There’s nothing quite like being jostled around in the back of a Land Rover like a piece of fruit in a toddler’s lunchbox, as one climbs higher and higher on a dirt road in the Hemşin region of northeastern Turkey, a valley or two over from the village of Çamlihemşin. Past thick evergreen forests, over a reddish-orange dirt road, along switchback after tight switchback on some of the steepest slopes I’ve seen, we bumped and pitched for close to an hour, from the clear, compact torrent of a river below to Pokut Yayla on the very top of one of the steep, jagged, greenly forested mountains that characterize the region.
Thrusting open the back hatch and staggering out onto solid, stationary ground, I felt a little bit like I’d just been on a rough voyage to some far-off, alien land. Looking around, I realized that wasn’t so loose a comparison. The whole area was shrouded in a thick fog; I could see our vehicle and another, the road behind us, a slope with some grasses and shrubs, and a trail wandering up the slope, soon disappearing into the white, wet unknown. There was a definite sense of mystery about the place; there was no telling what was there beyond the meager 15 feet one could see around oneself before the white shroud started keeping its secrets.
We walked a while on the thin, muddy trail up a gradual slope through the damp, balmy air. Then, the fog mooed.
A few steps later, some beige cows came into view, wearing colorful collars with copper bells and grazing next to the trail on the plateau just below their barns. A few minutes down the trail, we talked to the owner of some of the cows and her friend.
After talking to these two women while being warmed by the wood-fire inside the one’s house, we walked back along the same trail on the plateau, and now took it into the woods. The fog had cleared momentarily, so we could see the robust evergreens that markedly curved out of the sharp slope by gravitropism. Out of the woods, once again shrouded in fog, Uğur – our guide – gave an obscene call to the mist, which replied in kind. The call is a tradition in some of these plateau communities, both to let your neighbors know that you made it and that the noise they’re hearing isn’t a dangerous animal. A few more steps into the mist, we recognized we were in another small settlement – one with similarities to the other we’d just been in, but with it’s own distinct character. We joined a recent return migrant in her new pansiyon (bed and breakfast), enjoyed her delicious Hemşin food, and heard a part of her story.
Both she and the women on the other side of the trail had told us about being return migrants to the area. They’d been born and grown up in Pokut Yayla and the surrounding valleys, but moved away to larger cities in Turkey like İzmir, for reasons including more employment opportunities and their own or their children’s education. It was especially intriguing to hear recollections of growing up in the area (30-40 years ago, if it’s not rude to judge age), such as how they used to have to bring water up from the river in the valley every several days, an arduous task that would take hours; and then, one had to be conservative with the water. Only about 10 years ago, electricity and water utilities were brought to Pokut Yayla; these, and the labor-saving machines they allow for (like the milking machine) make life much easier on the plateau; but, as her friend of the first woman we met mentioned, they also bring the distractions of cell phones and the internet, interfering with the close person-to-person interactions that made that community so tight when the two friends were growing up.
Of course, the make-up of the community in Pokut Yayla has changed since the women we spoke with were children. For one thing, many of the residents are now elderly, or at least nearly so. After all, the women we spoke with weren’t the only ones who left as children or young adults, but they’ve been some of the few to return. They are valued by the community both for their rarity and their utility: they represent the younger generation, and they can do more work than many of their neighbors. Yet, even some of the women we talked to will only be there for part of the year; they’ll winter in a larger city.
As we bump and jostle back down the darting, ragged road, I mulled over the interesting situation of the communities of Pokut Yayla. On one hand, the community needs people to persist, and this is an asset in scarce supply in this region. And certainly, the women we spoke to are trying to do something about this. The woman past the woods mentioned that tourism is relatively strong in the region, and evidently she’s trying to bring more of that to Pakut Yayla with her pansiyon. One of the first women we spoke with remarked that everyone should stop working like a slave in the big cities, and instead come to Pokut Yayla, where they can raise a family on two cows.
On the other hand, though, one gets the sense that if the area were to become flooded with those who had less of a personal connection to the area, something would be lost. Certainly, the mist would still shroud the wooden buildings, and the newcomers might be just as passionate about the land and its customs as those who call it their childhood home.
Yet part of the aura of Pokut Yayla is its sparseness, its isolation and its obscurity – the sense one gets that one is in a space apart, separated even from the comparatively cosmopolitan village along the rushing river in the valley below, where we stagger out of the Land Rover for a çay and a seat on solid, stationary ground.