“Geography is Destiny” is a phrase that gets used a lot in Turkey, and while it’s usually used to refer to the way Turkey serves as a bridge between Europe and Asia, you can also see this idea on a smaller scale in the diverse regions of Turkey and how the geography and climate affect the architecture, traditions, language and cuisine of a place. Hemmed in by high mountains with slopes that run directly into a moody sea, forests of spruce wreathed in cloud, and lush beyond belief, the people of the eastern Black Sea live lives dictated by their geography.
When Evliya Çelebi, The Ottoman Marco Polo, visited in the 17th century he praised the locals of this region for their generosity in giving him a cup of tea but complained that he couldn’t find a flat place to put it. The eastern Black Sea provinces of Turkey are mountainous, with people building houses that cling to steep slopes, or towns nestled at the bottom of deep ravines between high cliffs. While locals would proudly say it’s the infamous Black Sea temper that forces neighbours to live a safe distance from one another, the geography makes crowded neighbourhoods almost impossible. Tea and hazelnut farmers work in cliff-like gardens, zip-lines are used to get from home to fields, shepherds move to the remote peaks after the snows melt, and fishermen ply the cold waters.
With many many unique characters to meet and sites to visit we were finally headed to the provinces of Trabzon and Rize, the most iconic of all the Black Sea provinces. Looking out the window as we descended towards Trabzon, the frenetic music of Black Sea bagpipes and kemençe was playing in my headphones.
Outside the airport I joined up with Fred and we went to pick up our rental car. Looking it over I was surprised such a new car could look so beat up and as we drove off we could feel the suspension was shot.
It was a mystery we’d solve that evening.
Our plan was to head to Rize Province, taking the coast road that cuts its way along the feet of the mountains when they meet the sea. All along the coast are small harbours filled with long rows of fishermens huts. We stopped at one of the area’s best known harbours in search of one of the Black Sea’s iconic characters: fishermen. Pulling in we could tell something was amiss. The “huts” looks more like townhouses, and the cars out front were BMWs and Mercedes.
Eventually we found a proper fisherman-looking fellow, hands and feet calloused (both used in net fixing) and skin tanned dark from work under the sun. Famously prickly, these Black Sea fishermen were nothing but welcoming to us and invited us to join them for a cup of tea. Lacking the vocabulary for fish-talk I stumbled through asking them questions about their work and how fishing from little boats like theirs worked in a world dominated by large fishing trawlers. In the midst of talking about economy, fish, religion, and philosophy we learned a sad fact: we had come a week early. Fishing season was still closed for another week and the only work that was going on was repairing the tears in the fragile nets made by dolphins.
One hour into the trip and we were already discovering we’d have to come back. It’s going to take a long time to see all of Turkey at this rate.
Having drained an entire pot of tea we again set out to Rize, the home of Turkey’s tea culture where even the airport is built to look like a giant teacup. Just as we turned off of the coast road onto a smaller road that would take us up into the mountains something caught my eye.
It was a shack on a hill with a truck full of leaves below it. Turkey is one of the worlds major tea producers (though they consume so much they dont have much left for export) and Rize is the heart of this industry. The shed we had found was a collection site. Anyone growing tea, whether they produce tonnes of it or just a sackfull, can come to a place like this and sell it for cash making anyone with a patch of land to spare a participant in tea production. Amidst the whirl of sweaty labourers and flowing cash we got some bad news: tea season was over. While we were a week early for fishing season, we were a week late for tea cutting. Stragglers were just finishing their third cutting of the year while a fourth cutting was still a week or two away for the growers in the lowlands where the tea season lasts into the fall. I was begining to feel like quite the rookie with how poorly I had timed this trip.
While the tea farmers were friendly and let me take pictures, we got a glimpse of the Black Sea suspicion towards foriegners when one of the growers asked if I was a spy. Hoping to lighten the mood a little I said they dont send men any more, it’s far more effective to send young women to become some politician’s mistress. My attempt to lighten the mood failed when he said he’d kill us himself if we were spies. Thankfully he believed us when we said we weren’t spies and was otherwise quite friendly.
After taking a few pictures a group of Afghan labourers showed up to drop off some tea, and as they’re usually employed illegally, we decided to not make ourselves (and our camera) unwelcome and continued our drive into the mountains.
Our route followed the Fırtına Deresi, or Storm Stream, deep into the mountains through an ever narrowing valley as green mountains rose up high all around us, their heads hidden in the thin clouds. All along the way we passed by narrow stone bridges that leapt from bank to bank with high dramatic arches, the summit of their spans so thin it seemed a wonder no one falls through into the river below. The land here is so lush and green it looks like nature is at war with man with a sea of bushes and vines attempting to consume houses, roads, and telephone poles.
Through this rainforest we made our way to Zil Castle, a Byzantine and later Ottoman castle that guarded the Storm Valley road that connected Central Asia with the Black Sea coast. This particular road was a branch of the Silk Road network of trade routes that connected the inland routes with ports on the Black Sea coast. Even with tour busses instead of caravans Zil Castle looks stunning in its dramatic setting of forested slopes and clinging mist.
