Sunday, 29 August 2010

Why the Lesser Caucuses and Macahel ?

This site is the result of a number of journeys I’ve undertaken with my family while travelling across mountainous regions in Eastern Europe and the Himalayas.

If it's just pictures of Macahel you are after, scroll down or navigate to section Camili - the main village in Macahel and beyond.

Our wild adventures started while my daughters were young, riding in Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains. Inspired by this gripping experience, we took a trip to ride across the Balkans in Bulgaria. These trips prepared us for our most exciting trip, riding through the Caucuses in Tusheti/ Georgia on the boarders of Chechnya and Dagestan. Discovering Tusheti on horseback proved to be a life changing experience for all of us and we repeated the trip in 2008 when found ourselves embroiled in a war zone as Russia attempted to take control of South Ossetia from the ever-resilient Georgians.
Buoyed up by our Georgian experience we travelled in the winter of 2008 to the Chinese province of Yunnan in the Himalayas, living with ethnic tribes and travelling by minivan and mules. China was to be our final trip as a complete family. Our eldest daughter started out on her own amazing adventures in 2009/10 travelling through Turkey, Georgia, India and Nepal. Perhaps there's something in the water.

Our time in Tusheti inspired us as a family encouraging me to discover more about the Lesser Caucuses in Southern Georgia running down the border into Northeast Turkey. This region had been ruled by the Georgians until the late 15th century and held a magical lure for me and my wife. However our youngest daughter was thoroughly fed up with mountains, horses and what appeared to be the only type of holiday she was ever likely to experience. With this in mind we teamed up with some old friends and their youngest daughter. My thinking was the combination of great friends with a different perspective on the world might act as the antidote to her irresponsible parents. Well it was worth a try.

This account of our final adventure as a now diminished family unit before our youngest flees to experience the world for herself is a sort of introduction to the little know world of Macahel, which we travelled through over a period of ten days in the summer of 2010. Macahel is an exceptional place tucked away in the Lesser Caucuses. Half Georgian half Turkish, it is only accessible with a permit provided by the local authorities and regarded by some as one of the most exceptional regions in Eastern Turkey.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Off to Lakoban

Our man Hüseyin naturalist and bear expert.

The prelude to this journey can be found in the section called 'Finding Hassan' ( see links at the top of this page ) which ends after many adventures with my family and friends meeting up with our guide Hassan from Macahel at the town of Hoppa on the Blacksea at the border between Georgia and Northeast Turkey . We pick up the story after we found our driver Mavlute with his van along with our interpreter Hüseyin. Our journey to Macahel was about to begin.

After eventually finding Hassan the tension and anxiety of the past four hours swiftly drifted away. We had at last embarked upon our journey to Macahel. Our van slipped quietly into the busy traffic while Hüseyin started to grill us with all manner of questions. He appeared very keen to understand this unlikely troupe and we later discovered his idea of English tourists was very different from who he had just picked up with Hassan. We were not typical hikers but two middle aged couples with their younger daughters. We later understood Hüseyin had only previously met English urban academics who in his book were unfamiliar with the type of world we were about to encounter and I suspect demanding requiring showers, hot water and all manner of creature comforts. As we made our way out of Hoppa, Hüseyin revealed his credentials and how he had come to be with Hassan. We soon learned Hüseyin Ambarlı, to use his full name, was and still is an academic studying for his PHD in Ankara. He was working as a wildlife researcher studying brown bear ecology and human bear-conflict in the region. Hüseyin had met with Hassan while using Macahel as a base and had got to know him well over that period. A couple of weeks previously they had met up again and Hassan had invited Hüseyin along for the trip to act as interpreter and guide. We were overjoyed to discover we had a professional naturalist on our trip. Sadly Hüseyin was only to be with us for the first part of our trip but his skill and insight was to be invaluable.

Mavlute at the wheel to Lakoban

As we shared our stories and discovered more about each other Mavlute steadily drove our van out into the lush countryside and up into the hills. The landscape began to soften and we came to a small town with a simple petrol station where Mavlute pulled up. To our surprise a sprightly young lad jumped aboard. We later learned this was Gem, Hassan’s youngest son who was going to accompany us over the next ten days and curiously many more people were going to accompany us along the way .Rarely introduced ,they would just become part of our group.

Gem was to become an invaluable member of the team .Soon to be a great friend of the girls and a credit to his family.

