Along Turkey's Black Sea Coast
Daniel Pendergrass

I peaked in Ayder, 30 miles above Camlihemsin along Turkey's Black Sea Coast, moving toward the Georgian border. I woke this morning at a lower altitude to an unseasonably warm day, sunshine, fine weather for a traveler during late Fall. I immediately struck out for here, where there is always snow on the ground, such as what I found today after hitching a thousand meters up.
It would take about an hour and a half, in one shot, to get here from the nearest major port city, making my way slowly down the coastal road with the sea on one side and that sheer, dramatic rise into mountains which marks the Black Sea coastline on the other. That port city would be Trabzon, 150 miles distant, to this day as much Greek in appearance as Turkish, where I had stopped to have another look at the Church of Saint Sophia. The Trabzon version is smaller in scale and less ambitious in construction than its counterpart in Istanbul, but nevertheless quite beautiful in a way that is entirely Byzantine, with fine frescoes and a commanding view of the sea from its location next to the old lighthouse at the bottom of the hill about ten minutes outside the city walls. I dropped by for the frescoes, then hit the road for the Georgian valleys. Where I am now is still technically part of Turkey, but that only, as the mountain people here are independent and curious of outside things only to the point of inquiry.
Take the town of Pazar, for instance. I poked around there for most of a morning, having first intended only to spend a few minutes changing rides, but eventually deciding to make a day of it. This is Laz country, the home of those tribal folk who formed the personal bodyguard of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of what is known today as the Turkish Republic. They dressed entirely in black and sped that grand fellow along his political way through their quick, unquestioning and ruthless role in the process of transforming the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into something of a more modern state. The Ottomans and the Byzantines never really got a handle on these people either, and after Ataturk passed away most of his remaining protectors faded back up to the yayla, those mountaintop fasts where they have lived and fought and made guns and trained hawks and led their isolated lives for a very long time now. You see a lot of blond and red heads in these parts, which leads to some interesting theories about lineage; I suspect some of these people could tell you exactly where they came from if they could be bothered to take up the subject.
I wandered about for an hour, in penniless Pazar, dragging my carry-on behind me. It was market day, as befits the town's name, and the place was boiling over with people, many of whom seemed to have descended only for the occasion. Outside one ramshackle collection of buildings four soldiers were standing by a very clean car and one of them said "six o'clock" and they all looked at me. I waved and they nodded as one, as if all was now clear.
The town itself reminded me of something out of early 1900s Middle America. A lot of wooden buildings, some more fixed than others, and a few incongruous but steadier concrete structures. Dusty streets, with life on those streets, heads leaning out of windows and calling down to those below, and the occasional unintimidated mule cart vying for space with something that had an engine. The women were dressed in their brightly colored scarves, and most of the older men wore grey, black or a slightly mauvish or lime-green shade of three piece suit: pants, vest, and jacket, with not a tie among them. I stopped at a little pastanesi -- where sweets are sold -- and bought a bag of mixed cookies. There was no place to sit down, so I wandered back outside and plopped onto my suitcase. I had fallen out next to a kirathanesi -- a sort of tea house and gathering place for local men. There were three fellows sitting at an outside table on little stools that were not even knee-high, speaking what must have been the Laz language, since it sounded entirely foreign, although long experience as a stranger led me to believe that the conversation (somewhat jocular in nature) might well have had something to do with me. After a minute one fellow -- with sandy white hair covered by a beret and a strong, steady gait -- he could have been anywhere from 50 to 90 -- walked over and asked me in Turkish if I wanted a glass of tea. I said I certainly did, and after getting settled in and introducing ourselves the fellow who had invited me pointed toward Trabzon and said, "That is Turkey," and then in the other direction, up high, "And that is where we live." This to the great amusement of all who had gathered about.
