Close to the borders with Armenia, Georgia and Iran, the remote eastern province of Kars has been all but overlooked by Turks and tourists alike. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, giving it the spotlight in his 2004 novel Snow, its inspiring landscape would have been left largely unknown to foreign eyes. But, thanks to the book, that features a poet-turned-journalist who travels to the dilapidated city of Kars to investigate a string of suicides, the treeless plains, castle, river and boulevards of Kars have elevated, at least slightly, into more cultural prominence.
So too have the freezing temperatures and alpine weather. Snow falls incessantly across the whole region during the winter and it is such a defining factor that they named the place after it – kar means snow in Turkish and karsu means snow-water.
It was then, perhaps, inevitable that sooner or later a ski resort would emerge from the shadows of this province that was ruled by the Russian Imperial Empire for 40 years and for a time during World War one was under the control of Armenian forces.
With its thick, crystalline snow, Sarikamis – about 900 miles east of Istanbul – is an emerging location for adventurous skiers. A town of nearly 20,000 people, it is hardly the lonely outpost it once was and about three kilometres out of town, lies the expanding ski resort overlooking the 2634 metre Camurlu Mountain.
In between the Pontic Mountains in the north and the upper reaches of the Taurus mountain range to the south east, Sarikamis is still a hidden gem on the skiing circuit.
It is not far from Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark and it is easy to see why its geographical height gave the military an advantage during Russian rule.
In the town itself, there is a strong military presence as well as endless rows of old Russian barracks a reminder that the location is on the edge of old empires. The Ottoman Army suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Russian forces in Sarikamis in January 1915. Enver Pasha, who later helped overthrow the Ottoman Sultan, led a poorly coordinated attack to retake Sarikamis from the Russians. The Ottoman Army was forced to retreat in disarray through the snowy mountains, with many of the 60 – 80,000 men who died during the conflict freezing to death.
The area was only returned to Turkey in 1921, with the signing of the Treaty of Kars. The agreement established the current borders between Turkey and Soviet Armenia and required Turkish troops to withdraw from an area roughly corresponding to the western half of Armenia’s present-day Shirak Province. Following this, Sarikamis was finally returned to Turkish control.
However, with all that unrest far behind them, visitors to the town and the ski resort are now free to enjoy the breathtaking and natural beauty at their leisure. Of course, if they are interested, it is possible to undertake a free history lesson in the process of wandering round the small town.
Nine ski runs adorn the sides of the mountain, which is partially covered by a forest of pine trees and one of the world’s longest pistes has just been completed. The snow itself is known as crystal snow, which is only found here and in the Alps and the average snowfall during the winter is over two metres. The skiing season is roughly 120 days of every year between December and March. Alongside Camurlu is another peak Cibilepe, which has a five-staged ski run and soars 2500 kilometres into the bright blue sky.
Most of the visitors to Sarikamis are Turkish skiers who come from the warmer west of the country and the number of English or Arabic speaking staff remains minimal. However, with several new hotels being built or in the planning stages, investment in the town and the ski restorts is growing. Within a few years, the town is expected to grow into one of Turkey’s most popular ski resorts.
Sunrise – Midday
Wake up in the early morning in Sarikamis to bright sunny days and gleaming white snow. From the Cemar Toprak Hotel, the ski resort’s prime accommodation lodge, it is possible to see the mountain and to take in the wide expanses of surrounding snow-covered plains as you sip on your morning coffee. The plains continue as far as the eye can see, ending at sets of sharp tipped mountains that add to the overall drama of the landscape.
First thing, head downstairs for a leisurely Turkish breakfast at the lodge’s restaurant. Fresh breads, jams, sweet honey, olives, peppers and fruit are the staples. Add fresh scrambled eggs (menemom), sausage (sucuk), pastirma (prosciutto), borek (pastry), and you quickly have a delicious feast to set you up for the day ahead.
After breakfast put on warm clothes and go down to the ski room where equipment can be rented or stored. The wooden room looks out onto the fresh snow banks and is sure to instill excitement for the day of skiing.
