Finding Hassan

When I brought up the subject of another holiday in the Caucuses my family’s reaction was understandably predictable. Our adventures escaping from war torn Georgia in the summer of 2008 and later that year catching Legionnaires disease while travelling in the Himalayas in China, had justifiably develop a poor reputation for my choice of holiday destinations. During my long convalescence I toyed with the idea of another trip into the mountains which on reflection might be considered foolhardy, however my long suffering family somehow agreed to another mountain trekking extravaganza, albeit scaled back from our previous intrepid explorations.

The idea was we would only spend 10 days on the hoof, this time discovering the secrets of the Lesser Caucasus with the rest of our trip spent experiencing the delights of Turkish culture while visiting Istanbul and the Ottoman town of Safranbolu. On this occasion I had my sights set on the Northeast corner of Turkey, right on the boarder of Georgia, north of Armenia. What could be easier? Turkey was almost Europe, well at least flights were relatively cheap to Istanbul and there were allegedly hospitals to be found only 30 miles from the destination I had in mind. That was the theory and this account is the story of how we teamed up with our old friends the Pomeroys and found Hassan, our guide, and how our journey unfolded.

When embarking on my research of Northeast Turkey I foolishly presumed the web would provide me with rich pickings and swiftly reveal its secrets. The ubiquitous mobile and web have penetrated almost every corner the world and invariably someone somewhere has written a useful scrap about a given place. With this morsel of information a contact can be found and relationships developed via electronic mail. Amazingly these days we don’t even need to write in a given language. Google will make a rough translation which is often all that’s needed to make a simple introduction to a guide or interpreter from a foreign land.

The web provided some basic information on Northeast Turkey but I had my eyes set on an area known as Macahel or to put it correctly Machakheli. After tireless research I eventually found a few crumbs of information plus a couple of dead-end email addresses but nothing to get me closer to my goal. In short Macahel remained a total and inaccessible mystery to me with some nice pictures available, a few YouTube movies and some positive noises from the guide books, stating how wonderful the place was supposed to be but no tangible information revealed itself.A view over the villages in the valley of Macahel.
Funny how you can put pin in the map, looking at a faraway land and all manner of information becomes apparent. Macahel wasn’t so revealing, in fact it revealed Zip.
As luck would have it our eldest daughter ‘India’ was due to visit the region during the summer of 2009, while travelling through Turkey on her way to Georgia. In the absence of any real leads my only request during her travels was to find an English-speaking guide who might be able to help reveal something about this hidden Shangri-La.

On her return she dutifully thrust a business card into my hand accompanied by ‘here you go I’ve found your man’. My man was a guide called Cumur from the neighbouring region to Macahel. Sadly life is never so simple. After three months of faltering emails it became clear my new contact had very little idea how to help us discover Macahel, but he did know a man who did. We agreed to part our ways and Cumur kindly provided me with the email address of Hassan, allegedly the best contact and fix-it to be found in the region.
Emails are a wonderful way of making contact but only when the recipient opens their inbox, otherwise they are immensely frustrating. Mails to Hassan were of the frustrating kind. I presumed the lack of an answer was possibly because I was writing in English so I attempted a Turkish translation, still no answer. My frustration was getting the better of me. I contacted Cumur again who provided me with a mobile number – Eureka, there was no way of avoiding me now. I called and yes a voice answered but surprisingly in Georgian. Hassan had no intention of speaking in English- why, because he only spoke Georgian and Turkish. The British Empire had not penetrated the Caucuses. If I’d spoken Russian or German I might have stood a chance but at this point Hassan had never set eyes on an Englishman let alone learned English. I put the phone down and it was back to the drawing board. I had the mobile number of a man called Hassan who allegedly would be able to help me .The only thing between him and me was neither of us understood a word of what we were saying. Brilliant!
Another mail to Cumur provided me with a glimmer of hope. Cumur suggested I make a call on a Monday when Hassan might be with some friends who speak English. Monday arrived and I nervously called my lifeline to Macahel. A voice growling in Georgian answered. I shouted down the phone once again ‘can you speak English’. Why shouting makes it any easier to understand I’ll never know but we English have been doing this for generations and it seems to work. The whole world appears to be speaking our language which is very useful indeed when you are a poor linguist like myself. The phone went quite, which was a good sign since at least he hadn’t hung up. I blurted my questions again but slightly quieter this time.’ Can I speak to someone who understands English please ‘. More silence. I then got the feeling the phone was being handed over to someone and a gentle educated Turkish voice answered. Who am I speaking to? Magic, we had a result, a real English speaking person who might just be able to help me communicate with our man Hassan.

