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Journey beyond time to Ayder

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Posted 23 February 2005 - 12:28

Ayder's glacier lake, thermal spa and diverse flora make this high alpine pasture in the eastern Black Sea region a destination for every season

I discovered that at Ayder time and distance cannot be measured by the normal reckoning. For four or maybe five days I have been in places where concepts like kilometres are obsolete and where the metric system has not yet penetrated. I am as near to my house in the city as the roar of a waterfall and as far as a puff of cloud. Here time seems to be measured in the semicircle drawn by the sun in the sky and distance in how far a pasture can be reached with a burden on your back. Here, in the Eastern Black Sea's misty high pastures beneath the cloudy summit of the Kaçkar Mountains is Ayder, the land of thermal mountain springs. Here there is no time; time is only dreamed of.

I don't want to take any more rest breaks. In honour of the ancient summit which once more has brought me above the clouds, I dip my corn bread into a dish of hot muhlama.


I don't care about my tongue getting burnt, because I have now got to Yukari Kavron Yayla, the Upper Kavron pasture.
The cold blue of the glacier lake that will freeze over before the month is out is still on my skin, and I still feel the childlike kiss on my cheeks from my little flirt with the sun when it peeped out from behind the clouds. Envying the impertinent patches of snow that have started to form in the green grass I let myself into the waters of the glacier lake. But for now I was here with the shy autumn sun and my glacier lake that in a few weeks time would fall into a cold slumber. The remaining fears, pride, sweat and exhaustion from my trip to the summit are melting away in the numbness of the freezing cold water. This, I think, is what in every language is called 'peace of mind.'
But in the Kaçkar Mountains I call it Öksüz Göl.

I can't help myself; the pleasant tiredness from the fervour of days of climbing recurs from time to time.


Sometimes my eyes close and I am carried away on journeys within this journey. True, I am still in Yukari Kavron. It took me one and a half hours to descend from Öksüz Göl. I am waiting for the minibus to take me as far down as it goes. This journey along paths through the pastures that will take us eventually back to sea level takes me out of the magic spell of the heights and blows the air of this season. For years I have walked these roads filled only with my passion for the summits; I am now alone with the wisdom of the autumn. Being here at this season and witnessing these colours is a painful discovery for a mountaineer who every time he comes here hides his head in the clouds. I am begging the forgiveness of time that I wasted, of nature's beauty that I missed, of all the water that has flowed so far and of all these colours. I have just one consolation, and that is autumn. I am one of the few visitors who experience both the summit and the beauty of this time outside the climbing season. When bordering on an altitude of 3500 metres the tree species cannot hide their diversity as they can in the summer months. Some turn red, and some yellow and even pink.


The rebellious species that haven't yet let go of their greenness and will not let go of them throughout the winter, rustle their evergreen leaves proudly in the wind.

As we get closer to the ridge of the valley where Ayder is perched, an increase in temperature is felt, and one by one wooden mountain chalets and the higher hotels start to appear. When Mehmet Amca, who has accompanied me down here from the top pastures, hears the tale of my climb and my dip in the glacier lake, he laughs as he asks me where I was when God shared out reason. Not understanding about my hiking in the mountains for days and hearing that I had swum in the glacier lake, he decides that I really am foolish and he feels quite sorry for me. I had come from so far away, had been on the road for so long, and on top of everything, unable to find water had bathed in freezing lakes. As a 'host' from the Black Sea region he was embarrassed that a 'guest' should have been treated like that.


He invites me to the thermal baths. Apparently such marvellous water is only to be found somewhere in Switzerland and here in Ayder. He comes down once a week just to relax in the pool of the spa, and one reason that he is so healthy at the age of nearly eighty is the mountain air and the thermal spring. Apart from its world famous thermal springs, Ayder is the starting and meeting point of nearly all the types of activities in the Kaçkar Mountains National Park. Thanks to Ayder's location within reach of the nearest city as well as the high pastures, it offers a wide range of activities including rambling, mountaineering, bird watching, botanical sighting and jeep safaris. Accommodation in the area varies from a luxurious mountain hotel to cottage pensions. None of the holidaymakers who come to the National Park, mountaineers heading for the summit, weekend visitors, and participants in Vaktivor, a traditional mountain festival celebrated in August every year, pass Ayder without drinking a glass of tea. We complete our winding, dusty and shaky descent, but Mehmet Amca's and my ways do not yet part.


He still has some more advice for me. "Look here" he says, "You are a mountain man; you will not come back here again in the autumn. Now that you are here, enjoy it." "Alright, where should I stay, Mehmet Amca?" There is always a cousin one can go to here. We go to a small wooden pension, whose exterior timber walls worn by the years and the rain still carry traces of the local architecture. Due to the cost of maintenance and changing times, the house has been altered, and the stone roof is covered by zinc sheets. With my heavy rucksack on my back, I bump against the walls as I climb the narrow creaking stairs. Mehmet Amca is waiting downstairs. He has to catch the evening minibus so we must hurry.

We walk along Ayder's paved road resembling the wide streets of any city towards the mountain spa, whose architecture and smoking chimneys look like a caravanserai. I, who just 12 hours ago took the opportunity to bathe in the glacier lake, cannot believe the direction my feet are taking.


I am going to a thermal pool fed by a spring with a constant temperature of 55° C, and where there is more hot water and steam than I'll ever need. As I try to digest my half day's experience of four seasons and a myriad of colours, I realise that I again have found the place most amenable to dreaming: the mountain spa. I am not in a position to ponder all the medicinal qualities of these hot springs described in the Ministry of Health's reports. Now, in the heat and abundance of this water I think how quickly this extra day I have allowed myself before returning to the city is passing. Then I forget about that too. I have become water, have turned to vapour and have drifted up the chimney; have entered the evergreen spruce needles and dropped into the waterfall from there. I have poured into the Black Sea, and have returned home by water. Apparently you have to get into the hot pool slowly, otherwise it goes to your head. Ice cold water or hot. Yellow or orange colours; in fact they are all green. What difference does it make? I am in Ayder right now. I think I have been here for five days.

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