The Kaçkars

Kaçkar (pronounced like catch-car) means nothing much in Turkish, except the proper name of this mountain range.  The word ostensibly comes from the Armenian ‘khachkar’ (properly written in Cyrillic) which means cross-stone.  This etymology was stolen from wikipedia.  I cannot vouch for its accuracy but I can vouch that there were a lot of stones in… ‘them mountains…

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The highest peak in the Kaçkars is about 3900 meters, and through the summer of 2013 my friend Josh and I passed through three peaks around the 3200 m range.  Between exhaustion and exhilaration – between taking breaks in ice-cold crystal blue waters, and attempting completely unnecessary ascents on stone walls covered with rhododendron bushes – it was the chance of a lifetime to be walking in the quiet grandeur of the mountains, one which I had never really known before.

Mountains are undoubtedly quite big, but when you stand next to one, on top of one, traverse the pass in around and over one, it becomes exceptionally akin to being an ant on a giant stoney back.  You feel quite small, the universe imposing and all-powerful.  The scenery was nice too.

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If you could imagine yourself instantly transported to a land that embodies the Lord of the Rings trilogy somehow fused with the trappings of a Lactancia milk commercial – that would be the aesthetic of the Kaçkars.  There are epic, craggy, monstrous pillars dotting the peaks, making up the horizon of our journey through the valleys.  At the apex of some passes, these could be seen in all directions.  Yet then there are also walls of flowers, rolling green hills, and pristine glacial springs, that happen to be populated by butterflies.  Gimli would surely remain unimpressed; Legolas would no doubt sigh and provide some insightful yet useless bit of elfish wisdom.

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While panting up hills, the leitmotif of Peter Jackson’s horn section had necessarily to be interrupted by some kind of lulling celtic instrumental music. In was a mental demand – involuntarily, compulsively brought about by a landscape more beautiful than any I had ever had the pleasure of travelling.

In the end, the best humming music was anything that was simply syncing well with the background noise of my high-altitude asthmatic panting.

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Hiking itself is not hard.  Technically speaking, it’s arguably just a ‘higher’ form of walking, and most of us walk everyday. Hiking just becomes demanding when you compound extra things with this walking.  Say, walking a little longer, like six hours more.  Also, carry the food you will eat for the next five days.  And a large tent.  Your clothing too.  Walking, this was nice, but it will now have to be done up an incline.  That is, a mountain incline.  Maybe your bag needs a flashlight, a stove, tools and pots and pans too – that’s not really a concern, since you are already exhausted.  In addition to lugging your tremendous new-found store of gear up a cliff, I would like to add that you may find snow on this mountain, so it would be prudent to take some snow-shoes too.  Put them on top of your bag – there’s space there. Now you may need some poles so your knees don’t simply just go on strike and stage a general protest a few kilometers out.  Out from where? Oh yeah, I forgot to say you should also be doing this in the middle of nowhere in Turkey.  I think they understand the english word ‘help’ there…  Do they even speak Turkish in those mountains? ‘They are a very hospitable people.’

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Visiting Taksim square during the news of protests may have certainly been risky.  But given all the danger, I still would have been well within the boundaries of civilization were any kind of personal injury to befall me.  This was not the case when hiking for five days in the Kaçkars.  A sprained ankle, quite a minor concern in Istanbul, could become a very, very bad thing were it to happen out between the passes.  Yet anyone I spoke to about the trip concerned themselves primarily with the all dangers presented to them on CNN, namely, the same footage of the same square with the overturned car and the angry mob.  As far as they knew, I think, that square was Turkey.  Today on CNN – the same square known as Turkey has some issues. ‘They are a very close-nit people.’

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There were several defining moments up in the mountains.  I could say that they were all equal, but one certainly stood out above the rest, and is the object of a separate post on this blog (read: where to camp or not to camp).  But the few moments that really stick with me were all near the peaks.  They involved a tremendous amount of physical exertion, effort that was further hindered by the low oxygen content of the air.  My body typically was pretty ready for most challenges that I have put it through, but this was one of the few where I really felt like I was coming through it like an old man.  Literally, everything felt weak, my limbs, my heart, my head too.  It’s get too you when you get less and less for breathing harder and harder.  But I adjusted nonetheless.

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While the first peak saw me swearing at a bank of snow, and possibly being a bit unnecessarily frosty with Josh, the ones after that each got easier.  The last is the post I indicated above, but the second last was possibly the most rewarding.  Dredging up a grassy hill under the burning sun, we came over a windswept pass, in view of several snow-capped peaks, to see a giant mountain lake only hundreds of meters below.  Better yet, it had a nice snowy ramp to slide down into it.  While caution precluded some possibilities, I will never be able to explain how I did not think in that and other moments not to use my sleeping mat as a make-shift snow sled.  Possibly the weight of the 70 litre bag I had on, and the speed I could reach, and the possibility of being submerged in icy cold glacial water, all made that a non-starter.  Regardless, once the packs were safely on the lakeside ground, the water made for the most rewarding and welcome icy splash I had had in any trip of my memories.  Good times.

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