The Black Sea
Amasya & Tokat .
The Black Sea is known in Turkey as the greenest part of the country. Considering that most of Anatolia is painted in various shades of grey and yellow-brown, the Black Sea seems positively verdant. Visitors from England may have a different opinion on this, but be nice about it.
The Black Sea does indeed get far more rainfall that any other part of Turkey and this can be a major hindrance for travelling in the region. Not only does the constant downpour get in the way of doing much of anything other than playing backgammon, the roads have a tendency to wash out, villages get buried in mudslides and so on.
Before the major road building of the Republican period, the Black Sea region was cut off by mountains from inner Anatolia, and so the economy was oriented to the coasts and the Black Sea trade. Before Lausanne there were many Armenians and Pontic Greeks at the Eastern end of the coast, but they have all gone.
The actual coastline is not all that beautiful; shoddy construction and indifferent development has created some of the ugliest, tackiest towns in Turkey here. With the exception of the great hump at the Western end between Amasra and Sinop, the Black Sea coast is really just a long line of tumbledown shanties, rotting fishing boats, rubbish heaps and very poor people. Between Trabzon and Gerze there is little reason to get off the bus except to get on another one.
The interior, up in the mountains, is an entirely different story. While access is difficult along most of the coast, these mountains have some pristine villages, excellent trekking area and the yayla of the pastoralists. This is really what you should go into, but it is not at all easy, and in some places it can be a bit dodgy due to guerrilla activity in the area. Out this way Turkish is a must, and the Black Sea dialects are quite a challenge.
This is my favourite seaside town in Turkey by far. Sinop is isolated enough that it does not get many tourists, but modern enough to not have that village-peasant atmosphere one can find farther east. The town government is one of the Centre Left parties and the people of Sinop are both friendly and tolerant. You won't see very many covered women in the streets here nor are there legions of touts trying to part you from your money.
On the neck of a narrow peninsula, Sinop has a typical ancient history and large parts of the town walls are still intact and in one place a very pleasant, perpetually deserted café sits on the ramparts. Just across from the otogar is an old Ottoman prison which probably dates back a several centuries, but unfortunately is still used to house women convicts. Out west, behind the beach a few kilometres is a much larger prison housing men, many of them incarcerated on political charges. On top of the large club-like peninsula is a disused NATO listening post which was used for decades to listen in on the Soviet Black Sea fleet and other communications. The post was shut down a few years back, but the people speak with nostalgia about the Yanks who worked there and will pull out photographs of their American friends and ask you if you know them.
It is a quiet place; there are no discos, no night clubs, no belly dancers. The town shuts down early, but there are plenty of cheap pide restaurants and pastahanes as well as other, somewhat more expensive. fish restaurants near to the harbour. There is no shortage of cheap, friendly pansiyon accommodation near the harbour.
This is really just a quiet place to spend a few days drinking tea and chatting with the locals. There is an excellent stretch of beach going out at least ten km heading west along the bay. Gerze, some twelve km south, is a pretty little town with some nice houses and a statue of Aydin the whale who befriended Gerze in the 1960s and hung around the docks for years mooching fish.
In the mountains behind Gerze is some stunning terrain for trekking if you can figure out how to get into it. The mountains there only go up to 2,000 metres or so, but they really are green and water is plentiful. Too plentiful usually. Rain is very heavy along the Black Sea for most of the year. Summer is the only reliable time to visit and expect good weather.
Amasya & Tokat
Amasya is one of the more famous tourist destinations in this region because of the old castle and the numerous (and rare) examples of old Ottoman architecture. Amasya is on the railway connecting with Samsun, but is off the main Ankara-Samsun highway. The town is on one side of a narrow gorge and is very scenic. There are plenty of inexpensive pansiyons with green courtyards in which to stay. Tokat also has much the same fine architecture as Amasya, but is not so well touristed.
The hinterland around Tokat is an old stomping ground for Leftist Turkish guerilla groups such as TIKKO and DHKP-C. There are many Alevi in this area and so naturally it is more to the left, and the proximity to the fascists in Yozgat and Corum must have something to do with this.
A very famous incident in the folklore of the Turkish Left happened near Niksar in Tokat province in 1972. Mahir Cayan, the greatest martyr of the Turkish left, a band of comrades and three English hostages were killed in a small stone house in the village of Kizildere. Since there was only one survivor of the massacre, exactly what happened is not clear, and probably never will be. However, this incident is rather the Boston massacre for the Turkish Left. Hundreds of revolutionary songs, poem and polemics have been written about it, making Mahir the inspiration for so many newer and lesser martyrs on the Left.
Currently the countryside around Tokat is not the best place to wander around without some sort of local guide. The DHKP-C, TIKKO and recently, due to an accord with the DHKP-C, the PKK have also been active in this area. More dangerous are the Interior Ministry Special Operations Teams who have been very busy shooting villagers and suspected guerrilla sympathisers in this area. Some of these latter attacks have had random characters (one of them involved a police convoy stoppong and opening fire from the road on a village killing several children) so beware if you are determined to travel around in this area.
