In the early morning, Nesrin, our logistics coordinator, talks the bus driver into continuing all the way up to Ayder, one of the villages at the trail ends. The scenery is alpine with lush pastures, tea plantations, a thick forest (almost a rain forest), tumbling rivers, waterfalls, summits roaring up to almost 4,000m, and villages of wooden chalets. This is a little-known area of Turkey, and foreigners seeing photos of it tend to think they were taken in Switzerland, unless they see a mosque somewhere! We don't set out immediately as we have a "mission" to fulfill first, so we check into a very spartan hut and have breakfast in a nearby "lokanta".
The METU students now wear T-shirts and start distributing stickers and posting fliers regarding that mission, so as to enroll some locals to help out. The mission is called:
Indeed, Ayder is straining under its popularity as a Sunday picnic spot, and, today being a Sunday, we get a first-hand illustration of what this means. Bumper to bumper traffic creeps up and down the narrow roads to and through Ayder, and eventually gridlocks the entire village. Cars are parked absolutely anywhere, and spill out entire families and their picnic gear onto some nearby grassy patch. It's all a very Turkish tradition (if the word "picnic" didn't exist, the Turks would have invented it), right at the core of their intact family values. They barbecue and eat what they brought along, drink streams of tea and "rakI" (a Turkish aniseed alcohol), smoke themselves into oblivion, listen to music from radios and tapes, and sometimes even perform the music themselves. The music in this area is by the way very different from other music in Turkey, especially due to the very characteristic tunes of the "kemenše" (lap fiddle) and "tulum" (bagpipe). Indeed, there is a colorful quilt of people living here: Turks, HemSin, Laz, Georgians, ..., both Christian and Muslim. The same holds for fashion, well, at least for the way women dress, as Muslim men are rarely the most colorful dressers: the local headdress ("poSu") of women is one of the most beautiful I've seen anywhere in the world. The children are entertained, football and volleyball are played, there is endless gossiping with neighbors, and so on. Go to any city park or grassy patch in Turkey on a Sunday afternoon to get a lesson in family values! Taking a walk is not at all popular in Turkey, because walking (and cycling) for one's own pleasure is largely frowned upon as a useless waste of energy.
Now, unfortunately, this nice tradition is endangering Turkey's nature since recent decades, because of the paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass that come along with modern picnics. Average Turks seem to have absolutely no concern about the cleanliness of nature and even of the immediate vicinities of their own houses: trash is left where it occurred, with often no effort of collecting it or using (mostly inexistent) trash cans. This is no problem with biodegradable trash, but "modern" trash amounts to so much more than that. Only water, wind, and time will "take care" of it, and I don't tell you what the surroundings of villages sometimes look like. I have seen "official" picnic spots that looked like dump yards to me, and if it weren't for people happily picnicking in midst of this waste, I would have decided they were dump yards! I have seen people drive their trash a few hundred meters out of their village and dump it at curb-sides of tremendous natural beauty. Now, I know that such abuse of Nature exists back home as well (idiots doing such things are called "rednecks" or something similar), and I also do not mean to imply that Turks live in dirt. On the contrary: Turks do have a sense of cleanliness, and of pride about it, but only within their homes! Anything outside their houses is irrelevant, it's the inside that counts (I ignore whether this is a consequence or a cause of their spiritual values)! But, I repeat, in these times of not-so-quickly-degradable trash, it is an absolute necessity that Turks learn how to take care of Nature, lest their entire country will soon resemble a dump yard.
Anyway, back to my story: at 2pm, we start moving through the village with trash bags. Only a handful local volunteers actually join us, the rest of the locals and picnicking visitors just stare at us, in total disbelief of our stupidity: it has always been like this, they probably think, and the trash has always disappeared with time (guess where!), so what is the point of collecting it now? As our procession slowly moves up the village, the enormity of our undertaking becomes clear: there is no way we can collect all the accumulated trash that hasn't been "taken care of" yet by the elements. Our bags soon strain under their weights, but airborne plastic bags are somehow always at hand to keep us going. Eventually, after many cubic meters of trash, most picked up right under the noses of bewildered picnickers or from the slopes and bushes just beyond their picnic spots, we stop, in front of some pension. Its owner is so enthusiastic about what we just did that he invites us all for dinner tonight! And the municipality offers us a free trip to the village "hamam" (which is fed by natural hot-springs) in the evening! But somehow we can't get rid of the feeling that this is a Sisyphus Battle, and that it will take many more such demonstrations before the right habits pick up!
