Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hitch-hiking out of a Snow Storm...

It's January, and it has been a long winter already; snow in this, the coldest part of Turkey, the tableland around Kars and Ardahan, started already the beginning of November.
In the town centres, every so often huge machines, snow ploughs and excavators, scrape the compressed snow of the past weeks off the streets and, loaded onto the back of pick up lorries, it is driven away to be dumped outside of the city.  Roofs are thickly padded with snow and pavements are crusted with ice.
Some of the houses in Kars have collections of icicles at their gables that are so regular, side-by-side in gradually reducing lengths they ressemble small, translucent replicas of church organs.
As for Jo and I, we are going to hitch-hike out of the city today.

Kars castle in the winter fog

In the summer this is our favourite café


Dropped off outside of town by Jo's friend Halit, we are surrounded only by fields, padded now by a thick layer of snow. Flakes whirl all around us. It is as if the sky itself came down and blended into the earth. It is a unicolour world. All around is white.
My friends here warned me that in the winter wolves and feral dogs approach the outskirts of towns and villages, forageing for food. Several people said this to me, so I took it seriously. Our first drivers this morning though opine that the wolves stay out on the hillside: the villages are the domain of dogs, which can be ferocious. Wolves would not meddle with them.
Later that day, when hitch-hiking out of the town Şavşat we will come across the closest thing to terrible predators to be met on the way: A pair of straying dogs prodding their drippy noses enviously into our lunch bags, all the while violently banging their fluffy tails. Their kind faces were so similar to each other, we were to decide they must be brother and sister.
Another point they had in common was that they were scratching themselves vigorously and continuously. Sharing all things in life, the good things like the bad, it meant they shared their lice as well.
But that was what was to happen towards the end of our hitching day. Right now, we were not that far yet.

Out in the snow dessert right here there, ever so sporadically we can see agile, chestnut red-coated canines. They are foxes. Locals see them as lucky animals, even though of course they sometimes attack their poultry or other animals when they can.
Some of these beautiful animals out today are close enough to the road to be admired: Stooped silhouettes, muzzle hovering above the snow, nose curled with concentration as they prey upon invisible rodents somewhere out there, hiding in the white. Stalking forward, one paw lifted, waiting to attack. Winter is a tough season for all animals. "If I lived here I'd drive out and leave dog food for all the foxes, wolves and dogs around", my travel partner remarked at that point. "They start liking you and you would become famous as the wolf lady", I joked as a reply.
Suddenly our drivers stopped the car: "Look, a wolf!", they shouted. I trained my eyes on the far away animal. Jo took the excitement with a grain of salt:"I think it is a fox", she opined. But I could believe our drivers. We were able to see the animal's outline clearly from so far, that was reason enough to assume it must be markedly larger than the foxes we had seen so numerously out there in the snow. And its silhouette to my eyes really looked like a wolf, not a fox. The way the back of the animal arched, the size of its plushy tail. I agreed with our two drivers - this was probably a wolf!
I tell Jo of the etymology of the word designating the animal in Turkish. The original meaning of the word still in common use can be quite surprising: "Kurt" also means "worm".
In olden times the superstition was that if you used the dangerous predator's name it would appear at your doorstep, and this caused people to use the word for the tiny sleek invertebrate found in apples or pears, ridiculously unoffensive in comparison, in stead of the animal's actual name. The original Turkish word is not even known by most people anymore, although 'kurt' is still in common use to designate worms in fruits. A different word, 'solucan', designates earth worms as they crawl through the soil.

In some of the smallest villages around here, the water sources have frozen over. "People go with horse or donkey carts to fill up tanks at streams that haven't frozen over, or at the sources of other villages. This way they bring fresh water for themselves and their animals", one of our drivers tells us. He continues to confide in us that this is a hard winter especially because this year the selling of animals for the kurban bayramı, the Feast of the Sacrifice, went quite badly. The kurban bayramı is the traditional Muslim holiday that breaks the fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. According to the lunar Muslim calendar, yearly slightly shifting in relation to the seasons, it has been falling into autumn for the past few solar years.
In Turkey, it is famously the time when the people from the East load their animals onto trucks and drive them across the entire country to the major cities in the West. At Turkey's second biggest lake after lake Van, lake Chyldyr, which is near here, farmers living East of it, near the Georgian border, each year make their cattle swim across it. They do this by tying their cattle at the nose rings to robust sticks protruding on both sides of wooden boats, and in this way make them cross the lake in groups of six. From the other side they continue their journey West on lorries.
This year, people had to bring back some of the cattle the long way from the big cities. Now they have more animals to feed throughout the winter, and less money of course, too.