In the 1990s Trabzon has been booming as a bazar for trade with Russian cruise ships and with the prostitution industry. So many Russian women have come to work as prostitues in Trabzon that the town rather has the reputation of Bankok on the Black Sea. While the town is not entirely without its good points (they make very good closed pide here), it has a sinister air from all the organised crime and the plentiful fascists. This town is very far to the Right politically with both fascists and fundamentalists in plentiful quantities.
If you have just come in from trekking in the interior, Trabzon can be an acceptable place to get cleaned up and revictualed. The Sekiz Direkli Hammam is one of the delights of the town, and the people working there really do know their stuff and the Hammam is two-hundred years old. If you want to see the rather rundown, but still startling Sumela Monastery trips can be arranged from travel agents in the centre.
Trabzon is best used as a staging area to get farther along the Black Sea and into Georgia. The Georgian Consulate is downtown and if the Consul is reasonably sober you can get a visa in about twenty minutes. Hours are posted, but seldom honoured.
You can get transportation from Trabzon to Ayder, the trail head for the Kackar Mountains trek every morning from the tourist offices downtown.
Rize is the tea growing region, the place from which that bitter black brew originates. There are a lot of Laz around here. You can see the women wearing the distinctive red Laz headscarf on the hillsides picking tea leaves or on the pavements in the grotty little towns turning over the steaming, fermenting leaves on plastic tarps. The town of Rize is a dump with the town rubbish tip right in the centre on the waterfront.
This is a good place to make your way inland and see some of the Laz villages, although the roads are very bad and public transport infrequent (and packed out with peasants).
Hopa is the end of the road, about as far as you are going to go along the Black Sea in Turkey. In the not so old days there was a daily ferry service between Hopa and Batumi in Georgia, but this service has been shut down for some reason. If you want to cross into Georgia from here, you need to make your way to Sarp on the frontier ten km from Hopa. The best way to enter Georgia from this point is to get out on the road and hitch a lift with a Georgian. This will speed your crossing greatly and could well provide you with some essential information about whatever is going on in Georgia. You could even get an invite to stay with your driver you never know.
If you should decide to go into Georgia by bus from Trabzon, bring plenty of food and water along. Delays on the Georgian side of the frontier while the driver of your bus and customs officials haggle over the size of the bribe will run at least eight hours. Delays of a day or more are not unheard of. You cannot walk across the frontier here either. If you are determined to walk through, you need to pay an extortionate rate to a Georgian taxi driver to get you through the four barriers, about four hundred metres.
There really is nothing else in Hopa other than a good number of whorehouses and a few places to get the Hopa pide, great round circles of bread filled up with butter, meat and cheese.
Artvin is the extreme Northeast province of Turkey and is known as "Green Artvin" for its numerous forests. In the town of Artvin itself, along the Coruh river gorge, you might think this is stretching it a little as most of what you can see is just yellow rock and a large cement plant.
Artvin town is about ninety minutes south from Hopa through Borcka following the Coruh river gorge. The otogar (such as it is) is on the side of the road next to the river. The actual town is up on the side of the mountain a stiff twenty minute walk if you do not feel like dealing with the taxi drivers here. There are a number of petty rip-offs from the vendors at this otogar. Don't take any shit off of them.
The town of Artvin is remarkable mostly for the view of the valley below, but the mountain views are not all that spectacular. There is nothing particularly interesting in the town and higher up is all yasak military area so don't go poking around at the top end of town. There are a few cheap hotels (check for bedbugs) and a good number of cheap, but unremarkable eateries. At weekends the town fills up with soldiers on liberty which can be a bit disconcerting.
Savsat is bit more than an hour's journey to the East, and this is where the Green Artvin really begins. Higher up than Artvin town, it has a cooler climate and is on the edge of the real mountains and their spruce forests. There is a Jandarma checkpoint on the road and sometimes baggage is searched. Out East it is a good rule to always have your papers on you.
Savsat town is in the middle of what used to be part of ancient Georgia and in this area are many thousand-year-old Georgian churches, almost all of them ruined. If you are willing to use Savsat as a base you can explore one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Turkey, a part which has the advantage of not really having much of a problem with war.
The town itself is not all that impressive and it sees few tourists. It is basically a market town for the outlying villages in the area and dolmus arrive daily carrying in these mountain people to buy supplies. However, the people here are friendly (although no one speaks English) and liberal or even left in their outlook. Twenty years ago Savsat was known in the region as "Little Moscow" because of the number of Communists there. These days the town is ANAP, but you will see few fundamentalists or fascists around here.
Savsat has the standard Black Sea problem of Russian prostitution, so choose your hotel carefully should you decide to stay here. The Gokce Pansiyon and the Kent Otel are cheap places without Natashas, but the former is certainly more friendly. There are several good pide salons in the town and a nice café near the square run by the Muhtar.
