Borçka – Şavşat

Imagine a lake secluded amidst pine trees in the foothills of the mountains... Another of the Black Sea's hidden treasures confronts me at Borçka. From there I head first to Macahel on the Georgian border with its natural beauty and beautiful people, and then to the endless valleys of Şavşat.

The Black Sea always has a special place for people seeking an alternative holiday. And this particular spot defies description. A wild, untouched world beckons at your very feet. To answer the call, the tourism companies are putting together myriad Black Sea package tours:  'The Trans Kaçkars: Master mountaineering in a week', 'The Kaçkars from Trabzon to Artvin', 'The Black Sea coast by motorboat', 'Highland safari', to name just a few. In the end, after considering whether to choose one of the packages or go it alone, I decided against all the tours. By the time I arrived in Artvin, I had already staked out my itinerary. I would travel from Borçka to Şavşat, a route that would take me from the Black Sea climate zone to an inland climate. 

I arrived in Borçka on a sunny day. The Çoruh River winds through Borçka like the cat that ate the canary. The Çoruh is one of the world's fastest flowing rivers, and therefore an exciting and challenging venue for white water rafting and river canoeing. Nestled against the steep slopes of the valley carved out by this river, Borçka is a township of Turkey's northeastern Artvin province. The traditional Black Sea houses in the foothills give way to concrete apartment buildings towards the town center. The wooden bridges in front of these buildings make a sharp contrast with the concrete. Crossing one of the bridges, which have always fascinated me, I enter an internet cafe to check my email. The mix of tradition and technology can be exhilarating.

With incomparable views of the Karçal Mountains in the east of the township, not to mention glaciers, glacier lakes and natural streams, highlands and historic arched bridges, Borçka has a rich touristic potential. Its Karagöl or Black Lake especially is a camping area boasting trout, icy cold waters and a spectacular landscape. Reaching here late at night, I went to sleep at the facilities next to the lake without realizing in the dark what kind of place I was in. The landscape I encountered when I woke up in the morning came as a big surprise: surrounded by pines in the foothills of the mountains, a lake with ducks paddling on it, red-scaled trout darting in it and clouds reflected off it, and all around a pristine and unspoiled nature.

The Macahel Valley on the Georgian border
Traveling east from the lake over rough mountain terrain, I come to Macahel Valley. Macahel is a region east of Borçka on the Georgian border. There are six Georgian villages in the area, and another twelve villages on the other side of the border which was drawn by the 1921 Treaty of Moscow. But the borders  here are a far cry from what we know as borders. Uncle Mikhail, for example, won't hear of me pitching a tent in the garden of his house but insists that I stay inside. Georgian territory begins in his backyard at the spot where the corn stops. The borders here are as friendly as the people. The border that divides Macahel also cuts Uncle Mikhail off from several relatives living on the other side. Inaccessible and difficult to negotiate even in summer, the road is completely impassable in winter, which has prompted migration from some of the villages since this can be a matter of life or death in case of illness when no medical treatment is available. But the Tema Foundation's overnight facilities in the region and the development of Caucasus beekeeping have had a positive impact on Macahel's economy, and the migrations have slackened off a little. The natural, old-growth forest of the local Gorgit Highland with its thick-trunked beech and fir trees is the first region in Turkey to be included in the UNESCO Human and Biosphere Reserve Project. But without a doubt what impressed me most in Macahel was its people, who are even sweeter than the local honey. If you as much as ask someone for  directions, you immediately find yourself seated at the place of honor in a native house with a plate of local delicacies before you. Indeed, an old man you wave to as you drive by in your vehicle may run up and stop the car to ask if you'd like a fresh plum. It happened to me! Before I could politely decline, he shimmied up a tree and filled an entire basket. Pretty soon his wife showed up as well and said, “You're going to stay here tonight. We won't let you go anywhere else!”. To an urban dweller like me it is a heartwarming surprise when people I don't even know are so thoroughly hospitable and offer help with no thought of a reward.

When I learn as we are leaving the valley that the large cat I met on the road was a lynx, it made me think how keeping the road here closed for most of the year is perhaps essential for preserving its people and wildlife unspoiled. 

On my way from Borçka to Şavşat, I spy Artvin in the distance but continue in the direction of Şavşat along the banks of the Çoruh. The divide between the Black Sea and Eastern Anatolia is so distinct that the vegetation immediately begins to thin out and the colors suddenly to turn yellow. About 65 km from Artvin I arrive in Şavşat, a charming and typical Anatolian town. The 9th century Tbeti Church, built of cut stone with statues of rams on all its facades, is worth seeing here. Şavşat also has a Karagöl lake similar to Borçka's inside the Sahara National Park. The landscape and climate suddenly revert again to that of the Black Sea as you approach the Karçal Mountains. With its deep valleys, high mountains, uncut natural forests,  glacier lakes, highlands, wealth of flora and fauna, castles, arched bridges, traditional wooden architecture and local festivals, Şavşat and its environs harbor many a touristic attraction. A combination of village house and mountain dwelling, the wooden structures at Sahara are in perfect harmony with the endless green valleys. I also encountered here, as in most of Artvin, the bagpipe music whose strains mingle with the cries of the freewheeling sparrowhawks that glide overhead. 

Şavşat, touristic paradise
A nature untouched by human hands was my companion on the close to 110-km journey from Borçka to Şavşat. Gazing at the smoky mountains at their own level, close up and personal encounters with wild animals I'd seen only in documentaries, a river flowing faster than any I'd ever seen, houses like eagles' eyries, romantic lakes exuding peace and tranquility, highlanders dancing the horon, vast forests, villages divided by national borders... these are the things that stick in my mind. But if you asked me, 'Which was the most beautiful of them all?', I'd reply without a second thought, 'the people'. There are still people here who expect nothing in return, who only want to see the other person happy and who go to some trouble to make that happen.