I excitedly explained I’d been trying to make contact with a guide in Macahel and this was the mobile number I have been provided with. After a very confusing and tense few minutes, it became clear Erhan, who I was now speaking with, was a distant cousin of Hassan, our possible guide, and the only man who Hassan knew locally who could speak English well . And yes Hassan would act as our guide and work as our Mr fixit. Erhan then offered his email address and suggested we take it from there.

This was January 2010 and I had at last engaged with someone who spoke English, who new someone else who might be able to help us arrange a trip to Macahel. What I didn’t know at this point was we were possibly the first English people to be travelling in Macahel since 1921 and that access to the region had only been granted to none Turkish nationals in 2004. Furthermore we would need permits to travel which needed to be arranged three months before we were due to arrive and in 2010 only 100 permits would be issued for the whole region. I think we could definitely call this trip off the beaten track and even exclusive since the region is similar in size to a small English county.

What ensued during the following months was a strange and enchanting relationship of letters, with Erhan acting as the go between Hassan and myself. I say strange because Hassan had a very specific view of what type of trip he had in mind which appeared to be shaped by American movies or florid tour guide text for Turkish hikers .He certainly had his own unique idea of what international backpackers might like which was later to colour our lunches during our trip with copious packets of biscuits and nuts, and not a great deal else apart from a bottle of red wine. I’ll talk about the wonderful trout we had one lunch later. The other sticking point for Hassan was why an overweight fifty something Dad would want to take his family to his village and beyond, when surely we would like to see the highlights of Turkey and when I mentioned horses I did not appreciate what a challenge I had created.

After a while my long and detailed emails to Erhan slowly took shape. I would write, Erhan would interpret and Hassan would reply, although Hassan’s reply did not always match my original question. Over the years I’ve grown use to obtuse answers with similar communications. A question demonstrating genuine concern on a critical point is often answered by ‘it’s OK’ which is not a sufficient answer for an Anglo Saxon obsessive like me. I was thinking of my wife and daughter’s comfort and safety, while Hassan was thinking ‘what’s all the worry it will all be fine’ and he was often right but it never feels that way when typing a mail before work in a hectic London office.

Slowly Hassan’s idea that we give him some money for a trip lasting ten days and we would have an excellent time became more specific. We agreed where we would be travelling to and where we would be staying and the nature of our transport. Costs were slowly negotiated and around the same time we invited some close friends and their daughter along for the trip, making our group up to six intrepid explorers. The trip was never going to be cheap and this was a seller’s market. What I had learned over the years was the time necessary to plan and negotiate our trip would be significant for Hassan. This after all was bespoke travelling and not something that could be called off against a spread sheet by a tour operator.

When working with Hassan the key to our success was to set our agreed standards very low indeed which I hoped would help him to relax and arrange places to stay where he would be happy and not feel as if we expected five star treatment.

A bucket of warm water each morning for washing has always been the baseline for me. Bedding is nice if it is available, otherwise a sleeping bag will do and no journey to last longer than 7 hours. As things turned out Hassan surpassed himself, finding showers in the most obscure places with wonderful bedding and I have no idea how long some of our trips were since they were often so magical I lost track of time.

