Unearthed Traditions: The Ancestry of Snowboarding in the Middle East

Nick Russell and Alex Yoder, modelling the traditional jubbas (robes) with their personal Western world shred crafts.

words :: Nick Russell photos :: WRKSHRT

Several times a day, the prayer call rings loud over the mosque’s loudspeaker. It’s crackly sound system echoes throughout the village—a stark reminder of how far from home we really are. Situated below the Black Sea on the border of Georgia lies the Kaçkar Mountains in Eastern Turkey. Isolated from the major metropolitan city of Istanbul and any inklings of Western society, the small village of Petran sits secluded in the foothills of the range and is home to perhaps the oldest standing traditions of snowboard ancestry. 

I use the term snowboard loosely, as the local word is technically, uzmetatasi, which in the Black Sea dialect translates to, “a plank that slides and floats.” Depending on who you talk to, the stories date back anywhere from centuries to thousands of years ago. As the legend goes, a young boy was once tasked with cleaning his father’s wooden prayer mat. One day, rather than using his hands to clean it how he normally would, he took it outside to wash in the snow with his feet. He found that with the right angle, he could stand on the mat and glide down the hill. A basic foundation of snowboarding.

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While the majority our crew’s snowboard expeditions are generally focused around snowfall and geographical features jutting into the sky, the motivation for this specific trip was to delve deeper into vague rumours passed down the pipeline of an ancient board riding culture in the Middle East. Fellow snowboarder, Alex Yoder was intrigued enough to join on the trip, as were the masterminds behind WRKSHRT media, Wade Dunstan and David Cleeland. We were out of our element and lost in translation, but for nearly two weeks we engulfed ourselves in a predominantly Muslim community and explored the common thread:  a love for standing sideways on a piece of wood. 

Carried through multiple generations, this means of sliding along a snowy fall line has become a pure simple pleasure unique to this small corner of the globe. The locals call them Petran boards—primal in design, each handmade board is different from the next yet follows the same basic construction. Hammer a few planks of wood together with finishing nails, rub some cow fat on the bottom as wax and you’re ready to go. Though diverse manoeuvering isn’t necessarily a strong-suit of these boards’ functionalities, their true colours shine on a 20-degree slope in fresh snow.

A little man rapper, lyrically making fun of the local politicians.

Hizir Havuz, a man whom Yoder stumbled across via Facebook, acted as our guide and history teacher while in Petran. With a quiver of over a dozen boards in the storage room of his mountainside workshop, it was clear that this was more than a hobby for Hizir. We couldn’t understand a word of each other’s respective languages, but the passion for his craft was evident in his eyes. 

It’s always a major gamble traveling across the world to partake in an activity dictated by weather. However, with a snowboard you have bindings and edges, making variable snow manageable. Riding a Petran board on the other hand, requires the increasingly rare ingredients of a perfect mid-winter storm. A day after our arrival, the odds were in our favour; cold temperatures, minimal winds and low-density snow. Hizir’s playground stood faultlessly primed with an unblemished coat of white flakes—we took full advantage of the situation. Grinning the entire time, he graciously shared his favourite runs around the village with us. We’d take turns setting a knee-deep bootpack, lapping each zone until the powder was tracked out and then move on to the next.

Alex Yoder swapping over to a secured-foot board to catch some air time.

The majority of the people we saw riding seemed to be in their 40s or 50s, the oldest in his 70s. Passed down from the elders above, the people of Petran have been riding for their entire lives on these contours literally outside their doorsteps. When the conditions permit, Petran boarders can be found taking runs until it’s too dark to see. 

Though the language barrier was far too steep to climb, we had discovered the most direct route to a personal connection. After hiking up and riding down gentle slopes on wooden planks for hours on end, we’d share tea around the wood burning stove with no words to speak but only honest conversation through smiles and nods. Preconceived notions of differences between Western and Eastern ideologies can be common amongst many of us. But when you boil it all down, we’re not so different. Sometimes all it takes is a piece of wood and a hill to come to that realization.—ML