They got around to finding out that I was an American and a teacher in Istanbul and just out and about to see the country. The last met with their approval, although they seemed decidedly unimpressed with my station in the world, which is actually a pretty nice reaction to meet with after having come across so many foppish ladder climbers who are more than ready to suck up to anyone who works for one of the new sultans of Turkey. When billionaires wash their hands, private universities are born.
We finished the tea, and I mentioned that I wanted to have a look around. One of them suggested I leave the bag while I strolled; that was followed by some back and forth in Laz toward the barber shop across the street, the upshot being a boy of about twelve or so with wild red hair who was apparently to be my guide. He was gangly and came on the run and listened to what the old men had to say before looking up at me. Then he squeezed my arm at the elbow, and we walked toward the little stream that feeds to and from the Black Sea, on the town side of which were endless rows of white tents: this was the market proper.
Every sort of necessary thing was on sell there, from cheese and olive and meat with flies abuzz and old women swatting them away; local clothing and goats on tethers and various forms of hatchets and other implementaries. The hygienics, by other standards, left something to be desired, but there was also more than the semblance of order and propriety to the market. My guide was laconic, and only offered comment when he inferred that this or that thing might be new to me.
After a few minutes I asked him a question about the weather.
Meteorology, in shallah (God willing), he replied.
That seemed to be that and we walked on another minute before he asked, "Are you a teacher?"
"I don't go to school."
Like everything he said, it was delivered in a level manner.
"I see."
"I can already read and write."
"I see."
"There is a war in Iraq now. Your country, America, started it."
Usually this is prelude to some form of homily on the evils of war. I am in general agreement with most of that and replied, in my very simple Turkish: "It's bad. A lot of people are dead."
"That's war." He glanced up at me sharply. "Someone has to win."
We were walking along the river, with the market between us and the city. The road toward Camlihemsin curved to the left. Light jacket weather continued: clear skies without a hint of Lodos (the cold wind) blowing in from Russia. Some teenagers were skipping rocks across the water and took note of us as we passed, doubling back towards town.
"This is faster," he said.
"You must live here."
"No," he said, accommodating my limited Turkish with animated explanations. "Up there."
The same gentleman who had buttonholed me was safeguarding my luggage; he was now the only customer in the place. He asked me a few questions about America ("Are all the people so rich as in the movies?"; "Are the mountains beautiful?"; "Do the best of your young men join the Army?") as we had more tea. I got around to asking him about the Laz language -- did many people still use it in these parts?
"Yes, yes," the old man said. "The boy who took you to the market today, he speaks Turkish as a second language."
"I thought it was a dying language. The young people can't speak it."
An emphazemic chuckle rose from his throat. "Yes, that is what the men from other countries say. They come here to save our language. For many years they have been coming to save our language." He snatched a breath. "There was a Frenchman. He stayed here for a short time and made a dictionary. Then he went back to his home."
Another night I was at an Internet café in Trabzon. It was late, and it was only me and three other foreigners, Indian by appearance. The right side of the net minder's head in palm teetered on an uncertain elbow. The fog was creeping up from the harbor, and my coffee was cold and forgotten. A foghorn blew long and low. One of the men looked up; the other two kept to their screens. After five minutes, three short blasts followed, with some added sense of urgency. The men looked up at each other, shrugged, tossed money onto a table, and made for the door.
Trabzon rises dramatically from the coast. The old city -- Trapeze -- rises detached and high above more recent developments. The old Greek houses in various states of repair rest between the ravines which slice along either side of the hill. At one side of it lies a farm owned by a local family. From here it is not possible to progress any higher. This place is off the tourist track, but was once the home of the Armenian Kaymakli Monastery, a place of worship, contemplation, and if the translation from Turkish is any indication, whipped cream -- even today a great treat with honey and bread. There are two churches yet standing. One faces south and if there is anything left there of the glories of Byzantium it is hidden among the cattle who now occupy it. In the middle of the compound, though, is a more representative structure which has some wonderful frescoes -- among the best I have seen along the Black Sea Coast. Perhaps to rival are several I found in the all but ruined Balat Church in Sinop. There, as at the Kaymakli site, all has been left to the ages. I stood in the middle of the church, and the younger boys moved hay out of the way so I could get a better look while their father and the cab driver stood beside me in respectful silence and, as one scene led to another, while I was trying to piece together a story line, the cab driver nodded and by way of bringing this all to an end, mispronounced "Pantocrator." And winked.
