Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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“Berbat, çok berbat (awful, really awful).”

Despite the appalling weather I’d managed to make it to the kar güreşi (snow wrestling) in Veliköy, near Şavşat, on Saturday. The only problem was that I now needed to get to Ardahan to have any chance to getting up to Çıldır on a Sunday when I’d heard that there would be horse-drawn sleighs on the lake. Either that or stay a week in a hotel somewhere. Unfortunately by the time the Kocabey minibus dropped me back at the Laşet Motel so much snow had fallen in the meantime that the road was virtually invisible. Needless to say it was effectively closed to traffic.

Inside the motel I humed and hahed for a bit. It looked as if I would have to stay a second night there and cross my fingers that the Belediye would have its workers out at first light to clear the road. But given that it would be a Sunday morning, I didn’t feel especially optimistic about this.

Then just as I was resigning myself to probable mission failure along came a travelling cheese-salesman from Kars who was determined to make it home. He had stopped at the motel to fit chains to his tyres and to negotiate with a tractor driver who would go ahead of him as far as the Çam Geçidi (2460m) with a towrope for emergencies.

“It’s your choice,” Metecem, the motel owner, said to me. “You can stay here or you can go with him. We’ll take down his license plate number and you’ll have our phone number in case anything goes wrong.”

At this point clearly I should have shaken my head and retreated to the sanctuary of my bedroom. At this point anyone with an ounce of sense would have called it a night. But: “All right,” I said, and one of the waiters helped me stumble back down the drive to the gate and into the minibus.

The tractor was needed just to get it started again, and before we’d gone a kilometre I was already starting to regret my folly. Still the snow was falling, and very soon there was no sign at all of the road, just a barely visible line of poles delineating its edge. On the far side of that line I knew that there was an almighty drop. It was probably just as well that we couldn’t see it.

The driver was beside himself, hunched over the streering wheel and groaning. I was more frightened than I could remember, longing to lie down, close my eyes and pray for it to be over, yet reluctant to actually do so and leave Erdal to struggle with the driving. At first we joked a bit, but soon a terrible silence fell. He’ll miss the road, we’ll roll down the mountainside and I’ll die in a ditch alongside a man from Kars I don’t even know and his stash of cheese and honey, I concluded.

The tractor was meant to accompany us to the summit but long before we got there the driver left us to it. And there won’t be a phone signal, I thought miserably. And if we have to stop we’ll have to cuddle up with each other or risk freezing to death.

I’d say that the details were a blur except that there were no details, just white, white and yet more white. At last we were over the pass but even then it didn’t get much better for a long way whereupon, freed of the need to grip the wheel and pray, Erdal became quite chipper, handing me a flyer for his business and assuring me of our now close friendship (which didn’t stop him passing a hand tentatively across my breast as I stumbled out of the van). Finally we pulled into Ardahan, a grim little town and not one I would usually care for but one that now seemed like a beacon of civilisation in the midst of the snow.

In the sprawling emptiness of the Büyük Ardahan Hotel lobby I was almost weepy with relief. The receptionist ushered me to a suite where, he assured me, I could work at the table in the annexe. I eyed up the tub with delight while doing my best to ignore extreme shortcomings in the décor department. Supper was a dismal business - a bowl of tepid soup, two tepid chicken wings and a great deal of aubergine to be consumed in the utter silence of an upstairs restaurant decked out in wedding finery with garish bows on the chairbacks but not another diner in sight.

None of this mattered one iota though. I was in the right place to get to the lake. I was actually going to see the sleighs, so all was right with my world again.

In the morning Zeki Bey arrived to drive me to Çıldır together with the local dentist and a cheery chappy from TRT who’d decided to tag along too. To my delight the road was pretty good, not exactly clear of snow, but clear enough that a normal car, even without chains on its wheels, could make good progress. In early summer when I’d last been here everything had been emerald green. Now it was relentlessly white with just the odd patch of black and grey thrown in.

The TRT reporter started to tell me about the local foxes who dug down into the snow in search of rats that lived in tunnels beneath it, and we paused briefly to peer into the gorge that houses Şeytan Kalesi, barely visible now in the whiteness. Then at last we spotted Atalay’ın Evi, the lakeside fish restaurant where this whole crazy expedition had been sparked to life by a look at an award-winning photo of a horse sleigh on the lake. It was another anxious hour or so before the horses arrived but then two pairs trotted up, each attached to what looked rather like phaetons on skis.

Riding the ice was an extraordinary sensation. Snow had fallen on top of it and beneath that fresh snow was a layer of slush through which the horses ploughed heroically, sometimes stumbling so that the sleighs skewed to an angle. Zeki Bey was a picture of unhappiness and even I fretted over how good it could be for them – couldn’t they fall and break a leg? – but ahead of us stretched the snow and ice, never-ending, a vision of the Arctic in Turkey.

Beside the restaurant three little igloos had been built to serve as teahouses but we had come too soon to be able to use them. It didn’t matter. I’d made the snow wrestling and I’d made the sleighs despite the best efforts of the weather to defeat me. There was a bus to Erzurum at 5.30pm. There I would find a comfortable business-style hotel in which to recover. One thing was for sure - I would never forget the frozen northeast again.


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