The Laz, and stuck up in a tree

Glass mug of fresh ayran as found in Maltepe, ...
Image via Wikipedia

On Saturday the 22nd, we decided to forego breakfast at the good old Turist Hotel, which would have been included had the cook shown up; instead, we were offered a plate of cockroaches, but we politely declined. We went to the Rize Tea Institute, which it was closed, but we viewed the gardens and tea-fields. Turkey’s crop was condemned because of Chernobyl fallout in 1986, and since then, Turks have been drinking it by the gallon but have been somewhat less successful at selling the stuff overseas, further adding to its economic woes.

We then drove east through Laz country towards Arde?en and then south to Çamlihem?in through Hem?in country. The Laz are a Caucasian people who speak a Georgian language, and 200,000 of them live in Northeast Turkey. Many of them have reddish hair and are less religious Moslems, and they’re supposed to be great businessmen. The Hem?inlis in Northeast Turkey are also Caucasian and of Armenian descent, but there are only 15,000 of them. Their women wear brightly-colored imported scarves, called pu?i.

We ate breakfast on a patio in front of a Laz-owned market called the H?z?r, 2 km south of Arde?en. Our breakfast consisted of homemade butter and cheese, along with store-bought bitter chestnut honey (spectacular) along with olives and a surprisingly fancy round bread rather than the usual baguette. We also drank Ayran (salty yogurt-water) that they were making as we spoke – their son, about 10, was shaking it up in a wooden vat dangled by chains from the ceiling. The Laz proved their famed business acumen by charging us 3.5 million (about $13) for the meal, very high by Turkish standards.

We had arrived for breakfast just after they had slaughtered one of their cows right in front of the patio, and it was hanging in front of our table as the Laz man was carving it up. He was wearing rubber pants, but not a rubber shirt, and he and the ground were very bloody. They were extremely friendly, and they talked with us for a long time as we ate; the man was gesticulating wildly with his knife as he spoke. While we dined, we watched his wife and children tie a cow to a tree so that it could mate with a bull. The bull screwed the cow for a number of brief seconds over the course of about 15 minutes. When the bull walked away, he was quite lethargic. The Laz explained that they bought the bull to eat but liked it so much they decided to keep it for a while and breed it. Come Ramadan, however, it’s meat.

We drove to Çamlihem?in to see the Hem?inlis and also the yaylas on the way. Yaylas are unpainted summer homes made by villagers high up in the mountains, away from the main roads, where they go to escape the unbearable heat below and to give their cattle some more green to graze. When we came back up the road, we stopped again at the H?z?r market, where Co? bought some honey and they gave us free Ayran. The man continued to cut up his cow and we talked with the women, who were surprised at our age – they thought we were all much younger, as they look far older than their age – and were surprised that Elif spoke English (as well as the fact that Dilek only had one child and that Elif and I haven’t procreated yet – in fact, “Why haven’t you had children yet?” was the most common question people have asked Elif and I on this trip).

We then went further east to Arhavi, where Co? stopped to see if he could buy tea from the Çaykur tea factory. Becacuse Çaykur is a government-owned monopoly, this would be the same stuff you could get anywhere in Istanbul, which irritated me a little, but it turned out very well: the factory head came to the gate to see who we were, and being a Laz, invited us in and gave us a thorough tour of the factory. We got to see all of the machinery and even to stick our hands in the dried tea leaves, the same tea that Turks would later drink. Turns out that the “tiny little tea leaves” in Tetley Tea are tiny because they suck – you want bigger leaves after processing. In any case, uncooked tea leaves look like regular deciduous tree leaves, and that tea that you get in tea bags – Lipton, for instance – is basically ground tea and dirt – which helps give your tea a nice dark red color!