With an itinerary established the detail of transport needed to be negotiated. A minibus hired by the day ,no matter how short the journey is standard and one had to keep in mind the season in Macahel is very short indeed so every day counts to earn valuable cash for the winter and our driver was working for us alone and not taking multiple trips from other would be hikers . Hiring a van was the easy bit, hiring horses was another matter. Buoyed by previous experiences I hadn’t understood the complexity of my request in Macahel. I wanted us to travel to some of the Yayalar over a period of four days on horseback. My first request for Hassan was answered by the fact he could only access mules and not horses which wasn’t a problem. We had experienced mules and happy muleteers in China but our Chinese arrangement had been for journeys lasting a day at time. The problem for us, as I saw it, was a mule often arrives with a muleteer and with seven mules we would have seven muleteers for four days. That’s a lot of people to house, water and feed. I could see our budget getting out of control before we started. After much debate we agreed on two muleteers for the 7 mules which meant our support team was only going to include one guide a translator and the 2 muleteers, four in total. What appeared to be a manageable team to me proved to be a naive idea of how things worked in Macahel .What I didn’t realise at the time of our email exchanges was Hassan smoked 40 a day and he was going to find it difficult to keep up with us, let alone act as one of our muleteers. The amusing thing was we eventually had a support team of around eight or nine muleteers including our guides and translator and on occasions we appeared to have a guide to support our guide. Well them mountains can get treacherous and you can never have enough guides can you. In addition we also had our driver plus numerous wonderful ladies who prepared food on our arrival and during our stay at any of the Yayalar’s. In short we travelled the mountains for four days with a wonderful tribe of Macahel mountain men and boys who were all discreetly packing pistols but that’s another story for later.
Finally the deal was struck. The only anomaly was Hassan wanted a king’s ransom for wine. I agreed with Richard we would take a couple of bottles of whiskey but on the day Hassan obviously took pity on us and provided a bottle of Georgian wine each day and gratefully appreciated it was.

During our lengthy negotiations, Erhan had suggested we take the internal flight from Istanbul to Batumi. Our understanding was this would mean we could take a special bus directly from Batumi to Hoppa in Turkey and not go through Georgian customs. Apparently this is a deal struck between Turkey and Georgia which should have helped us save a great deal of time and money. Great idea but the down side is this offer is only available to Turks and not us Brits. On our day of departure our happy tribe of intrepid travellers left Istanbul after having celebrated its culture for a couple of days and we landed two hours later in Batumi (Georgia). On arrival we shuffled into the Hoppa queue and I realised something was not right. When we checked in our bags were labelled Batumi and not Hoppa. Unbeknown to me we had bought our tickets on-line and the system had kicked us out of the Hoppa flight arrangements for Turkish nationals only and provided us with a Batumi flight as default. The customs lady in Batumi was very confused and our conversation went a bit like this.

Why have you come to Batumi?
Because we want to go to Turkey.
So why not fly to Turkey instead?
Because the bit of Turkey we want to go to is closer to Georgia.
But you are English and a long way from home.
We know- can we get on the Hoppa bus
Why have you come here?
Can we get on the Hoppa bus please?
No. You must go through the correct customs channels
But we will miss our contact in Hoppa
I’m very sorry these are the rules

No matter where one travels commonsense rarely prevails and the rules take precedent.

The next part was a bit of an ‘Oh my God moment’. The Georgians were all very helpful but at the same time totally bemused by a band of middle aged couples followed by their respective younger daughters all dressed for the mountains and carrying very unglamorous rucksacks .Georgian women don’t do hiking and prefer heals as a rule while the men drink, gamble and drive cars like lunatics .Richard and I are very safe drivers, don’t play poker but do like the odd tipple which ,apart from our attire, the mismatch is clearly evident. OK this is a gross over simplification but if you go to Tbilisi and you will swiftly appreciate what I mean. Try Armenia up the road and it’s far worse. The women are dressed for a party 24/7 while the men often appear to be dressed for a seventies spy movie. I suspect rucksacks in Armenia are only worn by the army and convicts.

The challenge now set before us was to get over the border, find our way to Hoppa and find Hassan, if he was still there. After all our careful planning we were stuck in Georgia and the clock was one hour the wrong way, something neither I or Hassan had appreciated during our plans . We still had a long journey to Hoppa and by what means, we had no idea. With no interpreter and unable to get Hassan on his mobile, our prospects were not looking good.

After picking our gear up from the carousel we swiftly agreed on a plan. Bus 101 would take us to Sarp but who knows how long it would be before we arrived in Hoppa. We settled on a cab and agreed to pay in Turkish lira. Georgian traffic is like playing grand theft auto so the coast road journey took very little time indeed. We then encountered Georgian customs control where we queued with a small army of expectant travellers. Although tedious the process was continuous with numerous officials checking our passport and visa’s repeatedly and of course the whole process had to be undertaken twice. Once for Georgia and then for Turkey.

