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With its unspoiled nature, warm-hearted people, glacier lakes and old wooden houses whose doors open onto myriad shades of green, Macahel is beautiful in every season.
It’s almost dark. We’re about to reach Macahel, last stop on our weeklong journey from Narman in Erzurum. The lights barely discernible in the mist below the pass where we are now signal that we’re nearing the end of a very long trip.
Tired from riding all day in the car, our weary bodies yearn for a hot bath. Even the boat outing we enjoyed just two hours earlier at Karagöl lake in Borçka seems like eons ago. We begin our descent from Macahel pass, which has been closed almost all winter after the avalanche. The feverish activity of the earthmoving equipment that is widening the road continues into the evening hours. We keep on descending. A sound is audible inside the minibus. I’ve never heard the ‘Sarı Gelin’ folk song sung so beautifully.
And then another, and when that’s finished yet another. I’m so moved by these songs that when we stop in front of the TEMA (The Turkish Society for Fighting Erosion) Guesthouse I’m a little sad that this seemingly interminable expedition has ended.
I rise early and take a stroll around the environs. The entire village lies buried under a blanket of green. Flowers, lizards, butterflies, trees, water, and of course, humans. As I wander around lost in green, I hear a warning: “Don’t wander over the border, Sir!” I look up and see a gendarme with a sly smile. “Georgia is just a short ways ahead,” he explains. If I take a few steps in that direction, I’ll be inside the country of Georgia. Because of the proximity of the border, visitors used to be required to get a permit months in advance to enter the village. Things are more relaxed now. Turks can go to the village without permits. But foreigners still have to get permission three months ahead of time.
NATURE STANDING UP TO TIME
There are five villages in Macahel, which is attached to Borçka township in Turkey’s far eastern Artvin province. The regional capital is the village of Camili where the guesthouse is also located. Other settlements in the valley include the villages of Düzenli, Efeler, Maral and Uğurlu. The valley is surrounded by the 3500 meter-high Karçal Mountains. In the mountains, glacier lakes lie strung over Macahel like pearls. There are several highlands in the region, but the most significant are Beyazsu Highland in the foothills of the mountains, and the famous Gorgit Highland with its pristine natural forests and rich variety of flora and fauna. These aged trees that have managed to survive untouched by man are a source of wonder.
The region’s steep topography is a great disadvantage. The villages are cut off from Borçka in the winter months. A treaty now allows the villagers to travel to Georgia in case of illness. The current hectic activity in the Macahel pass is aimed at eliminating these obstacles. The region is extremely rich in terms of biological diversity. Camili was therefore the first area in Turkey that was included in UNESCO’s ‘Human and Biosphere Reserve Project’. The region’s importance becomes even clearer when you consider that this project encompasses 482 protected areas in 102 countries. Among the trees here, beech and spruce predominate. Apart from these, chestnut, hornbeam and linden are also common. The sparseness of the human population has impacted positively on the wildlife, and brown bear, jackal, beaver, wild boar and mountain goat are the region’s other residents.
NEXTDOOR NEIGHBOR GEORGIA
We continue to explore. The interior of the nearby 200-year-old timber mosque is adorned with wooden decorations. We keep on walking. At every step a different species of flower or butterfly catches our eye. The villages of Georgia, behind me now, are so near that I feel I could make myself heard if I cried out. As it is, all sound is swallowed up in the rush of the fast-flowing streams. The villages that we couldn’t see when we passed by in the darkness are slowly coming into view. I notice some dark bee hives, mostly abandoned now, in the towering beech trees.
Passing the spruces, we descend a slope. The sky virtually disappears behind the branches of the beech trees. Streams flowing down from above cut off our road from time to time. We’re standing now in front of a wooden house. Descending from here to the valley, we will reach the Maral Waterfall in all its elegant glory. Sticking to the rear of the group I stop to photograph some lizards sunning themselves on the wall of a wooden house. As I’m taking out my camera, I notice a snake waiting in ambush on one of the rafters. Stalking prey obviously. I approach very close. It doesn’t budge but poses for me. Not wanting to disturb it, I leave it with the lizard and continue on my way. Tree roots form a perfect staircase on the steep slopes. As soon as we hit the plain, the graceful Maral Waterfall appears before us. The valley resounds with the cries of the intrepid swimmers who are testing its chill waters. The closer we get to the waterfall, the cooler the air suddenly becomes. After watching the bathers emerge shivering, we gather up our things and leave. I look to see if the snake is still there as we pass the wooden house. Wonder of wonders! There it is, all stretched out in the same place, waiting for its prey. I pass on by without disturbing it. All of a sudden I feel as if I’m living in a fairy tale. Could this really be a ‘hidden paradise on earth’?