After idling in the "hamam" for a while, and enjoying the dinner offered by that pension owner, and a good night's sleep in the cramped quarters of the rented hut, we set out in the late morning of the day after. One truck transports all our backpacks and some of us up the hill to our trail head at the last "yayla" (see the fourth edition of this diary for a definition), and another truck loads the rest of us for the two-hour-ride. We are packed like sheep in there, and amuse the villagers by an appropriate concert of "bah-bah" grunts. The scenery is spell-binding, and, as we creep higher, the daily afternoon mist (we are on the northern, Black Sea slope) descends on us. At the YukarI Kavron "yayla", we get off, collect our backpacks, sip a last hot tea, and set out in a thick fog and drizzling rain. A villager leads the way across the pastures and over little rivulets of water, as we'd probably never have found the uninhabited pasture further up in the mountains, where we shall spend our first night. He shows us the wild orchid from the roots of which "salep" is made ("salep" is a very tasty drink made by grinding that root into hot milk and topping it all with cinnamon; it can be found everywhere in the winter, just like "boza", which is a mildly fermented millet drink, but served cold). By the time we get to the meadow, we are all soaked to the bones, so it fortunately doesn't matter much to those unlucky two girls who slipped into the water during the trek. As the night falls, the relentless rain continues and the cold creeps into our clothing. Keeping the territorial-minded domestic bulls at bay, we pitch our tents, crawl into our sleeping bags, and cook dinner inside our tents. Morale is low, but we all hope for better weather tomorrow.
The sun is out in the early morning, so we stretch out all our wet stuff on rocks so that it become dry while we have breakfast. Then we set out, in small groups of six to eight, each led by one of the most experienced mountaineers of the club. We have walkie talkies in order to keep in touch. Way off any beaten path, as the objective is to take a huge shortcut by taking the ~3,100m pass between the Kaškar and Mezovit summits (about 3,900m each), we slowly creep up over the stone rubble at the end of a glacier, then over the glacier itself, and finally up a steep slope to the pass. It's all very hard work, with lots of minor falls and self-induced small avalanches, but eventually we haul ourselves, one by one, onto the rocky platform at the pass. As we have lunch, Damla takes our pulses and blood pressures so as to make a list of the less fit, on which she shall keep a close eye in the future. PInar gives the less experienced of us instructions on how to walk down a glacier, and how to use our ice-picks in case we start hurtling down the icy slopes.
WARNING: This true story contains, from now on, some gory details that are not for the faint-hearted. You may only continue reading under your own responsibility! But there won't be any corpses either.
OK, so down the other, southern slope of the pass now, that is finally on the sunny side of the Kaškar range. The glacier descents are mostly speedy, as everybody soon gets the hang of it, although some actually have to use their ice-picks to prevent super-fast body-surfing descents. Crossing the rocky parts between glaciers is slow and painstaking, and I remember saying to TuGrul that it was quite a lot of fun on the glaciers, and that I felt like finally being sure-footed again (after my reconstructive knee surgery in 1991).
I should have knocked on wood, as, a few minutes later, I slip on a rock and fall half a meter down and land, legs in jackknife position, with my knees onto a stone, carrying a 14+kg backpack. I can't get up by myself, because of the weight on my back, and when they lift me up, I examine my knees and say: "It's OK! Only a minor cut on my left knee..." Fractions of a second later: "Sh*t! It's a deep cut...". Upon closer inspection, it turns out that I fell onto a razorblade-sharp cutting edge of that stone, which sliced open my pants, the skin just below my left kneecap, and partly severed the tendon as well. No bone damage, though you can see everything at work through the gaping hole, which makes some casual spectators among us nearly faint, but luckily little blood loss as there are no blood vessels in that area. We clean the wound as well as we can, but it's obvious to me that I need it stitched, although many of those who haven't seen it before the bandaging try to encourage me by saying I'd be back to the group the day after. Sure, but we are in the middle of nowhere! And I need to keep walking, as long as the muscles and tendons are warm, because nobody could carry me through this rubble and on this kind of slope.