Around Savsat there is a good deal to divert you if you are into a bit of physical exertion.
Sahara Yalasi is at the top of the pass on the road from Savsat to Ardahan. The road is in poor condition and it is mostly switchbacks over unsealed surface, but the views of the mountains and forest are very impressive. At the top of the pass (2,500 m) is the yayla. This yayla is summer grazing area for the people of Kocaeli, a village lower down near Savsat. This yayla has the advantage of being relatively easy to get to as the sprawling timber shanties of the yayla are fairly close to the road. Right next to the road is a shack with a sign in Turkish and Russian where you can get tea and talk to the locals hanging out there, rustics who will be very interested in you.
If they like you, they may invite you back to one of their yayla houses for some hot milk and food. As these houses are only occupied two months out of the year they are simple dwellings, but quite cozy inside. You can get a good idea of what the yayla economy is like in a few hours here. Up here it is quite treeless, and the pastures spread out along high alpine heath. Cold too. Even in mid Summer you may need warm clothing up here.
Velikoy-Tbeti-Pinarli-Karagol. If you go down the hill to the old castle next to the river in the direction of Artvin from Savsat you come to the Velikoy junction. This road works back to the Northwest almost to the Georgian frontier and it is a delightful journey into the Alpine country. This unsealed road wanders all through the hills in the area through some stunning scenery, beautiful log houses, spruce forests and to Karagol National park where there is a small lake and some lodge accomodation.
Unless you have a car, the only way to get around is by hitching which is easy when there are any vehicles, which is not all that often. Lifts on tractors, forest service trucks even heavy earth-moving machinery are possible, but bring water and pack a lunch in Summer. In Winter, cross-country skis are the best thing, I suppose. Winters here are very harsh.
Near in the centre of the village Civizli is the ruins of Tbeti, a ninth-century Georgian church. The church remained intact and abandoned until the early 60s when some locals got it in their head that the Georgians had hidden gold in these churches. So Tbeti and most of the other medieval Georgian churches in this area were dynamited. No gold was found, of course. The ruins are still impressive. You can see the building was built to last and good portions of the trancepts are still standing along with the apse. Local boys play football in front
one can only imagine what it was like before.
To get to Tebti turn left at the junction in the first villiage you come to on the Velikoy road. It is only 2 km from the junction and it is a pleasant walk should you only be able to hitch at least this far.
Pinarli is at the end of this road; beyond are 3,000 metre mountains, alpine meadows and general mountain paradise. It should be very easy to trek in this region, but just be careful not to get too close to the frontier. Pinarli also has a nice trout farm where you can get extremely fresh trout fried up. They will be so happy to see you here they probably won't let you pay for it.
Yusefeli is a small town of 2,000 in the Coruh river gorge off the Artvin-Erzurum highway. The town is in a very dramatic setting with cliffs on both sides rising up hundreds of metres and there are several hanging bridges across the river from which children amuse themselves with throwing rubbish in the river. Yusefeli is a yobaz town, very conservative and they have had enough tourists here that some of the local children can be a real nuisance.
Yusefeli is a good staging area for trekking across the Kackar mountains. They say there is also rafting here, but I have never seen enough water there to float much more than an inner tube and the river is not the cleanest. For trekking you need to take the morning dolmus to Barhal farther up the valley where the trailhead is. The road is pretty frightening, but the drivers have lots of blue eyes in their windows to protect them from tumbling off the mountain into the river. There is cheap, basic accommodation in Barhal or you can camp should you decide to stay there. Yusefeli also has decent accommodation for cheap prices.
In addition to the Kackars, there are numerous ruined churches like Tbeti close to Yusefeli and you can explore the region using Yusefeli as a base relatively easy. If you do not have your own car, you have to rely on hitching and luck.
Bayburt is the centre of the Laz in Turkey, and if you are interested in the Laz this is the place to go. Bayburt is one of those poor, shoddy concrete cities you find all over Eastern Anatolia and not really all that interesting unless you speak Turkish (or Laz). Bayburt can be used as a trekking base too, and like Yusefeli there are no guerrillas in the mountains to make things unpleasant.
Note on Trekking
The Black Sea region is excellent for trekking. Not only is there plenty of water, but the people in their yaylas are very hospitable and will do all they can to help you, although they may be puzzled as to what you are doing walking around up there just for the hell of it. So you are almost always close to help should you need it.
Bad things about trekking here is that there are few small scale topo maps available for reasons of military secrecy. Also the weather is very unpredictable and only in July and August is it in anyway reliable. Getting rained on or fog bound at 2,500 metres is very dangerous, so you need to take great care. As these alpine regions are used as pastures you must take care to avoid the fierce stock dogs as they will attack if they feel you are endangering their animals. Carry a stout stick and do not be afraid to hit them hard should they threaten you. Locals all do this, and it works.
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