Wild Turkey

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Wild Turkey

Mosques with slender minarets, frozen lines of laundry strung between pastel apartment blocks, and oil tankers moored in the Sea of Marmara all slid by my window on Turkish Airlines Flight 002 as we floated in toward the tarmac in Istanbul. At that moment, or thereabouts, my mother back in Michigan was reading the CNN crawl-ticker with alarm: The biggest snowstorm in 30 years had just hit Turkey, dumping half a meter on Istanbul, bringing the city to a standstill. Once again, in a pattern surely repeated through every young man's life, what was a source of distress to my mother was, in my eyes, a shower of unbelievably good fortune. I had come to Turkey to ski.

The previous summer, traveling through the Turkish countryside, I had discovered that Turkey is not the Arabian Nights sandscape of popular North American misconception. It's a land of mountains. Sixty percent of the country, in fact, is covered with them. They roll across the high Anatolian plateau in massive 12,000-foot undulations, from the Kaçkar range along the Black Sea in the north to the Taurus Mountains in the south, with spindly minor ranges, foothill expanses, and massive dormant volcanoes-including 16,945-foot Mount Ararat, alleged landing point of Noah's Ark-informing the aesthetic of virtually every Turkish landscape.

Driving through the Kaçkars, I had come around a curve and beheld one mountain in particular-a hulking, broad-shouldered massif with a bare top and an apron of lesser ridges still holding snow and slashed everywhere with the bright, new-growth green of avalanche runouts. The vision gave me a skier's head rush of possibility.

Turkey is a ski-touring mecca waiting to happen. It also has more than a dozen ski areas, including a 3,363-vertical-foot expert's haven known as Palandöken. Located between the Taurus and Black Sea mountains, the 40-year-old resort is fabled to hold a steady supply of powder. The fluff is born in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black seas and scrubbed dry from a trip across high, arid terrain.

The taxi ride from the airport to a hotel in the shadow of the Blue Mosque-where photographer David McLain and I would stay for a night before heading to the mountains-was an exercise in kismet, Turkish for luck. With our skis jammed down the middle of the little Renault cab, the driver, a dark-eyed, mustachioed man with a balding pate and a threadbare sport jacket, shifted furiously through the gearbox as we skittered around icy corners into downtown Istanbul. I felt around for the nonexistent seatbelt and resigned myself to the fact that our destiny was in the hands of Allah.

The main road was bumper deep in snow, and the driver fought the wheel to keep us on track. As Turkish pedestrians went whizzing by the taxi's windows, I spied adults in bulky overcoats looking around in amazement at their suddenly white city and kids wearing unzipped jackets, trailing book bags, and flinging snowballs. They disappeared as we took a hard left into an arch of the crumbling stone wall that once protected the old city, banged off a curb, and fishtailed our way uphill to the hotel.

Once we were checked in, I called a local friend of mine, a skier herself, to see what she thought of the snowfall. "Charlie," she said, "the last time we had snow like this, wolves came down into Istanbul from the forest, looking for food."

A short flight and a day later, David and I were clicking into our bindings at Palandöken, near the ancient town of Erzurum, the largest city in eastern Turkey. Geographically speaking, it was a striking place to be donning ski gear: We were roughly 100 miles south of the Black Sea, closer to the borders of Iran, Iraq, and Syria than we were to Istanbul. Not far to our south, the Turkish military was having headaches with Kurdish separatist guerillas. I remembered the mountains here from my summer trip: massive, treeless swells that rolled down to a high, dry valley. I knew thaif the snowstorm ever lifted and gave us a view across that valley, the landscape alone would push any geopolitical vertigo from our minds.

But the storm raged on. In the hotel that morning, a ski instructor in a sleek red-and-white striped jumpsuit told me that some two thousand villages in the Erzurum region were cut off. Just like at home, the meteorological adversity of millions meant potential bliss for us skiers. But today, the storm wasn't even working in our favor: Wind and avalanche conditions had shut down all but one of the resort's lifts.

David and I were left with a single T-bar for our introduction to Turkish skiing-a pair of groomers that we skied until we knew every last ripple. All around us, we could see ghostly lift cables rising into the storm, but the chairs were still. The mountain loomed invisibly above us, a brooding mystery. It felt like being on page 10 of a Dostoyevsky novel.

