Late morning. Carrying only a water bottle and a pocketful of plums i set off from Yusufeli. Without time or the gear to trek the Kaçkar mountains, or the money or experience to try paddling the swift waters of the Çoruh, i decided to make a dayhike to Dortkilise, the nearest of the church sites, 14 km away. At the least i could walk, explore.
From Yusufeli, the road toward Ispir is a single lane through the mountains, alternately paved and gravel, riddled with potholes. Two or three kilometers outside town, rice paddies stretch beside the whitewater. I hitch a very short ride; the driver turns left, onto a swaying bridge over the river.
Between Yusufeli and Tekkale, the mountains are brown, yellow and red, the vegetation scarce - but despite the sere climate there is an Orthopteran din rising above the river's roar. In the midday heat i drain the water bottle quickly. Then, nearing Tekkale, i pass a house where three old women sit on the narrow porch. They call me back. Though i cannot understand them (village folk tend to speak quickly and enunciate sloppily), they motion for me to give them the empty bottle. In a moment it is full, and cold as ice.
Seven kilometers and i've reached tiny Tekkale, just a few homes beside the road. There's an intersection flanked by teahouses next to the narrow bridge. Turning right, towards Dörtkilise, the mountains are greener. The road rises more steeply, past Tekkale school. A minibus offering service to Artvin is parked in the schoolyard. A whitewater stream roars through this town toward the river, narrower and louder, and the road hugs it, flanked by a roughly constructed wall. Between them, a building proclaims in Turkish - "Sehmeoğlu Trout Pools, there's always fish here". Near the stream the air is chilly.
At last i am on the margins, where i am comfortable. The margin here is one between rock and water, caught in precarious balance with nature. Tucked into barely a sliver of a gorge, Tekkale is a lush green place, overhung by deciduous trees. Beside the road there are mulberry, cherry, walnut, and even fig trees. Houses here have three floors, though only the middle one is finished. The ground floor is usually either a barn or garage, while the top story, open beneath its corrugated roofing, is a place to hang clothes, dry fruits, and in many cases, store hay. Here people do not dry hay before storing it. The weather simply doesn't allow - afternoon storms gather quickly in the mountains. Flat land is at a premium, and wherever there is a narrow bench beside the whitewater i see patches of bush beans, often shaded by the wild trees. A couple of gardens lie on the opposite bank, reachable by zip line.
On the bank a Grey wagtail bobs its tail, but this is the only bird life i can see. From the forest i can hear others, familiar calls - thrushes, warblers, wrens. The clouds gather quickly; north of Tekkale the mountains become greener, pines clinging to the steep sides. The difference is rain. I take refuge in a small open barn, just split logs for a frame and corrugated metal for a roof. It is shelter enough; i nestle among whips of drying cherry foliage (i am guessing collected for animal feed). A second rainstorm passes through after i have left the outskirts of Tekkale far behind, and i pass most of it clinging spider-like to a rock overhang.
At last i reach Dörtkilise, a ruined Georgian monastery perched above the gorge. At first i don't see the path, and i continue walking to where old men and women are cutting hay on the narrow benches of land either side the road. They're using scythes - this is the first time i've seen hay cutting on slopes in a place where traditional methods are still the only method in use. They pile the hay under a tarpaulin and then laboriously carry it up to the road. (On my return to Tekkale, most of the vehicles that pass are pickup trucks over-loaded with damp hay. In the village they are carrying it in small bundles to the open top floor of houses.)
The path to the monastery is a trickle of water down over the tiered lawns. A tiny vegetable garden of potatoes, beans, and onions sits in front of the church, which is much larger than it appears from the road. Brown stone, tightly fit, is broken by white campanula cascading from the cracks; small shrubs grow from the roof. Inside, the vaulted ceiling rises more than fifteen meters overhead. Toward the altar, faded frescoes of saints and disciples are mixed with graffiti. Standing in the quiet sacred space overcome by the eroding hillside, by rock and tree and the force of time, i hear a winter wren singing outside.