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Bosnia's back in the snow biz

WINTER HOLIDAYS ISSUE

Creaky lifts, so-so trails, land mines -- and shrugs. It's all part of the charm at the Jahorina ski resort.

December 14, 2008|Peter Frick-Wright | Frick-Wright is a freelance writer.

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — There is a saying that visitors and locals alike use at the Jahorina ski resort, just outside Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. They use it when they want to invoke the problems of a country a decade removed from a brutal war without getting into specifics. They use it when they're trying to convey the frustrations of running a business in their young year-old nation to a passing travel writer; they use it to explain to the same writer that his traveler's checks might as well be newspaper.

They can say it without saying it, exactly. The shrugging shoulders, raised eyebrows and palms skyward at hip level all connote the same, catchall phrase that means, "There's nothing I can do for you." But you'll hear it spelled out too. When a broken sewage line adds aroma to the five-minute walk to the slopes, or when the chair lift closes abruptly and skiers have to hike back to their cars with nary an explanation or free hot cocoa vouchers for the trouble. "Oh well," they say, because this is part of the fun, the experience. "This is Bosnia."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Skiing in Bosnia: An article in Sunday's Travel section about skiing in Bosnia-Herzegovina referred to it as a "young year-old nation." Bosnia gained its independence in the 1990s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Bosnia ski resort: An article in the Dec. 14 Travel section about skiing in Bosnia-Herzegovina translated the word pazi, as "mines." Pazi means "warning."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 21, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Skiing in Bosnia -- An article in last week's section about skiing in Bosnia-Herzegovina incorrectly referred to it as a "young year-old nation." Bosnia gained its independence in the 1990s. Also, the article mistakenly translated the word pazi, as "mines." Pazi means "warning."

Another popular expression says that Bosnia is so mountainous that if it were rolled out flat, it would be the size of Russia. That's not quite true, but I came to enjoy that geology and spend some time on my snowboard anyway. For the price of a lift ticket at home, I could nearly get a season pass at Jahorina resort, a roughly 6,000-foot peak in the Dinaric Alps near the center of the former Yugoslavia.

The mountain itself is firmly average, compared with resorts of similar size: 12.5 miles of moderately steep trails plunge down a vertical drop of 1,932 feet. The terrain park consists of a rail and a small jump near the base of one of the 10 lifts, which can move 7,500 skiers per hour.

To get to one of the creaky, aging two-seater chairlifts that serve most of the mountain, you must first pass a creaky, aging man or woman with a tan face and hard eyes selling juices, candy bars and rakija -- the local brandy -- served in plastic shot glasses. These vendors work from open to close, seven days a week, with ample new inventory stashed in backpacks under their tables.

After a 15-minute ride to the summit, a glance northwest reveals the weather in Sarajevo, about 20 miles away. Sarajevo is known for its foggy winters and the inverted pressure system that holds in the weather and delays planes out of its airport. Oddly, the foggier it is in Sarajevo, the higher SPF you'll need at Jahorina.

Four of the 10 lifts at Jahorina are of the button variety, which aren't seen much in the States. Think of a rope tow that pulls from your hamstrings. Snowboarders abhor them and vice-versa. One unsuccessful (and embarrassing) attempt to ride a button lift earned me a stern recommendation from an operator that I contain my future rides to one of the six 1980s-era two-seaters that serve the rest of the mountain.

These same lift operators -- and the guy in charge of grabbing the chair as it swings around so it doesn't hit you too hard in the rear -- will be dispatched to rescue you if you venture into the ample backcountry off the back side of the mountain and get lost. The rescue expedition will require that the lifts be shut down and create a very annoyed line of skiers and snowboarders, but you'll have to stick around and listen in on the conversation to figure this out.

Direct questions are met with hostility, and responses change as to why the lift has been shut down. Resort websites list the problem as fluctuations in the power supply that are beyond the lift operators' control; a public forum addressing every aspect of the resort mentions nothing about lost skiers. You expected a straight answer? Please. This is Bosnia.

"If you're looking for adventure, you may find too much." That's Romeo Markovic, a snowboarder I encountered while hiking for powder on the backside of the mountain. We're in a lift-top lodge with a wood-fire cooking pit at the end of the day, discussing everything Bosnia. He's just profiled me perfectly: a desk-bound 9-to-5er looking for adventure during my travels; I thought I had him pegged as a life-long ski bum.

Turns out he has a biotechnology doctorate and his own company. He's prone to sticking out his tongue and crowing when he rides off on his snowmobile; he's already started a conversation with the two women sitting down at the table next to us.

By "too much adventure," I assume Romeo is speaking of unexploded ordnance from the war in Bosnia in the '90s. The area has yet to be completely de-mined, and a sign on the western out-of-bounds marker warns of pazi -- mines.

But Bosnians aren't too worried about mines anymore. Least of all, it seems, at Jahorina, where skiers shrug off questions about the skull and crossbones sign near an out-of-bounds marker. The military kept records of mine locations and although a few of those papers were lost, most of the dangerous locations are known.

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