Mavlute hit the road and we continued to soak up the mountainous countryside.Small farmsteads littered the hills with their tea plantations hugging the slopes, all neatly clipped like topiary hedges softly following the incline of the hills. The late afternoon sun gently followed us high up into the hills ,castings its rays across this subtropical paradise. Swirling mists could still be seen in some of the valleys and Hüseyin told us how the warm Black Sea winds rise up into the mountains creating a heady and mysterious climate. The air was humid and hot but as we drove higher the heat gave way to a cooler refreshing breeze as we continued to climb passing massive excavations below Artvin ,soon to be a reservoir to feed Turkey's industrial ambitions for the 2001 st century.

Man's destruction or simply reservoir excavations? The town of Artvin looks down on these monumental excavations as the sun drops below the mountains.

Mesmerised by the drone of the van our world swiftly took a jolt as Mavlute turned off with a lurch from the main mountain road onto a rough track and still we climbed.

The road turned to a rough track as we climbed higher pursued by the swirling mist.

As the sun slipped behind the mountains the track grew narrow and uneven and still we climbed. The road got steeper and each bend in the track revealed the valley far below vanishing into the dusk. Soon all we could see was the world picked out by Mavlutes headlamps and the thought of the terrifying drop down the side of the mountain only heightened our sense of adventure.
Our track picked out by Mavlute,s headlights

After a while we lurched from the road into a farmstead surrounded by the sound of cascading water. The rush of the river around us seemed to exclude all other thoughts with only a single light from the house picking out the details of the farm. This was a trout farm and we were collecting our fish for tomorrow but at the dead of night. Hassan was welcomed by our trout farmer and they quickly went to work in what seemed pitch black catching fish with a large net torchlight . The trout ponds were seething with fish which provided a surreal backdrop to this unexpected event. In what seemed tens of minutes we were off again in Mavlutes van with the next days lunch flapping frantically at Hassan’s feet. The road continued to climb and the trees began to thin until the headlamps could only pick out the swirling mists amongst the scrub beside the road.
By now we were tired and thinking of the possibility of a bed and a long sleep after an exceptional day .Our van lurched hard to the right and we could see dimly in the headlights shacks squatting high up on the slopes, had we arrived? After a great deal of conversation between Hassan and Mavlute we drove slowly up a steep track. The mists made it difficult to pick out any of the shacks but this at last was to be our home for tonight and a little longer than expected.
Greeting us at the door was a wonderful family, all smiles and I guess happy to see us, if rather late. Inside the house it was every inch a log cabin. The walls and ceiling all made from sturdy wooden boards and all quite new. Before we could settle down we wearily unpacked the van with our rucksacks and were shown our rooms. Simple and cosy with ample duvets. We soon learned the old house had burned down a while ago and we were in new house which our hosts had built with the idea of taking paying guest, hikers.

Tables were swiftly moved and we had a dining room table fit for a feast within minutes. Our host’s wife and a couple of other women started to load the table with food . After such a long day we were all relieved to eat supper and when finished we piled into our beds. I wished Melissa and Iona good night , I could hear rain tapping on the roof but I had no idea the following day was going to reveal so many surprises.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Lakoban and a journey delayed

We woke up in the morning with the sun gently rising into a clear blue sky with no sign of what had occurred during the night. While we got dressed and ready for the day our hosts looked anxiously at each other what's more Hassan appeared troubled. The TV was on with a very earnest reporter pointing to flood damage close to Macahel. Hüseyin beckoned to me explaining six people had been caught in the floods during the night and died, furthermore the road to Lakoban was impassable and we would have to stay where we were until the road was fixed.

This appeared all the more remarkable since the world outside appeared a bit damp but certainly not drenched by any wild downpour from the heavens.

Some of the ladies in our host house making magnificent pasta. Move over Italy, this is the real thing.

The light in our bedroom was coloured by a yellow skylight which cast a warm glow over the room .Very comfortable and clean with a proper shower .

During breakfast we agreed with Hassan on a plan . While we went for a walk in the mountains the men in the village would attempt to mend the road with what seemed the most basic of equipment.

The news of the flooding and road no longer passable, although unexpected, seemed in keeping with events so far. So while the men form the village went off to mend the road with what looked like the most basic of equipment Mavlute took us up to the head of the valley from where we could see Macahel and the mountain range before us.

