I was picked up at 8.30 as planned. Apprehension about who will be driving and what vehicle was satisfied. It was a young man Musa. I climbed aboard to join Erol, Hasan and Okan. We headed for the mountains. We left the city, the kind of landscape I had seen from the air began to drift into sight. Flat marshland was replaced first by green hills, graduating to brown, snow-capped mountains. We turned off the main road and drove along a reasonable road in parallel to a small river that was leaving the village. To the left a steep hillside, the right, flat open meadow with trees watched over by the steep sides of a mountain. We turned left and truck upon a deserted smallholding.
Erol went to look for the head of the village while Musa spotted and beckoned two workers in the distance. I shook their work-hardened hands, confident and firm grips both. They came over, merhabar, hand shakes and Musa tried to explain why we were there. Erol returned and joined the conversation, lale, lale, I heard. Lots of pointing to the mountains. He will show us where the tulips are.
Adem squashed in the back with the rest of us. Up the hill a while, I was looking into the distance in a world of my own when we pulled over. Adem pointed to the hillside and there, dotted between the gorse and other greenery were the beautiful vibrant red spots I had come all this way to see. I ran up the hill like a child to inspect the little plants, they were beautiful. In my excitement, I forgot my expectant team. I looked back to see a mixture of disbelief and interest as my passion and excitement became visible by my actions. Adem was fantastic, incredibly patient and helpful.
I was told later that he is part of a small scale farming avant-grade. He is brave enough to try new ways of working - the others will follow. This is a difficult area and poor. The people are desperate to find new ways of making a living but also cautious of change.
We dropped Adem and drove on to Uzundere. Erol talked about his vision for the future of how tourism can make great change to this area, a lot of effort and money is going in to promote this area and open it up to foreign money. I think about how difficult this must be, to try and persuade big business to put the logistics in place to make this progress possible. We talked about the dangers of implementing this change, how as soon as you open up this area to the outside, the very idyl that you are aiming to sell will gradually change in nature. This is a difficult problem. I remember having the same feeling about Budapest in the early nineties. We pull over to an idyllic spot, the rush of a river fills my ears, a small oasis with small wooden open air huts filled with Turkish cushions. They looked inviting. To just sit and think and dream here would be wonderful.
Under a tree on a bed, complete with pink bedspread lies Ali, the proprietor of a bed and breakfast trying to make a go of it in a seemingly impossible to find location. He is an ex-champion wrestler who who had a terrible car accident 28 years ago. He talked about love and is paralysed from the waist down. A warm and friendly man with smiling eyes and a gentle manner. He gestures to his trout pools and offered us lunch, unfortunately Erol has other plans. I told Ali that this might be a small thing for him but our meeting has made me very happy. We exchange farewells and I agree to send him a copy of the picture I took of him in the sunshine under that beautiful tree.
On the road again, I am taken to the tourist office in Uzundere. I am offered as many postcards and leaflets about the area as I can carry. The idea is that I will take these home with me to spread the word about the area and its many attractions. I agree to help if I can.
Next to lunch, beautiful spread in a wonderful setting. Riza and Nezihe are also showcasing their new bed and breakfast venture. Soup, stuffed vine leaves, salads and sweetmeats are followed by a guided tour of the newly completed guest rooms upstairs. I asked Riza how long he has been running the business - he said two years. 'Is it going well?'. A pause. Riza glanced over to Erol for support, Erol explained that things could be a lot better for them and that they are very brave to try this new idea. we discuss the various marketing possibilities, lonely planet, web traffic etc. They are lovely people and i admire their spirit and tenacity but i can't help thinking that they will fond it very difficult to make a success of it. The infrastructure is just not in place. to get here will involve changing planes at Ankara or istanbul and then a long drive. It would take the adventurous types and I am sure they would have a wonderful time but still, such a difficult undertaking. I take their picture and we leave continuing up the Tortum valley.