We passed through Hopa, a depressing Georgian border town which mines copper. It has a large Turkish military presence and features old Russian architecture which is both gorgeous and dilapidated. We then went through Artvin, a town which stretches forever on a steep mountain hill along a single windy street which completely lacks a town centrum. I thought that we were going to head south to the Tortum valley to see some Georgian churches, but at 2PM, we suddenly stopped at a hotel, because Co? thought it would be better to stop at a Yuppie camping resort in the forest village of Kafkasör (nifty name!). We ate fish at their restaurant, and we managed to get the one terrifying table situated in treehouse dozens of meters off the ground. The waiters passed us our food in a basket that was on a pulley connecting the treehouse with the restaurant, and we had to pull our food in.

As we drank rak?, we argued with each other, although we tried not to move too much as we fought, lest the shaky treehouse break and plunge us to our deaths. Elif and I were incensed not only that we were spending the rest of our day basically sitting in a tree, but that changes in itinerary were being pulled on us at the last minute. We discussed our future itinerary, and Dilek and Co? were so scared about going further southeast from there, and they lied that we had never even discussed it, even though we had all decided to go at least as far as Do?ubeyazit. Dilek took the position that it’s unfair for us to only see what Elif and I wanted to, but I pointed out that the only alternative they put forth was for us to sit in a tree. Elif then said that this whole trip was basically Dilek and Co? joining us, which led to more family fireworks. We went to bed early, our trip’s future still unresolved, and I stayed up all night fending off an oddly-severe allergy attack.

An army sendoff in Rize

Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene
Image by K?vanç Ni? via Flickr

We drove to Rize to stay the night, and Rize is very religious, with covered women and men with skullcaps. Since the Rough Guide said that unmarried couples would have problems booking a room in anywhere but the Turist Hotel, we went there. We left Co? in the car when we checked in – Elif and Dilek and I showed our ID’s and said Co? was parking. The hotel was animal-friendly, meaning that roaches wandering the halls far outnumbered the guests. Our room had trash all over the torn-up carpet and a toilet which was literally shattered. We found out from a worker there that the owner died and his son is cashing out as much as possible while entrusting the administrative and caretaking duties to the vermin.

Luckily, that night at 11:45, we got to see the town sending its boys off to the army. The send-off was spectacular: vans and cars carrying the 18-year-olds and their friends, decked out in ribbons, flags and banners, honking their horns and driving by as if they had won the World’s Cup. The boys’ families were on the streets, waving them on as the boys were being driven to the army bus or base. The boys were certainly going to fight the Kurds, and the families looked strangely happy, although I couldn’t read emotion off the mothers. It’s considered a great dishonor there if you don’t serve in the army, and if you die, you’re going straight to Muslim heaven – but the mothers must privately grieve. From what I can gather about serving in the army, it’s mandatory for boys but not girls; it’s an 18-month service, but the army’s so desperate for money that you can pay to get out in nine months rather than 18, which is a dishonor for villagers but not for city folk. Where you end up serving is by lottery system, but it’s weighted so that if you’re from the west you’re more likely to end up in the east (so they don’t have eastern locals fighting eastern locals in the Kurdish war). Elif’s cousin Özgür is from Istanbul but claimed residency on the Black Sea (his father kept his ID in Samsun), so he ended up serving his nine months in central Anatolia rather than spending them, say, dead.