Even more Sumela Monastery, about an hour out of town, set high up on a rocky face and built in a time when men had to be something more than they are these days. It is yet something of a hard scrabble up, in spite of efforts to make the climb into something pleasant for tourists, and I imagine that at the top there are even more wondrous paths to explore, if regulations would give leave. Sumela was built to last and one gets an idea of how the monks actually would have lived: the aqueduct is yet in good shape and the living quarters still stand -- although one is not supposed to walk through them, perhaps for fear of rotted floors. The place was given up by the Greeks after World War I and the surrounding troubles (invasions from Russia, guerilla bands and the inevitable local scores to settle), and about ten years later a monk returned in disguise to retrieve the holy icon from its hiding place. Then came fire, and hack treasure hunters, and shepherd boys scratching their names in the walls. It was only some 40 years later when the greatest of the three great Machka Valley monasteries was again placed under protection, this time by those who prune the tourist dollar. There are shops at the bottom and one man tried to sell me a bottle of honey for $30. I had by chance bussed out with a group of Semites that day and they were aghast at the damage inflicted by the "local Muslims." They chose, with the exaggeration common to youth, to see it as part of a greater conspiracy. One of them asked me what it was like "to work with the Turk," an unfortunate rhyme that I could not be rid of for quite some time.
"Well, anyway," said that same tall, clear-eyed young fellow. "We fly home tomorrow. It's a long flight, and those airplane seats. You know."
The trip home might well be long for all, if it matters. In Camlihemsin I stopped at the local barber shop to wish them a good day and ask for a taxi trip up to Ayder. The shop was full of locals a bit dry around the eyes and lips, it being the time of fasting for the sons of Mohammed. After a minute's pause for reflection -- scissors suspended over the head of a youngster sitting on a board propped across the barber's chair -- someone said if I could wait a minute he could get me a taxi.
I waited. The Camlihemsin most people see is a simple row of shops (selling simple things, and a few mementoes) on both sides of the road. There were nice houses tucked high up looking down on the valley road as I made my way in. These look like they come from Eastern European money -- at one time this was a place of summer retirement for well-to-do-niks -- but are mostly empty now except for the occasional aged caretaker of the sort one would find in a certain Romantic Russian novel later made into an even more Romantic movie; that fine old fellow waiting cheerfully to hitch up a team of mules and pick up the master at the train station and all, except there is no station here and little to indicate that whoever runs the houses will be back anytime soon.
Little notice was taken of me as I waited outside the barber shop until two soldiers happened by on their usual patrol. It seemed a typical mix of curiosity, perhaps blended with some official interest, which drew them over. Their introduction was hearty and cordial, and the taller of the two and I soon moved to the topic on which my Turkish is most able -- football. After that very brief interlude, I explained that I was waiting for a cab up to Ayder.
The other soldier was about 5'8" with a pug nose and obvious seniority. He shook his head at the taller, more junior fellow, and extended his palm.
"I live in Istanbul."
"These people here. They like money too much," he said. "Walk with us."
I found myself in no position to refuse, and we walked up the slight incline to where the road turned left toward Ayder; an Ottoman humpback bridge rested delicately a bit further up the road, and two more soldiers came by -- clearly relief for my two guides -- and one said he lived in Besiktas and quizzed me on locations familiar to those who reside in Istanbul, the faded, former City of Light. He seemed pleased enough with my answers and wondered, frankly, what the hell I was doing in Camlihemsin.
