The Kura

Arising in Ardahan in Turkey’s northeast, the Kura River flows quietly, in perfect harmony with the bustling life along its banks...

A strange feeling came over me as we wound our way slowly through the low-lying hills and over the high plateaux. As we made our way along the dark, narrow road through verdant lands that seemed to stretch into infinity like another planet, my eyes sought for one shade of green that was missing. The green of a tree with branches and knots, towering over the earth. I scoured the plains as far as the horizon. Then our vehicle climbed to the top of a ridge, and suddenly I went light as a feather, like one who has lost all hope and is relieved to catch sight of an old friend or sweetheart. Like a mirage, emerald green forests spread as far as the eye could see.
I stuck my head out the window and inhaled the breathtaking fragrance of the Scotch pines. This was the East’s last handful of surviving forest. I was on my way from Ardahan to the township of Çıldır. My voice broke the silence of the speeding minibus: “Let me off here!”
Instantly all eyes were on me, all of them clouded with a strange suspicion. What was he going to do out here in the middle of nowhere? Grumbling under his breath, the driver clambered on top of the minibus. As he unfastened my backpack and handed it down to me, he said, “You’ll be attacked by wolves. Give it up. Whoever heard of stopping in a place like this? What business have you got in this woods anyway?” I caught sight of a village at the edge of the forest. “What’s the name of that village?” I asked. “Altaş,” he answered. I said I was going there. Having decided I was bad news, the driver and his minibus vanished from view down the forest road. I plunged enthusiastically into the woods. With what straight, tall trees these mountains were covered! As if they had been carefully planted, as in a palace garden. The earth was a solid carpet of sweet-smelling flowers of every color imaginable. The forest rose slowly to envelope the mountain, whose sharp, snow-covered peak pierced the cottony clouds. So deserted a place it was... I got the feeling that if I stayed here for months no one would find me. A loud hum was audible from somewhere. A roar echoing from a deep rocky chasm. Curious, I trudged on. The forest that stretched so regularly in every direction was suddenly interrupted by a vast clearing before spreading again; and the roar was coming from that clearing.
I approached the rock cliffs and was taken aback. I was standing on the edge of a three-hundred-meter-deep canyon. Tracing sharp curves, the Kura River roared below, churning up foam as it rushed along. Finding a footing on the outcroppings and the pine trees that clung stubbornly to the canyon walls, I inched my way down to the bank of the river, where I quaffed great gulps of the spring waters that were fairly bursting from the rocks on the canyon floor. That night I pitched my tent near the village of Altaş on the banks of the Kura.

SNOW WHITE AND EMERALD GREEN

The river flowed gently through a heart-warming carnival of colors. Clouds scattered by the mountains’ snowy peaks turned the sky into a field of cotton balls. The dust kicked up by the herds of cattle leaving the villages in the first light of dawn was stained gradually red in the glow of the rising sun. And, like unruly children, the enormous animals being driven by villagers on horseback trotted headlong into mountain pastures carpeted with fresh grass. Bandy-legged geese waddled in front of the little shepherds. Reaching the banks of the Kura, they ducked their plump white bodies in its icy waters. The croaks of frogs rising from the golden yellow of the lily pads in the shallows of the lake mingled with the enthusiastic honking of the geese. Young men from the village of Altaş arrived at the riverbank with fishing nets on their backs and set to observing its remote recesses attentively. “Here!” yelled one. The net was tossed expertly into the Kura. “Shucks, it got away!” But never mind, the fishermen stayed there fishing till midday. A fire was lit with wood gathered from the forest, and the fish were grilled golden brown and wrapped in flat ‘tandır’ bread to the accompaniment of clotted cream and green onions—these unsurpassed tastes the Kura’s reward for the fishermen’s labors.
The weather was perfect, neither hot nor cold. A soft mountain breeze brought relief even at high noon. At an altitude of 2000 meters, the Kura flows quietly beside the villages of Ardahan, one of Turkey’s highest places of settlement. And life here is as placid and peaceful as the Kura. There are just two seasons in this region, where the winters are the longest and harshest in Turkey: winter and spring. Winter is snow white, spring emerald green, and the sky is a deeper than deep blue that is also reflected in the waters of the envious Kura. Even the rain drizzling down from the cottony clouds falls with sunlight on the mountains, which are crowned by a rainbow almost every day.

RICH IN WILDLIFE

The Kura River is swelled by natural springs and the melting snows of Ardahan’s three thousand meter peaks. Gathering the waters of the Göle, the Posof and the Çıldır, it rushes wildly, entering a deep canyon near the Georgian border, where it roars through snow-capped mountains covered in Scotch pine and bids farewell to our lands. The silence is broken by the crackling sounds made by wild animals as they tread through the forest of tall, pencil-straight Scotch pines in the Kura Valley, which boasts the East’s most virgin timber. Graceful gazelles with shy coal-black eyes and enormous ears that twitch with hesitation as they step gingerly, wolves that roam the forest in packs, herds of grunting boar that trundle down to the banks of the Kura by night, wild ducks that waddle along its banks, foxes that chase mice night and day, and bears that inhabit the high mountain caves—all bear testimony to the Kura Valley’s rich wild life. And this being a border region, hunting has been banned in these mountains for years. Nor does the human population pose any threat to the wildlife since their livestock are the villagers’ sole source of livelihood.

ALL YOU NEED IS A TENT...
Millstones and remnants of villages rising in terraces are discernible inside the canyon. Yet little from the past remains today. The most impressive structure still standing is the Devil’s Castle in a deep, rocky valley where a stream that arises in the Ardahan township of Çıldır joins the Kura. This castle, which can be reached by a path from the village of Yıldırımtepe seven kilometers from Çıldır, makes a startling appearance at the top of a rock cliff many meters high. Your best bet for experiencing all the beauty of the Kura Valley is to take along a tent. The village of Altaş in particular on the Ardahan-Posof road is situated at the point where the Kura and the forest meet. As well as enjoying the hospitality of the local people here, you can also delve into the depths of Kura Canyon on daily hikes from the village. If you’re interested in fishing as a sport, several species, most of them indigenous to the Kura, are found this river. With just a hook and line you can make a plentiful catch, cook the fish over coals on the riverbank and then sit back and enjoy the pleasure of eating them. If you’re alert and patient and have sharp eyesight, you might even meet a pair of black eyes in the depths of the forest.

“If you do encounter a gazelle, for heaven’s sake stand perfectly still and wait,” cautioned an Altaş villager. And so I did. How can a person take his eyes off such beauty anyway? It approached on elegant, trembling legs and stood opposite me, just five meters away. We gazed at each other for several minutes. And the gazelle, transfixing me with its eyes, invited me to return to the colorful Kura every year...