We now had time to kill and had planned to explore Lakoban so every detail we encountered was exciting – even the cows with their wonderful headdresses were a novelty.

It was apparent the weather was about to close in on us so we swiftly made our way to Lakoban’s famous glacial lake but not fast enough. The rain began to fall as we scrambled back to the van. It wasn’t much fun seeking refuge in the van and we were itching to explore the area.

As we watched the mists rise up from the mountain range Mavlute took to the track making his way down to the a less exposed spot where we made camp and Mavlute and Hassan cooked us a trout collected the previous night . Fortunately the weather cleared as swiftly as it had arrived.

The view over the mountains from the lake not only illustrated how high we were but some cruel weather was boiling up and could be coming our way .

On the way back from the lake the winter snow can clearly be seen as a reminder of the winter past.

As the sun burned through the mist the sun lite up the valley revealing Rhododendron flowers . Very late in the year . At this altitude I would have expected them to be over .

Our lunch spot provided Richard and Helena with their first taste of the Caucuses with the abundance of wild flowers and swirling mists.

This image was very typical of our first impressions of Lakoban. Mists and cloud descending with little or any notice . You can see Richard walking into the mist and within seconds he had vanished from sight.

After lunch of wonderful trout lunch we made our way back down to the village to see if the road had been fixed.

With no news we went to explore another small hamlet over the brow of the hill before our guesthouse , a magical place where Melissa made friends with some of the local ladies.

This small hamlet sitting high in the mountains just over the brow of the hill looking down on Lakoban was worth the visit .

The village tap in the hamlet . I like this picture , it's very typical of mountain life. Life needs to be practical in the mountains - keeping the cheese cool and the wind off your back.

Hassan looking very troubled and I suspect his concern was partially due to wondering how he was going to get us out of Lakoban. We had already caused enough trouble.

Looking down on Lakoban from the hamlet above.

The wild flowers and butterflies were staggering in their variety and intensity and none of us felt downhearted by the change of plan. After a full afternoon walking we made our way back to the house and to our relief the village men arrived with news the road was fixed. How we were about to discover.

Once we packed our things into the van and said our heartfelt goodbyes, Mavlute drove back down the valley . Our hosts had been magnificent .How often has your guesthouse owner rebuilt the road to your next destination after a murderous storm in the night? On arrival at the rebuilt section of the road it was hard to imagine how our team of men could have built something in such a short period of time . These are tough men with generous hearts. We were about to discover something very special as our journey unfolded .

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Onwards to Mereta Yayala

Our plan had been to travel to Papart and then onto Mereta Yayala via Meydancik but I will never know if that's how we traveled. Hassan was intent on getting to the next base swiftly while we behaved like innocent children making coos and ahhs at the every glorious sight we encountered. The truth is we had all seen similar countryside but it is always a joy to discover life anew in another country. We had lost half the day while the road had been fixed ,Hassan and Mavlute wanted to get us to our next destination before sundown so time was not on our side . The following images are an illustration of the wonderful world we encountered along the way to Mereta but nothing to what we were about to discover once we arrived in Macahel and beyond.

Our trail made its way through the mountains down to the valleys below . You can pick out a white similar to ours on the corner of the road above.

Amazingly this Christan chapel was build for nuns on the very edge of the precipice . I find it hard to believe but I understand Nuns lived here. Look harder and you can see, failing that click on the picture .

Further down the valley we came upon these magnificent farmsteads hugging the mountainside and surveying the valley before them . Just glorious .

The view down the valley was a sight to behold . An abundance of rich vegetation cradled in the valley by the mountains either side.

Once we reached the river below and a main road around the mountains we came across a great vegetable and fruit street market, similar to many we have encountered in Eastern Europe.

We arrived late in the day with the mountain mists descending fast . Our host ,who did not have mobile phones, had given up on us and presumed we were never coming . Within minutes they had the stove fired up and supper was served to a welcome audience. It had been a long day and the old folks looking after us were glad their cooking wasn't going to waste and so were we.

The stove in the sitting room grew hot immediately warming a chilly room within minutes we we all felt at home, warm as toast.

In the morning the ever present mountain mists took a while to clear as our neighbor wash her cloths on the balcony.

The houses in Mereta slowly took shape as the mists cleared.

