We checked out of the hotel and caught a dolmüs out to Maçka. We bought some bread and tomatoes then set off to walk the 3 1/2 km out to the camping ground. By the time we got there it was stinking hot so he pitched the tent and spent the rest of the day watching the crowds of locals who flocked out to have lunch at the camp restaurant. We also did some washing and aired all our gear out.
A bright, fine day finally greeted us and we went to find transport out to the Sumela Monastery. Before we went to the dolmüs stop we had some sickly chocolate cake at a patisserie and bought some cherries from a fruit stall.
The drive up to the national park where the monastery is located took us along a wide shingle riverbed which gradually steepened as we moved further into the hills. We stopped for a ½ hour break in the town of Maçka, built where two rivers join and where the steep, scrubby hills were broken by sheer bluffs of hexagonal basalt columns. By the time we reached the entrance to the Altindere National Park, where the monastery is located, we were once again following a steep and cascading stream, its water leaping over the boulders as it rushed downwards beneath the thickly-forested hills.
At the monastery car park there was a cluster of shops selling tourist tat and souvenirs, overpriced food and sugary drinks so we skirted around the stalls and began the climb up the steep path leading up to the monastery. Away from the roar of the stream and the noise of tourists, the silence of the forest closed in upon us as we climbed, sunlight breaking through in places to throw dappled patterns of gold onto the forest floor. Sometimes the canopy of trees closed fully over us; sometimes it opened to give us a breathtaking views of the steep wooded valley stretching up through green alpine meadows to a skiff of fresh snow on the high, rocky tops.
Our first glimpse of the monastery came as we reached the foot of the huge bluff it is built under, the dull brown rock towering hundreds of metres above us, and soon, after getting in for “student” price we were able to see the amazing extent of the monastery which is built on a rock ledge under the huge overhang of the bluff. The view was magnificent and it was easy to see why the monks had retreated there for peace and tranquility. The heart of the complex was the chapel built at the very back of the cavern created by the overhang and decorated with hundreds of well drawn and well-preserved frescoes, many of which however had been defaced by graffiti1.
We sat amongst the ruins for a while eating some pastries and looking at the forest out across the valley through the forlorn and crumbling window frames of the monastery. Much of the more modern parts of the facade were built in the 17th and 18th centuries but the origin of the monastery as a whole goes back to the 4th century when Byzantine monks built it as a haven for an icon of the Virgin Mary.
After we had looked around the ruins we climbed a steep stairway out of the monastery and took another path leading around the hill to a small ruined building sitting out on a point with a superb view of the monastery and the huge bluff. Linda and Kelly returned to the car park by the track we came up but I followed another path down through a heavy stand of pine trees, the floor of which was carpeted with a thick layer of damp pine needles. At the bottom of the track a narrow wooden bridge spanned the steeply falling creek, its waters roaring and crashing over huge boulders and at that point the path joined the road. I wandered down the rough potholed road, stopping to take photos when the trees parted to reveal the monastery above or when brightly coloured flowers caught my attention. Another bridge crossed the river at head of a steep drop where the creek churned and foamed it’s way 200 meters down the valley sending up a thick spray and filling the gorge with its thunderous roar. Finally, the stream leveled out again as it passed the tourist shops, gushing over moss-covered rocks and sending its sound up through the trees.
The bus dropped us back at Trabzon at 3 p.m. and after a bit of a rest Linda and I set off to buy a pair of jeans for me. After 2 hours of searching we found a pair that I liked and bought them along with a fake Lacoste shirt for 65,000TL.
1In Islam, it is forbidden to depict living creatures, including humans, in art. That is the reason why so much Islamic artwork consists of scrolls, calligraphy and depictions of plants and fountains. Many frescoes throughout the Islamic world have been defaced by having the eyes scratched out or painted over in order to remove the profane depiction of living things without completely removing the entire artworks.
RETREAT FROM UZUNGÖL At 7:00 I crawled out of the tent into a cold, wet and gloomy morning. We packed up our camp in the misty rain and walked down to the hotel where we had çay and the cook boiled our four remaining eggs for us. By the time we got to Uzungöl a cold driving drizzle had settled in and as we sat waiting for some kind of transport down to Çaykara it got progressively colder and wetter. The village was quiet as a graveyard and the only movement was the occasional villager walking past staring at us as if we were mad!
