Highway 950 heads north out of Erzurum across the steppe, aiming for a nearly imperceptible gap, too trivial to call a pass, in the surrounding mountains. Almost without noticing it you’re across the watershed, and as you begin a slow descent the landscape becomes more interesting, with the Tortum Çayı alongside and trees appearing for the first time in a long while. Just over 70k from Erzurum, a pair of castles to left and right, crumbling away atop dramatic pinnacles, announce more effectively than any signpost that you’ve now reached the southern limits of medieval Georgia. Highlights of the area are the churches of Öşk Vank, İşhan and Bana, though access is tricky without your own transport.
The tenth-century church of Haho owes its excellent state of repair to its continual use as a mosque since the eighteenth century. Entry is only possible on Friday around prayer time, or by tracking down the key-keeper in the village. Most of the monastery complex – the boundary wall and gate, and three satellite chapels – is in good condition, the effect spoiled only by aluminium corrugated sheets on the roof, though the conical-topped dome is still covered in multicoloured tiles.
To get to Haho you’ll first need to head to Bağbaşı, a large village 8km west of Highway 950, dispersed in a fertile valley. Two minibuses a day make the trip from Erzurum’s Gölbaşı Semt Garajı out to the village – a lot of toing and froing just to see Haho. If you’re heading there with your own wheels, take the signed turn west from the highway over the Taş Köprü humpback bridge, keep left through the first large village you come to, then take another left towards İspir, a few minutes later by a modern mosque. Finally, take a right at the next, well-marked junction.
The most elaborate example of Georgian Gothic architecture in these valleys, the monastery church of Öşk Vank (Oshkhi) is well worth the trouble you may incur reaching it. A late tenth-century foundation of David Magistros, it represents the culmination of Tao Georgian culture before the Bagratid dynasty’s move northeast and the start of the Georgian “Golden Age” after 1125. The interior colonnade – with no two columns alike – exudes a European Gothic feel with its barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling; halfway up the south transept wall, the vanished wooden floor of the mosque that once occupied the premises acted as protection for a stretch of frescoes, the best preserved in any of the Turkish Georgian churches.
The side road to Öşk Vank is prominently marked just south of Tortum Gölü, 15.4km north of the Haho turning. It’s an easy, mostly paved 7.2km straight run up to Çamlıyamaç village.