With the weather clearing Mereta took on a simple unadulterated quality, untouched by the outside world and innocent of commercial greed.

With the sun out the Mereta homes looked as if they came from the wild west at the turn of the 19th century.

The cows in Mereta were particularly attractive decked in their headdresses , all ready for a party.

Before we left for the last leg of our journey to Macahel, Hassan took us for walk up the valley .The mists descended once again but Mavlute introduced us to a game, popping the stalks of a local plant.

These are the two sweet ladies who looked after us during our brief stay in Mereta Yayala.

It was time to leave Mereta. A short stay and I wonder what it would have been like if we had stayed for longer. The pace of life was gentle and beguiling but the mists were oppressive and I'm not sure if I liked this land of mysterious mists even if the cows were beautiful . Our next trip was Camile ,the main village in Macahel. Things were about to change and the pace of our journey was to be very different indeed.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

To Camili - the main village in Macahel

This was to be one of the finest days for traveling with Mavlute and his trusty van. We were about to discover the true beauty of Macahel. Hüseyin our guide and interpreter had been quietly answering our questions and getting to know us all. It was on this leg of our journey we really began to appreciate his knowledge and insight into the region.

When we set out the mountain mists restricted our visibility but soon the sun climbed into the sky and the landscape took shape , well for while . We soon discovered the ever present cloud was often lurking in the next valley, waiting to engulf us in its miasmas . Never to be undermined by the weather this experience just increased our sense of adventure.

As Mevlutes van drove us carefully down the mountain from the barren Yayala, the vegetation became lush and the climate warm . It was hard to believe were not in some subtropical forest in central Africa. All that was missing were the whooping of monkeys in the forest.

After while Richard could bare it no longer and we all got out of the van to walk . The wild flowers bedside the road displayed a cornucopia of colour.

Each flower appeared as if it had been planted by a hidden hand ,creating a carpet of colour of rich variety. This was to be one of the finest floral displays we experienced during our travels in Macahel and possibly the best I've ever encountered in one area . A place never to be missed .

OK perhaps over the top with my enthusiasm but I suggest you go and discover for yourself.

While discovering the abundance of flora we all behaved like excited children with cries such as - look look a White Lilly . Where? Over there - quick come and see. We must have made a very humorous site. Grown adults cavorting amongst the plants in pursuit of the infamous White Lilly and infinite varieties of wild flowers. And yes they do smell magnificent.

Making our way along the track towards Camili Richard found an abundance of Fungi made all the more mysterious by the swirling mists that swiftly descended upon us . The rotting trees and damp humid atmosphere are perfect for all manner of fungi and I only wish we new more about the type to be discovered .

A sight common throughout, on the trail towards Camili we saw small homesteads hugging the hills surrounded by steep fields sown with corn and planted with beans, soft fruits, hazelnuts and all manner of vegetables .

As Mavlutes van made its way down the valley to Camili we stopped off at a roadside watermill. I was in heaven . Sorry but for some people it's cars, gadgets ,sport, whatever. For me this is the stuff of life. Brilliant. Thank goodness my family feel the same way otherwise life would be rather lonely.

The simple detail of this corn water mill is exquisite and difficult to shoot in the available light .

Richard and I both wanted to take this hand cart home but the girls pointed out we would be well over our hand luggage allowance . I'm sure the airline would make a special allowance for two loonies with a handcart. As things stand I have to make do with a metal wheelbarrow which is not quite the same.
I now understand when people pass our home and take pictures of our orchard , house and garden going ooooohhh aaaaaahhh! I guess I now know what they are feeling .It's all about setting sight on something uncommon to ones own experience of life. These were sights rarely seen at home in such abundance. Here,in this romantic idly, interesting flora and fungi were to be found in abundance.

I don't think Mavlute and Hassan had the same view of life . This after all was home and we found his local normal plants and local artifacts exciting . What sort of world did we come from ? Obviously one barren of plants , fungi and wooden wheelbarrows.

As ever Hüseyin provided a wealth of knowledge on almost everything we encountered from plants , rock formations, to the local traditions. You name it Hüseyin seemed to know it all and Hassan was always on hand to provide that extra special insight accompanied by the obligatory puff on a cigarette.

Once we arrived in Camilli we stayed at Hassan's guest house . An excellent base to stay in Macahel where we were made very welcome by Hassan's family.
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