We work out an evacuation trail, which will fork off to the left just 500m before the end of today's stage. But until then, it's another hour of painstaking descent. Fortunately, the adrenaline rush prevents me from panicking and from feeling any serious pain. At every step down, it feels as if the wound were becoming larger, but skin is fortunately not like paper. I would have preferred having to move up this slope with this injury. TuGrul then leaves his pack with the others, and carries mine from there on, as we walk for another three hours down a string of "yaylalar". They are mostly unoccupied yet, and without any medical facilities or even road access. At sunset, we stumble into a "yayla" with dirt-road access, and the "imam" of the mosque directs us to a pension, after telling us that the doctor is on vacation but that there is a "dolmuS" at 6am to the Yusufeli village. While TuGrul cooks the best dinner I had in ages (or so it tastes by now), I relax on the bed and feel the leg stiffen, now that the effort is over. I must also say that the entire walk of the day was through incredibly beautiful scenery, which is probably my most lasting memory of the trip.
I don't close an eye throughout the night, due to the growing pain. In the morning, I insist that TuGrul return to the group, as it's all a matter of hours now until I get medication, and as I'm on the verge of urban "civilization" now that the "dolmuS" is there, especially that I know sufficient Turkish to solve the problem alone from now on. The 60km ride on the bumpy dirt-road takes about three hours (I could have done it faster with a mountain bike), and I agonize on every bump. Again, it's the stupendous landscape that helps me keep my mind off the pain.
In Yusufeli, there is a medical dispensary, but since it's "only" nineteen hours since the accident and since stitching is apparently recommended within one day (I was later told that six hours is a maximum!), I feel like taking right away the daily "dolmuS" ride (another three hours) to Erzurum, which is a big city with hospitals. The people in Yusufeli are very friendly to this foreigner (even though they don't understand why I was walking in the mountains in the first place): they actually carry me to the other "dolmuS", and feed me with fruit on the ride to Erzurum, which is again through a truly spectacular countryside. In Erzurum, the "dolmuS" driver personally takes me to the hospital of my choice: "The best," I croak. So we wind up in the emergency unit of the AtatUrk University Hospital (well, I wouldn't like to see the second-best hospital...). I'm taken care of immediately, with great humor and lavish rinsing of the wound before the stitching. When I finally manage to convey that I'm not a tourist, but a foreigner working in Turkey, they even let me walk out without paying. Luckily, as I wouldn't have paid for what they did: I'm not entirely convinced they did the right thing, as I forced myself to look on throughout the operation, and didn't oversee the slightly yellowish complexion of my flesh...
The last daily flight to Ankara being gone, I board the next bus (normally fifteen hours) for Ankara. Again, I can't sleep, but everybody is very friendly to me, especially my admirable Kurdish neighbor, with whom I manage to discuss the entire night in Turkish, without him getting bored of my struggling for words. Even the very numerous army posts on the road (searching for PKK supporters) leave me in peace. At dusk, the bus stops at the nearest village, and about a third of the passengers scramble through the fields to its mosque. Just before Ankara, the bus gets a flat tire, but the driver decides to drive on at 20km/h. Altogether twenty hours on the road now. I hail a taxi home, where I sleep and rest for almost one day, before setting out to the private BayIndIr Hospital to check whether everything is OK. They throw their hands up in despair, as the flesh is very infected and the wound should never have been closed in that state. They do another local anesthesia, cut the whole wound open again, clean it and cut out a least one cubic centimeter of flesh, and keep me for twenty-seven hours under observation, hooked on IV antibiotics. When the nurses and physicians hear about my (for Turkish standards: adventurous) life-style, they issue me a frequent patient card... (No need for "gešmiS olsun" wishes: I have fully recovered a long time ago.)
