Monday, 2 November 2015

Turkey’s Black Sea Mountains

During an epic road trip driving full circle around the Black Sea, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, explore the high pasture village of Ayder in the Kackar mountains, in a region of Anatolian Turkey that is home to the Hemsin and the legend of the Laz Big foot.

Turkey's Pontic Alps. The Kackar Mountains. Photo by Simon Raven
Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

Waving farewell to Georgia we enter ancient Anatolia. The land rises steeply into the lush green Pontic Alps, a mountain range that stretches parallel with the southern Black Sea coast for a thousand kilometres. Located directly south across this geological barrier is Mount Ararat on the Armenian border, and the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast of the country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Curious to explore these mysterious green mountains that are covered by alder, chestnuts and hornbeams, we continue west on the E70 highway to the small coastal town of Ardesen. Si turns sharply inland, and we pass tea growing on the hillside and climb steadily through the Firtina gorge into the rugged Kackar Mountains. This picturesque region is home to the highest part of the Pontic Mountains, with the tallest peak, Kackar Dagi, reaching an elevation of 3,937 metres. An elderly woman cranks a handle and sends a small basket along a winch wire to the wooden tea houses on the other side of the gorge. Turkey is the fifth largest producer of tea in the world. It was introduced to Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s, and was offered as an alternative to coffee which had become expensive and comparatively rare.

The road becomes incredibly steep as we enter the Kackar Mountains National Park; a region that is home to the rare Caucasian black grouse, salamanders and brown bears. Si grits his teeth as we squeeze past vehicles descending the mountain on a knife-edge. Driving through shallow streams we eventually arrive in the beautiful high-pasture village of Ayder. Hearing the Muslim call to prayer echo across the forest from a distant mountain mosque, I’m surprised to see a heaving mass of local day trippers spread out on picnic blankets across the hillside. Men attend to smoking charcoal barbecues, and women wearing colourful headscarves prepare salad and make tea in double-bodied teapots. We pass a girl walking along the roadside wearing a full length black burka with running shoes, which looks fantastically strange in this remote mountain location. A group of young guys wearing smartly fitted shirts sit in a circle and smoke a hooker pipe, the sweet smell of apple molasses drifts on the warm breeze. We mooch around the souvenir shops close to a row of charming alpine chalets and snack on Labana Sarmasi (stuffed cabbage rolls). 

Among the crowds of people, Si points out a woman wearing a traditional orange and red pattern Hemsin hijab that is decorated around the fringe with distressed silver metal coins. With a population numbering around 20,000 people, the local Hemsin community, who inhabit this remote southeast corner of the Black Sea, are descendants of Armenians who converted to Islam many centuries ago. They still speak Hamshenian, an old west Armenian dialect and have their own customs and dress. The Hemsin have taken on the role as tea farmers and river fisherman and, more recently, they are servicing the tourist industry that appears to have blossomed here in recent years. Reading from his notes, Si reveals the Hemsin can sometimes be seen in the summer months dancing the “horon” to music played by an instrument called a “tulum” that sounds similar to the bagpipes. I smile at the thought of the reluctant modern Hemsin teenagers being forced by grandma to perform a dance that is a cross between the conga and the hokey-cokey.

Winding our way back down the mountain road, we find a quiet spot to set up camp. Making a small fire, we flame grill lamb chops with fresh wild mint and drink copious amounts of homemade Georgian wine beneath a clear night sky. In the eerie shadows of the forest, with the flickering fire illuminating our faces, Si tells the story of the Laz Big Foot. In Laz folklore, this giant mythological creature covered in fur is rumoured to live in these mountains. Called a Germakoci, it is said to walk on two legs like a human and would sometimes approach hunters in the high forest. Steeped in myth and legend, both Laz and Hemsin culture are rich in rules, superstitions and folklore that have assisted their survival and kept their children safe in these mountains. Si laughs at my concerned expression, but we both drop our smiles when we hear a strange hacking noise deep within the forest. Extinguishing the fire we call it a night and return to the relative safety of the Volvo.

The morning sun rises over the towering mountain peaks as we return through the picturesque Firtina gorge. Reaching the small town of Camlihemsin, we stumble across a local tea room. A group of elderly gentlemen sit on the pavement outside and Si greets them with a cheery “günaydin”. The friendly owner, Silim, welcomes us inside. We study a photo on the wall of a man standing next to a bull.

‘My father,’ he smiles, offering us both a small tulip shaped glass of Black Sea tea.

We learn that Silim’s father passed away quite recently and that the bull in the photo was called JR. A champion in the ring for two years running, we are fascinated to discover that during the mating season local Hemsin people can enter their bulls into a competition and watch them fight. JR apparently lived for ten years and when he died they had eaten him. Silim looks slightly ashamed, so I raise a toast to JR with my tea and we all clink glasses. Si asks Silim if he is Laz or Hemsin. He straightens his posture and proudly reveals that he is Hemsin, and explains that Hemsin and Laz people do not like each other. He knocks his fists together. They are clearly rivals. Admiring a large cast iron wood burner in the centre of the room, with a long pipe protruding out of the back, we are reminded that it gets cold here during the winter months. I imagine local men crowding around this fine wood burner drinking tea and eating Labana Sarmasi. I ask Silim how long the tea house has been here, and he scribbles down 1958. His father built the place with his bare hands. An old Turkish gentleman smoking a cigarette walks into the tea shop, but Silim snaps at him and turns him away. He explains smoking is prohibited in his tea room.

Enjoying a second cup of Black Sea tea, Silim holds his glass up to the sunlight and examines the strong red liquid with tea leaves floating at the bottom. Dropping a sugar cube into the glass, he gives it a quick stir with a miniature silver spoon and proudly informs us that his tea is organic with no artificial chemicals or fertilisers used in its production. Appearing to enjoy our interaction, he shows us photos on his mobile phone of river trout he caught further upstream, an electric smoke machine he bought recently for keeping bees and pictures of his dogs. Inviting us to meet his canine companions, Silim leads us around the side of the building. The river rushes through the valley a few metres away, and we look up into the green hills that disappear into the mist. Two huge Anatolian Shepherd dogs, the beige colour of lions, suddenly appear from out of the murky darkness and bark excitedly at the cellar bars. Silim commands them to heel. Unlocking the gates, he steps inside and the dogs leap up at him. Silim invites us to stroke them, but I hesitate at first before gently patting one of the huge dogs on the top of its head. Its tongue hangs from the corner of its mouth and it looks up at me with big watery eyes. Si reaches out a hand to stroke the second canine and it releases a deep bone shattering bark, before playfully leaping up at him and licking his face. Si looks petrified and Silim bursts out laughing. Returning to the front of the café, we sit in the sunshine with the group of old men and watch the passing traffic. After a final glass of tea, we pull ourselves away and leave Silim and his mountain paradise with the feeling that here in the Kackar mountains we have a new friend.

by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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