Eventually, a dolmüs arrived and we loaded ourselves in for the trip down. Directly below the village, the river began its steep descent down the head of the lower valley, the water leaping and rushing over the black boulders strewn down its bed. Further down, as the stream gathered momentum, the valley narrowed until the water was descending in a series of low waterfalls and tortured cataracts. All around us were the eternal and endless greens of the deciduous trees, blending perfectly with the dark olive shades of the conifers while interspersed with both were the myriad shades of green and yellow mosses and ivy.
By the time we reached Çaycara, it was raining solidly and the waters of the stream flowing down from Uzungöl merged with those of another stream to form a foaming and roiling river. The dolmus stopped for an hour long lunch break but we stayed inside while the rain beat a steady tattoo on the roof. When we left Çaycara we bumped our way down the road to Ob and the murky Black Sea then turned west along the coast road to Trabzon.
When we arrived in the city of Trabzon we checked into the first hotel we found and each had a wonderfully HOT shower. After relaxing for a couple of hours we went out for some food at a Lokanta then went back to the Otel Çoruh Palais and retired.
THURSDAY. Morning… and the sun is finally shining and the mist is completely gone. I got up at 7 and walked a couple of hundred metres upstream and took some photographs then went back to camp and got the fire going. By the time we had breakfasted on boiled eggs, tomatoes and bread it was warm and sunny so Kelly and I went for a walk up the river leaving Linda to mind the camp.
The sun was warm upon us as we followed the river upstream, it’s bed slowly gathering steepness and the cold, clear water gathering speed as it leapt over the boulders and swirled over the roots of overhanging trees. The sides of the valley rose steeply above us with the trees growing thickly upon them in a beautiful pattern of greens. above the treeline, wide alpine meadows covered the mountain tops, the green of the grass is mingled with the yellow and purple of wildflowers. Dotted about the high meadows were houses of dark stained wood giving the whole area a distinctly Swiss look.
Eventually we tired of walking and headed back down to camp where Linda had set out all our gear out to air. We sat around for a while then Linda and I headed off down the valley to explore. We stopped at the hotel for a Coke then carried on down past the lake, it’s waters now a beautiful turquoise blue colour. There was a road leading up through the cluster of wooden houses on the hill above the village so we followed it until we had a panoramic view of the lake with the twin minarets of the mosque in the foreground and the dark greens of the mountains beyond.
We sat for an hour amongst the profusion of wildflowers growing beside the track and soaked up the warmth of the sun while below us people toiled in their fields, children laughed and chatted and the eerie call of the musseins echoed up from the mosque. On our way back up the valley we sat beside the lake eating hot bread, a chocolate bar each and locum which we had bought in the village. We also stopped again at the hotel for a Coke and to pinch [steal] some salt.
When we got back to camp I rigged up a fishing rod with a stick, some catgut and a hook that I’d bought in the village and went off to try my luck at fishing. I pissed around for an hour so without getting a bite so we had to have boiled eggs and homemade tomato soup, eaten out of an empty can for supper! We sat around the campfire yarning for a while then crawled into the tent as the mist it once again rolled in. During the night it rained and there was thunder and lightning.
When we woke up at 8:00, the mist was still hanging around the hills but was showing signs of clearing so we packed up our gear then Linda and I set off up the road to find a campsite. Kelly wasn’t feeling well so we left her sitting on the porch of the hotel. We walked for about 20 minutes until we found a perfect campsite amongst some trees next to the river. It was obvious from the number of old campfires and the amount of rubbish lying around that people had camped there before. I left Linda sitting in the sun, which had broken through the mist, and hitched back to the hotel to get Kelly and her stuff. We hitched a ride back up the valley in a dump truck and set up our camp. I spent an hour or so collecting firewood and while I was doing that the mist rolled in again.
Once we were fully settled in, Linda and I left Kelly to guard the camp and set off down to Uzungöl to buy some more food. We tried to buy some fish from one of the two fish farms on the outskirts of the village but it was too expensive so instead we bought a dozen eggs, some tomatoes, garlic, spuds, onions and a saucepan and three forks.
Back at camp we got the fire going and cooked up scrambled eggs and jacket potatoes then crawled into the tent to play cards.
