Autumn again...

As autumn returns to Turkey’s south Rize province on the eastern Black Sea, the villagers bid farewell to the highlands for another year.

The arrival of autumn is a bit like a reunion, a reunion with the mountain rising opposite you, the end of the road, the source of the stream, the mountain peak. And of course reunion with a loved one, one you have missed and longed for in your heart. So what does it feel like to be reunited with autumn in the Eastern Black Sea highlands? Thousands of people in south Rize province welcome spring in the highlands, from which they slowly take their departure again with the arrival of autumn. Going up to the highlands in springtime is a tradition going back thousands of years, just how many we don’t know, but whose origins we can only surmise. So, even if we go there, for most of us actually ‘being a highlander’ is something we can’t quite imagine. But there is one thing we do realize immediately, namely, what it means ‘to reach the highlands’. Sometimes in an overland jeep over rough mountain roads, but more often following the sun with a backpack on our backs. And even if you’re not a native, there is one greeting common to everyone, who braves the roads up to the highlands: “Merhaba”.

It’s a cycle as old as time itself. Setting out on the road from the low-lying settlements and climbing up to the high pastures, fed by fertile clouds and the streams that issue from the Kaçkar glaciers. For as long as the earth has been turning, people have gone up to the highlands. It’s a traditional way of life. Walking for days, carrying stones up the steep slopes, working wood, grazing the animals. And setting up house. With traditional solidarity and forbearance—a familiar and common fate harking back to our forebears. As long as the Kaçkar glacier melts and freezes in the seasonal cycle, as long as the clouds are fecund, people will continue to be reunited with the highlands.

Every highland you visit has its own unique houses. Some built exclusively of wood, not even using nails, others made of stones, laboriously carried on foot for days. And if they are in a region not yet served by the network of modern mountain roads, you will encounter the invaluable stone-paved routes of yore, built, it is worth remembering, entirely by hand labor and beasts of burden, which was all that was available in those days. A pitcher is carved from a log, a knife sharpener from a stone, and nature’s magical solutions become part and parcel of life.

Sal, Pokut, Hazindag, Amlakit, Palovit, Tirovit, Elevit and Kavrun... The names sound like heroes of legend. If you want to feel like one who has lived here for generations, then follow the rule of life here and start walking. Walk fabled South Rize, either a planned walk that you can complete in one go, or more random ones on which you take a different route each time. If only you had five days here and could let Rize work her magic on you at the heights. Climb up to the stone houses of Tirovit, the clouds of Pokut, or the stone-paved roads of Hazindag. Who knows, perhaps after you leave Kavrun you’ll reach the cloud-capped summits of the Kaçkars. But leave İkizdere Anzer on the southwest edge to another autumn...

This story started out as a fairy tale, but now the time has come to write the real thing. We embarked on our own highland adventure on foot. You could of course rent an all-terrain vehicle from Rize for your journey over the mountain roads, or you might prefer to travel by minibus, which would take more time but would win you local friends and more knowledge. And don’t forget that the latter would also mean more time with your backpack. I should also remind you that, whichever way you choose to go, it’s always a good idea to engage a local guide.
First off, go to Çamlıhemşin. We’ll send you from there to some fabulous places in the opening lines of your story. To Ayder, for example, gateway to the Kaçkar Mountains. Despite being a large touristic center with accommodation to fit every budget and taste, for the time being it also boasts the only mountain thermal spa on the Eastern Black Sea. From Ayder you can take a ‘Yukarı Kavrun Yaylası’ minibus (they leave in the morning and return in the evening) up to the top and even scale the summit in one day with the help of your guide. But we are going to change directions now, so we have to make our first decision. Shall we start out walking from Yukarı Kavrun, traversing hill and vale to reach the real heroes of our tale? Or should we go back to Çamlıhemşin, turn off into the valley of the Fırtına and proceed on to the eternally cloud-veiled Zil Castle and take a dip at Palovit Waterfall? If you’re traveling by jeep, it will only take you a day to reach Pokut, the final destination of your route through Sal, and to walk from there on the historic stone roads of Hazindag. If you happen to encounter some people who can’t tear themselves away from the highlands, you may fall right into a highland fairy tale, warming yourself on an icy highland night by dancing the ‘horon’. If you walked as far as Sal, after Hazindag you can continue on foot as far as Amlakit and complete your walking tour up to Zil Castle in a loop. Those who aren’t up to walking all the way from Hazindag can take the mountain roads to Elevit, Tirovit, Palovit and Amlakit Highlands in their overland vehicles, passing Palovit Waterfall and Zil Castle on the way.
There’s nothing like dreaming of the highlands. But you really have to go there. And going there means walking. Our autumn dream became a fairy tale come true as we hiked through the South Rize highlands. Without pen or paper we forged ahead, leaving footprints as we went. And we bid farewell to the highlands to dream next time a winter’s tale.