I nearly jumped out of bed as the siren of a deep and somber voice ripped through the quiet night. Every dog throughout the city of Kars erupted in a howling barrage at the onset of the day’s first call to prayer session. I have never traveled in a Muslim country before, and the concept was completely foreign to me. Each minaret, the tall tower attached to a mosque, carries a battery of loud speakers and five times a day they ring out, opening and closing the day’s prayer sessions. The call timing is based on the sun’s movement (it’s actually a bit complex) so traveling in summer when darkness may not arrive until after 10:00pm and dawn before 5:00am, some rather untimely periods of public concert ensue. The closest parallel I can draw would be church bells ringing the time, but I’m fairly certain that isn’t done twenty four hours a day, and I would argue a bell chiming is less jarring then a man singing in Arabic for five minutes. Adding a level of chaos to this is the dueling nature of the mosques. Each one has a call, and each is different, at least to the untrained ear. Thus every session is a confused battle of voices creating a noise tug-o-war sending the local animals into a tizzy, and waking anyone within striking distance. I suppose my virgin ear is far more sensitive to this then locals, but I can say for certain Turkey is not the destination for light sleepers.
Kars is a generally quiet, conservative, non-touristic place and the traveler contingent is close to zero. However, it made sense as my starting location due to its proximity to Georgia, and the entry point to the ancient city of Ani. With its earliest settlement dating close to 5000BC and once the thriving capital of the Armenian empire, Ani has been settled and sacked by almost every civilization that crossed through Central Asia. Now a protected ruin, the remaining buildings and walls littering an otherwise barren landscape create a surreal and unique time capsule of empires past. From cave dwellings to monumental churches, the site is a fascinating look into the scale and various building styles, mostly churches, of the last couple millennium. There was one other non-Turkish tourist here when Abi and I visited, the only other traveler we had encountered in Turkey thus far.
Eastern Turkey is hot in peak summer, and the conservative atmosphere doesn’t lend itself to light breathable clothing. In an attempt to escape the heat and checkout what had been rumored as truly unspoiled nature, I set my heading into the Kackar Mountains.
A mirror still lake, only recently formed by the flooding from a new hydroelectric dam, dramatically framed rosy mountains between the bright blue sky and vibrant turquoise water. From the dolmuş (Turkish minibus lingo) window my mind wandered and wadded through the pristine water. As the bus climbed higher the foliage drifted from desert scrub to alpine forest, and dashing lizards subbed out for colonies of bees who feasted on the wild flowers in full bloom. The ribbons of heat that radiated from the pavement back in Kars were replaced by drifts of snow on the still frozen peaks atop the mountains rising around me.
The dolmuş driver conveniently turned out to be the proprietor of the only guest house in town. He quickly set Abi and me up with a comfortable room and began providing an endless supply of tea to which there was no refusing. The large guest house was empty, which I have learned is not a good precursor of well-worn and easy to follow trails. But with the help of a good map in the guest house, some internet research, and a little guess work, I strung together a nice looking four night loop and early the next morning set out.
The hikes tone was set early; very strenuous, visually magnificent. A 1.4km (4600ft) vertical climb up the valley was rewarded by an empty campsite on the edge of the spectacular Deniz Gölu Lake. This was my base of operations for the next day’s summit attempt on Kackar Dagi, the national park’s tallest peak, and in the morning I set off early to tackle the looming tower of rock. For an hour I scrambled over loose stone and scree to reach an all revealing overlook to the rest of the trail. What I found was...not ideal. Lots of snow, even more loose rock, and a lack of any visible trail up an impossibly steep, unmarked, and untrodden assent. It was an easy decision to about-face and with tail between my legs, get on with not dying in the mountains, not today. Back at camp a group of four Iranian guys were taking a break near the lake. They quickly offered a taste of delicious dates brought from Iran and asked about my summit experience, or lack thereof. I warned them of the treacherous conditions ahead, to which they smiled and flashed their ice axes. They explained how this was their warm-up for the much taller, and more challenging Mt. Ararat in southeastern Turkey; they went on to include that two members of the group have summited 7000m+ peaks in the Himalayas. In short, they weren’t concerned about what may lay ahead. Slightly embarrassed, but accepting they were operating at a higher level than myself, I packed up the tent and was on my way.
The next two days summed up to a leg busting, shoulder burning haul trough gorgeously untouched, but untamed terrain. After failing to summit the peak, a series of steep pass traverses, each increasing in difficulty and snow cover, eventually forced me off course due to impassible conditions. With the sun heading down and no chance of making it to my intended campground, I found a flat spot near a stream of fresh water and called it a day, exhausted. The next morning things were back on track quickly. I found the trail again and blasted my way up and over the pass I failed to locate the evening before. From here it was a long, knee crushing, 900m decent from high above the clouds to the valley village below; my efforts rewarded by the obligatory cup of çay at the bottom. Yet another 900m climb to my final camp waited for ahead and I lingered over my cup, trying to delay the inevitable journey.
Upon a pristine glacial lake I set up the tent without another soul in sight. A quick dip in the frigid water eased my sore muscles and purged me of the slightly rancid smell I was emanating. Rest came easy after another long day.
Down, back up, and down again. That’s all that stood in-between me and a real bed. I took to the steep, slippery trail down from the lake, made a sharp turn at the bottom and began my final ascent of the loop. Zig-zagging up the switchback laden rock trail offered endless opportunities to gawk at the stunning landscapes of this wild place. I was again above the clouds and glad a heavy wind came in from behind, boosting me up the final meters. I ducked behind a wind shelter travelers had built long before my arrival and celebrated this final ascent with a big chunk of delicious, sugar loaded but protein packed, halva. The final challenge, 1.3km of decent over 10km of trail would bring me back to my starting location. A comfy bed and big warm dinner plate was plenty of motivation to get on with it.
The early descent was quite technical; loose rock, residual snow, and some steep grades made it a tricky bit of walking; but an unimaginable paradise greeted me as the rocky face gave way to technicolor fields of wildflowers. It was beyond anything I had ever seen. An endless expanse of white, pink, yellow, purple, blue, and orange filled the wide valley. The bright colors contrasting perfectly with the stark exposed rock of the peaks above. Small streams converged and wiggled around me, gradually strengthening into the raging river that brought delicious mountain water to the villages below. With knees aching and every bit of muscle on my body sore, view of the guesthouse on the horizon washed me with relief.
I wasn’t sure what to expect coming to Turkey, but hiking of this caliber certainly wasn’t on my radar. Back at the guesthouse another traveler had arrived, only the second westerner I had met thus far during my time in Turkey. We swapped travel tales and he clued me into some hidden gems he discovered during his time living in Kazakhstan. I scarfed down a delicious breakfast of local honey, cheese, fruits, jams, and olives before returning to the minibus. My next adventure awaited, 1000km away.