High-level research in Turkey

Turkey's Kaçkar mountains are steeped in myth, carpeted in flowers – and full of spectacular trails. Tim Salmon explores them with the author of a ground-breaking guide

On the Black Sea coast of Turkey, the mountains sweep right down to the shore. The towns may have been spoilt by shoddy development – even fabled Trebizond, now known as Trabzon – but the mountains rise pristine and luxuriant towards the cloud that frequently covers their peaks. Here, between Trabzon and the Georgian border, lies the massif of the Kaçkar. Hazel orchards and the close-picked bushes of tea plantations cover the lower slopes. Higher up, unbroken forest clothes the ravines. Streams and waterfalls abound. Ferns and rhododendrons thrive in the moist air. So does the Pontic azalea, whose honey reputedly drives men mad.

It is a land steeped in history and myth. Jason came here in search of the Golden Fleece; Xenophon fled to Trebizond in 400 BC to escape to the wrath of the Persian empire; a splinter of the Byzantine empire flourished here between the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 and the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in 1461. A branch of the Silk Route brought the rich cargoes of the East, and Laz, Georgians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews, all Ottoman subjects, intermingled on these shores until the bloody nationalist upheavals of the early 20th century.

Tourism is in its infancy. The only development of any significance is on the Black Sea side of the Kaçkar, up the beautiful valley of the Firtina river. It centres on Ayder. This was once a simple mountain yayla – a collection of stone and wood chalets, where farmers came to pasture their flocks. Hot springs have brought a disfiguring spread of hotels and gift shops. Its patrons are mainly Turkish tourists whose interest in mountains does not go much further than picnicking beside their SUVs.

From a walker's point of view, that means a blissful lack of crowds. But this side has one big disadvantage: it is wet. This is, of course, what makes for the Kaçkars' extraordinary beauty. But the south side is markedly drier. To base yourself there, you need to get to the little town of Yusufeli, on the banks of the Çoruh – unprepossessing to look at, but in fact the bustling commercial and transport hub for the mountain hinterland beyond.

I flew into Erzurum, where I met up with my friend Kate Clow. She is the doyenne of mountain hiking in Turkey, creator of the country's first long-distance paths: the Lycian Way and St Paul's Way, both in the south. This time, her project was to produce a walker's guide to the Kaçkar, based on the old footpaths of pre-motor vehicle days.

Erzurum is a grim and gritty place, icy in winter, but even Erzurum warms to our eccentric entourage: a tousled blonde Turkish-speaking Englishwoman in hiking gear accompanied by two friendly, bum-wagging dogs, answering to the names of Blues and Soul. Everywhere we go, they are the centre of attention.

On the bus, they squeeze under the seats without being told; they know about mountain travel. We wind our way down the rocky valley of the Tortum river, past scattered villages with their signature minarets and ranks of poplars, then up the beautiful valley of the Çoruh into Yusufeli. Here, we are among friends. Greetings and kisses, a quick visit to the butcher's for titbits for the dogs, and we pile into Ismail's minibus among the tomatoes and flour sacks for the ride to the road's end. And what a ride. The distance is only 30km, yet it takes three hours by the potholed riverside track, overhung by greenery. The mountainsides tower out of sight; you would never guess at the dozens of little yaylas, still inhabited in summer, tucked away up in the woods.

It is dark by the time we reach the riverside hamlet of Barhal with its cluster of pansiyon – cheap hotels. These cater largely for Israelis, who outnumber any other foreign nationality here. At Barhal the road forks. Straight on leads to the Altiparmak cirque, with the classic walk to the Karigol tarn. We go left: another two hours to Yaylalar. The country becomes less hospitable. Firs descend to the river bank. Great bridges of snow still span the side streams and the temperature begins to drop despite the press of bodies in the van.

Yaylalar lies at around 1,900m. The village is dominated by Ismail's pansiyon. For the first few mornings, prompted by the call to prayer from the village mosque, we wake to brilliant sunny skies and set off uphill straight after breakfast. Up dazzling streams into meadows thick with flowers: ground-hugging rhododendrons, campanulas, orchids, pinks and countless species I cannot name. We meet two little girls whose cows who do not take kindly to Blues and Soul and give chase with lowered horns.

The meadows give way to boulder slopes towards 2,700m. Fritillaries, primulas and asters push up through the brown and flattened grass, where the snow has only just retreated. The lake we are looking for eludes us and we descend towards the yayla of Modut. Everyone is out mowing. Sweet-smelling hay spills out of the barns. There is a powerful odour of cow dung, which serves as both fuel and plaster. Curious children watch us. The women, in long dresses and headscarves, are friendly and at ease with Kate. When I am alone, they seldom respond to a greeting.

The horizon is ringed with peaks and we can see other high yaylas away on further slopes. The old cobbled path to the valley is steep and long. We pass the occasional woman, dark-eyed, weather-beaten, hands hardened by work, plodding patiently, slowly up, a big basket on her back. It is never the men.

In addition to the day walks, we did some overnighters. One took us through Karbasan, another wonderful high yayla, where the imam described the onward route for us. Roads are recent here. The older members of the community remember the mule paths of their youth, even though, when untrodden for 15 or 20 years, they soon lose their definition, especially on open ground. We made camp in an abandoned yayla on an exposed ridge; the sky blackened and we had to seek refuge from lightning in the warm dry dung of a collapsing cow byre.

Morning saw us descending to an idyllic valley of hay meadows and cherry and walnut orchards. An old man with an Assyrian beard laid down his scythe and took us home for tea and homemade bread with butter and beyaz peynir, the Turkish version of feta cheese.

We made our way back through Yusufeli into the Çoruh valley, threatened now by a monstrous dam-building project. At the local village fair at Bölükbasi, the women reclined in the shade like flocks of brilliant birds while the men crowded round a makeshift arena, where terribly serious bare-torsoed boys wrestled to the thump and wail of rustic drums and bagpipe.

Most walkers coming to the Kaçkar want to do only the classic trip to the highest peak – a pity, for they miss out on so much. One reason for this, perhaps, has been the absence of a guidebook to any other routes – an omission repaired by Kate's new book.

Traveller's Guide:

Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; www.thy.com) flies from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester to Istanbul, with daily connections to Trabzon and Erzurum.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Europcar (0845 758 5375; www.europcar.co.uk) and Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) offer car hire in Trabzon and Erzurum.

Hotel Nur, Trabzon (00 90 462 323 0445). A double room costs around 60 lire (£25), including breakfast.
Hotel Esadas, Erzurum (00 90 442 233 5425; www.erzurumesadas.com.tr). Doubles from 72 lire (£30), including breakfast.
Karahan Pansiyon, Barhal (00 90 466 826 2071; www.karahanpension.com). Doubles from 76 lire (£32), half-board.
Marsis Hotel, Barhal (00 90 466 826 2026; www.marsisotel.com). Doubles with breakfast from $36 (£19).
Ismail's Pansiyon, Yaylalar (00 90 466 832 2001). Doubles from 120 lire (£50), half-board.
Nehirim Hotel, Ayder (00 90 464 657 2040; www.nehirimotel.com). Doubles from 75 lire (£31), including breakfast.

Trekking in Turkey's Black Sea Mountains by Kate Clow is obtainable online at www.trekkinginturkey.com, price £13.99.
Turkish Tourist Office: 020-7839 7778; www.gototurkey.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Emmanuel Adebayor, Tim Sherwood and Hugo Rodellega
sportThe latest news and scores
Brand said he
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit