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Article and Photos: UFUK SARIŞEN
From Sis Dağı to Verçenik Dağı
The Eastern Black Sea mountains obliterate borders, bringing peoples and climates together. When you come to Mount Verçenik from Sis Dağı, you’ll realize that the strains of the three-string violin have given way to the drone of bagpipes. But the sound is the same.
When summer comes with its sweltering heat and life in the city becomes intolerable, we head south, in other words to where it’s even hotter, on holiday. And vice-versa: when winter comes we go where it’s even colder, on a ski holiday. I don’t know if it’s because I could find no logical explanation for this paradox, or because I have my roots in the Black Sea, but this summer I again decided to spend my holiday on its shores.
I had to follow a route that my economical, three-door, small engine car designed for city traffic could handle. I was going to go beyond Giresun, Trabzon and Rize and tour the Eastern Black Sea mountains. I was intending to put my car to the test and get off the main asphalt roads. But as the days passed I would find myself competing with mountain goats.
BETWEEN THREE CITIES: SİS DAĞI
Sis Dağı (literally, Misty Mountain) is one of the peaks nearest the Black Sea coast at the point where the Giresun and Kalkanlı Mountains meet. At the same time it is where the provinces of Giresun, Trabzon and Gümüşhane come together. These two features have made the local mountains and highlands very popular, but, happily, this popularity stems not from tourism but from local interest. Sis Dağı is reached via steep, hairpin curving roads through the Trabzon townships of Beşikdüzü and Şalpazarı and the town of Geyikli. Along the road we observe the diverse plant cover unique to the Black Sea. Starting out amidst hazelnuts, our journey ends in pines, wild rhododendrons and highland grasses. On the ascent I encounter an old woman and her grandson. Letting her cow pass, I ask them where I’m headed: to Sis Dağı, they tell me. I offer to take her there, and she accepts with some reluctance. Entrusting the cow to her grandson’s care, she reminds him of what he’s supposed to do. When we reach the highland approximately an hour later, I realize that it would have taken the old woman the whole day to cover this distance on foot. On the way I listen to her story. I learn that she has a house in the highlands and migrates up here every year at the beginning of summer. As she tells it, the animals, which graze on the snow-free coastal strip in winter, are herded up to these broad pastures in summer where the cool air is a panacea to the stultifying heat and humidity on the coast. Immediately below the 2,383-meter summit, the Sis Dağı highland is at the same time a hiking trail and pleasure ground as much for people from neighboring villages as for those who actually live here. Eating and drinking customs here are like none I’ve encountered elsewhere. The system has been practiced for around 200 years: You choose a kid from the herd grazing on the highland and the butcher does his job. You then roast the freshly slaughtered meat in the open air and consume it with gusto. Although it might strike those of us accustomed to buying our meat packaged from the supermarket as a little wild, that’s the tradition. What’s more, the meat is guaranteed to be fresh. Meanwhile the mist that gives the mountain its name floats over the highlands, continuously altering the landscape. As it dissipates in one area, another is hidden from view.
SECLUDED IN THE MIST: SÜMELA MONASTERY
Going back down to the shore from Sis Dağı, I head for the foothills of the Kalkanlı mountain range. In the valley of the Altındere 17 km from Maçka, the Sümela Monastery comes into view in all its glory, nestled among the pines on the sheer slopes of Karadağ 300 meters above the river valley. Starting my climb up the 300-meter-long path, I wrack my brain to understand how this monastery, founded in 385, was constructed with the technology available at the time. I am encouraged to see that the restoration efforts mounted in 1998 are continuing apace with great meticulousness. This structure, with no match in the world, continues to draw tourists from all over the globe. But the mist reappears and when I reach the monastery it is unfortunately impossible to get a view of the valley.
FROM UZUNGÖL TO THE SARIKAYA HIGHLAND
Turning inland from Çaykara, I continue on my way to Soğanlı Dağı, another mountain immediately adjacent to the Karadağ foothills. My car has not given me any trouble so far. My destination is the Sarıkaya Highland in the lower reaches of Soğanlı. This too is an authentic living highland, known to few people and not yet overrun with tourists, thanks to which its superb landscape, covered with the pines in the foothills of the mountains, has remained to us as a legacy. But the large number of Arab tourists in the region attract notice. I put myself in their shoes and try to imagine how it must feel to come from the arid yellow desert and encounter these fast rushing streams and thousand shades of green. From Uzungöl I reach Sarıkaya after a climb of almost an hour and a half, but again I can’t see much of the highland because of the mist. After viewing the village and the mosque indistinctly through the clouds, I start my return. According to my map, there is another road going to Çaykara. I take it in hopes of seeing something different. On what could be a test track for 4x4’s, I drive for two solid hours along this road, a flowing stream on my left. I meet a hunter along the way and ask him how much farther it is. “About three or four hours!” Hoping this is an example of quintessential Black Sea humor, I get back in five hours from where it had taken me only an hour and a half to go!
VERÇENİK: EAGLE’S EYRIE
Remembering the old adage, ‘Better the road you know...’, I turn now towards Verçenik, the second highest peak of the Eastern Black Sea range at 3,711 meters. Accompanied by the region’s matchless landscapes the length of the Fırtına valley, I arrive in the village of Çat and spend the night in the village, in my tent. Watching the stars twinkle through the net opening on the top of my tent as I drift off to sleep is heavenly. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for waking up towards morning to a pounding rain coming in through the same aperture. Along the valley I encounter a raft of wooden mansions all stuck to the mountainside as if with glue and can’t for the life of me figure out how they got there. When I reach Verçenik highland, I see a rock eagle take wing just two meters in front of my car and swoop kamikaze-style into the valley below. The sky is more blue here. And the air such as to make me put on a sweater even though it’s the middle of summer. The strains of the kemençe (three-string violin) on Sis Dağı are the same on Mt. Verçenik, except that here they emanate from bagpipes.
My head is clear as I stroll higher into the highlands. Accompanying us on our walk, the Verçenik eagles land for a drink at the crater lake, and I, with visions of packing it all in and living here, get back in my car and head for home.