PART 1: Tea Plants
The land east of Trabzon is the quintessential Black Sea country. The west has
mountains; in the east they are higher. The west has a wet climate; the east is
even wetter. Hamsi are more abundant. Accents are thicker, the music is wilder
and the idiosyncracies of each valley more pronounced. Markets are livelier and
fewer women make concessions to the "modern" look.
It is the uplands that make the difference. The colors and smells of teafields
at Rize or the eccentric sights of a hawk-trainers' cafe in Ardeşen are
memorable in themselves, but serve as a mere prelude to the alpine beauty of
Uzungöl, the wilderness of Hemşin valleys or the medieval glories of Artvin.
Tea Country: Tea plantations begin immediately east of Trabzon. Beyond Surmene,
they invade every slope, field, garden, backyard, beachfront, nook and cranny.
They make a pretty sight. The squat clumps of tea bush look like endless herds
of electricgreen sheep. They are often seen in neat rows on incredibly steep
hillsides where easy drainage creates the ideal environment for their
cultivation. When they are old enough (each shrub can live up to 80 years if
properly tended) they turn into a single, impenetrable thicket blanketing the
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
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
throughout tea country.
In 1985 the region was jolted by a series of bankruptcies that affected the new
private companies. In the follow¬ing 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, cultiva¬tion continued to
expand steadily and the projected opening of export markets now brings a gleam
to the farmers' eyes.