The most scenic and interesting of the foothill regions east of Trabzon are the valleys of the Fırtına Çayı and its tributaries, which tumble off the steepest slopes of the Pontic ranges, here known as the Kaçkar Dağları. Between the mountains and the sea lie a few hundred square kilometres of rugged, isolated territory known simply as Hemşin.
ÇAMLİHEMŞIN, 21km upstream from the mouth of the Fırtına Çayi, is still too low at 300m to give you a real feel for the Hemşin country, but offers a hint of what’s to come. It’s the last proper town before the mountains, utilitarian and busy, with a constant chaos of minibuses and shoppers clogging its single high street.
Above Şenyuva, along the main branch of the Fırtına Çayı, the road steadily worsens while the scenery just as relentlessly becomes more spectacular. Below, the water roils in chasms and whirlpools that are irresistible to the lunatic fringe of the rubber-rafting fraternity – as well as the central government which, in the face of local opposition, plans to divert most of the river’s flow into assorted hydroelectric projects. Some 12.5km from Çamlıhemşin, the single-towered castle of Zilkale, improbably sited by either the Byzantines or the Genoese to control a decidedly minor trade route, appears at a bend in the track. The tree-tufted ruin, more often than not garnished with wisps of mist, today dominates nothing more than one of the most evocative settings in the Pontus.
After another 16km of violent abuse to your vehicle’s suspension you’ll arrive at ÇAT, 1250m up. Despite the horrid road in, there is a fairly regular – at least daily – dolmuş service from Çamlıhemşin, but it’s more comfortable to use your own transport, whether mountain bike or 4WD. This is another classic base for rambles in the western Kaçkar, though there’s not much to the village beyond a few scattered buildings and a final, exquisite bridge leading upstream.
At Çat the upper reaches of the Fırtına divide. A road running parallel to the main fork heads 30km due south to Ortayayla or Başhemşin, passing Zilkale’s sister fort of Varoş (Kale-i-Bala) at Kaleköy, where yet another side road winds up to an alternative trailhead for the western Kaçkar mountains at Kale Yayla. Don’t try to walk any more of these tracks than you have to – between Kale Yayla and Çat, for example, you’ve a very boring three- to four-hour slog in either direction.
The other turning above Çat bears almost due east, still on a poor surface; minibuses ply the 7km up to ELEVIT (1800m), a surprisingly substantial place. This is as far as ordinary cars will prudently go. Only daily minibuses and 4WD vehicles continue east to Karunç, Tirovit and Palovit. Elevit, like its nearest neighbour Tirovit, an hour and a half’s walk east, is a Laz yayla, an enclave of sorts in Hemşin territory.Read More
The Hemsinlis and yaylas
The Hemsinlis and yaylas
With their fair skin and strong features, the Hemşinlis or the people of the Hemsin valleys, often look more Caucasian than Turkish. According to competing theories, these outgoing, gregarious people are either ethnic Armenians who arrived here at or before the time of the Georgian kingdoms, or natives descended from the Heptacomete tribesmen of old, who, through contact with “true” Armenians, adopted a dialect of Armenian and were nominally Christian or pagan until the early nineteenth century. Although most Hemşinlis are now Muslim, they wear their religion lightly: you’re unlikely to be blasted out of bed at dawn by a muezzin around here and, despite stern little signs in local shops warning that “alcohol is the mother of all ills”, the men in fact are prodigious drinkers. This tendency is aggravated by the environment. This is by far the dampest and mistiest part of Turkey, with the sun in hiding two days out of three and up to 500cm annually of rain in some spots. The result is cloudforest vegetation, with everything from moss-fringed fir and alders down to marsh species and creeping vines clinging to the slopes.
Hemşinlis are known as being intrepid and independent. They also have a special genius for the profession of pastry chef and pudding-maker: the top sweet shops (pastanes) of major Turkish cities are usually owned and/or staffed by natives of these valleys. But to fully understand the Hemşin mentality you need to visit at least one yayla, or summer pastoral hamlet.
Yaylas are found throughout Turkey in the uplands, but in the Kaçkar in general – and especially Hemşin – they are at their best. Tightly bunched groups of dwellings, usually stone-built to waist height and chalet style in timber thereafter (but with metal roofs), they begin just at the tree line and recur at intervals up to 2700m. They’re inhabited only between late May and early September, when the snow recedes and their tenants come from as far away as Holland or Germany to renew attachments to what they consider their true spiritual homeland. Traditional summertime activities include the making of yoghurt, butter and cheese, and (increasingly) catering to trekkers’ needs.