East of Trebizond `

Michael Pereira, 1971

200 DSC05459When Michael Pereira and his friend Tim Smart set out to take a stroll through the Pontic Alps they had only one rucksack, an inadequate map, and a penknife between them. What they did have in their favour, however, was that they could speak Turkish which meant that they could walk into remote villages and start talking to the locals in a way which would be quite impossible for the average tourist. Their journey took them from near Rize on the Black Sea coast down as far as Erzurum and then back through Artvin and Ardanuç, with a side trip out to see Trabzon (Trebizond) and the Sumela Monastery, a route that is, in some ways, familiar to many modern visitors but which is, in almost every other way, completely unfamiliar not just because most visitors never make it to the villages but also because Pereira is describing a world that is gone almost beyond recall. Just a glance at the black and white photographs is enough to make that clear: the clothes, the shoes, the stone houses with no concrete add-ons, the bridges before anyone decided to restore them.

Pereira describes a world in which a hotel room might consist of nothing more than a mattress on the floor covered by a quilt with pegs on which to hang clothes, a lavatory that involved hanging off the roof and absolutely no running water. Travel then was in the very fact of it an adventure, not the soft and comfortable experience of today. Pereira and Smart dutifully explored the ruinous churches and castles along their way, but it’s their encounters with the villagers, many of them dreaming of an escape to Europe, that most linger in the mind.

This is a part of Turkey that was, in the past, sometimes Armenia and sometimes Georgia, and which found itself on the frontline in the fighting between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Pereira keeps the history for separate chapters, which hopscotch around the story of his travels. For the sake of clarity he may have been right in his decision but lazier readers with a limited tolerance for accounts of military engagements may find themselves tempted to cherry-pick only the travel chapters.

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