After my fourth or fifth trip up the T-bar, I had an idea. By traversing out under the skeletal silence of Turkey's only gondola, I could get to a steep untracked slope. Working my way across, I was certain someone official would come flying out of a ski patrol hut somewhere, yelling in Turkish about closed areas and avalanche danger. Turkish prison scenes from Midnight Express ran through my mind. You do not want to break the law in Turkey.

No one came after me. No one waving, no one yelling. The slope was laid out before me, perfectly pitched. Turn after turn of knee-deep powder, getting faster and faster as the mountain fell away. When I spurted out onto a cat track by the lodge, I was transformed into a gasping, grinning, hyperventilating kook with snow-covered goggles. Nobody seemed to notice my coup. And no one followed my tracks. Even David, pleading a sudden onset of Sultan's revenge, kept to the corduroy.

That slope of fresh was exhilarating, but I still found myself looking up longingly into the gloom. I stopped at Café Dedeman, a lunch hut at the top of the T-bar. Inside a fire was burning cozily, but there were no other skiers. After a few minutes, a man with a blue-and-yellow one-piece and a gigantic grin burst in, hand extended. I stood up. "I see you!" he said. "Very good!"

His name was Isa Seylan, a Kurd who had grown up in Erzurum and had worked his way up at the resort to become a sort of lift-and-facilities manager. He had deep brown skin, salt-and-pepper hair, and a permanent, youthful smile. From what I could tell, he spent his days here in the warming hut.

Between Isa's limited English and my one word of Turkish (te¸sekkürler, or thank you), we made halting small talk over a cup of tea. Tea is Turkey's great vice: Almost nothing occurs in the country without the arrival of a tray of tulip-shaped tea glasses with little spoons and saucers. As I watched him down his cup, Isa, whose name means "Jesus," struck me as about the happiest guy on earth, sitting next to a fire all day on a mountainside high above his hometown, watching the skiers go by.

Outside the hut, we caught up with David, who was watching a group of five or six husky-looking dogs that had appeared from the fog on a windswept hillock above. We had heard several booms that morning-avalanche-control charges-and David voiced what I was thinking: "Those must be rescue dogs."

Isa's eyes lit up with amusement. "No," he said. "These dogs are tourists, from Erzurum."

I thought for a minute, then gleaned his meaning: Of course-wild dogs. Turkey is full of stray animals. I thought of the wolves in Istanbul and of some wolf pelts I'd seen in the base lodge. Looking up at the wild dogs, imagining the wolves that must, from time to time, show up to cull their numbers, I was struck by the essential wildness of these mountains: Mankind has lived here for thousands of years, but the big predators still run free.

After a few more runs confined to the lower reaches, we knocked off for an early après beer in the base lodge. Though Turkey's government is secular, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, so Turks in general are not big drinkers (though occasionally you'll see groups of older men downing bottles of raki, a liquor flavored with anise seed).

So we were surprised to find the bar full of skiers who were clearly smashed-all ruddy-faced, with turtleneck sweaters, their neon jackets piled on tables. The room was filled with cigarette smoke. Ordering glasses of Efes-the Turkish Bud-we were hailed over to one of the tables, where the mystery was solved: Russians. A big, affable, bearded man named Aleksey introduced us around the table-Tatyana, Sasha, Sveta-and told us that they'd been drinking since noon. Clearly we were not the only ones stymied by the storm.

They were a cheerful, if somewhat unsteady, bunch. Some 200 of them had flown in on a charter plane from Moscow. Whoever negotiated the deal on the Turkish side had the poor foresight of agreeing to an all-you-can-drink addition to the basic ski-and-stay package.

Turkey is a land with a soundtrack. On our first day of skiing, the lifties had played Turkish music from speakers hanging from the lift towers, making the experience of skiing in the fog all the more haunting. Five times a day, you hear the enchanting, minor-key moanings of a local mullah sounding the call to prayer from a PA system strung from the minarets of mosques. To our ears, the sound was at once mournful and mesmerizing. It's strange, but it gets into your bones.

Turkey is also a land of baths. With the skiing options stifled by the storm, I signed up for the full Turkish bath treatment. The hotel's hamam, tiled in blue and white, had two large marble slabs in the center, where you lay yourself out like a cold steak at a high-end butcher shop. Along the walls were marble benches and ornate tin dishes for scooping and splashing water.

A hairy-backed Turk in a too-short bathing suit slathered me in bubbles and raked me over with what appeared to be a Brillo pad. I was scrubbed, massaged, and shampooed until I looked like a meringue pie, then rinsed with dishfuls of water. I left feeling like a freshly molted snake.

