The Georgian valleys and Kaçkar mountains
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Despite centuries of Ottoman rule, evidence that Turkey’s far northeast long lay under the command of the Georgian kingdom remains tangible. Ruined castles and churches abound, dotting a valley-chiselled landscape more redolent of modern Georgia than “regular” Turkey. The years of Georgian rule are also reflected in place names, most commonly in the form of the common prefix “Ar-” (as in Ardahan, Artvin, Ardanuç and so forth), equivalent to “-ville” or to “-burg”.
Erzurum, the largest urban base, is the most common gateway for the few intrepid travellers who choose to pop by. To the north lie the southern valleys, home to the churches of Haho and Öşk Vank. Without your own transport, you’ll find it easier to tour the western valleys, where the main town, Yusufeli, has reasonable transport links and accommodation, and also provides a good base from which to organize a tour of the stunning Kaçkar Dağları mountain range, or spectacular ruins such as İşhan. Heading north again, Artvin is the best base for a tour of the churches and castles of the northern valleys, or to continue on to Georgia proper. It’s also possible to hit the border from Ardahan, the main base of the eastern valleys. Lastly, the town of Bayburt, astride the young Çoruh River, makes an acceptable stopover between Erzurum and the coast. Dwarfed by the largest fortress in Turkey, dating from the sixth century, it holds plenty of accommodation and dining options.
You’ll need your own vehicle, or a lot of time for walking and hitching, to visit most of the sights. Bus services, where they exist, usually arrive near the sights in the afternoon and depart for the nearest town in the morning – exactly the opposite of tourist schedules. Some roads are bad, but if you can assemble a group and find a willing taxi driver, this can end up being far cheaper than renting a vehicle in Erzurum or Trabzon. Even with a car or taxi, you’ll need at least three days to see all the monuments.
The northerly Georgian valleys form the heart of the province of Artvin, lying within a 50km radius of the town of the same name. While Artvin town itself is unappealing, the rest of the province is rather beautiful. Except for the Kaçkars, nowhere else in Turkey do you feel so close to the Caucasus: ornate wooden domestic and religious architecture, with lushly green slopes or naked crags for a backdrop, clinch the impression of exoticism. Here, too, you may actually encounter native Georgian speakers, though they’re mostly confined to the remote valleys around the towns of Camili, Meydancık and Posof, and the immediate surroundings of Şavşat.
With its wet, alpine climate on the heights, the region once aspired to become a winter-sports playground, but global warming – and the fact that, in Turkey’s current economic straits, existing ski resorts can barely cope – scotched such hopes. For the moment most tourists come in summer to see the local Georgian churches along the Berta River valley; individually these are not as impressive as their southern relatives, but their situations are almost always more picturesque.
Arrayed in sweeping tiers across a steep, east-facing slope, the lofty town of ARTVIN should possess one of the finest views in Turkey but successive road-building schemes have etched unsightly scars across the valley it calls home. In addition, the town itself is gritty and unappealing, but it makes by far the most comfortable base for explorations of the surrounding area, and becomes a destination in its own right when the Kafkasör festival comes to town.
One of the best times to visit Artvin province is when the fantastic, multi-day Kafkasör festival takes place at an eponymous yayla (village) above town. The highlight has traditionally been the pitting of bulls in rut against each other, but since the opening of the nearby frontier the event has taken on a genuinely international character, with wrestlers, vendors, jugglers, musicians and dancers from both Turkey and Georgia appearing among crowds of over fifty thousand.
The festival is one of the last genuine folk fairs in the country so be there if you can. It usually takes place for several days over the third or fourth weekend in June, but in recent years has occasionally been brought forward as far as late May.
One of eastern Turkey’s few large cities, ERZURUM sits almost 2000m above sea level on the slopes of a burly mountain range, some of whose peaks poke at least another kilometre higher. It’s fair to say that the city’s reputation fails to live up to these lofty heights – Turks from elsewhere deride Erzurum as too conservative and too prone to earthquakes, while travellers tend to use it as a place in which to break long journeys, or start mountaineering and rafting expeditions bound for the Kaçkar Dağları. However, the city’s devout nature is actually one of its highlights: mosques here are not only fancy but full of worshippers night after night, while many local women wear the black chador – a cultural import from nearby Iran – or the çarşaf, a full-length hooded robe tinted the same dun colour as the surrounding steppe. Add to this a compact group of very early Turkish monuments and a city centre recently beautified with fountains, small parks and the like, and you may even find yourself wanting to stay longer.
