Babur Vatansever: Board Adventures from Turkey to Iran
As one of Turkey’s first professional freeriding snowboarders, Babür Vatansever never misses an opportunity to grab his board to roam the mountains and the seas of the country and discover new slopes and routes each time. We talked to him about his board adventures and some of the hotspots that one could discover during a long weekend from Istanbul all the way to Iran!
“Normally, the history of snowboard starts in 1977, when Jack Burton patented it. He is known as the inventor of the snowboard, but our ancestors were doing it here 300 years ago at Petran highlands of Rize!”
Hi Babür! Where are you now? What do you see around?
I am looking at a mountain from my car’s window. How are you? What do you see around?
I see the garden of the Vatican Embassy in Istanbul and its giant cypress trees from the window of my home office. Does the internet work well there? What is your secret to stay connected in the mountains?
I usually choose high places, looking for a 4.5G signal. I am currently very close to Antalya’s Saklıkent ski resort at an altitude of 1,500 meters.
Can we call you one of Turkey’s first freeriding snowboarders? What does “freeride” mean? Don’t you like staying within the borderlines?
You know that I have a snowboarding career. The history of this sport goes back to people climbing up and sliding down slopes off-piste, rather than staying at ski resorts. We call it “freeride” or lately “backcountry”. In the early days of the sport, snowboarders were not allowed into the ski resorts. The first generation of boarders used to hang out guerrilla-style. I remember the times that I was not allowed into the ski runs of Beceren resort during the late 80s and early 90s. Then snowboard became a subculture and repositioned itself at the “core” of winter sports. Snowboard parks have been built and freestyle snowboarding became popular. Together with a few friends, I am one of the kick-starters of this sport in Turkey.
ULUDAĞ IS THE MOUNTAIN THAT TAUGHT ME SNOWBOARD
When did snowboard take off in Turkey?
It was a prohibited sport in the early 1990s, but became popular after 1995 or 96 -an impact first coming from America and then Europe. It was interesting for people to see someone flipping on air at the freestyle snowboard shows that I have also taken part in since 1999. Gradually its popularity has grown, and in some cases, snowboard has become even more popular in Turkey than in Europe. We have experienced this process from the beginning to the end.
Is Uludağ the mountain that thought you how to snowboard?
Yes, I was born in Bursa. As I was good at drawing cartoons, people advised me to go to Istanbul to make progress as a cartoon artist. “I can’t stay away from Uludağ,” I said and applied to the Department of Painting at Uludağ University. I didn’t want to break away from the mountain at the time. I used the school as a screen and went up the mountain to snowboard, whenever I could.
What could you tell us about Uludağ that most people don’t know?
Uludağ used to be a really beautiful mountain… I remember the times that it was a pristine and untouched place. You can imagine Uludağ as a Swiss roll. We only see the front side of that cake. Actually, it is a long mountain range extending backward up to İnegöl. Its real peak is not even visible. We, as a group of friends, love going to the backside of the mountain with snowmobiles and snowboarding there on the slopes nobody knows.
In fact, Uludağ has many other virtues. I was there years ago when they first tried to open the mountain for summer tourism. As far as I know, it is also the mountain where the first star observations were made in Turkey. It is a legendary mountain itself, known as “Olympos of Mysia” in ancient times…
Of course, the place was frequented by monks in ancient times. There are still monks’ huts up there. In fact, the mountain has a larger potential and winter tourism is just a smaller aspect. There is so much more to do there -so many spots to explore for natural sports and activities. Its endemic structure is also very special. The backside of the mountain has completely different geography, and the southern slopes are completely different as well. I still go there to camp from time to time. Nowadays, I’m on the hunt for wilder snowboard adventures. That’s why we are going to parts unknown, where there are no ski resorts. Uludağ will always stay special to me, though. I would go for a visit whenever I get a call from her.
SURF AND SNOWBOARD WITHIN THE SAME DAY
You have explored almost all other high mountains of Turkey… Is there anyone that you have not climbed yet?
I usually get suggestions from my followers on social media. A new proposal came the other day, for example, and someone informed me about a mountain with good snow quality, located 50-60 kilometers behind the city of Mersin. I am thinking of exploring it the first chance I get. Last winter, I discovered the Ovit mountain in Rize accidently. The Kaçkar Mountains have amazing geography too!
A few years ago, you were in the same area to shoot a video, right?