This worthy Georgian cab harks back to the soviet era and has obviously been loved at some point but now appears past its prime.

Eventually we were through customs, tired and not really ready to strike deals with the cabbies. Language was once again a problem with plenty of shouting and no one really understanding what was happening. We at last agreed a price to go from the boarder at Sarp to Hoppa airport, except only the port bit was understood. All this time I had been attempting to contact Hassan to explain why we were so late and where we were .The problem was, on landing my phone was locked into the Georgian mobile network and not the Turkish network. Numerous attempts to find the international code for Turkey failed and I had visions of Hassan giving up on us and going home.

With our cab deal agreed we hurtled off to Hoppa in two cars except our driver kept stopping, getting out and looking into the undergrowth by the side of the road. We could only assume our cabbie had another passenger he had left by the side of the road or perhaps he had a package of contraband to collect for Turkish smugglers. We will never know. A few frantic mobile calls were made by our cabbie with no apparent success. It appeared our cabbie had his own problems.

Hassan with his usual camel cigarette in Gorgit.

Now we were in Turkey I tried Hassan again on the mobile. What did we do before them? At last I got a signal that he was engaged. After repeated attempts to call Hassan as we sped along the coast road I eventually got through and amazingly someone answered. I immediately handed my mobile over to our cab driver in the hope he would be able to explain to Hassan he had three English bewildered passengers making their way to Hoppa who didn’t speak Turkish. A long and vocal conversation ensued while our cabbie hurtled along the coast road. With the conversation finished our cabbie mimed that the person he spoke with was very upset but relieved we had made contact. Finally we arrived in what appeared to be the resting place for Turkeys long distance lorry drivers, Hoppa. We stopped by the road at a nondescript junction. This didn’t look like an airport terminal. In fact it was the entrance to Hoppa Port and definitely not an airport terminal.

Melissa waiting patiently with our gear outside the Port Terminal entrance. Our cabbie took the opportunity to light up which was going to be a constant theme for our trip. What would Turkish men do without a quick cigarette.

Helena bemused by the situation

Small details, what was important Hassan had spoken to our cabbie and we presumed agreed on a rendezvous point with our cabbie. Now sitting by the side of the road there was sense of relief amongst both families. We then noticed a white minivan with stencilled flames painted up the side driven by a stout gentleman who was in no hurry. I prayed this was our van but sadly he drove past us. How cool to have a white van with the flames emblazoned up each side. After a few minutes a yellow cab screeched to a halt before us and out hopped a very distraught, slender, balding man, bronzed walnut brown by the mountain sun. It was, at last, Hassan. Finally we had found him and now our true adventure could begin but first we needed a translator and transport. On queue out of the back of the cab climbed a tall good looking young man who shyly introduced himself and expressed Hassan’s relief at finding us. Apparently he had been trying to finds us for four hours and had presumed we had decided not to come. Furthermore our interpreter who we now new as Hüseyin had also been held up by flights, compounding Hassan’s frustration and anxiety. We struck up a conversation with Hüseyin, pouring out our story. As our conversation grew louder the white van with flames drew up besides us. Who would have believed it, the flame emblazoned van ‘was’ ours and this was to be home for a few days.

Mavlutes white van while traveling in the mountains.

Hassan paid off his cab; we thanked our cabbie profusely shaking his hand with more enthusiasm than he was obviously used to and off he took, probably looking for whatever he appeared to have lost by the coast road. We turned to our wonderful van and loaded up all our gear and piled in. What a relief.

Mavlute taking a rest and swift cigarette.

Our driver Mavlute was equally bronzed with a magnificent gravelly voice and hooked nose. This guy should have been in the movies. Mavlute slowly drove out into the frenetic traffic displaying quite confidence which we grew to warmly appreciate over the next few days. Mavlute had been an ambulance driver for thirty years and was possibly the safest and most confident driver this side of Turkey. His driving was going to prove legendary over the next few days and no matter how treacherous the conditions were going to get he was without doubt the best driver in Northeast Turkey .Furthermore he had flames emblazoned up either side of his white van, what could be better?