As the highest city in Turkey, Erzurum endures winters that are both long and hard – temperatures often plunge below -30oC. Keeping local homes warm at these times is a matter of survival, rather than comfort, and even some of the city’s more modern apartment blocks sport wood-fire niches on their balconies. Despite the brutal wind and bone-chilling temperatures, however, winter is high season: tourists aplenty (mostly Turks and Russians) arrive to use the excellent skiing facilities at Palandöken, just south.
Because of a strategic location astride the main trade routes to Persia, the Caucausus and western Anatolia, Erzurum’s sovereignty has always been contested. Although the site had been occupied for centuries before, a city only rose to prominence here towards the end of the fourth century AD, when the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II fortified the place and renamed it Theodosiopolis. Over the next five hundred years the town changed hands frequently between Constantinople and assorted Arab dynasties, with a short period of Armenian rule.
After the decisive battle of Manzikert in 1071, Erzurum – a corruption of Arz-er-Rum, or “Domain of the Byzantines” in Arabic – fell into the hands of first the Selçuks and then the Saltuk clan of Turks. These were in turn displaced by the İlhanid Mongols during the fourteenth century, forerunners of Tamerlane himself, who used the city as a springboard for his brief blitzkrieg into western Anatolia. Erzurum was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire by Selim I in 1515, where it remained securely until 1828, after which the Russians occupied it on three occasions. Finally, the 1970s saw Erzurum become a bit of a hippy hub, thanks to its location on the way east to Iran, Afghanistan and India – travellers of a certain vintage still remember it rather fondly.
Between Erzurum and Yusufeli, a series of stupendously attractive valleys marks the southern extent of medieval Georgia. The most atmospheric approach is from Erzurum – about 70km out, you’ll spy a pair of castles crumbling away atop dramatic pinnacles, announcing the southern frontier of ancient Georgia more effectively than any signpost ever could. Pressing on, you’ll find some superlative ruins – the churches of Haho, Öşk Vank and İşhan are simply gorgeous, though access is tricky without your own transport.
There are no real travellers’ bases in this area; most visit the sights en route between Erzurum and Yusufeli. However, simple accommodation near Haho and right next to İşhan makes it tempting to stay the night in such rarified surroundings.
Far and away the most spectacular church in the western valley, İşhan enjoys a truly spectacular mountain setting. The road up – not recommended for vertigo sufferers – weaves a lonely course through a heavily eroded, lifeless moonscape, which makes it all the more surprising when you arrive at the church and its surrounding apple, mulberry and walnut groves. This is charming İşhan village, which despite its beauty seems to be in near-terminal decline – since the 1980s, when its one school had over 130 students, the number has dwindled to just eleven. Surprisingly, the village is served by occasional public transport, and even boasts a simple guesthouse.
The imposing church itself was originally dedicated to the Virgin, and constructed in stages between the eighth and eleventh centuries, ranking it among the oldest extant sacred Georgian architecture. The semicircular colonnade that lines the apse, with superb carved capitals, is the earliest surviving portion of the building, and was modelled consciously after the church at Bana. Great chunks of the roof are now missing, so the 42m-high dome, constructed much like that at Öşk Vank, rests in isolation on four columns. The acoustics, however, remain superb, as you can hear for yourself if you stand directly beneath the dome, and some patches of fresco can be seen high up on the surviving walls of the south transept.
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.
Palandöken, the resort that stretches away 5km south of town, offers far and away the best skiing in Turkey – more than adequate compensation for being stuck in Erzurum during its habitually arctic winters. With largely north-facing slopes ranging from 2300m near the Palan Hotel up to Point 3140 on Mount Ejder, excellent conditions (essentially nice dry powder on a 2m base) are just about guaranteed. Pistes total 45km, with eight chairlifts, two drag-lifts and a tele-cabin giving access to eight easy, six intermediate and two advanced runs, as well as four recognized off-piste routes.
Palandöken is easily reached by taxi from Erzurum, for a fare, depending on your precise destination, of TL15–20. Bus #5G (TL1.5) also heads this way from various points in the city centre, though since it stops a full 10min uphill walk short of the resort, it’s not worth considering unless you’re really strapped for cash. The handful of good hotels in the resort are your best bets for equipment rental, which costs around TL70 per day.