Directly from there, ski over to the lift, which is only a few hundred metres away. The Sarikamis skiing facilities are the largest in Turkey and the third largest in the world. It has the longest ski run in the country; a seven-kilometre piste that experienced skiers can reach high speeds on. Cross- country skiing is also available in the area. The lifts, two chairlifts and one T-bar, can handle 1800 people per hour, meaning that there will not be any wait to go up the mountain.
The Toprak Hotel offers quality ski instructors and guides who can be hired by the hour. Or one can consult the plentiful maps posted around the area and head up the mountain alone.
Midday – Sunset
The ski season in Sarikamis is roughly from the middle of December through to the middle of April, with an average of two or three metres of snow every year. The ski areas are at an altitude of 2100-2634 metres and the wind comes from the south and west. There are 25 kilometres of cross-country skiing over Sarikamis’ nine ski runs and the varying difficulties are enough to keep any skier or snowboarder well occupied. The first lap of the mountain is 2400 metres – a perfect entry level slope for beginners. The second lap is 2200 metres with four ski runs.
For those wanting to experience the snow and stunning nature at slower speeds, there are a plentiful number of trails on the mountain and in the surrounding plains for cross- country skiing. The region is home to 313 species of birds – including the Great Snipe, Little Crake, Syrian Woodpecker, Short-toed Lark and Siberian Stonechat. Not all these birds can be seen during the winter months, but the possibility still brings avid birdwatchers to the area. The surrounding wildlife adds another dimension to the skiing and other creatures are also spotted all year round. Thankfully, the wolves stay away from populated areas.
Remain on the slopes for as long as possible because as the later afternoon begins, the light changes slowly. The blues of the sky are reflected in the snow and bright reds and pinks play across the snow as wide expanses of the snowy plains offer a clear view of the slow sunset. Let the falling light call you back to your hotel for some relaxation after a day of skiing.
Sunset – Nightfall
Snow and skiing is what most of life in Sarikamis revolves around. But, once you have had your fill of the slopes, head back to your hotel for a brief rest and make sure you make the most of the après-ski.
All the hotels are fitted out with saunas and Turkish baths, gyms and indoor swimming pools. It is highly advisable to have a massage and spoil yourself a bit after the hard day’s skiing. After the massage, head to the Turkish baths, also known as the hamam. When you lie down on the heated stone washing table, a therapist will perform a deep cleansing scrub of your whole body. The experience can be extremely relaxing and afterwards most people find themselves feeling cleaner than they have in years!
So, feeling clean and refreshed, it is then time to head out and refuel yourself with dinner. It is probably easier to stay in your hotel than venture out for your evening meal, simply because in the hotel you will find a large and excellent selection of Turkish cuisine to satisfy even the most curious of tastebuds. However, if you are feeling more adventurous then why not hire a horse-drawn sleigh to take you into town and sample some of the restaurants there. That is a taxi ride that you are guaranteed to remember for a long time. Our choice was the Guleryurt Lokantasi, it served up a feast.
If you choose to stay in the hotel, you will not be disappointed. The hotels in Sarikamis attract some of best chefs working in Turkey’s tourism industry. During the summer months the chefs and many of the staff members, may be working at hotels along the beaches of Antalya or the Marmaris. But for the winters, Sarikamis’ exciting new scene is attracting some of the best in the business and visitors will be treated to a pleasant culinary experience. After dinner linger over a tea or coffee in the hotel’s lounge. The snowy weather makes the warmth of lounge all the more welcoming, plus you never know who you might meet there.
Nightfall – Sunrise
Given the plummeting temperatures, most visitors return to their hotels by the time night falls in Sarikamis. Yet for the more hardy adventurer the day does not end then. Some hotels arrange night-time walks through the snow with only candles and the light of the moon. The atmospheric experience is meant to connect visitors with nature and make them further appreciate their surroundings.
The hotels also have clubs for dancing and social rooms for the guests to meet each other. At the best hotels, there is traditional music played in the evenings, which is not to be missed. This region of Turkey has a unique blend of Turkish, Georgian, Armenian, Kurdish and Azeri cultures, not found anywhere else in the world, that only goes to enhance the ski experience in Sarikamis even more.