It was raining when we left the restaurant where we had breakfast and where the waiter had attempted to overcharge us. We walked down to the local bus station and caught a bus up to Ob (1,000TL each) and from there a dolmüs into the town of Çaykara, squashed into a narrow wet valley. The market square where we were dropped off was a scene of total chaos with people everywhere shouting and jostling and showing off their wares and passing vehicles blasting their horns to make way.
A troop of Jandarma1 found us a place in a dolmüs jammed with men, women, their groceries and their chooks, and we headed off further into the steep rain-soaked mountains following the course of a steep mountain stream. As we climbed higher into the dark, misty hills the river steepened until in places it was just a series of rocky waterfalls. Suddenly we top the lip of the valley and before us was the town of Uzungöl, with the lake of the same name barely visible through the fog just beyond.
We got out of the dolmüs in the centre of town and walked off into the mist, following the road around the side of the lake, it’s waters a sallow grey colour in the deepening gloom as the fog swirled lower and lower until it merged with the water itself. The Uzungöl Hotel is a fairly new one built almost entirely of local materials and catering for rich non-backpacking-type people. We sat out on the porch drinking soft drinks and looking bedraggled and chatted to some American tourists staying there on a package deal. I trudged further up the road looking for a campsite but everything was wet and swampy and not very inviting at all. When I got back to the hotel I told Linda and Kelly to stay put while I walked back down to the village and bought some bread, cheese, oranges and a tin of tomato paste.
Back at the hotel, the mist had finally turned to cold driving rain so with the help of an American lady who spoke fluent Turkish we asked if we could sleep on the porch. The manager let us sleep in a little hut beside the river so we set up camp inside on the floor, had a meal then went back inside the hotel where it was warm.
We yarned for a bit to some of the Americans several of which were from the NATO base in Izmir. Finally, with a thick, cold mist hugging the ground, we went to bed in our little çay hut and slept warm and dry.
REST DAY We got up at 4:30 a.m. broke camp and went down for a swim in the sea. We walked 3km into the town of Ahavi and caught a bus to Rize. We spent an hour or so at the local tourist office gathering information about places to visit in the hills then found a cheap hotel and stopped…
THE RUSSIAN BORDER…ALMOST. We woke up at 7 a.m. and broke camp then hit the road to try our luck at hitchhiking to the coast. It was very hot in the gorge and we were all sweating like hell after only a couple of kilometres. We stopped for a wash in the river at 8:30 and as soon as we hit the road again we got a lift with two men from the Electricity Department. They took us about 30 km down the gorge and even shouted us a glass of çay at a roadside café. Eventually, they dropped us off and after a bit of a spell in the shade of a tree we caught another ride with a truck driver all the way to Hopa, on the coast. The lower part of the gorge was a violent cataract of churning water hemmed in by sheer cliffs. Then, about 2 km downstream from Artvin, we left the river and began the climb over a pass leading to the coast.
As soon as we left the gorge the landscape changed from sheer, scrub-covered rock to steep mountains covered with lush subtropical forest coloured deep green. Down the rocky valley ran a crystal clear stream tumbling over boulders and cascading over small waterfalls. As we topped the last hill, the Black Sea, Kara Deniz, came into view below and 20 minutes later we were dropped off in the town of Hopa.
The driver wanted money so we gave him 10,000TL then went and sat in an outside cafe and had a beer. We decided to go up and have a look at the Russian border, 18 km away at Sarp, so we caught a dolmüs along the coast and got off about 5 km short of the border2 when a camping ground came into view. It turned out to be no good and another dolmüs wanted 30,000TL to take us back to Hopa so we told him to fuck off and caught a bus back for 500 each. From Hopa we caught another dolmüs heading west towards Rize. We got off that one too but in the middle of nowhere and found a place to camp out of sight in a quarry and settled down on a rock ledge overlooking the sea to wait for it to get dark so we could sneak our tent up.1
We sat and watched the golden sun sink into the calm waters of the Black Sea, then gathered up our gear and walked into the quarry to our campsite where we pitched our tent, ate the last of our food, and once again fell into an exhausted sleep.
1 Freedom camping is illegal in Turkey so whenever we wanted to camp we had to be sneaky about it!
2This was as close to the sensitive border area that tourists were allowed to get.
The bus arrived in Erzurum at 7:30 a.m. and we unloaded our stuff and went into the bus station to find onward transport. We got a bus to Tortum for 3,000TL each and got a board to wait for it to depart. Erzurum is the highest town in Turkey at over 2,000 metres and the beautiful steppeland around it was lush with spring growth. A myriad of alpine flowers were growing in the fields amongst thousands of small clear streams. As the bus drove further into the hills we passed many mobs of sheep and cattle tended by shepherds as they grazed the lush pastures.
