Simply blue and white

Just a scant 15 minutes from Erzurum Airport, Palandöken Ski Center is not just for skiers but for anybody who yearns to fly like a bird.

When the four of us friends boarded the minibus, we were dreaming of playing in cotton-soft snow on a brilliant white beach of sand, with first class provisions like my mother’s homemade stuffed vine leaves to sustain us! Nor did we forget to load on our guy ropes, chains, wedge, blankets and sleeping bags, and of course a gigantic thermos of coffee. At last we were ready to head for Erzurum’s Palandöken, land of our once-nomadic Turkish countrymen.
We had already charted our route. Our journey starting from Istanbul at midnight would follow the autobahn through Kocaeli, Düzce and Bolu, where we would then take the turn-off for Amasya and head from there to Erzincan and then Erzurum. A 1225-km drive lay before us. As we were nearing the East towards the morning of the next day, the temperature plummeted to minus 30 C. Although the car heater was going full blast, the side windows especially were already coated with ice. Just the time for our blankets and hot coffee. The moonlight was reflected silver in the ice crystals at the side of the road. 
It was as if we were standing still as the rocks, mountains, hills and trees, clad in their evening gowns of dazzling silver, flew past us. Four kilometers from Erzurum’s hazy atmosphere we encountered the spell-binding summit of the Palandöken. The minute we reached our hotel, we dropped our stuff and raced outdoors. The dazzling white ‘grainy’ snow we were looking forward to with such excitement was out there!

Palandöken is like a corner of paradise for winter sports, with terrain and facilities for every level of expertise. The Palandöken runs, which extend from 3185 meters high down to the foothills of the mountains, are among the longest and steepest in the world. The longest of the total 28 kilometers of runs is approximately 12 km. As far as I could glean from the ski instructors, the best weather at Palandöken is in March and April when the snow is softer and more suitable for skiing. In any case, the Palandöken International Ski Cup is held every year in the third or fourth week of March. The skiers ski, while the non-skiers enjoy a sunbath in the snow or a relaxing dip in the hotel pool. And the tea or coffee you sip at the Ski Cafe when you’re tired of skiing is more meaningful than ever when the outdoor temperature is a consistent minus 15 C. But now we are readying our paragliders to see the mountains and slopes from the air before donning our skis.

We travel by snowmobile to the Ejder Lift to take off from Ejder Hill. We’ll be at the summit in about 20 minutes. As we climb higher, the temperature plunges again, this time into the minus 20s C. When we reach the summit, we have a glass of tea each in front of the fireplace at Ejder Cafe to warm up before taking off.  As I’m getting my camera ready on the one hand, on the other the colorful parachutes are being spread out on the white snow. There’s a strong wind up here. Finally our preparations are complete. Impatient to take off from the summit of Ejder, our wings are flapping madly now. And with incredible speed! The wind, blowing at about 50-55 km, thrusts us into the air like an arrow. Suddenly we soar from 3185 to 3400 meters. And we didn’t even take a running start but became airborne in place just like a helicopter!
The air is cold enough to freeze a person’s lungs. But we can’t get enough of the landscape flying by beneath our feet. As we float above this range of snow-white mountains, the skiers coming to glide down the Ejder Summit below look like tiny ants. But the Ejder course that appears so easy from up here is actually not one to be taken lightly.

To some extent at least, I forget the cold air that is freezing our breath and  look at the towering white peaks that seem to kiss the brilliant blue sky. Everything is so perfect and beautiful that its indescribable loveliness seems like a dream. As you fly, the temperature drops further to the minus 30s C with the windchill factor. At this altitude the fingerless gloves that I bought for operating my camera more easily are of no use. My entire body is beginning to resemble my numbed fingers now. It’s time to say goodbye to this loveliness and come back down. There’s nothing like a hot glass of tea to bring us back to life. When the time comes to discover Palandöken on the ground, I tread carefully in the snow with my cameras round my neck and in my hand. There are eight lifts, one of them a gondola, for those who want to actively work the Palandöken. If you want to use the physical education lift, you can go up as far as the Küçük Ejder by paying a small fee. Hotel guests of course can use their hotel lifts for free. And anyone who wishes to pay by the day can use the facilities as well.
The plant cover at Palandöken is quite thin, and there are no trees near the ski runs. Only the blindingly white snow and the brilliant blue sky. We enjoyed day after day of lovely snow on the ground, completely unlike Istanbul where the snow is only beautiful for half a day before becoming all dirty and slushy. We were happy because we were part of nature. We were the dancing ice crystals as we skied across the sea of snow, the roar of the wind as we flew. And the sparkling white snow and warm-hearted people that we left behind as we returned await new guests now at Palandöken.