I was in Petran, a lower plateau near Ovit. The villagers have been snowboarding there for hundreds of years! I wish you could see it now, but I have a Petran board hanged in front of my caravan. The story is very interesting. The villagers remember that they have been living in Petran Plateau for about 300 years (i.e. 4-5 generations). It is a very high plateau; the slopes are very steep indeed. The place resembles the Alps. There is also alpine pasture on the ground that results in a good snow cover. When there is a lot of snow, villagers need a hard ground to pray outdoors. For that purpose, they manufactured these boards. Then they discovered that they can also slide on snow with these boards. They tie a rope to one end of the board and go to the village just below to get supplies. A 60-year-old man named Hızır Havuz, who manufactures Petran boards, told us that they even use it for hunting. They put the hunted animal on it to come back. Walking down takes an hour, but skiing takes just 5 minutes. When I saw a 70-year-old granny sliding down on a Petran board, I realized that this is not a kind of entertainment or sport for them, but a way of living. Soon, the whole world heard about Petran board. World-famous snowboarders visited Turkey to see the place. Normally, the history of snowboard starts in 1977, when Jack Burton patented it. He is known as the inventor of the snowboard, but our ancestors were doing it here 300 years ago!
Let’s get down from the mountain to the sea now! You are also interested in water sports. Do you make sudden shifts from the mountains to the seas within the same season?
Normally I would go to Ovit Mountain around this time (in December), but I heard that a storm was coming to Alanya! This means that the wave is coming. Although it’s on the Mediterranean coast, Alanya receives ocean-like big waves suitable for surfing but people don’t know much about that. I will stay in the mountains tonight, and will go down to Alanya for surfing tomorrow. Last year, we were here to surf. We got up at around 6-7 am in the morning and jumped to the water to surf until about 11:00 am. When the waves started to get smaller, a crazy idea just popped into our heads. We dried our hair, took off our suits, grabbed our snowboards and went up Akdağ Mountain soaring behind the city of Alanya. We snowboarded on the same day! I am thinking of filming this soon, as you cannot do it in many places. The surf town of Biarritz, in France, also allows you to do it. The town lies at the foot of the Pyrenees, and it is possible to snowboard a few hours from the beach.
RIDING DOWN A SAND DUNE IN IRAN
Could you tell us about your trip to Iran?
Iran was definitely one of the adventures of a lifetime! For years I have been exploring the coasts and mountains of Europe. I like jumping in my car and drive from Turkey up to Austria or Valencia -surfing, skateboarding or snowboarding on glaciers along the way. Now, the East started calling me. Last year, I hosted an Iranian snowboarder named Farisi Sasani in Turkey and included him in one of our adventures. He has been inviting me to his country ever since. One day, I called him and said, “I’m coming tomorrow,” He said, “Fly to Tabriz, and we will welcome you there.” “No!” I said, “I’ll drive, not fly.” It came as a bit of a shock to him. I jumped on my car, and the videographer Bulut Şahin has also joined me along the way. We drove off overland up to Iran! We entered the country the day before New Year’s Eve, on December 30th. We had a good day or two days in Tabriz. Tabriz is an astonishing city where Turkish / Azerbaijani origin people predominate. The most chaotic traffic I’ve ever seen in my life was there. It feels like an ancient place that has been teleported to our day. Old habits and covered bazaars live along with modern ways. Iranian people literally live on another time. They have a different calendar*. They were living in the 1390s when I was there.
Isn’t it a kind of Hijri calendar?
They said it is completely unique to them, only valid in Iran. They have a very distinct culture. Eating and drinking habits are completely different. They serve food in trays. We wasted all the food, until we got used to it. After Tabriz, we went to Tehran. There are ski resorts behind Tehran. It is a huge ski area, like Trois Vallee (Three Valleys) in France. The peaks of Şimşek, Dizin, and Derbendser are all lined up behind the city -mountaineers know the last one very well. They have beautiful facilities, but all have been built in the 1970s, during the Shah’s regime. There are bubble-shaped cabins and cable cars, as if they came out of science-fiction movies imagining the 2000s from the 1970s. While we were in Tehran, an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani was assassinated and there was a minor shock in the country. I usually do not panic in such situations and listen to the local people. My friend said, “Brother, this is Iran. Such things always happen between Iran and America. No problem!” Then, the ski resorts were shut down for three days. While we were thinking about what to do for three days, I remembered an Instagram message. A boy who heard us enter Iran had welcomed me on social media and asked: “Have you ever sandboarded in the desert?” Honestly, I did not think about it much at the time. But why not, as the ski resorts had already been shut down! The boy’s name was Arman. I texted him and asked: “Is your offer still valid?” He said, “Sure! We need to drive 600 kilometers towards Shiraz to enter the Maranjab Desert. I can arrange a 600-year-old caravanserai, and we would stay there.”
Like a dream!
We hopped on our car and set off. At the entrance of the desert, Arman said, “We need to deflate the tires.” We deflated tires from 40 PSI down to 15 PSI. That was not enough and the car sank into the sand after we proceeded 100 meters. We reduced it to 10 PSI up to a point where there was almost no air in the tires anymore! Then, the whole traction of the car changed and we continued for 150 kilometers in the desert like this. We slid down the dunes along the road and lit a fire in the middle of the desert. Arman made us burgers, desert style. As it got dark, we began to hear the voices of desert foxes and see the sparkle of their eyes around. We finally arrived at a caravanserai with domes made of natural stones. There was a large courtyard and a water well in the middle. And of course, camels… It was one of the most interesting sights I have ever seen in my life!