Note that there’s also good winter skiing at Sarıkamış, west of Kars.
While most travellers cross from Turkey to Georgia through the Black Sea ports of Sarp and Batumi, the adventurous can make use of an inland border post linking Posof and Akhaltsikhe. At the time of writing, citizens of most countries could get a free visa on arrival, but double-check with your nearest Georgian embassy.
Buses run from Kars and Ardahan to the cute Turkish border town of Posof; there’s nothing to see there, but the lofty views may even entice you to stay the night. The border is 12km away and accessible by taxi (TL25); you’ll pay just a little more for the remaining run to Akhaltsikhe (drivers will accept euros and Turkish lira), a pleasant Georgian town with banks, hotels and good links to Tbilisi and Batumi.
Georgians have lived in the valleys of the Çoruh, Tortum, Kura and Berta rivers, now in Turkey, since the Bronze Age. Like the neighbouring Armenians, they were among the first Near Eastern nations to be evangelized, and were converted rapidly to Christianity by St Nino of Cappadocia in the mid-fourth century. Unlike the Armenians, they never broke with the Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople, and maintained good relations with Byzantium.
An effective Georgian state only entered the local stage early in the ninth century, under the auspices of the Bagratid dynasty. This clan contributed rulers to both the Georgian and Armenian lines – hence the partial overlap in the medieval history of the two kingdoms. They claimed direct descent from David and Bathsheba, which explains a preponderance of kings named David, a coat of arms laden with Old Testament symbols, and curiously Judaic stars of David embossed on many of their churches.
Ashot I Kuropalates began the first stages of territorial expansion and church-building in the area, under the guidance of the monk Gregory Khantzeli. Ashot’s descendants included David “the Great” Magistros of Oltu, as well as Bagrat III, who in 1008 succeeded in unifying the various Georgian principalities into one kingdom. The Selçuks arrived in 1064, ravaging Georgia and all of eastern Anatolia, but as soon as they turned to confront the Crusaders a Bagratid revival began. David the Restorer managed to expel the Selçuks by 1125, moved the Bagratid court to newly captured Tblisi, then reunited the various feuding principalities ruled by minor Bagratid warlords.
Under the rule of David’s great-granddaughter Tamara, medieval Georgia acquired its greatest extent and prestige, controlling most of modern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the ancestral Georgian valleys. A formidable military strategist and shrewd diplomat, the queen displayed a humanity and tolerance unusual for the era. Many churches and monasteries were repaired or re-endowed under Tamara; despite being a woman and a non-Muslim, her name still elicits respect from local Turks.
After Tamara died, the Georgian kingdom began a slow but steady decline, effectively partitioned between the Ottoman and Persian empires. The rise of imperial Russia signalled the end of any viable Georgian state, and the last semi-independent king effectively surrendered to Catherine the Great in 1783.
The Bagratids were a prolific bunch, who erected castles on just about every height; generally you’ll have to be satisfied with a passing glance, since access to many of these eyries has long been impossible other than for technical climbers. The most remarkable examples are the early Bagratid monastic churches, all dating from before the move northeast to the Caucasus proper, and most sited amid oases at the heads of remote valleys. The Georgians borrowed many of the architectural features of Armenian churches. It takes a trained eye to distinguish the two styles, though in general the Georgians rarely attempted the rotundas or multi-lobed domed squares beloved of the Armenians.
There’s not been nearly the degree of official stonewalling about Georgian Christians as there is concerning Armenians, and the churches have become recognized as tourist attractions. Almost all have suffered damage from dynamite- and pickaxe-wielding treasure-hunters: the locals have an unshakeable conviction that all the Christians who left the area in 1923 secreted precious items in or under their churches, in the mistaken belief that they’d eventually be able to return.
A formidable barrier between the northeastern Anatolian plateau and the Black Sea, the Kaçkar Dağları are the high end of the Pontic coastal ranges – and Turkey’s most rewarding and popular trekking area. Occupying a rough rectangle that measures 70km by 20km, the Kaçkars extend from the Rize–İspir road to the Hopa–Artvin highway. The more abrupt southeast flank is lapped by the Çoruh River, while the gentler northwest folds drop more gradually to misty foothills. At 3932m, their summit ranks only fourth highest in Turkey, but in scenic and human interest they fully earn their aliases “the Little Caucasus” and “the Pontic Alps”.