"What the hell you do here!" he trotted out in English. He puffed out his chest at that, and the other soldiers nodded and smiled at the question which seemed to me not at all intimidating, but more like the linguistic off-spring of some B-movie long since deported from Hollywood.
I produced a business card and they gathered to admire it. We talked about football some more while they wrote their names and cell phone numbers on scratch paper and said if there was anything -- 'really,' said one soldier, his hand on my shoulder, 'even any small thing' -- they could do for me, I was not to hesitate at all. The senior soldier winked and made a clicking noise by bouncing his tongue three times off the roof of his mouth.
Surely it was now time for a car to come and take me away, but that was not to be so we idled away the time by kicking around rumours about this or that sporting, political, or social happening in the country. A passing village boy, about eight years old, steered over, having lost the battle with his curiosity.
The soldier with the pug nose pushed my card into his hand and ripped off a phrase unintelligible to me. The boy blushed and his eyes darted wildly from side to side. The soldier took the card and stuffed it into the boy's shirt pocket. He continued on his way -- a car slowed down to let him cross the street -- and the soldiers waved it down. It was on the way to Ayder -- "Lucky," said the soldiers -- and we exchanged goodbyes. When I looked back the soldiers were waving, and a few local men and the boy were standing outside the barber shop, watching me drive away.
It was a sports vehicle, loaded down with food stuffs. The older and well-groomed driver had some English and when I asked about Ayder he said it was entirely closed down except for one hotel maybe, but of course the kapligar -- the hot springs -- were open 24/7/365 for the use of locals and whatever visitors -- here he shot me a quick glance -- happened by at -- (in careful English) "odd times."
There was ice on the road as we climbed, and the clouds were a different color than the view from the valley had allowed.
"I came here to die," he said, as we came upon dirty snow packed along either side of the road. "I've made my money in Istanbul, and now I've come back here."
I offered that he looked pretty healthy to me, and he said he was not planning on dying anytime soon, but when the time came it would be in Ayder.
"It's a good thing to know," he said, and I nodded and looked out the window at the Firtina River churning healthily along at the base of the valley and asked if there were fish there. He said, yes, yes there were, using the Turkish word for thrives and letting it fall off his tongue slowly in a way which promised that the beauty of this country would surely continue forever. I could only hope that he was right in that and also other important ways.
By then we were in Ayder. He dropped me on the main road, and I quickly observed the drifts -- so different than the fine Fall weather just a few minutes below -- piled in front of all visible restaurants, hostels and hotels. They all must be nice places to stay, but I cannot report such firsthand as most were covered to the roofs with snow. The town was utterly bereft of any sign of recent human occupation -- that would have been up the road a bit, where the local people live -- and the idea of wolves or wild dogs moving in to prowl around dusk, come an hour or two later, was preying on my mind, and it was cold, and a wooden sign nailed to a building across the street -- 'kuru fasulye' (haricot beans), it said -- dropped from its nail. A bell was ringing somewhere, and as I tried to make the direction I noticed a hopeful plume of smoke down below. Dragging my Beneton behind me, I slipped and slid to where a very fine-looking hotel had a sign on the door indicating it was open for business; behind the desk was the same gentleman who had driven me up the mountain.
"You found us," he said.
I got a great deal -- as near sole tenant -- for a four-star hotel with a comfortable sitting room complete with crackling fire place and picture window looking out into the snow-green and brown mountains and the stream running below. I took the waters of the kapligar, and very warm waters they were, in a very fine and clean bathhouse setting.
