As a rule only women work “at tea”. Men are never seen in the fields. From April to October the enduring image of the region is the sight of hunched women moving slowly through a sea of greenery, cloaked in bright red keşan west of Çayeli and wide-brimmed straw hats east of Pazar. In early morning they nip the top two or three leaves of each bud. The first two are the best; the third is a politicians’ concession to producers; the fourth counts as cheating. On appointed days the women show up at buying stations scattered along the farm roads, carrying amazing loads of tea in conical straw baskets strapped to their back. On a busy day one can see dozens of them lounging in the arbor outside a station, many young and ravishing, chatting up passers-by while the children frolic in piles of heaped-up tea leaves. Countless processing plants contribute the olfactory element that imprints itself on one’s memory of the region: the intoxicating aroma of slowly fermenting tea.
The 160-kilometer strip between Sürmene and the Soviet border produces all the tea needed to supply the national addiction-over 700,000 tons of raw leaves, or some 150,000 tons of packaged tea annually. Curiously, the introduction of tea culture to this region is a fairly new event. It was the brainchild of a single individual, Zihni Derin, who proposed the idea in 1924 and organized the importation of the first seedlings in 1937. He was also instrumental in the opening of the first state-owned processing plant which went into operation in 1947. His idea transformed the region from one of the poorest in Turkey, where people died of starvation in the 1930s, into one of the richest. The infusion of the equivalent of 150 million dollars a year also helped make the traditionally rebellious Laz into some of Turkey’s most loyal citizens. Today, Zihni Derin’s modest bust stands in the garden of the Tea Institute in Rize as a tribute to his work.
If Rize means tea, tea means Çaykur. This state-owned monolith processed and packaged all tea in the region until 1984. Despite the arrival of private competitors after that date, Çaykur still dominates the industry with its 48 processing plants and a share of over two thirds of the total sales. Its base buying price (about 25 cents per kilo) sets the market rate and its IOUs count as currency
throughout tea country.
In 1985 the region was jolted by a series of bankruptcies that affected the new private companies. In the following year it bore the brunt of the Chernobyl disaster: the contaminated 1986 tea harvest was bought up by the government and allegedly buried at a secret site near Ardeşen. Still, cultivation continued to expand steadily and the projected opening of export markets now brings a gleam to the farmers’ eyes.
The market’s emphasis is on fresh produce and dairy products brought down from the surrounding villages. They are grown, picked and hauled into the market by the peasant women who do the hawking. There are also professional marketmen who sell kitchenware, cheap clothes, plastic toys, chicken wire, spices, religious tracts and Dr. No’s Latest Cure For Rheumatism out of the back of their trucks. Abdullah the watermelon-man arrives each week with a truckful of “sunny babies” from the far south. Hobbled chickens squawk in protest as they are poked and probed by discriminating buyers. But it is the women whose cries rise loudest above the general uproar: “oozy figs better than honey!”, “creamy cucumber for 200!” and “taste my ripe mulberries! “.
It is not all buying and selling but also a social occasion, an opportunity to break out of the tedium of isolated far-away farms. One meets old friends and makes new acquaintances at the marketplace. A surprising number of teenage girls stand out in the crowd. One of them will perhaps pretend to take a stroll to the other end of the market, dying to know if that boy who’s been looking at her all morning will follow. At first she’ll affect to ignore him, then perhaps throw him an ambiguous smile over her shoulder. That’s how her parents met, and her grandparents before them
Back in Sürmene, one may have a good fish lunch at the Belediye Restaurant before moving on. The grand residence of Yakupoglu Memiş Aga-known locally as the Kastels located approximately three kilometers along the way to Of. It is somewhat hard to find. The only indication for the motorist is a little teahouse which advertises itself as the “Kastel Restaurant”. The castle itself is located amid tea fields just off the road. Like its Haznedaroglu cousin in Bolaman, this is a late-18th century seigneurial residence which belonged to the local dynasty of derebeyis. It is a graceful stone building with an enormous mushroom-like roof. Its grim past is hinted at by rifle slots along the parapets and a small jail located on the first floor. The intricately designed and painted carvedwood ceilings and superb stone fireplaces of the second-floor living quarters, by contrast, indicate the highly refined lifestyle of the Yakupoglus.