Finally, we drove over a saddle and descended into a long rugged valley until we reached the town of Tortum, nestling in a canyon full of poplar trees. We walked up into the centre of town and asked about transport down to Tortum Golu and were told the only way was by taxi which would cost 4,000TL. We agreed on the price and loaded our stuff into the boot of a battered old car and drove down to Uzündere, 37 km away. When we got there we were still 5 km from the lake so the taxi driver waited while we bought some bread and veggies then we carried on down to the lake. We couldn’t find any likely camping spots as the lake filled a deep gorge, its sides plunging straight into the water so we carried on down to the bottom end of the lake where a 45m waterfall dropped the headwaters of the Çhoru River into the valley below.
Then disaster struck! The taxi driver wanted 70,000TL for the trip – he reckoned that the fare from Tortum to Uzündere was 40,000…not 4,000. We argued with him for 10 minutes and gave him 17,000TL and a 5 pound note, telling him he would get 100,000TL for it. He left in a huff and we decided not to camp straight away but to walk a few miles down the road. Unfortunately, the taxi driver wasn’t as stupid as we thought and he came back about 2 hours later with the local bank manager who reckoned the fiver was only worth 27,000TL, which was about right! We had another long argument and ended up giving him another £5 and US$5.
Feeling very pissed off we walked on down the road which now entered a deep gorge with the river becoming progressively swifter and wilder as the valley deepened. We managed to hitch a ride on the back of a truck which took us 10 km down the gorge to a service station. We had a drink there while the local men leered at us, then hit the road again. Only 200m from the service station we met an American guy sitting beside the river with four kayaks reading a book. We got talking to him and he told us that there weren’t many campsites all the way down to Artvin, 70 km away, and that the gorge got even narrower further down. While we were talking to him, his five mates turned up in two very tired rental cars and we yarned to them as well. They were all rich know-alls from California and when we left them Kelly was spitting sparks about rich yuppie computer geeks!!
About a mile further down the gorge we finally found a spot to camp on a small flat area of ground under some towering cliffs about 50m above the road. We set up camp and I built a low rock wall to screen the tent from the road1. It wasn’t an ideal spot but it was better than nothing and after sneaking down to the river for a cold bath,ducking behind rocks every time a vehicle went past, we fell exhausted into the tent and slept.
1Freedom camping in Turkey, especially close to the Russian border, where we were, was illegal. We therefore had to make sure that we weren’t observed whenever we camped over the next few days.
Steve and I got up at 4:15 a.m. to watch the sunrise. The wind was still howling in from the west and the sunrise was, like the sunset the previous night, wholly unremarkable. We packed our gear and walked back down to the hotel where a dölmus arrived to take us back to Malatya. As we descended the steep hill we passed the same people as yesterday, riding their donkey’s up the hill to gather winter feed for their animals. The women kept their heads bowed to avoid looking at us but the driver stopped to talk to one man and his daughter couldn’t help but look at us. She was beautiful, with long dark hair and alert blue eyes. Sadly I thought, it will only take a few years before the harsh climate and hard work will turn her into a weathered crone like the rest of the women we saw up there.
The trip back to Malatya was quite speedy despite having two flat tyres, and we got there at about 9:30a.m. We walked up to the information office to see what else we could do in the area, but there wasn’t much to see around Malatya so we decided to catch the night bus further east to the town of Erzurum.
After a meal at a lokanta1 we lugged our gear to the bus station, bought tickets and left our packs in the waiting room. With a whole day to fill in we went first to a trashy Chuck Norris movie overdubbed in Turkish, then found a tea garden and sat there for 2 hours. We watched an army parade in the main street and wandered around the market for a while. I bought a little sheep’s bell from a hardware store and we sat drinking çay with the owner while we worked out a price (2,500TL).
Finally with nothing else to do we walked back to the bus station and had a wash in the toilets. A kiwi guy called Tom was waiting for a bus to van so we swapped stories with him for a while. When the bus turned up it had been badly overbooked and it was an hour later when we finally left Malatya and began our uncomfortable 10 hour journey to Ezurum.
1 A lokanta is a small, family-run restaurant serving food through the middle of the day.