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••• The International Writers Magazine: Turkey

A Blindspot in Turkey
• Nina Nooit


Ispir, a small town tucked away in the mountains behind Turkey’s Black Sea coast, in the historical area of Pontus, is a blind spot on any travellers’ map. I spent a few days there, feeling stared at. The hotel clerk made comments that indicated he thought I was a prostitute. On my fourth day I had enough and wanted to cross over to Yusufeli, a village crammed with hotels and guest houses surrounded by more mountains, this time with skiing and mountaineering opportunities. The road that led to Yusufeli from where I was was little travelled, there was no public transport. I had to hitchhike.

As I waited by the village exit, sitting on my backpack, at first only cement trucks passed. Even an excavator came this way, creeping along. The vehicle that finally took me was a small personal car occupied by a group of engineers, two Turkish and two Chinese ones.

The road ahead was nothing but dust tracks. We knew it was purposefully left in disrepair and would not get asphalted any soon. On the contrary, in the foreseeable future it would cease to exist, covered by huge amounts of water. Its disappearance had been planned for decades, but the measures to enact it were underway only right now. The skeleton of the hydroelectric dam that was being built was already in place, looking like an ugly, modern version of an aqueduct.

The building sites along the road were so numerous, the entire valley seemed like one single, enormously drawn-out building site. It was saddening to look up to the surrounding mountain tops and to realize what great natural beauty there had been before modernity came and raped it.

“Dikkat! Patlama bölgesi”, a sign we were approaching read in alarming red letters, “attention, there are explosions in this area”. Indeed, as we sailed past the sign and round the next bend we heard a loud bang, and on the mountain behind us a huge cloud of dust mushroomed up.

Yusufeli Dam All four engineers in the car, two west Turkish ones, and two Chinese ones, were working on these hydroelectric dams, built by Chinese contractors. I wanted to talk about the reasons for the dams being built. I had heard that even before the first dam, there were no villages that did not have electricity, although there still frequently were power cuts. After the first hydroelectric dam was built this improved, the current became stable. But why did seven more dams have to be planned, two of them of a capacity many times greater than that initial one? Once nature was destroyed, it could not be brought back.

The village where we were heading, Yusufeli, even though very touristy and surrounded by countless historical sites, would remain under water ten years from then. The ruined castles that dotted the outcrops along the river Çoruh would dot the shores of a lake. The destruction was said to affect 15,000 homes. And the saddest thing: this type of tragic story is a common one in eastern Turkey, countless other dams are planned all over the east of the country.

The road leading out of Yusufeli navigated ravines winding their way along the same river, the Çoruh. The walls of rock that enclose it on the way out of Yusufeli can be rather awe-inspiring in their nakedness. 

We drove all the way to one nameless village or other, where a small road branches off which is so well hidden, it was hard not to miss. The road curves up from there, huddled to the mountain. Gradually more and more potholes appear, supplanting the tar, until the moment that the asphalt stops entirely. Up there above us we see a handful of houses on a flat, grassy bit to a background of sheer rock. We will have to pass that village in order to get to the ruins of the Georgian church we have decided to visit. The views down the direction that we came from get more and more stunning. I am enjoying myself quite a bit, but neither the Chinese nor the Turkish couple acknowledge the natural beauty around. They just see the bad state of the road, and, as we arrive in the village, the abject poverty that reigns there. They were curious to see the region where they work a little bit with me, the tourist, but it turns out this sort of detour not their idea of a nice sight-seeing trip.

Having parked the car, we walked on the narrow trail which takes us to the church we came to see. A sign tells the church's history in Turkish and English. It is a short run-through of the history of this region: “Until the 17th century this church was used as a Russian cathedral. In the 18th century during the Russian-Ottoman war, it was used as military barracks. When the Turks definitely took over this area, it was converted into a mosque. Having been in use up until the 1980s, it is now empty.” What is left of the building is in a rather dilapidated state. Most parts of the ceiling are missing. Granted, the sky is luminous and beautiful today, but that can only be a temporary solace for the partial loss of this historic structure!

Facing what used to be the apse of the church, looking at the faded rests of the frescoes depicting Jesus and his disciples, scratched away by the passage of time, the Turkish woman asks me, “do you believe Jesus died on the cross, or that he lived afterwards?”, assuming, apparently, that I am Christian. According to the Koran, Jesus was replaced with Judas in the last moment, and Jesus did not die on the cross, Judas the traitor did so in his place. When Jesus reappeared three days later, it was not a resurrection, since Jesus never passed away in the first place. “Do you have any religion?”, one of the Chinese engineers asks me. “No, not at all”, I reply truthfully. Taking my statement almost as a self-evident they nod their heads; “us neither”, they inform me.

Once we make it back down to the main road from the church, I bid my hosts goodbye. Along the road some old rusty cars are parked, a woman sits by the roadside drinking tea and nibbling sunflower seeds directly from the large head of a torn off sunflower. I waited in the shade of some trees opposite of her. It takes a while, but finally some cars come along and in the end I get a lift with a family. 

© Nina Nooit, Jan 2017
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