Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino

I arrived in the Kaçkar Mountains, in the northeastern corner of Turkey, expecting to find an untouched, empty wilderness. This misconception faded quickly as I caught sight of ruined chapels and castles perched on inaccessible rocky piers high above the road, then small clusters of houses on the mountainsides. Outside the few modern villages, view after view showed alpine terrain crisscrossed by faint paths along which mules and camels used to carry goods between Erzurum and the Black Sea. Further exploration revealed that the thick carpets of vegetation on the valley floors were often orchards and gardens concealing houses and the occasional massive Georgian church.

Far from being sleepy and deserted, the mountain pastures of Çevreli Yayla are a place of heightened activity today. This is the time of the local summer festival, and we are promised music, dancing and even wrestling. But first, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a yayla house, high in the formidable Kaçkar mountain range, I’m treated to a feast. All the food comes from within five miles. In front of me are dry-cured olives that were grown in the valley below, on trees next to vines for the dolma, whose rice shines a luminous green in paddy fields drenched by the Çoruh River’s waters. Apples bulge out of plastic bags and lie scattered around. Their trees kept the fierce summer sun off the cucumbers, tomatoes and onions that have been chopped together into a fragrant salad. The lamb döner once grazed the nearby hillside. The yoghurt sauce carries a hint of wild flowers in high pastures, the same ones that the bees used to make the honey for the dense, sticky cakes. I’m told that later I can see the lake where the tiny salty trout were caught. Only the tea comes from the Black Sea coast, 40 kilometres away.

Four generations of one family fire questions at me, curious perhaps that I’ve dropped in on this, their summer festival. The local accent would be largely indecipherable but for a formula to the conversation, and I wing it on probability: “21 years”; “yes, I study”; “no, I’m not married”. A hand-on-heart ma’sallah brings the house down.

The house, built by a grandfather’s father, is heartbreakingly wonderful in its stark comfort. It lies abandoned during the harsh winter months and contains nothing integral to it but stone and wood. Nothing inside can’t be packed up and put on the back of a mule, or a Volvo. A cloth is draped over our legs under the low table in order to keep food and feet apart. Another is hung from the ceiling to separate living and sleeping areas; another is the door to the outside world and the festival ground.

I was in the Kaçkars primarily to trek with Kate Clow, creator of Turkey’s first waymarked walks, and to assist on her project with Tema, a Turkish ngo specialising in reforestation which was aiming, among other things, to develop sustainable tourism and document the extraordinary profusion of butterflies.

Full of the local culinary delights, and somewhat overwhelmed by my hosts’ observation of silence at a reading of the fatiha over the yayla mosque’s loudspeaker, I walked with some of the local lads of my age down the steep bank to the festival arena. It is set in a natural amphitheatre open on one side to a spectacular view across the jagged peaks of the lower Kaçkars. My work with Kate had made me acutely aware of the social and environmental problems in the region: dramatic depopulation in the past 30 years; disappearing amenities and services; unreliable numbers of tourists; the looming shadow of the long-proposed Yusufeli Dam. Festivals such as this at Çevreli were first conceived in the 1990s to counter such threats, and give a much-needed boost to morale and the local economy. My guides, dressed in torn jeans and black T-shirts emblazoned with the names of American rock groups, weren’t concerned with all that and seemed to sneer at the culture they had been brought up in, while simultaneously beaming with pride that an outsider should take an interest. Around us, though, there were others more dedicated to preserving the yayla way of life. I was told that in the past, when the yaylas were full of people all summer, all this picnicking, dancing, singing and wrestling wasn’t packed into a weekend: it was a way of life, which the festival seeks to recapture.

From the makeshift stage a tune was being played on the tulum, a Turkish bagpipe. Protected to the south by mountains, the locals here have always preserved a unique identity, outlasting the trends sweeping through the rest of the great peninsula. Suddenly the music gained momentum and a line of dancers appeared spontaneously, linked by their little fingers and skip-hopping their way into a circle.

The dance, called horon tepmek here in the northeast and halay çekmek elsewhere, is nothing if not democratic. It allows for the most outrageous show-boating and timorousness all at once. The leader waves his free hand in the air, sometimes embellishing his actions with a handkerchief, and drops to the ground, kicking out his legs with expert poise and rhythm. Behind him – and it is nearly always a him – everyone arranges themselves according to how well they do in comparison. Without any apparent direction, whole new circles form themselves according to levels of skill, so that no one, except perhaps a self-conscious traveller, need be embarrassed by their neighbour’s greater proficiency.

A singing competition was equally good-natured – and produced an equal variety of talent – but a definite sense of competition became evident when the arena was cleared for the wrestling, karakucak, literally “the dark embrace”, which sounds more ominous than it actually is. Deeply rooted in a pastoral society, in which it makes no sense at all for the healthiest and fittest men to beat each other senseless, it resembles a formalised yet spectacular game of rough and tumble. The middleweights hurl, twist, pull and grapple with Olympian athleticism, desperately trying to get their opponents’ shoulders on the ground. Boys as young as five or six take part, and I’ve never before witnessed the held breath of maternal concern on such a collective scale as when one young man at Çevreli took an accidental blow to one eye.

The wrestlers start locked together and low, like two rutting rams. Indeed, the pre-match ceremony involves a remarkably goat-like prance, and a gesture not unlike grazing. In the early summer here, bulls are pitted against each other as a spectator sport, so that once out to pasture they don’t push each other off cliffs while vying for dominance. The comparison was unavoidable, and I wondered which came first.

Travel notes: The main entry point for the Kaçkars is the town of Yusufeli, a three-hour drive from Erzurum.  Most pansiyons operate their own dolmus service to take guests further up the valleys. Festivals are best reached by privately arranged transport or hitching. With whole villages making the journey at a time, finding a lift is rarely a problem.

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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
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  • Mother of the Uighurs

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  • Water Over the Bridge

    For the English-speaking community of Istanbul the suggestion of aqueduct-hunting in Thrace strikes fear into the hearts of all but the foolhardy. Relentlessly cheerful, Prof James Crow of Edinburgh University would laugh off each misadventure and forge onward.

  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors

  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

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  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

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  • A Cold, Harsh Reality

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Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
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