The civil war’s been going on for over two decades, and the country walks a tightrope to survive. Turkey need its Kurdish east for its oil reserves, and its potential pipeline for protection from its hostile neighbors, as they fear that a Kurdish state would be rife with internal disputes (four primary mutually-unintelligible dialects and mutual animosity) and unable to protect its borders (a similar argument to Israel not giving up territory to a Palestinian state). Because of ethnic and economic-level differences, the Kurds in the East see their land as occupied and form the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party which also supports a guerrilla organization. Civil war ensues, and Turkey needs money to buy guns to fight the war, as well as money to irrigate the East to economically improve it, which would put an end to both the strife as well as to the Islamic stopgap (which it meanwhile encourages to give Allah to the Kurdish males to distract them from the war). Inflation skyrockets, and the PKK sells drugs to fund the war. The Turkish government does likewise, encouraging the Mafia to import drugs from Iran and sell them to western countries for much-needed funds, and they also use the Mafia to kill off the PKK dealers. But the Mafia, alas, becomes too powerful, and now the MIT (Turkish Secret Service) is fighting the Mafia. To irrigate the east and finally improve its economic level, Turkey also funds the massive GAP (Güneydo?u Anadolu Projesi – Southeast Anatolian development Project) to dam water from the Tigris and Euphrates. This incenses the Syrians, which is downstream and which desperately needs the water, so Syria responds by arming and training the PKK. Thus, the war remains in happy, bloody equilibrium and will likely be that way for many years to come.

Hidden ruins by Trabzon

Frescoes on the inner wall of the Rock Church ...
Image via Wikipedia

On Friday the 21st, we reached Trabzon and saw the mid 13th-century Byzantine church of Aya Sofya, whose frescos are shockingly lurid for the period – its Ascension has abstract geometrical patterns that look more out of the mid 20th century than the 13th. We went to the Atatürk Kö?kü, a Disney fairytale mansion in a perfectly-kept garden – Atatürk stayed there on three occasions, so it’s like a George Washington house. I paid admission and gave the guard a million ($4) and waited for change, which was not forthcoming, because, as the guard explained, this was the higher admission rate for foreigners. Even after Elif told him that we’re Turks, he insisted that although I had an extended stay visa that I, at least, should pay foreign rates. Dilek screamed at him, calling him all sorts of names. The guard finally capitulated, but this triggered a nasty fight between Co? and Dilek; Co? was embarrassed that Dilek would fight with a government official, and he pouted and refused to go to the upper floor of the mansion, sulking in the garden.

In the Rough Guide a site off the beaten path – the 15th-century former Armenian monastery of Kaymakl?, reachable only by a rough dirt road and a bit of hiking. I couldn’t believe how abandoned it was – it was in a tiny village of a few families and was actually being used by one of them as a hay-barn. As we walked up, a group of children let us inside, and we crawled on the bales to see the top frescoes inside – Jonah and the whale, Christ coming into Jerusalem, and several images of hell. I wonder: how does paint survive this long? It does seem interesting to me that the Armenian and Georgian churches (non-Muslim sites that are not obvious tourist attractions) have been left to be tended to by the locals. Perhaps the Turks don’t want to call attention to Armenian settlements lest Armenians claim land rights, but they’re too embarrassed to destroy the monuments, leaving it up to the local elders to be the ones to lose face if the monument goes to ruin. Elif says that the government even pays a small sum to some local to take care of it, and if that guy chooses to turn it into a hay-barn, so be it – but maybe the hay and its inaccessibility may preserve it even better than if it were a tourist attraction.

We then visited the famous (and thus preserved) 13th-century Greek Orthodox monastery of Sumela, clinging to the rock cliffs. We ate nearby some local food – a melted cheese and corn meal dish which tasted Mexican, as well as a crepe which would have had anchovies had they been in season. The drive up to the monastery was terrifying due to the steep, narrow road and to Co?’s driving. We walked back down the hill rather than to ride with him. The frescoes of the church were much-vandalized but still beautiful. The sign by the monks’ original toilets said “Original Bathrooms (Do Not Use).” Rule of thumb: if you see an enclosed area on a popular archeological site in Turkey, you can bank on there being a piss smell inside. Driving back from Sumela was like something out of an Indiana Jones film – we passed a rock quarry and then just as we turned the corner, we saw out the rear window huge boulders from it crashing onto the road right behind us.