Our drivers are dairy product salesmen going from village to village. They stop their minivan and bid us farewell at Hasköy, half the way to the town Ardahan, the next large dot on the map. We wait around for a bit in the cold, but we get a lift pretty fast.

"What are your jobs?", the two men ask us. We are crammed into the back of their beat up white passenger car. "I work as a translator", I said, while Jo replied, "I am a writer." "About what is it that she writes?", our drivers asked me. "She writes about travel" - "Oh, like Evliya Çelebi!" They mean the famous Turkish traveller from the 1600s who left very interesting notes about the Middle East, the Balkans and some parts of Africa. Jo scribbles down the name of the celebraty. I laugh and reply for my friend, "For now she is not that famous. But one day she will be!"

Ardahan, ruins of a traditional building weighed down by snow
Winter in the village
About an hour later we have passed Ardahan, and we are now seated in another minivan, with a vendour travelling the country to sell water filter systems. He is a kind man, and tells us he loves literature and used to be a poet in his younger days. In front of us, through an almost opaque fog of whipped up snow blown straight onto the windscreen, a full-sized lorry appears. Our driver, going very slowly now, tries to communicate with the three occupants of the cabin of that vehicle. "How is the road ahead?", he gestures a question. "Pretty okay!", they are signalling back.
"I stayed two days in a hotel in Ardahan, because the Şavşat road was closed", our driver, who told us his name was Eren, informed us earlier. "It is a very dangerous part of road, you know you can die today!", he warned us. Both Jo and I have taken this road before, although in different weather, and knowing its tight bends navigating the abyss, we realize he is not joking.

Creeping up the hill, we see the road in front of us rise into the white fogs, a dark ribbon scratched out from the dense, all-surrounding whiteness. When passing the cusp of the hill, the road starts going down again. We are at almost 2000 metres. This was what is locally known as the 'Sahar pass', a title going back to the times of the Russian occupation of the area, 'sahar' coming from the Russian word for 'sugar'. On the hillside to our left, we pass the first group of houses in typical Şavşat architecture, wooden constructions with balconies to the front, and gambrel roofs. They are almost submerged by snow right now. The snow reaches up to their balconies. The houses are empty, these are summer huts. In that warmer and drier season herders bring their animals up here to graze.


In clear weather at this point of the road an amazing wall of of mountain rises into sight on the other side of the valley, mountains which are located in Georgia. Right now, they are completely out of sight hidden by the dense cold dance of thousands of tiny snowflakes. Even most of the road in front of us is hidden from sight. Usually you can see it unfold from here like a winding downward ribbon. The steep flanks of the mountains form something of a huge funnel open to the sky around Şavşat, the small town way down there on the other side of all this weather.
Approaching the town feels like riding down into a snow globe.

We are glad we have such a careful driver, and we tell Eren so. "This is my son", Eren points to the photo of a teenager on his dashboard, "I love him a lot, so I have to drive careful that he does not become a half-orphan!" How old he was, we wanted to know. "He is fourteen, but he tells everyone he is fifteen already. And when you tell his real age, that annoys him a lot!"
Having left the worst of the road behind us, we stop for a bit. I overhear Eren talk on the phone to a friend of his; "I am in a very bad place, there is a snow storm here and the road is dangerous. But I do what I can!"
He drives us down all the way to the town of Şavşat. Temperatures are strikingly milder, and the worst of the snow fall is clearly over now.
The rest of the road can begin.

2 comments:

Kokon aus Luft said...

Your blog is great! I read your stories for hours. Thank you. :)

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