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Turkey in a glass of scalding tea

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

A glass of scalding tea can encapsulate the entire philosophy and culture of a country.

Since I was a child, I grew up listening to my father´s stories playing with children of the same age, from the opposite bank of Evros river (the natural border between the two countries), splashing and swimming all together without having anything to separate. In the end all they just cared about was who would make the best and most impressive dive in the water or who would catch the most frogs.

On my recent trip to Turkey, I spent a few nights in some of the most isolated and unknown villages in the country. I intended to reach the Kaskar National Park and summit the mountain (3937m) from its southwest side and descend from its northern face, in complete autonomy, with a backpack suffocatingly full; I was carrying tent, sleeping bag, underlay, cooking equipment & everything necessary for an almost five-day exploration in the highlands of the Turkish Anatolia.

My initial target was to reach the base of Kasckar mountain (the starting point is quite isolated and puzzling to reach) and then head to the top. Fortunately I had my climbing partner Satya by my side so the logistics headache was on him.

The beginning of our journey finds us at 03:45, in the middle of nowhere, at a gas station where we reached by taxi, and from there we would catch the bus to Erzurum.Next destination, again with local transport, the town of Ysufeli. From there we are supposed to call a local owner of a minibus - the so-called “dolmus”- to give us a lift to the village of Yalalar, from where our hiking adventure would begin - as if this entire trek by itself was not an adventure!

The adventure begins the moment we board on the first bus. I forgot to mention that here, car drivers have their own driving “code” where accidents are avoided due to the almighty Allah´s will.

So, testing our luck and Allah's intention if, to save us or not from a severe accident, a breakdown of the bus happened only 30 minutes after our starting.The frustrated driver and two passengers jumped down with a torch in hand, they opened the bonnet of the track, they said incomprehensible phrases in Turkish, and finally after eight minutes the driver made a phone call. And then the Terror began… While we thought we were waiting for some roadside assistance to arrive or another vehicle to pick us up and continue, suddenly the driver released the handbrake and the bus started to lurch backwards into the thick darkness; without even having the alarm lights on.

On the brink of panic, we slide backwards on the highway, for more than ten minutes,in the opposite way, while the driver controls the bus´s direction through the side mirrors.

I had years to pray to the Lord, yet I admit I did it quads.

Having certainly used up all our life´s luck and with the assistance of a Divine intervention, we made it and arrived at the gas station we had passed fifteen minutes ago. To make the long story short, we finally reached after a few hours in Ysufeli, via Erzurum.

Ysufeli is a very small town and here too our English was once again completely useless. Nevertheless, the body language and the positive energy was more than enough to get along, but above all, and this is the most important thing, to feel welcome. At the bus stop, under a roughly Byzantine-era wooden gazebo, sat three bus drivers who probably operated local routes. Typically Turkish men, with mustaches, white short-sleeved shirts and expanded bellies, were quietly having their tea while waiting for their dolmus to depart. We sat next to them, having nowhere else to lean on.

Our backpacks and hiking sticks "shouted" from afar that we were trekkers and to rest under this specific canopy, our next destination was definitely Yalalar (the starting point of the hike to Kaskar). We didn't have to say much.

-”Yalalar?” one of the three drivers asked after taking a sip of tea.

-”Evet* Yalalar”, we both said together.

He mumbled something we didn't understand, along with gestures that meant "don't worry, I'll call someone to come pick you up". Out of the blue two glasses of scalding tea, accompanied by sugar cubes, landed on the table in front of us, a treat from the three new friends of ours.

About an hour later, our driver, the one and only Ismayl, arrived. His dolmus - minibus- was all for us, since there were no other hikers to Yalalar. We had read that the route to the village would be exquisite, along a river, through forests and picturesque villages. Asking Mr. Ismayl to sit next to him in the front seats was inevitable. As friends for years, we started the journey.

We love interacting with local people during our trips around the world, even when communication is puzzling due to different languages. Mr. Ismayl, in his mid 70s ánd his broken English had his own way to communicate intelligible and pleasantly. He had an effortless sweetness to his expression, despite his big figure and the thick mustache that adorned his face. And his driving skills were exemplary, making the dirt road look paved. The landscape was mesmerizing, like taken out from Halima's fairy tale; a journey back to the past.

In the first village we stopped at, our dolmus parked outside a shop´s door with no window. The freshly baked bread's fragrance had already spread all over our dolmus . It was the local bakery that served the villages of the area. Suddenly the back door of the vehicle opened automatically and the baker began placing paper bags filled to the brim with steaming loaves, all over the empty seats. Now the dolmus is fully filled with freshly baked bread, the aroma of which pierces your nose.

We continued our journey admiring the stunning landscape, whose pristine nature was rarely interrupted by the presence of human intervention with large scale constructions. Mr. Ismayl informed us that in a few years Yousefeli will disappear, as a large hydroelectric dam is being built and thousands of hectares of land, together with the village and the other surrounding settlements, will be submerged in water.

On the way, Mr.Ismayl waved several villagers who were working in their fields, some even gave us a handful of berries they picked from the abundant mulberry trees, while others were just patiently waiting for our bus to arrive in their villages to pick up their week´s bread, whilst others greeted cordialy our driver from afar, inviting him to jump down and join them for a glass of hot tea. Our chauffeur was certainly very popular in the area. And how could he not be. His big expressive eyes manifested a warm and kind heart, a man determined to help and support those in need.

Here in this isolated area, time has its own flow; everything is simplistically, understandable and inherently peaceful.

An hour later after we set off for Yalalar, while crossing another picturesque village, with just a few inhabitants, who were waiting for us at the square´s coffee shop to receive their bread, to our surprise we saw Ismayl disembark, calling us to jump down too and join him for a cup of tea. He waved at us, telling us ”Cay, cay”...meaning “tea” ιn Turkish. We questioned ourselves…tea? Yes, tea. How was it possible for us to deny this kind of invitation? If the driver wants to drink tea with his new friends, the two foreign passengers, we just have to accept and enjoy the treat. One might say…”no I'm in a hurry” but why are you in a hurry;΄ to go where? Here it is as if time slows down and almost stops, to give you extra hours for rest and enjoyment. As a reward for living in the moment or because you did something good in the past without any expectation of reward.

That's how we found ourselves drinking tea, in a simple but beautiful village, with the four customers of the cafe. Of course they vacated a whole table for us since a muslim man is not supposed to seat next to an unknown woman like me. Their hospitality was so pervasive and unpretentious, which unfortunately has eclipsed in the ¨civilized¨ world. To make it even better… It was out of question for us to pay for the beverages; It was all on them. And this small yet wonderful gesture didn't stop happening even in the strangest of places like in the one and only mini market in Yalalar. The owner was Mr. Ismayl's brother and it was not difficult to understand since he was a real copy of him!!!

- “Ismayl kardash"*; I asked...

-"Evet"**, he answered, and suddenly, while looking at the shelves for our next supplies, two glasses of hot tea were offered to us, once again.

For the first time in my life, I entered a market and I was treated to a hot drink. These people steal your soul. The smaller the village, the warmer the hospitality. Their will to help, to make you feel welcome, was permanent and palpable, even though we couldn’t utter a word in the same language.A small gesture of hospitality can include so much humanity and kindness, that in the end I wonder…there is nothing else to ask from the people I meet in my travels around the world.

A glass of tea is enough to declare that we are siblings at heart , and to that I am toasting.


* “Brother”, in Turkish

**”Evet” means “Yes”, in Turkish

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