Bursa, Uludag, and the Case of the Missing Passport

You know those holidays where nothing seems to go to plan? The ones where flights are missed, hotel reservations are ‘misplaced’ and that bite on your hand from that wild monkey starts looking suspiciously rabid? I had one of those holidays recently. OK, so there were no rabid monkeys, but it still felt like if there was one of those ‘7 things you shouldn’t do abroad’ articles, I would have ticked off every single one.

It all started so well. We had just been informed that we would in fact get two weeks holiday for winter break instead of the one we had been promised. I had a flight to Tel Aviv booked for the second week, which meant there was a whole nine days to do something frivolous. My housemate Ali suggested going skiing for a couple of days in Uludağ, just across the Marmara Sea from Istanbul. A brother living in Bursa would provide suitable accommodations and a friend whose name sounded like ‘typhoon’ would transport us there in his car. We would ski, drink tea and make snowmen with olives for eyes because that’s how you do winter in Turkey.

The plan was set. We would leave Monday morning, bright and early.

Turkey in the snow.

Turkey in the snow.

Except that we didn’t. 24 hours later we were still sitting in our lounge room in Istanbul. Typhoon had somehow misplaced his car (how you manage to lose two tonnes of steel and glass I do not know) and had decided not to come. After hearing housemate Ali hit the snooze button for the fifth time on Tuesday morning, I decided to head to Bursa alone. Thankfully the fast ferries that ply the Marmara sea leave every hour and cost a mere 20 lira, so by mid-afternoon I was wandering the streets of Turkey’s fourth biggest city.

misty bursa

Bursa is a surprisingly charming place. Some cities are often associated with a particular colour; London is red, Barcelona is sun-burnt orange, and Istanbul is that rainbow-coloured ice cream that melted all over you when you were a kid. If Bursa had a colour, it would definitely be green. Everything here is ‘Yeşil’ something-or-other, including the main mosque and the grand old Ottoman tomb. It’s the colour of the awnings of Burger King and the uniforms of the municipality workers. Even the simit carts keep to the theme. There’s a lot more greenery than in Istanbul too. Maybe it was the fog shimmering down from the mountains, but despite its two million strong population, Bursa still manages to retain a village-like feeling.

DSCF5440

Thankfully the actual simits aren’t green.

But if you’re only going to do one thing in Bursa, it better be a delicious thing. The city is the home of my all-time favourite Turkish dish, Iskender. They think it was named after Alexander the Great, and it is exactly that. Kind of like a deconstructed kebab, it is a layer of pide bread smothered in butter-soaked lamb accompanied by a hefty side of yogurt. Sounds heavy? Oh yes, but it’s entirely delicious. You can find Iskender all over Turkey, but it’s here in Bursa that it originated. The first place to make Iskender is still around today, and is still run by the same family that started the craze all those years ago. I can safely say that it didn’t disappoint either – and it’s very dangerous when you can buy it by the portion.

It was late evening by the time housemate Ali’s entourage of family members showed up. Skiing was obviously out of the question. No matter, we would go first thing tomorrow. Ali’s brother drove us through the depressing outer suburbs of Bursa while Ahmet Kaya played in the vehicle’s cassette deck (!). Despite knowing zero English the family fed us obscene amounts of food and set us up on their plush sofabeds in their second living room. We went to bed early so we could awake early for skiing the next day. Staring at the ceiling, it struck me how similar Turkish suburban life actually is to every other western country on the planet.

I would happily eat Iskender for all of the meals.

I would happily eat Iskender for all of the meals.

It is when you are travelling that the Turks’ laissez-faire attitude to keeping to a schedule that is so endearing in regular life becomes somewhat problematic. Our 7.30 am departure time turned into 8.30, which turned into 10, which turned into ‘please stay for lunch we couldn’t have you go skiing on an empty stomach’. Five litres of tea later we finally made it to the base of the cable car that would whisk us into the clouds and deposit us at the base of the Uludağ ski fields around 1pm.

Except that it was closed, and had been for several years. Upon inquiring it turned out that our hosts had known this all along but had figured we would find another way when we got there. Numerous arm pointings and coarse words said in Turkish later, we were in a cab talking to a chemical engineer from Konya who had taken pity on us and offered to share a ride. But all the stress of the morning disappeared the moment the first snowflakes appeared on the windscreen. This was what we had come for.

There’s a reason Uludağ is Turkey’s premier winter sports resort. It could easily rival any of the big skiing destinations in Western Europe. It’s also incredibly cheap – rental gear only cost us 50 lira (about US$25) for the day, and the lift passes are only 40 lira. We arrived in the midst of a blizzard, which meant that while we couldn’t see ten metres in front of us, there was enough powder on the ground to cushion my numerous falls. It was at this point that I became aware of the fact that no-one in Ali’s family had ever skied before. After about ten minutes they all gave up and went for tea, leaving me to my own devices. I had no desire to be hurtling down a mountain with zero visibility so I kept to the amateur slopes. Thankfully, unlike Japan, I was at least as good as the children here.

I promised my housemate I wouldn't upload any photos of him falling over...but he doesn't know I have this blog.

I promised my housemate I wouldn’t upload any photos of him falling over…but he doesn’t know I have this blog.

Another evening of being dangerously close to being force-fed passed, and we gave up even trying to leave early the next day. It was at this point that I realised I hadn’t seen my passport for a while. Turning my bag inside out and the apartment upside down proved fruitless. Frantic calls to the cafes and restaurants we had frequented the day before drew blanks. I had broken Travel Rule Number One. I was in a foreign country with a flight to Israel the next day and no documents. Despite being so focused on not breaking a leg skiing so I wouldn’t ruin my holiday, it was a little A5 booklet that had been my demise.

We spent the day retracing our steps around town, all to no avail, and the afternoon in the police station trying to recount the story to the smirking polis officers. I’m pretty sure I heard the words ‘stupid foreigner’ at least five times in that office, which did wonders for improving my already incredibly low impression of the police force here. Eventually we received the required piece of paper confirming I was indeed a ‘stupid foreigner’, and dejectedly started heading for the ferry back to Istanbul.

We arrived at the terminal to a Vernon Dursley-esque figure yelling IPTAL! IPTAL! Turns out all the ferries were cancelled due to bad weather. At this point I wanted to let out an exasperated ‘OVVVV YA’ like one of my spoiled students, but thankfully there were plenty of whinging children around already doing just that. It was a good thing I couldn’t go to Israel anyway, because chances are I wouldn’t have even made the flight. It was another 24 hours before we would be back in Istanbul.

Thankfully the wonders of hindsight mean it’s easier to laugh now at the debacle of a holiday that was the Winter Break of 2014. Fortunately I was able to change my flights without losing too much money, and I am now even more determined to visit Israel and Palestine this summer. It also meant I had the time to explore a bit more of Turkey, which I ended up doing even though it’s technically illegal to go anywhere without your passport. Sure, a three day trip turned into a very expensive endeavour, but at least I got to ski…even if it was only for three hours.

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