Turkey // The Black Sea coast //

The Hemsinlis and yaylas

With their fair skin and strong features, the people of the Hemşin valleys, known as the Hemşinlis, tend to 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 cloud-forest vegetation, with everything from moss-fringed fir and alders down to marsh species and creeping vines clinging to the slopes.

Hemşinlis are renowned for 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 in the uplands throughout Turkey, but in the Kaçkar in general – and especially Hemşin – they’re at their best. Tightly bunched groups of dwellings, usually stone-built to waist height, and chalet-style in timber thereafter, albeit 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. Their tenants come from as far away as Holland or Germany to renew attachments to what they consider their true spiritual homeland. Traditional summer activities include making yoghurt, butter and cheese, and (increasingly) catering to trekkers’ needs.