The mountains loom like enormous dribble sculptures, a green lake catches my eye, we pull over for pictures and the full scale of this place overwhelms me. Even compared to the cinematic landscapes of America this place still holds its own. The water in the lake is so still, no reflection of the mountains, just a sheet of green glass, perfectly cut to fit every rocky contour that surrounds it. I gaze down the valley still not really believing the sheer scale of this place. it creates a feeling in my gut; like the feeling that experiencing extreme heights can have, but something more. We really only develop a sense of scale based around the things that are immediately close to us, our family, our house or the distance we can safely fall. This physical effect is joined by something cerebral, a solid connection between mind and body; it comes in waves. A glance up to the summits brings it on and then I am distracted by something else, another view, another wrench like when the need to vomit takes hold; wave after beautiful wave.
We continue up the valley until we reach a small settlement alongside Tortum river, a 10km stretch that brings water from the mountains down the valley. We stop at the house, a place firmly embedded in the now by virtue of concrete and steel, but nevertheless maintains a sense of timelessness. There is a wonderful simplicity here, simple structures, only embracing enough of the practical trappings of modern life to make survival more likely. A woman appears with a young girl of maybe five or six. She is described as an ordinary villager and shows examples of how she incorporates tulips in here handicrafts. As we talk, blossom from a nearby fruit tree is caught by the wind, delivering a confetti like shower upon us. Chickens make the presence known. She talks about how the red flowers make her think of love. She remembers picking flowers as a child and turning them in to posies. She said that they are something that would be given and received as tokens of love during courtship. Tea is produced by another woman along with a local delicacy, walnuts wrapped in pestil, a kind of sticky, chewy sheet made by pureeing and drying fruit. I am amused to find out that the Turkish for this is translated into English as fruit leather. We drink chai and head off to meet with the head of the village.
We round a corner and there at the foot go surrounding mountains, a lake. In the centre of this stretch of water is a small jettied island with a wooden building in its centre. We are greeted by a shortish man around fifty years old dressed in a respectable brown suit with a subtle check pattern. We shake hands warmly and Erol does the introductions. it is apparent that he has been doing some research about tulips as a prelude to our meeting. It seems as though these people have learned about tulips through the television. They know nothing of the symbolic nature that the sultans bestowed, nor do they have local or specific names for the flowers, just red or yellow lale etc. These flowers are simply part of their lives. Every spring they pop up ands become part of the everyday; for tokens of love or simply to enjoy while working. nature is a very important thing in these parts. We talked for a while and five more men turn up to greet us as well. They are intrigued as to why we were there. We all shook hands and there followed a discussion about where we can find the tulips. Lots of pointing to the mountains. One of the man tapped me on the shoulder. 'Hey, Beckham, Beckham - me Rooney, you Beckham. We laughed and I took their picture.
Rooney, who turned out to be called Halit, accompanied us in the car as we head up impossibly small tracks and round ridiculous bends. We come to a halt. 'We walk form here.' Halit sets a healthy pace, he has done this many times before. Half way up and our group is lessened. Erol, who has removed his jacked and has been puffing and panting for a while, decides to turn back, 'too much for me', he says. we walk for another fifteen minutes or so before reaching the North facing slopes - and there, hundreds of tiny red dots on the scrub, you see one, then another, then another. The flowers are beautiful. They sit against the impressive mountain backdrop. We stay for a good hour documenting this beautiful site. So taken aback was I with the find that I forget to interview Halit.
We walk back down to discover Erol sitting outside one of the village houses surrounded by village men. Ekrem, the head of the village is there as well as the other men from the lake and a number of other curious menfolk. We are greeted like heroes, merhaba, hand shakes all round. A seat is immediately cleared for me, more chai, more pestil and walnuts and many smiles. Suddenly I am distracted by the head of the village over my left shoulder carrying a saz. He joked as I attempted to play this instrument that, to my western trained ears, seemed to be completely out of tune. He enjoyed my failed attempts to produce a tune before taking the instrument from me and played a beautiful song. He told me it is about love. I remember feeling slightly strange. On the one hand I felt warm inside having been treated to this experience, and made to feel like some sort of explorer or visiting dignitary, but on the other uneasy about being come kind of cultural tourist. Ekrem kisses both cheeks and we leave.