Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Kaçkar Mountains- Entry 2

After hopping between a few minibuses, we ended the day in Ayder, one of the main yaylas (summer villages) occupied by a group of people called the Hemşinlis.

The architecture was unique-- cement for the first floor and wood above, a strange shape, top heavy-- I didn't feel like I was in Turkey. Until we met the people. Turkish people in general are ridiculously kind and helpful. Every time I've asked for directions, the Turk didn't just point me on my way, but left his companions to walk me there. One Turk who helped us find a bazaar in Trabzon then stayed with us while we shopped to make sure we didn't get ripped off. The Hemşinlis' helpfulness and generosity were multiplied by two. We especially experienced this when we traveled to an even higher yayla called Yukali Kavron at the foot of Kackar Mtn. (3937 meters) the next day.

The Hemşinlis are very Caucasian-looking (there were some absolutely beautiful men with dark hair and eyelashes and light blue eyes); they are descendants of Armenians (We were asked more than once if we were Armenian). Because at one point these people were Christian, and because they're too poor to build mosques in their little villages, they wear their religion lightly. The women dress differently, too. Due to the silk trade, they wore beautifully colored silk scarves wrapped around their heads into a neat knot (rather than the traditional way of draping the scarf), and brightly colored knitted socks. There is no lack of color in Turkish clothing no matter where you go. The Hemşinlis only live in the yaylas in the summer because of the snow. They spend this time making cheese, butter, and honey.

We stayed in Ayder the night before the Bayram, and it was neat to watch the excitement and preparation (slaughtering a calf) in such a tiny community, and smell the rich aromas in the air that we would get to eat later also.

Here, I was reminded of my experience working on the goat farm in the Italian Alps three summers ago. In mountain communities all over the world, every spring and every fall the transhumance takes place: the mountainfolk transport their livestock up to a higher elevation for the summer to graze and get away from the heat, and then hike them back down in the fall to a winter home in a valley for the cold months. I was lucky enough to coincide my visit to Michele's Italian goat farm with the spring transhumance, and together we hiked all his goats six miles up to his beautiful summer home in the Alps. It was a very memorable moment in my life. Well, Dave, Nadine, and I were lucky enough to time our visit to the Kaçkars with the first major snowfall, and we witnessed the Hemşinlis' transhumance from their yayla down to their winter home in the valley. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We were planning on staying at a pansyon (inn) in Yukali Kavron for one night then setting off on an overnight or a couple of day hikes. When we arrived, we settled our belongings at a brand new pansyon which had only a tarp for a ceiling over a wooden frame, and then set off for an afternoon hike to a lake.

One of the village men and a young boy showed us the way. We were all decked out in polypro, goretex, and hiking boots, and these two were in cotton, jeans, and soggy sneakers.

We didn't make it to the lake as the famous Kaçkar mist lowered onto us, and we had to turn around. We hiked back to the pansyon in the cold rain, and sat around the woodstove with the owner and his children drinking tea, unable to make conversation, only smiling and laughing at the poured all day and all night... When we got stir crazy, we took a walk to the tea cafe next door and played cards.

That night, many other village men came over to watch TV, and we found ourselves huddled around a wood stove, watching Wheel of Fortune on a rainy night in the Kaçkar Mountains. Everyone was very friendly to us, cooking us meals, getting us warm blankets, asking where we were from. I started to get concerned though when every person to whom I mentioned I was from the U.S., responded in broken English, "Oh. America problem. Bank." Needless to say, I was out of touch with the goings-on of Wall Street, and by the fourth or fifth time of hearing this, I started to get anxious to get my hands on an English newspaper and see what was going on.

That night was one of the coldest nights of sleep Dave, Nadine, or I ever experienced. We had down comforters on top of down bags, and still it was survival sleep with all our heat escaping through the holes in this botch-job pansyon. To our surprise, we woke up the next morning to a foot of snow.

Since it was freezing and none of us had the right gear, we decided to head back down to Ayder. We had to wait for the mini bus from Ayder to get on its chains and for the mountain road to be driven on a few times. I was so nervous about going down this road as I was nervous on the way up when it was dry; this road was worse than any mountain dirt road I've been on in Montana; and the driver had gunned it all the way up. The people of Yukali Kavron also wanted to get down the mountain. Those with cattle began the 7 km walk. When the minibus finally showed up, they piled us in thick-- people were sitting on the floor, another factor that made me nervous about heading down a snowy road with that much weight. We even had 4 people sitting on top with all the luggage. The following picture is when the driver's brother jumped off the top of our minibus to chase the cows off the road so we weren't following them down the whole way. Our driver actually did an amazing job getting us all down safely. Even though we didn't get to do the hiking we had hoped for, the cultural experience of spending time with the Hemşilini people far up in the mountains on a cold snowy day was adventure enough. I hope to go back this summer and do some backpacking.

Once in snow-free Ayder, we spent another night in a warm pansyon, went to the hamam (Turkish bath) to soak in some scalding hot water, and went out to dinner and tea with our new friends Eduin (from Mexico) and Gali (from Israel). We actually met them at our hotel in Trabzon the first night, and discovered our trips mirroring each other's, so we began to eat meals together and share stories from our countries.

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