Inhabited until 1978 by the descendants of Memiş Aga, the Kastel has now fallen on hard times and seems set for an irreversible decline. This is rather surprising, given the fact that Mr Cevher Ozden, alias Kastelli. Turkey’s most outrageous billionnaire, is also a Yakupoglu descendant. This flamboyant high school dropout managed to collect a staggering 40% of the nation’s private savings before going bankrupt in 1982. After a stint in jail, he resurfaced as the country’s biggest real estate mogul but went bust again in 1989.
In former times the castle was only accessible from the sea. The first Rize-Trabzon highway was built by the Russian occupying army in 1916. To spare the castle, the Russians constructed the road in a loop around it, with a high retaining wall that still stands. The current highway was constructed in the 1950s on a strip of land reclaimed from the sea.
One of the best beaches of the whole Black Sea coast is found at the foot of a steep cliff a few kilometers further east, past Çamburnu Village.
Of and Surmene
thickest “Black Sea” accent: Of’s is equally thick but different. Traditionally there has been no love lost between the two highly idiosyncratic communities.
Of has a long tradition as one of the strongest bastions of Islamic piety in the country. In the past century, the Of and Çaykara districts claimed no less than 350 medreses (theological schools), an unbelievable ratio of one per sixty inhabitants. Their graduates had a high reputation for religious learning throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Things have not changed much: Dr. Sait Yazicioglu, the current Director of Religious Affairs, in effect the Turkish analogue of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a native of the district. Just about every village proudly displays the sign for its Kuran Kursu, the modern equivalent of a medrese, where children between 6 and 18 years of age learn to recite and interpret the Quran. Hocas (Muslim learned men) and hacis (those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca), identified by their thick beards and white skull caps, seem to form a majority in the streets. The most palpable sign of the spirit of the place is the astonishing number of mosques. Many of these are enormous multistoried buildings that dwarf the villages in which they are located-colossal monuments to traditional piety and modern construction techniques. Some have a positively fairytale aspect, standing alone on a wild green mountainside.
To add another touch of the bizarre, many of the region’s inhabitants have grown up speaking Greek as their first language, especially in the inland areas around Çaykara. Hocas explain the apparent incongruity by pointing out that questions of race and nationality are meaningless before the universal appeal of Islam. Historians unruffle nationalist feathers by pointing out that the adoption of Greek was itself a late (probably medieval) development. A tribal language seems to have survived until as late as the 17th century.
Uzungol a lakeside eden
Part of Uzungol’s allure lies in the two-hour drive up from Of and especially in the rough stretch past Çaykara. The road follows the spectacular blue-green course of the Solaklı River as it flows down from Uzungol, forded occasionally by wooden footbridges. The forest is thick with underbush, moistened by the spray of gushing waterfalls and frequent rains. Farmhouses of rich brown chestnut wood with festive yellow stalks of corn decorating their windows preside over the intensely green groves of tea. The region offers an excellent selection of the typical chalet-style houses of the traditional mountain architecture. Some of these have an unusual latticework construction that is unique to this district. For a wholly unspoiled ensemble make a short detour to the village of Atakoy, on the Çaykara-Bayburt main road one kilometer beyond the Uzungol turnoff. As elsewhere in the Black Sea most houses here are accompanied by a serender, an elaborate but on stilts that serves for winter storage. The curious wooden disks one sees on each stilt help keep mice away.
Back on the road, stroll across the covered bridge of Hapsiyaş, a 250 year old wooden structure with a tiled roof. On the bridge, local fisherman cast for trout with makeshift wooden rods. At the quaint little village of Çamlık, another small bridge crosses the brook. On the porch of a tea house a group of old timers sit, passing judgement on each car that lurches by.
Uzungol is located at 1250 meters, the altitude where stately conifers begin to replace the leaf forest. The lake is a small one barely three kilometers in circumference. A huge mosque with dual minarets casts its
whitewashed reflection on the water’s surface. In the main part of the village, a short walk up the slope, another mosque echoes the müezzin’s call to prayer. The horizon is encircled by the majestic peaks of Mt. Ziyaret (3111 meters) and Mt. Haldizen (3193 meters) which remain snow capped through July.
On the far side of the lake lies the trout farm alabalık tesisleri) of Hüseyin İnan, which doubles as a mountain resort of modest proportions. It is a delightful place: four log cabins with wood stoves and hot water line the river bank. Each can sleep six comfortably. A spacious restaurant, also made of wood, serves wholesome food: fresh trout fried in butter, crisp salads and homemade soup. No one speaks English, but sign language works surprisingly well at this altitude. If backgammon is your forte you may try your hand with Ismail Inan, a former gambler and alcoholic on the mend who plays with a wolfish grin and is considered champion of these parts. As Ismail will readily inform you, uzungol is liquor-free and will remain so as long as the mullahs have their way.
