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With its lake of the same name, Çıldır township, perched 1700 meters above sea level in Turkey’s northeastern Ardahan province, exudes tranquility the year round.
Çıldır has two seasons: winter and spring. Winter for half the year, spring the other half. Winter is dominated by the frost that penetrates the skin and chills you to the bone, and by the semolina-thick snow that gusts down from the mountains into the plains. When the snows slowly melt in April, Lake Çıldır bares its face, reflecting nature’s emerald green and the indigo sky like a giant mirror. The myriad hues and fragrance of flowers envelope you, from the summits of the mountains that encircle the lake right down to its shores. The air is always refreshingly cool, the sky blotted with big cottony clouds. The cool, flower-scented breezes wafting down from the mountains in spring, and frosty snow-laced winds that sting your face in winter, were nowhere as delightful to me as here. Every time I visit this lake, I want to sit down and gaze on it for hours.
FISHERMEN ON THE ICE
A vast expanse of white, covered by a bright blue sky. Was it this placidness, this soul-soothing tranquility, that gave the lake its name, ‘Çıldır’ (literally, go crazy)? A lake, solitary and savoring its solitude, at the farthest reach of nature. The lake surface, which freezes over rapidly come winter, had thickened with the falling temperatures and was buried under half a meter of snow. At the end of the flat expanse that from a distance resembled a meadow, a handful of people broke off from the shadowy shapes behind which the village lurked. Walking as far as the center of this expanse, they began digging. I rushed headlong down the hill, but a strange fear overcame me when I reached the edge. What if the ice cracked? I stepped gingerly, my feet sinking deep in the snow at each step. The diggers in the lake surface were fishermen, cutting through the ice as if they were digging a trench in the earth. When it was almost a meter deep, water suddenly gushed through the hole at the last blow of the shovel and the trench filled up. Twenty meters further on they dug another trench and then located the ends of their nets through the two holes. Tying a rope to one end, they started pulling up the net through the other hole. As the net was pulled, the coil of rope tied to the other end slipped under the ice. The nets emerging from the water froze instantly on contact with the Arctic air. A few glittering fish wriggled in the net, which materialized from the water as if from under the ground. The fishermen continued pulling in turns, blowing on their ice-reddened hands in an effort to warm them. When the twenty-meter net was finally out, a heap of carp and freshwater goby and mullet lay on the ice. Wetting the net, which was already starting to freeze, they let it down once more through the hole. This time the fisherman brought up an enormous fish which he flung down on the frozen surface. It was a lake trout, a species of black-speckled trout known to be found only in Lake Çıldır in all of Turkey. The diversity of fish species proliferated as the nets continued to emerge. It was past noontime, and there were fisherman pulling up nets all over the lake as far as the eye could see.
THE NOMADIC HORSEMEN OF LAKE ÇILDIR
The Lake Çıldır landscape takes on a completely different aspect when the ice melts and the meadows turn green again. A deep blue lake under fluffy white clouds, mountains dotted with verdant green meadows—it all leaves one spellbound. At 1700 meters above sea level, Çıldır and its environs are surrounded by mountains swathed in alpine meadows. This lake was formed when streams were dammed up by lava spewing from volcanoes active thousands of years ago. The waters emptying out of the lake join the Arpaçay before leaving Turkey. Owing to the volcanic nature of the soil, the springs and rivers flowing down from the mountains contain volcanic ash, which causes their otherwise pure waters to appear somewhat turbid.
Çıldır today is a tiny township like the others of Ardahan province. With a population of around two thousand in Ottoman times, Çıldır was a province in its own right, renowned for raising horses for the raiding nomadic tribesmen. Its people, who breed powerful horses which, due the climate, are resistant to the cold, preserve this tradition today, and hundreds of large-bodied horses can be seen grazing on the lake shore in the summer months especially. Cold-resistant cattle and sheep are also bred here. The Hırık sheep, for example, which is indigenous to the region, continues to be raised in Çıldır’s villages. But the most widely raised species here in this land of wetlands and water meadows is of course the goose.
Çıldır’s extremely cold climate has meant that its people build small earthen houses with thick walls. Dried dung is burned to heat the houses, which have excellent insulation. There are no natural forests around the lake since all were destroyed over time due to over-cutting and over-grazing. The Ministry of Forestry and Environment began planting trees on the lake shore a few years ago, and a number of projects are currently under way to make the area attractive for tourism. Horsedrawn sleigh races are held on the frozen lake, and festivals organized. Last year a hotel was constructed on the lake shore. This hotel, which offers opportunities for canoeing and paddle-boating in summer, is not yet in full swing in winter owing to low demand.
The peninsula that extends into the lake from the village of Akçakale exhibits ‘kurgan’ style monumental graves, a castle and the ruins of settlements dating back to 2000 B.C. And the Urartu bridge and inscription in the village of Taşköprü to the west of the lake are important in terms of showing the northernmost point reached by the Urartus. Believed to have been erected by the Urartus, ‘Devil’s Castle’ on the verge of a narrow canyon three kilometers from the township of Çıldır was used, and added on to, by the various states that ruled this region over the centuries. This castle, which harbors the ruins of a chapel inside it, still stands in good condition today.
SCOTCH PINE FORESTS UNDER PROTECTION
The Beyrehatun Forests fifteen kilometers from Çıldır are dotted with what remains of the Scotch pines that once covered these mountains. One of Turkey’s rare high-altitude forests, this dense growth of emerald green Scotch pines is bisected by the Valley of the Kura. The forest is crisscrossed by paths suitable for trekking, especially in summer. With its placid visage that exudes tranquility whatever the time of year, Lake Çıldır and its environs are one of Turkey’s remote paradises just waiting to be discovered. Its many-hued mountain flowers, verdant green meadows, highlands and seemingly boundless lake offer visitors memorable opportunities for water sports in summer and in winter harbor surprises not to be found in any other part of Turkey, such as flying over the lake in a horsedrawn sleigh, watching the fishermen pulling in their nets and treading confidently over its frozen surface. And despite all the ice and snow, the Kars-Çıldır road is open all winter except in times of extremely heavy snowfall.