Austrian consultants and built the hotel and a single lift in 1978, constructing the winding 17-mile road from the city of Bolu and stringing in electricity himself.

When I step out the back door of the Kartal Hotel's rental shop to head down to its main T-bar (still the most common type of lift in Turkey) it's snowing heavily again. Kartalkaya's two ski areas are small: The Kartal Hotel's area offers seven lifts and the Dorukkaya has six. The pistes are longer than many of those at Uludag, but only slightly more challenging. When I duck inside a slopeside cafe to warm up, I occupy a table next to five rugged-looking characters smoking cigarettes and drinking Turkish tea. They turn out to be the resort's ski patrol. Through an interpreter, they offer to show me Kartalkaya's toughest off-piste areas. Once back on our skis, we head out of bounds to spend the next few hours dipping through pine groves and plummeting down steeps of untracked powder. They're the best skiers I've met in Turkey, and we become friends skiing together, even though we can't speak a word of each other's languages.

So far, I have found the Turkish resorts to be enjoyable, but they haven't offered the size or variety of a major American resort. I have heard that Turkey's best skiing is at Palandoken, perched above the ancient city of Erzurum in Turkey's wild eastern frontier, not far from the borders with Iran and the former Soviet Republics. So I pack my gear, tip the bellman a million lire and fly into the distant mountains deep in the heart of Turkey.

Erzurum, at 6,400 feet and surrounded by high peaks, is even older than Bursa, and is said to date back 6,000 years. It's a modern city now, but you still see horse-drawn carts beside taxis, and local women wear head-scarves and burquas, the head-to-toe black coverings required by the strictest laws of Islam. The city was a key outpost on an ancient trade route and has been conquered over the centuries by Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Russians, among others.

After landing at Erzurum's tiny airport, I take a short taxi ride to the Dedeman Palandoken, the resort's best hotel. As an American, I'm a curiosity. About half of the skiers are young Turks, and the rest include visitors from vertically challenged European countries such as Holland and Finland. But a majority of the foreign skiers are Russians who come because it's a short flight, and the resort is less expensive, more comfortable and offers better food than Russian resorts.

Stepping outside under a blue sky, I immediately see why Palandoken is considered the country's premier ski area. These are big mountains: It's 10,253 feet at the resort's summit with 2,950 feet of vertical. Pistes range from steep black-diamond runs to long, winding trails, while the resort's off-piste terrain is some of the best skiing I've enjoyed in all of Turkey. I drop off the lip of a flat piste labeled No. 23 into a steep bowl that reminds me of the cornice at the top of Mammoth Mountain, Calif., and follow it as it fans down to a long, sharply pitched trail. Across the resort, which is divided by a backbone ridge, another double chair climbs to Palandoken's summit, a peak with a well-deserved reputation for being constantly windy and frigid. A few pistes, rated by the FIS as suitable for racing, plunge abruptly from the mountaintop.

One of the few English-speaking Turks I meet at Palandoken is Mahir Hocaoglu, general manager of Istanbul-based Turmak Equipment, which designs and operates Turkish ski areas. He is in town sizing up mountains near Palandoken for a major terrain expansion that will dwarf the current ski area. There are also designs for new resorts throughout the country. "Many new areas are in the planning stages. We have enough mountains-60 percent of Turkey is mountains," he says.

Looking at a map of Turkey, you can see what he means. Nearly 100 peaks in Turkey top 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), including the almost 17,000-foot Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to rest. There are problems that will have to be solved, of course. Environmental obstacles must be overcome, and financing has to be found. But the Turkish government has recently committed to improving winter tourism and, Hocaoglu explains, partly financed the gleaming new gondola at Palandoken in 1998, the only one in Turkey.

He's confident that if Turkey's fledgling ski industry continues to upgrade resorts and add new ones, customers will follow. "In Europe, people are always looking for new places to ski," he says. "If Turkey can organize a winter infrastructure, people will come. Ten years from now, everything here will be different."t's best hotel. As an American, I'm a curiosity. About half of the skiers are young Turks, and the rest include visitors from vertically challenged European countries such as Holland and Finland. But a majority of the foreign skiers are Russians who come because it's a short flight, and the resort is less expensive, more comfortable and offers better food than Russian resorts.

Stepping outside under a blue sky, I immediately see why Palandoken is considered the country's premier ski area. These are big mountains: It's 10,253 feet at the resort's summit with 2,950 feet of vertical. Pistes range from steep black-diamond runs to long, winding trails, while the resort's off-piste terrain is some of the best skiing I've enjoyed in all of Turkey. I drop off the lip of a flat piste labeled No. 23 into a steep bowl that reminds me of the cornice at the top of Mammoth Mountain, Calif., and follow it as it fans down to a long, sharply pitched trail. Across the resort, which is divided by a backbone ridge, another double chair climbs to Palandoken's summit, a peak with a well-deserved reputation for being constantly windy and frigid. A few pistes, rated by the FIS as suitable for racing, plunge abruptly from the mountaintop.

One of the few English-speaking Turks I meet at Palandoken is Mahir Hocaoglu, general manager of Istanbul-based Turmak Equipment, which designs and operates Turkish ski areas. He is in town sizing up mountains near Pallandoken for a major terrain expansion that will dwarf the current ski area. There are also designs for new resorts throughout the country. "Many new areas are in the planning stages. We have enough mountains-60 percent of Turkey is mountains," he says.

Looking at a map of Turkey, you can see what he means. Nearly 100 peaks in Turkey top 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), including the almost 17,000-foot Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to rest. There are problems that will have to be solved, of course. Environmental obstacles must be overcome, and financing has to be found. But the Turkish government has recently committed to improving winter tourism and, Hocaoglu explains, partly financed the gleaming new gondola at Palandoken in 1998, the only one in Turkey.

He's confident that if Turkey's fledgling ski industry continues to upgrade resorts and add new ones, customers will follow. "In Europe, people are always looking for new places to ski," he says. "If Turkey can organize a winter infrastructure, people will come. Ten years from now, everything here will be different."

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