Bidding our new friends goodbye, Yolanda and I set out on our own. We remain in Istanbul for a couple of days to decide how we’ll spend our final two weeks and are astounded that no hotel room is available in the city! We end up on the fifth floor of a hostel, ninety steps up, (I counted them), in Beyoğlu, Istanbul’s most fashionable area.
Beyoğlu is a different world. The crowded, narrow streets below our rooftop terrace are wall to wall with restaurants and bars. It’s Friday and they bustle with life.
We enjoy a delicious, shrimp dinner at one of the hundreds of sidewalk cafes, people watching throughout the meal. Afterwards, unawares, we set out to explore the area, stumbling headlong into the teeming hoards promenading Istiklal.
The cramped, café-lined alleys contrast dramatically with Istiklal Caddesi, Independence Avenue, probably the busiest walking street in the world. Istiklal is a broad, cosmopolitan avenue, several miles long. It is flanked wall to wall by architecture from older eras; Ottoman, Neo-Classical, Neo-gothic, Beaux-Arts and Art Noveau. Brightly lit, fashionable, stores, theaters, boutiques and restaurants line the street.
Istiklal is visited by as many as six million people over a weekend. I can believe it. Day or night, people throng it’s length. Night though, brings out the masses, a constant, unceasing, never slacking parade between the Galata Tower and Taksim Square. A quaint, iconic, historical tram plows daringly through the crowd, passengers hanging out its doors.
We decide to catch a plane to the northeastern city of Erzurum. The mountains to its north with their thousand year-old Georgian monasteries and churches beckon. The city lies at over 6,000 feet and happens to be at the foot of Mt. Palandöken, Turkey’s premiere ski area, though it’s to early for skiing.
Even though Erzurum was an ancient stop on the Silk Road and contains over 320 cultural landmarks, it is quite modern with broad, tree-lined avenues and colorful apartment buildings. Atatürk University provides a youthful air. The streets are filled with students. We are approached several times by students wishing to help us and practice their English.
I’m surprised that headscarves aren’t more in evidence. This is after all, eastern Turkey, a very traditional region. Two reasons may account for this: first, Erzurum is where Atatürk, in 1919, laid the foundations for national unity and a modern Turkey: second, the secular state Atatürk established, banned the wearing of headscarves in government buildings and universities.
Devout students wearing headscarves must remove them before entering the gates. This is a cause of much anger within the Muslim community and also denies government employment and an education to women who feel it their duty as a devout Muslim, to cover their heads. This issue was addressed through a referendum process that took place just prior to our arrival in Turkey but any changes have yet to be implemented.
Erzurum and the surrounding region have played a significant role throughout history. Not only was it main stop on the Silk Road, but archeologists have found evidence of occupation going back 8,000 years. The Erzurum museum has impressive displays of artifacts and pottery from prehistoric through Byzantine times. A side room displays a number of carvings and a beautiful, decorated bell from the Georgian churches we hope to visit in the mountain valleys.
We spend two nights in Erzurum before heading north to the town of Yusefeli deep in the mountains of the northeast. I want to rent a car. That makes Yolanda nervous so we opt for a three-hour trip on a thirty-passenger bus, overcrowded with at least forty-five people
Once again, I’m surprised at the treeless slopes. Ancient, tectonic activity is obvious and everywhere. The mountains are a tortuous jumble of volcanic rock cut deeply by water-worn valleys. I meet a mountain guide on the bus who speaks excellent English. He describes his life guiding groups of trekkers from around the world. Not only does he guide in the Kaçkar Mountains with Kaçkar Dağı, the highest peak at 12,917 ft, but he also leads multi-day treks up Turkey’s most famous mountain, 16,854 foot, biblical Mt. Ararat, of Noah’s ark fame, ten miles from the Iranian border.
Our ultimate destination is Barhal, a tiny village the guidebook describes as a jumping off point for trekking, rafting, kayaking and hunting. Arriving in Yusefeli, we catch a minibus to Barhal. Bumping along the one lane, gravel road, barely attached to the mountain with precipitous drops to the river, Yolanda is terrified as the driver races to pass a car. Fortunately, this lasts only a few minutes and the driver slows to a reasonable speed for the rest of the hour and a half trip.
I swear, this must be the Garden of Eden. Lush orchards and terraced gardens rise steeply up the mountainsides and line the river. Every type of fruit, vegetable and nut grow in profusion. Perhaps this is the source of the enormous, seven-foot diameter cabbages we encountered in Erzurum.
These rich valleys have been occupied for thousands of years. Sadly, a dam is slated for construction in the next few years, shutting off this Eden and displacing the tens of thousands living in these spectacular, mountain valleys.
Morning brings another huge breakfast and we’re off to explore. Adjacent to the pension is a deserted, thousand year-old Georgian monastery. Across the valley on a high ridge, the ruins of a small church sit stark against the sky. Here, finally, coniferous trees fill the mountainsides.
Late in the day, even though tired, I’m determined to hike to the ruins high up on the ridge. The owner describes the path and I’m off.
The ruins sit on a broad, cleared point at the conjunction of three valleys with 360-degree views. Higher mountains surround me. It has clouded up. Rain and lighting cross a range not unlike the Gore Range above Vail at home. The sun briefly breaks through, allowing me a few decent photographs. As it sets behind a peak, I descend in the gathering twilight to marvel at the opportunities I’ve been afforded.
In these remote, ancient mountains, surrounded by such deep, rich history, and so far from the intense bustle of one of the world’s most venerable cities, I recall the warm, selfless hospitality of the people we’ve met. I am so fortunate to have been able to dialog with people from such an age-old culture and whose religion is at the heart of the world’s conflicts.
What is evident is that, on a personal level, their hopes and aspirations for their much-beloved children and their country are no different than ours. They wish for peace, desire it intensely, that the succeeding generations, male and female, may grow up in a world that fosters their abilities and provides opportunities to achieve their human and spiritual potential.