Across the arched stone bridge, the village of Uzungol (also known as Şerah) is a charming collection of old timber houses. Beyond it, several different paths cross through crocusfilled meadows up into the pine forests and the alpine yaylas. Whichever path you choose, you are certain to find a series of pastoral scenes: fathers and sons spread piles of hay to dry on the hillside; young girls struggle up the mountain trails with towering loads of firewood strapped to their backs, while women milk the cow.
A further four-hour walk (cars can reach the village of Demirkapı by bad road) will get one to the glacier lakes of Mt. Haldizen located on the treeless grasslands at 2800 meters. The peak itself is a short and easy climb beyond the lakes and affords a stupendous view over the distant Çoruh River Canyon to the south.
Rize travel guide
Appropriately, the major attraction of Rize is the Tea Institute-at once a research institution, a botanical garden, a beauty spot and a public teahouse. In the institute’s greenhouses located on a hill overlooking the town visitors can observe the development of new and experimental strands of tea. The products can be sampled in the lush confines of the tea garden. The grounds offer exotic species of flora from around the world. The panorama is superb.
The next town along the coast offers more of the same. Çayeli is the final (and purest) bastion of the keşan-and-peştemal look. It has a clannish reputation somewhat like Of, underscored by the fact that a large number of important political jobs in Istanbul and Ankara seem to belong to people from Çayeli.
Lazland and Laz People
The Laz combine the cocky pride of Scotsmen with the eccentric humor of Basques. They were never dominated by the Byzantines; nor did the Ottoman Empire succeed in subjugating them fully. When they felt their partial autonomy threatened in the early 19th century, they took up arms under Memiş Tuzcuoğlu, Lord of the Valley, and fought against the troops of the governor of Trabzon for more than two decades. The Russian connection cultivated during that struggle led to the rapid adoption of “modern” customs and ideas from the northern neighbor during the rest of the century. Today the five townships that house Turkey’s Laz population Pazar, Ardeşen, Fındıklı Arhavi and Hopa-display a remarkably progresive outlook. Hopa, at the far edge of Turkey, is one of the rare places it the country where village womer work the fields in short sleeves and (gasp!) a knee-length cotton skirt The profusion of blond and red head with aquiline noses and piercing blue eyes completes a strikingly “un Anatolian” picture.
No amount of progress, however, seems likely to dampen the ancient Laz passion for hawks. Hawking is practiced as a hobby, an addiction and a lifestyle. Specific cafes in each of the five townships serve as gathering places for hawk buffs. One favorite is the cafe underneath Hotel Avcı in Ardeşen, where, during a particularly exciting football game on television, no less than two dozen birds shouted and screamed along with their eccentric owners amid a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. The mayor of Ardeşen, a great raconteur in the best Laz tradition (“The only reason why we continue speaking Laz,” he says, “is that in no other language can one tell so many hilarious jokes.”), showed up with his pride and joy. As his favorite pet watched menacingly from his shoulder, the proprietor explained that the birds are caught and domesticated at an early age and they make superb companions for hunting quail. Since the arrival of Gulf Arabs as buyers, the price of a baby hawk has gone up to 1000 dollars. A rare falcon was offered in barter for this author’s car.
At the regionally famous restaurant of Baba Ahmet the evening continued with a bravura display of the inimitable and irrepressible Laz joviality. After the third course of hamsi and the fifth bottle of raki, a kemençe was brought out. Men stood up for aninitially clumsy, then increasingly intense and finally delirious rendition of the traditional Black Sea dance, the horon. Half a dozen hawks perched on the hatstand kept tempo with jingling bells tied to their wings.
Apart from their delightful inhabitants and an increasingly wild and craggy coastline, the five townships offer few specific sights-a fine beach near Pazar, a few totally wild ones beyond Hopa, a forlorn ruined church in someone’s back yard just outside Ardeşen, several charming village mosques behind Arhavi, and of course, the spectacular panorama of the Kaçkar Mountains rising above the coast.