Would you go there again?
I would go 10 more times! If the borders were not closed, I was ready to go as far as Turkmenistan to snowboard in the tundras at remote spots only reached on a horseback. Now, I want to explore the East more.
“This summer, I want to have a primitive sailing experience with my tirhandil boat for about a month, without turning on its engine and only using its ancient sailing gear.”
I know that you are producing a TV program…
Coşkun Aral, you know, is an important documentary filmmaker. His team has found a TV channel, called Habitat TV. They thought I would be a suitable candidate for producing programs about extreme sports. They made me an offer, and I accepted it. My program titled “Never Stop” is currently broadcasted on Habitat TV. It shows whatever happens to me during my sports adventures. It is a program where we document whatever happens -even the times when we fail to reach a target for various reasons. I intend to continue with this program in the long run.
And you have also starred in a movie…
Yes, it was the first time I acted in a movie. I liked the subject matter. It is a kind of scientific outdoor thriller with some dark sides, but we are not talking about clichés like gins, devils or fairies here. I acted as a tour guide named “Mert”. It was a role created for me! That’s why I did not have much difficulty. Now, we are waiting for the favorable conditions for the film to be broadcast.
Where did you shoot the movie?
We shot it in the range of Aladağlar (Crimson Mountains) in Niğde. While I was there, I understood why they call these mountains “Crimson”. Iron is abundant in the composition of the mountains, I guess, and they have a red hue that gets even brighter at sundown. Foreign climbers know this place very well. I even met a mountaineer who came from Japan, driving his car all the way across Asia! A tiny right-handed car. I was shocked when I saw the Japanese license plate. The villagers carry supplies up to the mountain on horses, along dangerous cliffside paths. It is almost a sector now. Cute hostels have opened. I enjoyed Niğde a lot!
Would you tell me three places that you feel more liberated in Turkey?
Strangely enough, one of them is Antalya! I don’t know how people feel about Antalya, as it is quite hot during the high season, but I can have all kinds of experiences there. I can surf the waves; I can go out for a walk in the plateaus and canyons; I can ski during the winter. The second would be the Kaçkar Mountains. It is the only place where I can fully feel wild nature. For the third one, I need to think a little bit. I have been living in Bodrum recently. There are still very special spots that most people haven’t even heard of. I’m not so sure about the third though…
What are your plans for near future?
There are two things that I think will keep me busy… My cousin has a garage where he restores classical American cars. Without even knowing it, we happened to buy a very rare car. Do you remember that famous automobile called KITT in the 1980s series Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff? The series became so popular that the car producer Pontiac released a remake of this model as “Trans Am GTA WS6”. Only 228 of this model have been produced. We bought this car after seeing it at a photo where it looked very scrappy. We realized how valuable it actually was after we bought it. It was like winning the national lottery! When we finish its restoration, it will be one of its kind in Turkey. I like this excitement! Now I have collected around 6-7 cars, and we turned my cousin’s workshop in Maslak into a showroom. Here we’re bringing American cars back to life. Recently, we went to Safranbolu recently, for example, to buy a very rare car that we found out there. It is a VIP Van from Chevrolet. The owner had not advertised it for sale. Although the owners of classical cars usually do not like the idea of selling them, the majority is unable to restore their cars too. So, we talk to them to see if we can undertake the task of restoring it, or alternatively if we can buy it.
I also have a small boat. A wooden, old tirhandil** with a story. Sadun Boro***, a celebrated name among Turkish sailors, commissioned this boat to a Greek boatbuilder from Urla for a friend. I own the boat now and have just completed its restoration. We painted the boat in white and mint green. Next summer, I want to have a primitive sailing experience with that boat for about a month, without turning on its engine (only using its ancient sailing gear).
What is your next dream destination?
For some reason, I have never visited Portugal over the years. I either ran out of money or something happened when I reached the country’s borders. I would like to surf there.
Where the world ends****!
Yes, where the world ends…
To follow adventures of Babür Vatansever on Instagram: @baburvatansever
* Iranians use Persian or Jalali Calendar, which is a solar calendar only used in Iran and Afghanistan. This is a Hijri calendar based on a solar year, while Arabic countries use a Hijri calendar based on a lunar year, which is 11 days shorter than the solar year. Turkey, on the other hand, started using the Gregorian calendar like other European counties, after Ottoman Empire shattered and the Republic of Turkey has been declared at the start of the 1920s.
** It is known that tirhandils, which were used by sponge divers in Bodrum until recently, were brought to the Aegean shores by the Cretans after the big population exchange that took place between Turkey and Greece after the Independence War in Turkey (1919 – 1923).
*** The first Turkish sailor to travel around the world on his sailing boat Kısmet between 1965 and 1968.
**** Portugal was the end of the known world until the mid-1400s, when the Portuguese sailors developed their navigational skills to explore the dark waters of the Atlantic, which was formerly believed to be full of mythological sea monsters.