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Published: March 11th 2008
"Do you want to come with us to Bursa this weekend?"
Klajdi, a friend in a few of my classes, was inviting me to crash an all-Albanian excursion to the former Ottoman capital. The plan was to drive through the night Friday, ski Saturday at Uludağ, thaw out in the evening at a hamam (Turkish bath), and then drive back to Ankara through the night Saturday. 30 YTL (about 25 USD) would include all transportation, three solid meals, and entrance to the hamam. Skiing was extra, but it proved to be dirt cheap - 5 YTL for equipment rental. It's not eveyday that you get invited to crash a big 'ol Albanian party. How could I refuse such an offer?
We gathered at the market in 100ncü Yıl (a neighborhood in Ankara) Friday night. I discovered that we were not just one small busload of male Albanian students, as I had been expecting. Klajdi pointed to three larger buses that were also part of our trip, saying "kızlar" (girls). Though we ended up not interacting with them at all throughout the weekend - not even so much as a "Chikami" (Albanian for hello).
After some greetings and introductions,
we boarded our "midibus" (uncomfortably small bus, for about 30 people or so) around 11:00 PM and headed out of Ankara. A hobbit would've found the lack of legspace dissappointing (please pardon this recycled reference - unfortunately bus travel all around the world is often an uncomfortable experience, even for people considerably shorter than me). An Albanian stand-up comedy DVD was played for the first part of the journey, and it's safe to say that I wasn't able to fully appreciate it. I tried my best to sleep a bit, and was somewhat successful.
Around 4:30 in the morning, we arrived in Bursa, and parked outside the stunning Ulu Camii, a massive 14th century mosque. The kızlar ran around, playing with their cameras, photographing one another in front of the fountain and next to the mosque. I wandered a bit, and then returned my groggy self to the midibus, to catch a little more sleep. About 3/4 of the guys on my bus went into the mosque for morning prayer.
After that, we went off to a large Turkish breakfast, where we met up with other groups of male Albanian students who had come in from İzmir, İstanbul,
or were at universities there, in Bursa. A Turkish professor who had worked at a university in Albania has been arranging such trips for a number of years now. He greeted everyone with hadshakes and a warm smile as we filled a large dining hall.
Fed, we boarded our midibus which climbed the steep, curvy road up Uludağ ("dağ" means mountain). Renting equipment was a rather chaotic experience - the queue could be compared to what you'd find in an Indian post office. There were no safety waivers; no forms of any kind, in fact. We paid our 5 YTL and were provided with some sorry-looking skis, boots, and poles. I was given poles of drastically different lengths - Klajdi, boots that didn't match. Eventually, we remedied all of this and headed for the lift.
Slope etiquette in Turkey seems to be modeled after driving etiquette. A friend adequately summed up the latter for me during my first visit to this country. She said that here everybody is responsible for their two front wheels, whereas in America drivers are responsible for their entire vehicles. This allows for brave, bold maneuvers to performed with the faith that the person
next to you/behind you will slam on his/her brakes, if necessary. Anyway, back to the mountain.
I learned that each lift is operated by a separate company AFTER we had bought an all-day pass on what proved to be not the ideal lift. If fact, there wasn't anything "lift" about it, it was more of a "pull." We sort of leaned against a bar and were dragged up the mountain. Interestingly, there was no area designated specifically for this purpose - uphill and downhill ski-ways were shared. I imagine that this has probably had some painful results at times, but, thankfully, nobody in our group was involved in any major collisions.
It was a warm, sunny day, which made for some slushy, sticky snow conditions. Despite my having skied only twice since 1996, I quickly realized that I was the advanced skier in our group (the sport does not exist in Albania). Still, the Albanians get points for sheer bravery. Some had never skied before, but believed that the best way to learn would be to start at the top and to point their skis directly towards the bottom. Compared to the wealthy, vacationing Turks, we looked like,
well, gearless freaks who did not belong on any ski slope. It was a fun afternoon, but the skiing was mediocre at best.
I asked where the kızlar where and was told that they weren't skiing. I don't really understand why they weren't as that seemed to be one of the main parts of the excursion. I guess they just hung out at the bottom and played with their cameras.
We returned to the midibus, ate, and then returned to Bursa. Klajdi and I left the group and returned to the Ulu Camii, where he prayed again. There we met up with Hatice, a Turkish classmate of ours who happened to just be home for the weekend. She took us to a museum which we ran through as there was only a half hour left before it closed. We parted ways and Klajdi and I walked accross town to meet up with the rest of the group in the same dining hall that we breakfasted in.
At dinner, I finally brought up the subject of Kosovo, curious to hear Albanian opinions on the issue (if you've missed it in the news in recent months, here's an inadequate
summary: Kosovo recently declared independence from Serbia, making it the world's newest country. Most of the world community supported this move. Serbia, however, said "hell no" and Russia agreed with Serbia, as it has many of its own Kosovo-type republics, like Chechnya, for example, which could follow suit. Kosovo is populated by an overwhelming majority of "Kosovar" Albanians.) Not much was really said about it. My fellow skiers said that they were pleased that Kosovo has declared independence, but did not offer much in the way of predictions. Will there be another big, messy war? Not sure. I guess being a native Balkan does not necessarily make understanding the complex and confusing situation in the region any easier to understand.
After dinner, we walked to the stunning Yeşil Camii, where most of our group prayed again. Utterly knackered, we piled back into the midibus and dozed for the ride to the hamam, which was in some little town in the middle of nowhere. Before going into the hamam, we went to yet another mosque so that those who wanted to could pray again. This one was just a spartan room above some shops, in striking contrast to the ancient,
that's Turkish for "Albania"
grand mosques that we had seen earlier that day in Bursa.
This was my first hamam and I guess it wasn't really the complete experience. There was no massive, hairy Turkish man on hand to do the scrub/massage thing that they have in the tourist brochures. Oh well. There was a dry sauna, but I think it was closed for the day. Basically, we just swam around in a large, hot swimming pool, next to which there was an even hotter hot tub, with jets and waterfalls. There were cold water faucets which the Albanians used to splash each other with when they weren't pushing one another into the pool. It was a very childish episode - presumably many American men would be too homophobic to engage in such activities. When in Rome...
Or when in Tirana... (the Albanian capital...)
Or when in the Turkish countryside...
We climbed back into the midibus, snacked, watched more Albanian stand up comdey DVD's, and tried our best to sleep as our driver drove through the night back to Ankara. We arrived before sunrise, sore and achy more from the midibus than from skiing.
Bursa, by the way, is stunning. Why
Where'd you get that sweatshirt?!?!
Klajdi's housemate - yet another Albanian, though he didn't go on the Bursa trip.
I was not expecting that from the former center of an empire that spanned six centuries, I'm not really sure. Gorgeous city - almost like İstanbul, but with less traffic.
Bursa çok güzel!
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