Having a Capital Time: Northern Turkey

In the north of Turkey, every town is billed as The Capital Of something, ie the chickpea capital, tea capital, Russian hooker capital (unofficial designation), and so on. After the guns and knives of eastern Turkey, our popularity has returned, enhancing our capital time.

Rize - Tea Capital of Turkey

Sip tea. Sip more tea. Fend off rampaging bulls.

Rize is close to the mountain town of
Ayder, home of the Hemsin people. The Hemsins have their own language and dress (the women wear colorful, coin-draped headscarves), and each year they celebrate their culture with a huge festival in the Kackar Mountains. In addition to holding hands and dancing in a circle around a bagpiper, festivities include bull fights, where the two animals lock horns until the winner pushes the loser out of the ring - and charging into the crowd.

This was not a problem until it started to pour rain, and it seemed likely that the muddy mountain road would wash out at any moment. We stood in an orderly line with 150 other people to catch a minibus down the mountain, but then a bull came galloping out of the ring straight at us, so we scrammed.

This scene repeats for the next cold, wet hour: we queue up to get on a bus, a bull comes lunging at us so we abandon our place in line, we miss the bus, and queue for the next.

Finally we get on, and begin a quintessential encounter with the Turkish public transport system: The minibus takes us to a car, which takes us to a big CTA-size bus, which takes us to a minibus, which takes us to another minibus, which takes us to our destination a mere 35 miles away. It may take four times as long to get anywhere, but the Turks love this system, as it leaves ample opportunity for cigarette and tea breaks.

Trabzon - Russian Hooker Capital of Turkey

Sip tea. Sip more tea (we're only an hour from Rize). Watch women in tight dresses lick french fries.

Trabzon is only a couple of hours from the Georgian border, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 brought an influx of traders from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in Russia. A group of industrious, peroxide-blonde women in halter tops followed - Natashas, as they have been dubbed by the Turks.

The area around the port is where most of the action takes place. There are cheap hotels on every corner, women sit seductively in the windows, and all signs are written in Russian as well as Turkish. We go into a bar and watch the women at work. From the look of things, a well-placed french fry can lead to big business.

On a more wholesome note,
Trabzon is also near Sumela Monastery, a famous Byzantine building spliced into a mountainside. Visitors have to climb a path 800 feet straight up, past rushing streams, through platoons of pine trees, and up to where clouds are rolling over the hilltops. It is beautiful, though we don't linger after reading the sign that says, "Please limit visit to 15 minutes due to rolling rocks."

Giresun - Hazlenut Capital of Turkey

Eat hazlenuts. Sip tea. Promenade with Salih the busman.

Not much happening in this town except hazlenuts drying in the sun.

We do make a new friend when we buy our bus tickets to depart the next day. Salih is typical of many of the people we meet. Even though he has just met us and we can barely communicate (he doesn't speak English; we don't speak Turkish), he takes us under his wing. He buys us tea, he buys us snacks, he escorts us up and down Giresun's seaside promenade where all the townspeople stroll. We know busmen are not rich, and we try to repay him, but Salih won't take a single lira. Finally he lets us buy him a beer. We all drink one in the park, then he slaps us on the back goodbye and walks off into the night, checking his cel phone for the hundredth time.

Amasya - Apple Capital of

Try to eat apples, but can't find any (false advertising?). Sip tea. Stare at decaying flesh of 700-year-old mummies.

Should governor Izzeddin Mehmed Pervane Bey and his concubine and children be commended for looking good, because they are 700 years old and at least have skin? Or should they be deplored because the skin is rotted and peeling? The mummies are on display in glass cases at the local museum in this otherwise pretty town of tree-lined boulevards beside the
Green River.

The other attraction in Amasya is a group of 4th-century-BC tombs hewn from the sheer rock faces looming over town. There is no clear path up to the tombs, and we are content to stand below and view them, until we see a family of five Muslim women - ranging in age from 15 to 65 and wearing the traditional Muslim long overcoat-dress plus high-heeled shoes - scale the cliff like mountain goats. They wave at us to come up, and we try to match their feat, but we slip and slide while they laugh from above.

Corum - Chickpea Capital of Turkey

Eat chickpeas. Sip tea. Look at rocks.

Candy-coated, sugar-coated, salted, peppered, waxed, laminated - you name it and Corum's imaginative sellers can roast it onto a chickpea.

We've come to this medium-sized agricultural town because it is near Hattusa, the City of the Thousand Gods. Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite Empire, a civilization that competed with the Egyptian pharoahs 3000 years ago. We were told we'd see temples with hieroglyphics dedicated to deities like Teshub, the storm god, and Hepatu, the sun goddess.

Sound romantic? It wasn't. If only we had the imagination of Corum's chickpea sellers, maybe we'd see something more than a big, random pile of rocks in the middle of a steaming field.

Jul 7 - 19, 2001

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