A Turkish father was staying at the hotel with his two daughters, and we took meals at a regular time in the dining hall. Supper was a wildly delicious beef and vegetable stew with thick loaves of brown bread and shepherd's salad and baklava -- nothing to stir the hunger like a dip in thermal springs -- in the big chilly eating room, and then we hurried back to sit by the fire for a few hours. I wrote letters and tended to another thing or two while a few locals dropped by to chat and drink tea. When they left we had goat's cheese sandwiches on baguette bread with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and while we were eating them the father took the youngest daughter by the crook of her arm and said, just loud enough for everyone to hear: "Is this where they put the morphine in?" and she looked away in misery and shame. I had a few cigars tucked away and we shared those by the fireplace -- the owner, the father, me, and the concierge/cook/bellboy, who said he was an educated man who had retired to Ayder because he was sick of the evil of the world. Everyone else seemed much amused with him, and he made a point of indicating his apathy and disdain for whatever unhappiness the world yet held for him. We discussed the sorry state of politicians, in America and Turkey especially, a local guy happened by to say, and by the way those cigars must have come from Cuba the father said, and the older daughter said, "Well, you're not supposed to inhale them, you know," and then it was time to go to sleep.
About a week later when I returned to Istanbul, I found four messages blinking on my phone. The first begged extra credit work. The second was just to say hello. The third was from my brother. The fourth was in Turkish, with an odd, country accent, and I needed a friend to help me decipher.
"Hmmm," she said.
"What does it say?"
"It says you picked the wrong road up the mountains. Who would leave a message like that?"
"Not a clue," I said.
"You always go to strange places; humph," she said, with that indifferent suspicion which was only a very small part of what made her so endearing.


The next morning, Ayder was covered in more snow. After a breakfast of Turkish tea, mixed cheeses, salami, hard boiled eggs, black and green olives, tomato, bread, butter, whipped cream and honey, I walked off along the stream on my own. It should have been quite easy to lose my way and I did so with no trouble at all. I wandered through light and heavy collections of snow, beside ravines where water yet flowed or was frozen, and up a passable crag where to my right lay the valley in level and brilliant sunshine; and about fifty yards to the left, in a small clearing, a group of men were shoveling clean a circular area about large enough to land an 18-wheeler while others sat and smoked, balancing long walking sticks (as my vision cleared, they materialized into rifles) across their knees. This from a distance They were local boys; they had to be. Anyhoo my here-and-there stumbling had led me to a spot blind to them, and I waited a while, thinking that something of interest might happen. But no, and when their disappointment seemed to match mine and they began to mill and stretch, I turned around and luckily found my way back to the path a couple of hours before the light went suddenly. The light does that around here, said the hotel owner, and I could only close my eyes and nod my head as he shook his and the cook spared a moment of condescension for the both of us. We had another quiet night in the lounge, another great dinner and late sandwich, and the next morning I hitched back down to Camlihemsin, hoping to catch a ride to Zilkale (kale, or fort), an old Byzantine and later Ottoman bastion deep in the forest.
A taxi dutifully appeared without my having to inquire; I had only been standing on the road for a few minutes, watching a reunion of what must have been locally-born folks back from the city to see yet-local relatives. We drove down a good road onto a bad one and then up what seemed the most improbable of passageways for any type of vehicle, but the young fellow driving was implacable and we rolled through deep puddles and gouging ruts and ground to a stop at the absolute place of dead roads. He said we had nothing but time and grunted toward the stairway which leads up to the old castle overlooking a rare view of the valley.
The place is yet in pretty decent shape considering the weight of the years. It must have been near unassailable in its day; perhaps it had originally been a Byzantine place of last resort, resting high over the valley looking down on the Firtina, and on its highest edifice one is on parallel terms visually with the yayla that dot the mountain tops in improbable fashion. I climbed toward the Turkish flag which flies at the topmost point and balanced myself while a hawk wheeled across the valley and the sound of the river was an echo of an echo and my driver leaned against the car and cleaned his fingernails with a pocket knife. It had turned into an unlikely Thursday. The only inhabitant of Zilkale that I saw, a very large rat, ignored me as I made my way through the thin air to more level ground.
