20 June, 2010

Yusufeli

Yusufeli is nestled into the gorge where the Barhal Çayı feeds the Çoruh River, a narrow town straddling the banks. Not carved into the gorge as literally as the cliff dwellings of ancient kapadokya were carved, but the place has a certain hanging feeling. In the center, a few buldings five and six stories rise on both sides of the Barhal river, a sort of built canyon; the balconies of teahouses hang over the rapids. Parallel to the single vehicle bridge, a swaying, plank footbridge crosses the Barhal.

Seven hundred meters from the footbridge lies Green Piece Pansion and Camping - the first place in my travels i've chosen to visit based on the Lonely Planet guide - and instantly i know it was a good choice. A simple place, a few buildings wedged right beside the river and an alfalfa pasture recently mown beside them. The place reminds me of Forest lodge on Maine's Rapid River - rafts in the yard, kayaks in a row, treehouses partially finished. In the communal hall it's hard to tell who is a guest, who works here, who's a raft guide or just a Yusufeli native hanging out. In the gathering dusk men sit talking, chairs set half in the barely-used road, beneath eight foot hollyhocks.

I've been here for three hours - writing on my laptop, chatting with people, helping a local raft guide with his English - before i check in. When i do, the owner informs me the treehouses are not ready at the moment, but he'll give me a room for the same price. Treehouses are 30 lira, rooms usually 40, but when i hand him the cash, he knocks it back even further: half price. A single traveler, Birol charges me for a single bed.

Lonely Planet actually doesn't do this place justice. It's a town with atmosphere and then some, though perhaps too many hotels in the center for the meager tourism of the moment. A conversation with pansion owner Cemil in nearby Tekkale confirms my feeling that tourism is weak this year: the rafting season stretches from May 15 to July 15, and his last tour group was May 21. Cemil blames it largely on the AKP government's friendship with Hamas, a move he sees as alienating tourists from the U.S.A. and Israel. Interestingly enough, the folks at Green Piece also mention having a lot of Israeli guests. Adventure sports - like trekking and rafting - haven't gained popularity with the Turks and their nearest neighbors, and there's a question of disposable income as well.

Despite the slow season, or perhaps because of it, Yusufeli is altogether more laid-back than the other places i've been thus far. Though tourism is the backbone of the town's economy, there are no aggressive carpet-shop touts. The vibe of places built around fishing and whitewater is a universal one. The language here might be Turkish, the men mustached, the gathering places teahouses rather than bars - but it feels so much like home, like the rushing rivers i know in Alaska and Maine.

Desperate for a picture, i took this one with the macbook.