As a conclusion, Turkey has once again proved to me that it has many hidden treasures and that its people are genuinely friendly, especially way off the beaten tourist track. That recycling and trash disposal will soon be an acute problem in Turkey was nothing new to me; I just took the opportunity here to wrap the problem up (using recycled bits!) within a larger story. Most importantly, I learned not to venture out again into the middle of nowhere without sufficient medical supply and experts, as the corresponding cut on any other part of my body could have severed (possibly vital) blood vessels. I heard about local mountaineering clubs losing members to absolutely silly injuries, as fast evacuation and adequate medical expertise are hard to come by outside the biggest cities in the western half of the country.
Well, let me try then - with the limited (!) English vocabulary - to create a sense of understanding of the mystique of Cappadocia.
Eons ago, three volcanos erupted and covered a sandstone area the size of Luxembourg with lava. Throughout the millenia, wind and water erosion would carve out of these lava and sandstone layers the most bewitching rock formations you can possibly imagine: multi-colored canyons, mesas, free-standing rock needles, and, last but not least, the trademark of Cappadocia, entire "gardens" of the so-called "fairy chimneys" (up-ended cones of sandstone, with a large slab of brown lava delicately balancing on its top). Hence the Turkish name for Cappadocia: "Peri BacalarI", the Fairy Cones. The view of this should be enough to make you travel around the world to see it.
But let's now have a closer look at these rock formations: yes!, they are/were inhabited! Many of them are hollowed out, featuring doors, windows, kitchens, living quarters, bedrooms, shelves, storage rooms, corridors, stairs, chimneys, ventilation shafts, "telephone" tubes, churches! The view of all this is guaranteed to cut your breath away, and you should call your travel agent right now...
During the last few millenia, people have indeed recognized the fertility of the lava layer and discovered how easy it is to carve the rocks into whatever shape is suitable. Entire hills and canyon walls have thus been transformed into troglodyte cities, and entire fairy chimney gardens have been transformed into villages of one-family houses. And there is more than meets the eye: over the last few decades, about forty underground cities (of capacities of up to 20,000 people) have been re-discovered (the locals having all but forgotten about them) and some of them cleared of their rubble to make them accessible by visitors. It was probably the Hittites who started carving out these houses, but the most famous inhabitants were definitely some early Christians who used and extended them as a hide-out from Arab raiders. The whole area is unbelievably beautiful, and makes for an excellent open-air museum about early Christianity, not to mention the fantastic hiking and cycling opportunities.
Due to its proximity to Ankara, I went to Cappadocia four times last year. I consider it my backyard by now. And I can't wait going there for the next time. There is no point relating what I did there specifically, as understanding it needs seeing it, so I'll just tell a few anecdotes involving contacts with the locals.
In late June'94, I check into a pension in CavuSin, with my friend Serge from Belgium, using it as a base for hiking around the area. The lethal PKK attack in the Covered Bazaar of istanbul in early April'94 has so far totally wrecked the tourism season, and the area is almost devoid of visitors. Our pension owner (those who know the area will guess whom I'm talking about!) had invested in restoring and extending his house, and he is quite gloomy about his financial prospects. But he is of course happy to have some company, and we are invited to the family dinner table. The football world-cup is on, and Serge is quite excited about it, as Belgium plays tonight against the Netherlands, its neighbor and arch-rival. So we ask Ahmet which "šayhane" we should go to in order to have the best atmosphere to watch the game. And then happens the unexpected and almost unthinkable: Ahmet tells us that he is (of course) also interested in football, and that he is sick and tired of having a too feeble TV antenna to capture the adequate channels for watching the cup. He grabs the phone, and orders from some shop in nearby Avanos a (huge) antenna plus enough length of cable. And everything is set by the time the game starts! Only in Turkey!!! (Belgium wins 1-0.)
When I return in mid-September'94 with Guy, another friend from Belgium, everybody seems to recognize me, due to my previous trips in April and June, making Guy think I'm kind of a local celebrity. As we pay our lunch bill at the excellent "Tafanna Pide Salonu" in Avanos, Guy rips open his tired shorts right where you wouldn't like to have a hole. Again, although Guy initially despairs at his misfortune, as this is the only short he brought, being in Turkey rather than back home provides us with an instant solution. A little boy guides us to a tailor's shop tucked away in some side street, and the friendly tailor disappears for half an hour as Guy waits in his underwear. As we wonder what he is doing with the shorts for such a long time, he finally reappears, and, with a broad smile, shows us the half a dozen other repairs he's just done in order to prevent future damage! And he only wants the equivalent of 1.25$, which I believe to be a realistic price, and definitively not a foreigners price!