Besides the principal summit area, several other major massifs are recognized: the Altıparmak and Marsis groups of about 3300m, at the north end of the Bulut ridge, which links them with Point 3932; and the adjacent Tatos and Verçenik systems of about 3700m, at the extreme southwest of the chain.
Partly due to intensive human habitation, the high Kaçkars support relatively few large mammals; bear and boar prefer the forested mid-altitude zones, while wolves and ibex are ruthlessly hunted in the treeless heights. Birds of prey and snow cocks are more easily seen and heard, while the summer months witness an explosion of wildflowers, butterflies – and vicious deer flies.
The western Georgian valleys, around the confluence of the Barhal and Çoruh rivers, are scenically and climatically some of the most favoured corners of the northeast. During the balmy summers, all sorts of fruits ripen, and you’re treated to the incongruous spectacle of rice paddies (and further downstream, olive groves) by the Çoruh, within sight of parched cliffs overhead. The small, quirky town of Yusufeli is gateway to these river valleys, which in their lower reaches offer Georgian churches near Tekkale and Barhal, plus trekkers’ trailheads not only at Barhal but also higher up at Yaylalar and Olgunlar. All these places have simple accommodation.
General tourism has never really taken off here, and the stark simplicity of local facilities will appeal mostly to hardier travellers. You’ll need a steady hand at the wheel – or, if you’re a minibus passenger, a strong stomach – for the steep, and often bumpy, rides out to the trailheads or Georgian churches.
Squeezed into a tight valley on the banks of the Çoruh, gritty little YUSUFELİ enjoys a truly spectacular location. Despite the Georgian ruins and Black Sea-style wooden dwellings on its periphery, the town itself is somewhat old-fashioned – no great surprise, given the fact that it has been on civic death row for several decades (see The damming of the Çoruh… and the end of Yusufeli?).
The damming of the Çoruh River may soon drown the rafting possibilities that have brought Yusufeli so much of its custom over the years. Assuming the town itself remains above water, however, its small range of appealing places to eat and sleep will see it remain one of the best travel bases in northwest Turkey.
Anyone lucky enough to have visited Yusufeli in May or June will have seen, and certainly heard, the Çoruh River thumping along at a quite incredible speed, emitting a roar that’s audible all along the valley – the result of the melting of winter snow in the Kaçkar mountains. The area’s hydroelectric potential is enormous, and of major importance in a country accustomed to importing costly fossil fuels. The first schemes to dam the Çoruh were drawn up in the 1970s; thanks to poor planning, environmental lobbying and retracted investments, they have been torn up and put back together many times since.
Little Yusufeli has borne the brunt of this uncertainty – under the initial, and many subsequent, plans, the town would have been the largest of eighteen settlements swallowed, either in whole or in part, by the highest major dam. This lingering Sword of Damocles ensured that, for decades, nothing new was built in Yusufeli. In 2011, the pendulum swung back towards the creation of a series of smaller dams further up the river, and a small burst of new construction followed – at the time of writing, however, many local residents still expected to lose their homes. Should the upstream dams get the go-ahead, as seems likely, one casualty will be the local rafting industry – most operators were expecting to cease operations in 2013, though rest assured that they’ll soon be back on whitewater elsewhere: check wcoruhrafting.com for news.
The gigantic Deriner Dam near Artvin was sealed in 2012, and it will slowly start to produce electricity as the waters rise. At the time of writing, the area behind the dam was a vast, post-apocalyptic mess – however, most of it will in due course be submerged, and the new roads linking Artvin with Yusufeli and Ardahan are likely to become incredibly scenic driving routes.
Straddling the Barhal Çayı just above its junction with the Çoruh, YUSUFELI is a gritty, rather time-warped town living under a death sentence; if funds ever permit construction, it will disappear under the waters of the highest Çoruh dam, and accordingly nothing new has been built here since the 1970s. Traveller opinion on the place is sharply divided: some can’t wait to see the back of it, hitching out at dusk to avoid staying the night, while others, en route to or from the Kaçkar mountains, end up spending a few nights here and making a day-trip up one of the nearby river valleys.