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

Saturday 08 March 2008 01:00

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

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