Another unforgettable encounter occurs when we drive from Derinkuyu to the Ihlara village, in order to hike through its fantastic canyon. The countryside is just sparsely inhabited, so it's only natural to pick up hitchhikers. I actually do so systematically throughout Anatolia, and the following anecdote is representative of the many similar ones I have. For Guy it was a "first time", and he remembers it very fondly. So there is this farmer waiting for the next "dolmuS" to his village about 25km away, and who flags us down for a ride. My pleasure, of course, but I don't tell Guy what's going to be the course of action. Indeed, hitching being just a faster alternative than waiting for the next "dolmuS", every hitcher is prepared to pay for his ride, because otherwise s/he wouldn't have been out there on the road in the first place. I always gently refuse such payment (and the very fact that it is even being offered to me, a foreigner!, shows how unspoiled these peasants are, because there are places where some people would almost ask you for money for having the honor of offering them a ride), and either I get an incredible number of blessings from Allah, or some produce from the market (apples, grapes, ...), or I wind up in a village tea house. The latter is what happens this time, much to the delight of Guy and the other male villagers who all congregate around us and appreciate my minimalistic Turkish. There were European Cup games in football the night before, with Turkish victories, so there is quite a bit to discuss. And, as usual, the fact that I am a declared Trabzonspor fan generates quite some aaahs and ooohs, because virtually the whole country supports one of the three power-houses from istanbul. That's why I picked Trabzon: I wanted to support a team that is not from istanbul, but that plays very good football and that has some character and continuity, unlike the spoiled brats playing and coaching in istanbul. My other favorites are Bursa Spor and Ankara GenlerbirliGi.
In early November, I return with TuGrul for a weekend mountain bike tour. After a first gorgeous day, we wake up the morning after in our chilly fairy chimney (yes, some pensions rent them out! and whatever the season, they are much better than regular rooms, because of their meter-thick walls: cool in the summer, not as cold in the winter) and find all of Cappadocia under a thick blanket of snow. This way it's very beautiful as well. But we prefer to drive the second half of our trip by car, and set out to MazIkOy, whose underground city had been highly recommended to us by Serge, as it is not touristed at all. When entering the village, we see huge locked doors on rock-cut depots: due to an ideal natural temperature, this is where lemon is stored until winter time and from where it is then transported to all of Turkey. It's bitter-cold, and everybody is indoors (the men in the tea houses, the women at home), with occasionally somebody hushing across the street to the nearest grocery. After some asking around, the ticket man to the underground city is located in a tea house, and half a dozen teenagers magically pop up as well, spontaneously joining us and providing useful explanations. In fact, this underground city is unlike most others, in the sense that you enter on the first floor at the bottom of a hill, and then proceed upstairs, inside the hill!, in order to exit from the top floor on top of the hill. In Derinkuyu and KaymaklI, you descend into the first floor from a plain, and keep descending until the eighth underground floor, from where you have to work your way up again. Also, whereas you could almost navigate by mountain bike through the latter two cities, here there are no such things as stairs or ramps: you literally have to haul yourself through chimney-like affairs in the ceilings, using foot/hand marks, until you reach the next floor! It's all extremely interesting and pretty much indescribable. However, to our huge dismay, these kids have the guts to try to charge us money for the guidance, when we exit the site, and a ridiculously high amount at that. So there we are, in the middle of touristic nowhere, in a completely dead touristic season, with a Turk among the two visitors, and we both assumed all the way that these kids were your genuine disinterested Turks, as I have encountered so many in similar situations before. I tell TuGrul that there is no way they will get a single lira, considering that they didn't announce their intentions. But he wants to do it a bit more diplomatically, so we wind up in a tea house and lecture them on how to do "business" with visitors and how to do marketing. I don't think they understood such long term reasoning, but to hell with the idiots who spoiled them by giving them outrageous amounts of money in the first place!