Bwa diddy bwa diddy bwa na, bwa... I woke the next morning with a Turkish song in my head that simply would not go away. As I stood in the shower-at this point feeling exceptionally clean-the sound echoed in my skull. The fact that I couldn't begin to pronounce the actual words drove me to distraction.

That morning, the sun broke out. As if to celebrate, the lifties-middle-aged Turkish men in grease-stained one-pieces conspiring together over tea-were playing a different sound on the PA: straight-up bubblegum-happy Western techno pop. Normally I can't stand the stuff, but as I looked up at all the gleaming white, I found myself boogying with anticipation.

The mountains were huge. And smooth. Vast swaths of the land above us were coated with nearly two feet of fresh snow, and the off-piste routes were long and steep, without trees, rocks, or tracks to blemish them. News was buzzing around the base lodge: The avalanche-control work was being finished up, and the higher lifts were expected to open soon.

Waiting around in the base area, we could see Erzurum in the valley below, reaching toward the far mountains in a hazy sprawl. We had taken a trip into town for dinner the night before, and found a city dotted with mosques and buildings with intricate tiled designs and elaborate stone carvings. We had seen donkey carts heaving through the snow on the city outskirts and groups of women, covered head-to-toe in black wraps, gliding past a ski shop. Inside the shop, a young boy, maybe 13 and dressed spiffily in a suit and tie, was manning the front desk. He proudly showed off the shop's collection of Atomics and Kneissls. Lining the wall behind him: a row of neatly stacked Turkish shotguns.

As we madn early après beer in the base lodge. Though Turkey's government is secular, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, so Turks in general are not big drinkers (though occasionally you'll see groups of older men downing bottles of raki, a liquor flavored with anise seed).

So we were surprised to find the bar full of skiers who were clearly smashed-all ruddy-faced, with turtleneck sweaters, their neon jackets piled on tables. The room was filled with cigarette smoke. Ordering glasses of Efes-the Turkish Bud-we were hailed over to one of the tables, where the mystery was solved: Russians. A big, affable, bearded man named Aleksey introduced us around the table-Tatyana, Sasha, Sveta-and told us that they'd been drinking since noon. Clearly we were not the only ones stymied by the storm.

They were a cheerful, if somewhat unsteady, bunch. Some 200 of them had flown in on a charter plane from Moscow. Whoever negotiated the deal on the Turkish side had the poor foresight of agreeing to an all-you-can-drink addition to the basic ski-and-stay package.

Turkey is a land with a soundtrack. On our first day of skiing, the lifties had played Turkish music from speakers hanging from the lift towers, making the experience of skiing in the fog all the more haunting. Five times a day, you hear the enchanting, minor-key moanings of a local mullah sounding the call to prayer from a PA system strung from the minarets of mosques. To our ears, the sound was at once mournful and mesmerizing. It's strange, but it gets into your bones.

Turkey is also a land of baths. With the skiing options stifled by the storm, I signed up for the full Turkish bath treatment. The hotel's hamam, tiled in blue and white, had two large marble slabs in the center, where you lay yourself out like a cold steak at a high-end butcher shop. Along the walls were marble benches and ornate tin dishes for scooping and splashing water.

A hairy-backed Turk in a too-short bathing suit slathered me in bubbles and raked me over with what appeared to be a Brillo pad. I was scrubbed, massaged, and shampooed until I looked like a meringue pie, then rinsed with dishfuls of water. I left feeling like a freshly molted snake.

Bwa diddy bwa diddy bwa na, bwa... I woke the next morning with a Turkish song in my head that simply would not go away. As I stood in the shower-at this point feeling exceptionally clean-the sound echoed in my skull. The fact that I couldn't begin to pronounce the actual words drove me to distraction.

That morning, the sun broke out. As if to celebrate, the lifties-middle-aged Turkish men in grease-stained one-pieces conspiring together over tea-were playing a different sound on the PA: straight-up bubblegum-happy Western techno pop. Normally I can't stand the stuff, but as I looked up at all the gleaming white, I found myself boogying with anticipation.

The mountains were huge. And smooth. Vast swaths of the land above us were coated with nearly two feet of fresh snow, and the off-piste routes were long and steep, without trees, rocks, or tracks to blemish them. News was buzzing around the base lodge: The avalanche-control work was being finished up, and the higher lifts were expected to open soon.