Co? then had the bright idea of searching for local rice pudding for which the Laz are famous, except that we weren’t far enough east for there to be any Laz around, so we ended up driving two hours up mountain roads until we found a place that advertised “Famous Rice Pudding.” It was watery. Finally, we decided to go back to Trabzon to see the Russian Market. Unfortunately, Russian tourists have stopped coming to Turkey for many reasons (including the Russian economy crashing even faster than Turkey’s; the closing of the Turkish casinos by the Refah party; and the fact that Turkish men’s reputation for treating every Russian woman as if she were a natasha) – Elif says they’re now going to China instead. So, after eating at a Laz restaruant without Laz, we now were at a Russian Market without Russians. Co? bought binoculars, which took an hour until I told him how incredible the ones he was considering were, and I told the seller we’d buy them if he’d throw in a pair of AAA batteries for Elif’s mom.

A criminal adulterer on the Black Sea coast

Traditional houses of Safranbolu, Karabük, Turkey
Image via Wikipedia

We set out heading east from Istanbul along the Black Sea coast with Elif’s mom Dilek and her judge boyfriend Co?. Co? is married, but his wife is refusing the divorce out of spite, since Co? has been dating Dilek for two years. In Turkey, if the woman refuses the divorce, it won’t be granted until three years of separation – during which time adultery is an imprisonable offense. So the first few days, near Istanbul, we’re hiding from places where Co? might be recognized. After we get further east, we should be fine; our plan after that will be to head South along the Georgian, Armenian, and Iranian borders before heading back west.

After Lake Abant at Bolu, we reached the town of Old Safranbolu, a town whose houses date from Ottoman times and where it’s illegal to build new ones; some are wonderfully dilapidated, some such as the Kaymakamlar Evi (Governor’s house) have been restored. I loved the beautiful marble 17th century Cinci Hamam Ottoman baths and walked through all of its chambers on clogs as men were taking their baths, although it was too scalding for us to stay. We bought a tub of blackberries from some kids on the side of the road, and I ate the whole thing – spectacular, Edenic fruit. We stayed in Amasra, a town on two bays with a Byzantine-Genoese castle which had a huge neon Ataturk head that lit up at night.

The next day was a hard slog of driving, averaging about 40km/hour until Ayanc?k. We stayed at the Black Sea harbor town of Sinop, which had the typical scene of Turkish families with their kids walking on the strip, eating sticky gummy Mara? ice cream, with music blasting from the gazinos straight into our hotel rooms until midnight. On Thursday the 20th, we saw Sinop’s Alaeddin Camii, a mid-13th century Selçuk mosque that has a Spanish-Moorish-looking courtyard, as well as the Alaiye Medressi religious school. Heading east, the whole way we drove past hazelnuts which villagers were drying by the side of the road.

We then reached Samsun, a nightmarish, disgusting Black Sea city. Suddenly, Co?kun dumped us on a street corner and announced that he was going to stop by the army base there to visit his son who was serving his mandatory 18 months. Co?’s son hates him because he’s divorcing his mother, and Co? hoped he could affect a reconciliation. This proved to be a failure, for Co? reappeared at the corner and hour and a half later with the news that his son had refused to see him. The entire time Co? was gone, Dilek complained mightily about having been dumped at a street corner rather than at a museum or something, and we were sure that when Co? returned he’d get what he deserved, but Dilek proved to be a paper tiger. She told him that that the corner where we were dumped stank of petrol, and Co? merely replied, “You didn’t come from a village, you know what cities smell like.” But then Dilek felt sorry for him because his son wouldn’t see him, and she fed him cookies which were in the car.

Later that day at the town of Ünye, Elif announced she wanted to see her father’s uncle’s widow. The last time Dilek saw the woman, Dilek was pregnant carrying Elif. She was delighted by the surprise visit and was super-nice, stuffing us with food. That evening, we ate in an amazing lokanta in Vakf?kebir.

We stayed at the “Besst Hotel” in Be?ikdüzü outside of Trabzon. There we saw our first natasha – Russian whore. She was stunning – tall, thin, skimpily dressed with high heels and bright red makeup. I totally would’ve gone for her.