A couple of days later, in Trabzon, I met a stocky fellow dressed in combat fatigues as I took the elevator up to the dining room for breakfast. The hotel had seemed level and all, but there are many reasons to dress for battle and I was making a quick mental inventory when, in German-accented English, he asked if I too was here with the UN.
"Well, I'm not up here to do the same job you are."
"Ach, yeah. We've been up by the Georgian border, you know."
Some Shevardnadze, an old Soviet stool pigeon and of late president of that republic, had recently been chased out of parliament and his whereabouts were unknown. There were apparently no secrets over breakfast, as my German companion -- a bit pudgy around the eyes and looking long removed from the obstacle course -- explained that a sudden evacuation of the old fellow might be necessary, thus making urgent his presence in the area.
"He has a big home in Germany. Maybe he come to live there," he said.
An hour later he was sitting in the hotel coffee shop, in spotless black boots. He was with two well-dressed Turkish businessmen -- doubtless passing a curious hour -- and a young Dutchman on a year's tour. My German friend waved me over.
"A university professor," he said, nodding as we all shook hands.
"I teach English," I said. There was not a fifth chair and I know enough of Turkish body language to dissuade the waiter who looked most likely to bring one. It was ten in the morning, and they had tea and a huge plate of baklava in front of them, and the German was again speaking of evacuation routes while the Turks looked on stoically, the Dutchman in mortification, and I mused about the difficulty that might be had in removing a half-cocked bosun's mate from a harbor whorehouse, not to mention a crooked old ex-Soviet goat, pockets lined with filthy money, dodging half-a-dozen bloodthirsty and resolute Georgian tribal groups on their home soil. But it would have been indelicate to mention such, and I was flying out the next day, and there was one more place I had yet to visit, so I made my excuses and moved naturally toward the door leading outside.
The best known of all Black Sea Mountain passes is where the Pontic Mountains come down to the sea; it is yet called Zigana. It was here that the unfortunate troops of Xenophon first saw water ("Thalassa!") after their unhappy campaign across Armenia and Mesopotamia. They went on to Trapeze and celebrated with games before building boats on another stage of the long trip home. It is yet possible, with a lot of trust in local knowledge, to come to a pretty close approximation of where they are supposed to have made that happy shout, but as far as seeing the ocean I can only assume that on a day so far in the past the view was unsullied by years of human endeavor, or perhaps they had only smelled the ocean, or simply had a guide who told them it wouldn't be long now. And yet it is a thrilling feeling to stand up high and wonder of Xenophon's thoughts as he was suddenly presented with the prospect of delivery from a disastrous campaign that, at times, must surely have looked like it could only end in the death of them all; to know that the trip was nearing its end and returning home now had become something to be expected, and not just the distant muse common to those whom circumstance has deprived of all hope.
"You're sure this is the right place?"
"It is good here, yes" said the old man who had led me to the spot. He was a hard find but worth it and having a wonderful time practicing his rustic English; for love of the moment -- happening on each other as we had -- he was perhaps the finest of all guides one could ever hope for. "The Greek man, very tired, yes, they see the ocean."
"It must have been a wonderful moment."
"They think about the home."
"You have the family?"
It is a question heard often by the solo traveler in Turkey, one that comes from the heart, from the sense of decency and humanity and good spirit that makes Turkish acquaintance so wonderful.
"Yes, in America."
"Oh. You can tell them about come here."
We stood for another moment while I searched vainly for a glimpse of the ocean.
"I was a young and take the boats. Sail all around working." He rattled off a few ports of call and rubbed his thumb against two prominent middle fingers -- money. "Then come back to home."
"A traveler."
"Yolcu," he said, slapping my back. "You too, me too."
We stood for another minute while the clouds rolled toward Anatolia and a helicopter buzzed by and his excellent dogs harried a few stray sheep.
"Well, there's no need to walk down," I said. "You must live near here."
"Oh no. Live there," he said, gesturing toward a higher mountain. "Now you come for tea."