If you’ve been following along, you know by now that Turkey has got it all: a wandering coastline bordering lucid blue waters, a cosmopolitan city wrapped around a chewy historical center, snowy white rock springs so lovely that visitors are moved to strip down to their Speedos (in a Muslim country no less), and a surrealist landscape that would make Dali proud. We saw all these amazing sights in west and central Turkey, so it was time to move to the northeastern corner of the country to check out some good, old-fashioned mountains.
The Kaçkar Mountain Range is a famous trekking area in Turkey. However, Turkish trails, especially in this region, are notorious for being badly signposted. We were strongly advised to find a guide, even for a day hike. But when Jeremy and I researched 3- and 4- day treks through the Kaçkars, we found them to be prohibitively expensive—often over €600 per person! Figuring we would have better luck finding a decently-priced guide once we arrived in the Kaçkars (after all, companies who advertise on the internet are often more spendy), we put ourselves on a bus headed northeast (for more on that saga, read the Transportation section below) and crossed our fingers. The eastern side of Turkey is much less touristed, and information on the area is either scarce or outdated. But everything has always worked out before…why should this time be different? (And this is the point in the movie where you would be screaming, “No! Don’t walk through the door! There’s a monster hiding in there!!!”)
There are two ways you can approach the mountain: on the Black Sea side (in which case a little town named Ayder would be your home base), or via the southern side of the mountain (Yusufeli). Our guide book recommended Ayder as a good place to organize treks, and we had no reason to doubt the LP’s accuracy. (MONSTER!!!!)
We reached Ayder exhausted, hungry, and delirious (17 hours of bus rides will do that to you). And then there was The Hill. See, Ayder’s bus stop sits at the bottom of a long, steep hill…and naturally all the guest houses are a several huffs and puffs from the station.
We were in for more surprises. First of all, Ayder was dead. We could barely find a soul on the street, much less someone to take us up the mountain. Of the few people who we could find, no one spoke English. How exactly are we supposed to find someone to take us hiking?
We literally wandered all over the town of Ayder, trudging up and down the hill, from one place to the next, pantomiming our desire for a mountain guide. After a couple of hours of this, we had downgraded our expectations from “multi-day trek” to “day hike.” Tired, hungry, and frustrated, we gave up for the day and stopped into the closest restaurant for dinner, hoping our hiking plans would miraculously work themselves out by morning. And what do you know? Not only did we find a very sweet family serving amazing home-cooked food, but even better—a couple of Israeli tourists stopped in after completing a 3-day trek and we peppered them with questions about hiking in the Kaçkars. From this we gathered: catch the 10AM bus to Kavrun and organize a trek from there. Success!!!
After a few false starts (the bus leaves at 10AM, no—9AM, no—9:30. Ish.), we take an hour and a half to arrive in Kavrun, even though it is only 30 km away (blame the terrible roads…and the tea stop). This gave us plenty of time to meet other English-speaking travelers on the bus: a German couple, and two Turkish guys.
It’s true: you can find a guide in Kavrun. The Turkish guys got to work trying to negotiate a price for a guide to take all 4 of us up the mountain (the Germans opted out of the hike), but when that price is deemed too high, we decide that we can find our way as a group. What could possibly go wrong with this plan? (The monster—he’s right behind you!!!!)
Long story short: about 3 hours into our trek, the weather turned bad. As in, really bad. As in, rain + fog + thunder + lightning + hail kind of bad. So bad you can’t see 10 feet in front of you kind of bad.
Jeremy and I decided to turn around, but the Turkish guys stubbornly decided to keep looking for our final destination (a group of alpine lakes). Ten minutes after we left them, Jeremy and I found the lakes. Our group had walked right by them on the way up, but the thick fog obscured our view.
After a few scary moments of losing the trail in severe weather, J and I finally found the original path and booked it down the mountain as fast as we could. We were cold and soaked to the bone, but we were happy with our decision to turn around.
We finally made it back to Kavrun’s little cafe and joined a group of Israelis and the German couple warming themselves by the fire. And here’s where the story really gets interesting. Turns out the bus driver was waiting for the 4 of us to return from our hike before he was willing to make the drive back to Ayder (perhaps he communicated this to the Turks, but J and I had no idea). The Israelis and Germans had been waiting ALL DAY for us, and were understandably upset about this. But given that this was the only bus back to Ayder, we didn’t want to leave the Turkish guys on the mountain. They weren’t properly dressed and the weather was really bad. So we waited.
And then we worried. Well, at least Jeremy and I worried. Everyone else was pissed off and wanted to get going. But the bus driver stuck to his guns—he wasn’t going to leave the two Turkish guys stranded in Kavrun without a ride back to Ayder.
Finally, one of the Israeli girls harasses the bus driver long enough that he agrees to leave. We ask the guides at the cafe to go looking for the Turks if they don’t show up before 5PM. On our way out, J and I kept looking out the windows, searching for our lost Turkish friends. We hope they made it back safe.
Transportation from Cappadocia to Ayder: Despite warnings from the bus ticket vendor (we thought he was just trying to close the sale), J and I wait until the day of to buy tickets from Cappadocia to Ayder and find that they are sold out. Note to future travelers of this route: Buy your tickets several days in advance! This is a not a heavily traveled route—there are only 2 bus companies that make the trip each day.
We also found that the Lonely Planet has either outdated or incomplete information on this region. The guidebook said there were direct buses from Rize to Ayder, but after an exhausting overnight bus ride from Cappadocia to Rize, we found (after much pantomiming) that we had to take a local bus to the Rize minibus terminal, catch another bus to Pazar, where we could catch a direct bus to Ayder. Since our original bus from Cappadocia was headed further east, life would have been a lot easier if we just got off the bus in Pazar rather than Rize. Another note to future travelers: don’t blindly trust the Lonely Planet! Always double check the info you get from your guidebook, especially in “off-the-beaten-path” destinations. It could save you a lot of pain and frustration.
All of this travel was during Ramazan. So prior to getting on the bus to Pazar, we bought a kebap, and then proceeded to try to eat said kebap on the bus without any of the locals seeing (it’s rude to eat in front of fasting Muslims). I have never in my life felt so guilty for eating a sandwich.
Where we slept in Ayder: We found a cheap (50 TL for double ensuite), comfortable little family-run place about 2/3 up the hill in Ayder, called something like Uçhisar or Uçhalar Pensiyon (sorry, notes are thin for this region). Can’t say I recommend the place, as the showers were not hot. There’s nothing like taking a lukewarm shower after getting drenched in the Kaçkars. Can’t say I recommend that, either.