After walking through the castle we drove to see a nearby waterfall, still impressive even late in the year after all the snowmelt had gone. Even though it was still early it was dark in the narrowness of the valley; a canopy of green and a roof of thickening cloud made it almost seem like night.
Hoping to make it to our last destination before it got really dark we again found the Storm Valley and our unmarked turn off for the Pokut Yaylası, one of Rize Provinces most incredible sights. Pokut Yaylası is a highland pasture, where locals would often spend their summers with their animals. From the pictures I’d seen there was a row of rustic wooden houses descending along a ridge that jutted out into the valley, set just above a sea of cloud.
While there was in technically a road, it was so bad it hardly seemed better than the donkey paths locals would have used in the pst. It suddenly became clear why the suspension and body panels on the rental car were in such bad shape: this was not the first time this car had come to the mountains.
We bounced our way along the steep, muddy, and winding track for over an hour, still not at all confident we were even on the right road. At last our headlights revealed a cluster of signs for guest houses and now we had only to hope there would be room for us after coming all this way. Stopping, we hiked up a long grassy slope towards some dim lights. The only sound was that of the gentle breeze in the grass. Off to the north we could dimly make out the very sight we had traveled all this way for: a narrow tongue of land with a row of classic wooden cabins on it jutting out into a sea of clouds.
We were lucky, there was one room left at the guest house and we even got a meal! We finished off another pot of tea with the staff before heading to bead, where the effects of the tea made kept me awake till sunrise. I gave up on sleep with the first pale light in the sky and went out to get the shot I had come all this way for.
While the landscape was stunning, there was something missing. The clouds that I had seen filling the valley the night before had disappeared in the night. I arranged my shot and sat in the grass, doing my best impression of Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, staring out over the valley hoping for some clouds to appear.
Over the course of a couple of hours the distant mountains shifted from a cool pre-dawn blue to a faint warm green. The wisps of cloud in the sky were touched by a hint of colour, but there were still no clouds below. It was rather torturous to think that if we had only arrived a short couple hours earlier the night before I would have caught the cloud sea at sunset. As old men tend to be sages on local weather patterns, I found the oldest looking local I could find and asked him what he thought the chances of clouds forming were. All I could get from him or any other wizened local was a solemn “Belli olmaz”, “You can never be sure”.
Hoping that clouds would eventually form, we had a leisurely breakfast and took our time exploring the area. To the north we could see low clouds filling the valleys but staying put far from us. This is the problem with landscape photography, you can spend days waiting for the weather to cooperate just for one shot. But, as we didn’t have days to spend waiting for one shot, we had to abandon Pokut Yaylası and landscape photography and go out in search of some interesting people, a far more reliable subject to photograph.
While we had missed tea cutting season, I knew that the industry never really stops, and so we went out in search of the people who work in the industry to see what we would find. We figured an area called Çayeli, meaning “Land of Tea” was going to be our best bet. Once we had left the heights of the mountains and gotten closer to the warmer slopes near the coast we turned off the main road and began driving aimlessly down the country lanes. The village roads of Rize, however, are a nightmare. Barely wide enough for one car, overgrown, washed out completely in some places and with nowhere to stop or turn around it was rather challenging. With the tea fields sitting almost sheer directly above us, a sunroof would have been incredibly helpful.
While we didn’t find the perfectly manicured fields and classic houses I had seen online, we found something far more interesting to me: the reality of life as a tea worker. Pulling into a small warehouse with heaps of leaves piled about, we met the manager, and quickly went from the “what are you doing here” stage, onto the “Are you a spy” and into the “Here! Let me call my brother, he lives in Canada too!” stage of the conversation. As tea growers arrived to drop of their load, I heard the “Are you sure they’re not spies?” question repeated but now that we had talked with the brother in Canada (a truck driver in Edmonton), we were pretty much family.
The system of weighing and dumping tea was pretty much the same as what we had seen the day before, but it was a chance to meet some of the people involved in this work. While tea cultivation is absolutely tied to the character of the eastern Black Sea, paying labour jobs attract people form all over and many of the guys we met unpacking their tea were actually from Turkey’s south-eastern provinces. This was the last of their cuttings and they were headed for the bus station early the next morning to return home. While we had missed tea season, we had come just in time to catch the tail of of the work.
The iconic image of the tea industry is one of lush green fields with a woman in traditional clothes cutting leaves. The reality is far grittier. The tea fields are steep, muddy, and the work is heavy. Those who do the work are filthy and wet with rain and mud and hauling great sacks of leaves up and down mountains is heavy work. Far from an idyllic image, the leaves are hauled in old diesel trucks to broken down warehouses of brick.
Having finally come away with some photos we turned our sights west along the coast to the neighbouring province of Trabzon…