The best way to get away from the apparent impersonality of the coast is to make random excursions into the hills. A good place to do that is the hinterland of Arhavi where a number of semi-paved roads lead in the direction of Ortacalar. They meander through pleasant farmlands overgrown with tea, offering unforgettable
images of rosy-cheeked Laz beauties and ancient moss-covered stone bridges. In the front yards of remote farmsteads, one may note the tall and distinctive plants of the cannabis family.
Hopa: A Little Berlin
Sarp is a tiny Laz village of maybe 600 souls, clinging to a steep hillside engulfed in tea fields on the shores of a small bay. In 1921 an agreement between the revolutionary governments of Ankara and Moscow set the frontier between the two countries at the little stream that traverses the village. At first the division did not affect Sarp very much. By the 30s border crossings were made harder; by the 50s, when Turkey and the USSR found themselves in opposite trenches of the Cold War, they were banned altogether. A visit to Uncle Temel down the street now required a 3000-mile journey through Ankara and Moscow. Prohibitions were issued against shouting messages and even staring too long across the stream. A special inflection in the müezzin’s call to prayer or a discreet whistle informed the other side of a birth, marriage or death in the family.
An agreement was reached in 1974 to reopen the border. The Soviets even built a frontier trading area and a new luxury hotel in Batumi in anticipation of fat capitalists who were expected to pour in. But politics intervened, things got delayed and it was only in August 1988 that, finally, the border was officially opened to the accompaniment of great enthusiasm on both sides.
A survey of opinions on the Turkish side of the fence during the run-up to the big “Opening” found everyone between Samsun and Artvin excited about the prospects. The Black Sea region would cease to be a dead end. Both Turkish and European tourists would come through on their way to see Russia. One day, God willing, Russian tourists might be allowed to visit Turkey and shop there. Bilateral trade would burgeon as in the days when grandfather went to market in Batumi and Sochi. One worry was voiced in Hopa: the town had flourished briefly as a transit point during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war when Iran imported a lot of western goods through this port. Would Batumi snatch the prize with its much bigger port and lower port fees, now that Iran was expected to be back in the market? This apart, history seemed to lend support to great hopes: the eastern Black Sea had always prospered in periods of increased northern and eastern trade. What had happened in antiquity, in the 13th century and in the decades before World War I could happen again.
Not much has happened yet. A few visas were granted for family visits and transit trucks. Several tour operators began organizing cross border trips in 1989, though individual ad hoc travel was still discouraged by the requirement for Soviet visas which could only be obtained in Istanbul or Ankara.
The visaless visitor can still make a quick visit to the western half of the little Berlin that is Sarp and imagine the romance that the hills across the bay hide from view. The Caucasus, some say, is the most fantastic part of the Soviet Union to travel in, and Tbilisi its most charming city. Closer to Turkey, Batumi is said to offer a genteel 19th century ambience and Gagra, some 250 kilometers further north, is one of the world’s biggest modern beach resorts. And what seasoned traveler could resist the prospect of a complete Black Sea tour through Sebastopol, Yalta and Odessa? So apply for your visas and persevere
Bullfighting in Artvin, Turkey
As a rule, the fighters are cared for by women. It is a strenuous year-round training program: jogging in the morning, then a supercharged meal of raisins and oats, a daily beauty bath, massage of the head and testicles with a potion against flies, a light lunch of hay, then an evening meal of more kraft-feed. The stalls are padded against the draft and a cat is kept in to stop rodents from nibbling the all-important horns.
In June, a few days before the fight, trucks begin to haul the champs to Kafkasor, an alpine meadow 500 meters above Artvin-town. As soon as they touch down, the bulls charge straight against the embankment, drive their horns into the earth wall, raise a storm of dust and bellow threateningly at rivals in sight-signs of a declaration that they regard this territory as their own. Unfortunately there are some 50 contenders who hold the same claim. Owners scramble around to prevent premature scraps: sticks are raised to keep the bullies in line; caressing the mighty blobs dangling between the hind legs also has a calming effect.
The festivities begin on Friday. Tens of thousands from around the province arrive with their tents and rainshelters and gas stoves and enough rakı to last everybody for three days. Families cut down the venerable pines to build themselves temporary shacks. Provisional tea stands are set up: kebab-sellers move into position. At first there are singers, bagpipe players, traveling minstrels, oil wrestlers: folk dancers from Soviet Georgia are a novel fixture thanks to glasnost.
Apart from momentary glory all that the victor gets for his pains is corn fodder: the cows are kept away from him as they would undermine his fighting spirit…