Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Kaçkar Mountains- Entry 1

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown, and after 40 days of fasting comes the Şeker Bayram. It's the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, similar to Lent and Easter for practicing Christians. It is a time when the whole country has three days off to visit family and friends and eat şeker (sweets) after practicing sacrifice and appreciation for those who have less. This year the Bayram (religious holiday) fell in the middle of the week, so we had 7 days off school. My friends, Dave and Nadine from Australia, and I boarded a plane for the Kaçkar Mountains of northeastern Turkey. The tourist season in the mountains is very short due to the snow, and we knew that late Sept. was a gamble, but we packed up tents and sleeping bags and headed for the hills anyway.

We flew into Trabzon, a city founded on the Black Sea coast in the 8th century BC. This metropolis was juggled between the hands of Greece, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, Russia, Georgia, and finally the modern Republic of Turkey. It also occupied the northeast branch of the Silk Route, and today still functions as a major trading port with other countries bordering the Black Sea. Eastern Turkey is more conservative than Ankara; we noticed and felt this soon after landing in Trabzon. Most women wore headscarves, the town squares and cafes were only occupied by men sipping tea (the women stayed home), there were no pubs/bars, alcohol was very expensive (a shot of whiskey cost 25 Turkish lira), and us yabancı's (foreigners) with our blond and red hair and huge backpacks were the town attraction or so it felt with all the stares. Also, unlike Ankara, most of the Turks in Trabzon were actually fasting for Ramadan, and so we could not find any place to serve us lunch. We resorted to buying bread, cheese, and fruit to eat in our rooms so as not to flaunt our food in front of the hungry fasters. Nothing can pass their lips, so they can't even drink water or smoke when the sun is up.

We stayed a couple of nights in Trabzon, checked out bazaars, went out to eat, got rained on, saw a movie in English with Turkish subtitles, drank lots of tea and ate lots of baklava, and took a minibus to the famous Sumela monastery. This Greek orthodox monastery clung to a cliff, and had several layers built on top of each other as different groups of people inhabited it starting as early as the 6th century and ending in the 1920s. I had the same feeling here as I did in Cappadocia- what a simple life it must have been to spend your days praying and painting pictures of your faith. Both places were remote; Cappadocia was encircled by a vast, sunny desert and to me called for adventure and wandering; Sumela was suspended above a tight misty valley where it often rained and to me seemed like a place where you would naturally go inward.

We quickly got "citied out" in Trabzon and so even with the weather looking grim, we were excited to board a minibus and head east along the coast to find our entry into the mountains. The mountains here jut right out of the sea and are farmland for tea and hazelnuts. Tea was introduced to this region after WWII to help this badly depressed area, and it did. This region supplies all of Turkey with tea, and maybe if the Turks didn't drink so much tea, they'd also be able to export this crop, but the Turks drink an insane amount. On our way back through this region, we stopped in the town of Rize and hiked up to a tea garden overlooking the ocean. You could buy all kinds of black tea here, and if you were so inclined you could even purchase tea cologne. I already drink way too much tea; I'd be afraid how much more I'd drink if I were to smell it on myself all the time.

On one of our hikes, we were able to see some women harvesting the tea.

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