Waiting around in the base area, we could see Erzurum in the valley below, reaching toward the far mountains in a hazy sprawl. We had taken a trip into town for dinner the night before, and found a city dotted with mosques and buildings with intricate tiled designs and elaborate stone carvings. We had seen donkey carts heaving through the snow on the city outskirts and groups of women, covered head-to-toe in black wraps, gliding past a ski shop. Inside the shop, a young boy, maybe 13 and dressed spiffily in a suit and tie, was manning the front desk. He proudly showed off the shop's collection of Atomics and Kneissls. Lining the wall behind him: a row of neatly stacked Turkish shotguns.

As we made our way to the lifts, the wild dogs reemerged from behind a ridge. In the sunshine, they looked less like the haggard things we'd seen in the mist and more like man's best friend.

The lifts opened, and we jumped on the T-bar, waving to Isa in his warming hut as we reached the top. He came running out, gesticulating with glee: "Go to the chair! It's good!"

We made our way down a cat track to a 1970s-vintage double chair. It curved up through a steep valley and crested on a high col some 2,000 feet above. As we climbed into the wind, Palandöken opened before us like a vast, white rose. A huge face shimmered to our left, and to our right the mountain revealed its creases and ridgelines. Next to the lift's top station hulked a giant military radio-antenna tower, a listening post during the Cold War.

At the top, a soldier greeted us, apparently on some sort of combo guard and ski-patrol duty. He pointed us down a cat track. Clearly the Turks had organized their terrain on the European model: Relatively narrow groomed runs coursed at low angles around and down a half dozen gigantic bowls, linking to lifts hidden behind lesser peaks far below. The few skiers we saw were sticking to these groomers (not surprising, considering they were likely overserved Russians). But my eyes were on the off-piste: Every aspect of every bump on this mountain sparkled with new snow; there were no trees, and scarcely any rocks. It was all lift-accessed, all skiable. And there wasn't a single track.

We charged into it with a surge of adrenaline. The snow was firm below, and creamy up to the shin. The terrain was so broad and open that we could hang gigantic GS turns without thinking about navigation. Of course, get too carefree on any mountain and your kismet will catch up with you: I crested a ridge, swung a couple of arcs into a steep drop, then felt my heels come flying over the back of my head as my tips suddenly dove, sending me into a high-speed somersault. All day long, riding up the chairlift, I could spot my crater marks on that slope: slip, smack, boom!

But all around them, our signature on the mountain spread and grew: rows of short-swing thigh-burners; long scrawls of pure speed. I thought back to that hulking, bare-topped massif I'd seen in the Kaçkars the previous summer, and there it was-a skier's vision consummated.

made our way to the lifts, the wild dogs reemerged from behind a ridge. In the sunshine, they looked less like the haggard things we'd seen in the mist and more like man's best friend.

The lifts opened, and we jumped on the T-bar, waving to Isa in his warming hut as we reached the top. He came running out, gesticulating with glee: "Go to the chair! It's good!"

We made our way down a cat track to a 1970s-vintage double chair. It curved up through a steep valley and crested on a high col some 2,000 feet above. As we climbed into the wind, Palandöken opened before us like a vast, white rose. A huge face shimmered to our left, and to our right the mountain revealed its creases and ridgelines. Next to the lift's top station hulked a giant military radio-antenna tower, a listening post during the Cold War.

At the top, a soldier greeted us, apparently on some sort of combo guard and ski-patrol duty. He pointed us down a cat track. Clearly the Turks had organized their terrain on the European model: Relatively narrow groomed runs coursed at low angles around and down a half dozen gigantic bowls, linking to lifts hidden behind lesser peaks far below. The few skiers we saw were sticking to these groomers (not surprising, considering they were likely overserved Russians). But my eyes were on the off-piste: Every aspect of every bump on this mountain sparkled with new snow; there were no trees, and scarcely any rocks. It was all lift-accessed, all skiable. And there wasn't a single track.

We charged into it with a surge of adrenaline. The snow was firm below, and creamy up too the shin. The terrain was so broad and open that we could hang gigantic GS turns without thinking about navigation. Of course, get too carefree on any mountain and your kismet will catch up with you: I crested a ridge, swung a couple of arcs into a steep drop, then felt my heels come flying over the back of my head as my tips suddenly dove, sending me into a high-speed somersault. All day long, riding up the chairlift, I could spot my crater marks on that slope: slip, smack, boom!

But all around them, our signature on the mountain spread and grew: rows of short-swing thigh-burners; long scrawls of pure speed. I thought back to that hulking, bare-topped massif I'd seen in the Kaçkars the previous summer, and there it was-a skier's vision consummated.

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