Until the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923 (due to their new borders after Turkey's successful war of independence), Cappadocia was predominantly a Greek and Christian place. This can be easily observed by looking at the architecture of older houses, not to mention the zillions of churches (some of which were converted into mosques). The main tourist attractions are in/near villages where these remnants are not so visible to the casual observer, but once you stray off the beaten path, it becomes very obvious. Villages like MustafapaSa and ibrahimpaSa are essentially unchanged by tourism, although they have some quite interesting sites and definitely more charm than the tourist magnets. At a "šayhane" in ibrahimpaSa, a very old man once sidled up to me and asked me whether I was Greek, or was soon going to Greece, because he'd like to join me! It turned out that he grew up near Thessaloniki, and moved over to Turkey in 1923, but has never been back, although he would clearly love to go!
After a long drive from Cappadocia, interrupted by an interesting lunch stop in Kayseri (that's unfair to that nice city: I'll return one day to spend more time there), we pull into Malatya. At the first hotel, we are told the place is full, and that we will most likely not find any bed at all in the whole city, as the next day the provincial police entrance exam will be held here. After a desperate loop around many hotels, we take up that first receptionist's offer of returning to his place, as he said he'd improvise some solution. And indeed, he sets us up on the rooftop with plenty of blankets in lieu of mattresses. Abuzer is in- credibly friendly, directs us to a popular (hence good) restaurant, and only charges us a trifle for the stay itself. Ah Turkey, I'll never forget you!
The day after, we decide not to risk the integrity of my car on the rocky dirt roads, because the municipality's "package tour" turns out just $2 total more expensive than the gas and accommodation for two. There's six of us travelers on the hired "dolmuS": a Flemish couple from Belgium, two Brits, and us. The driver "orders" me to sit up front, so that he can chat with me: he doesn't often have travelers he can sort-of converse with. And, sure enough, before even leaving the city, we wind up at his brother's "šayhane", in order to show off with the "catch of the day". Ah Turkey, you'll never get bored! And then off we are, high up into the mostly barren hills, through great scenery, picking up the occasional hitching peasant, and eventually making it to the "gUneS Moteli", just a ten minute ride from the summit.
And then off to the summit for sunset watching. In 1986, it was very cloudy, and thus a major let-down, not to mention the very strong storm that almost blew us (also six travelers) off the platform during the night (back then, in the good old times, one could actually sleep there): I'll never forget the impassive faces of these stone gods being illuminated by lightning, while we tried to save our tents in-between! This time, it's all picture perfect: the view west is incredible, the sun and horizon take all shades of red, and very few people are there. Just another five travelers or so, including three sun worshiping German motor-cyclists (later, our "dolmuS" driver asks me whether all Christians are sun worshipers!). Everybody takes the mandatory set of romantic pictures, but with great discretion and respect for each other, the silence being complete as we stare in awe at how the waning sunlight illuminates the faces in always differing tones.
Back at the motel, the "dolmuS" driver and some peasant (picked up in a village on the road) dish up a hearty dinner for us six (I suspect the other five had camping gear and just dissipated into the night), and they even have beer. We go to bed early, as sunrise is very early. Just like in 1986, hordes of real package tourists (coming from Adyaman) invade the sunrise terrace, clicking like mad, obstructing each other's photos, talking noisily, etc. Except that this time the sunrise is really worth our long detour: the red disk rises majestically over the barren hills and is reflected in the waters of the nearby AtatUrk BarajI. There isn't as much mystique, though, with this crowd, and we eventually board our "dolmuS" to return to Malatya. Nemrut DaGI is well worth a visit, but make sure you go slightly off season, and definitely for sunset, as the Adyaman influx is then very small, if not nil.
Malatya being famous for its dried apricots and copper handicraft, we take an extensive stroll through its very interesting bazaars, before heading west again, towards KIz Kalesi (near silifke, see my promise in the fourth edition of this diary), for a relaxed evening at the beach, viewing the wonderfully romantic Maiden's Castle on an island just a short swim off the shore.