Tuncay, their owner, fusses over them, attending to their every last need, rearranging their nosebags and draping them with blankets. As well he might, after all, since they are the means by which he earns an income in the icy depths of the northeastern winter.
Because Yavuz and Yağmur are two of the horses who offer carriage rides to visitors on the frozen surface of Çıldır Gölü (Lake Çıldır), the large but curiously underexploited lake that hunkers down in the top right-hand corner of Turkey, east of Kars and Ardahan.
It’s not a part of the country that gets many visitors even in summer, but at this time of year when the going gets really tough up here it takes some imagination and initiative to come up with money-making schemes. And that’s where the Atalay’ın Yeri fish restaurant comes into the picture.
Atalay’s Place is the only restaurant for miles around. It sits right on the water’s edge midway between the dreary settlement of Çıldır and slightly more appealing Doğruyol on the northeastern side of the lake. In summer it does a roaring trade in trout lunches. Then in winter sarı sazan (yellow carp) puts in an appearance on the menu. Anglers are forbidden to go after this much meatier fish in summer in order to protect breeding stocks, but in winter it becomes fair game with holes drilled through the ice to catch it.
It’s in front of Atalay’s Place that Yavuz and Yağmur wait patiently for customers, most of them locals who relish this chance to take to the lake Dr. Zhivago-style in phaeton-like carriages. What could be more fun, after all, even if the horses do stumble about in the layer of snow and slush that collects on top of the ice. Off we go, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, the biting cold and the problems of getting to the lake all but forgotten as we head out into a landscape of never-ending white, with nothing but ice and snow all around us. It’s a stunning sight that looks more like the Arctic or the North Pole than the Turkey of most visitors’ imaginings.
The carriage rides and the fish aside, the lake holds one more trick up its sleeve. Thrown up around its edge are what look like a cute Turkish take on igloos. It’s easy to assume that they’ve been built by local children but then you discover that they will, in the weeks to come, serve as frozen teahouses where people can sit and warm themselves up on brews made from water that has also been drawn from holes in the ice.
You can get to Atalay’s Place from Kars, although it’s a shorter and probably easier drive from Ardahan. Coming from Ardahan offers the additional thrill of being able to stop and gaze out over the pinprick village of Yıldırımtepe into a dramatic gorge in which sit the ruins of Şeytan Kalesi (Satan’s Castle), one of Turkey’s most remote and dramatically sited fortifications.
If you like the sound of the lake in winter, here’s another tip. Once a year in just one village -- Veliköy in Artvin’s Şavşat district -- Turkey plays host to the unlikely sport of kar güreşi (snow wrestling). For the last 15 years wrestlers from all over Turkey and from neighboring Georgia have been gathering on the hillside above Veliköy, just outside the town of Şavşat, there to grapple with each other clad only in long leather shorts despite the sub-zero temperatures. It’s a sport, the ex-muhtar tells me, that is conducted nowhere else in the world except Switzerland where, he says, they wrestle fully clothed.
Here, though, they take their cue from the better known yağ güreşi (oil wrestling) of Kırkpınar. There’s no oil involved here but otherwise the pattern is a familiar one. The same words are recited. The men strut up and down, slapping their thighs in a familiar way. And if the bouts are over more quickly than at Kırkpınar, that’s hardly surprising when snow has been falling all day.
The folks of Veliköy are made of stern stuff. No matter how cold it is, they all turn out to watch, the women seated on one side of the arena, the men on the other. Musicians strike up the davul zurna (drum and oboe). There’s a Black Sea bagpipe player in attendance. Trays of pastries are served to the dignitaries huddled over an electric bar fire. Even a simit seller with his tray balanced on his head puts in an appearance.
But before you start making plans for next year, a few words of warning are needed. Wonderful as this part of Turkey is in winter there are some practical problems to consider before setting out. The first has to do with the sheer difficulty of getting around at a time of year when road closures are routine. In particular the glorious road over the Çam Geçidi (2,460m) between Şavşat and Ardahan is often closed by snow, which makes it difficult to squeeze in a trip to Çıldır Gölü over the same weekend as the snow wrestling (if you want a carriage ride on the lake mid-week, it will be considerably more expensive than over the weekend). Driving yourself, you must have chains on your wheels and should stock up on food, water and blankets in case of a weather-enforced stop somewhere along the way.
The second problem has to do with accommodation. This is a part of the country with a grave shortage of decent places to stay. Şavşat itself is an accommodation black hole although there are two great places to stay on either side of it. On the Ardahan side the wonderful Laşet Motel, a trout restaurant with inviting cabin-style rooms attached, sits just off the main road, making it the best choice for those without their own transport. On the Artvin side, and very close to the scene of the snow wrestling, the Karagöl Pansiyon is one of the country’s most remote places to stay, right beside a small lake inside a national park. If you do manage to get there and find it open, expect the Karagöl (Black Lake) to be frozen, offering a rare chance to eat breakfast at tables set up on the ice.
Ardahan has a couple of hotels that are clean and comfortable without being of the slightest interest. For any real choice you need to strike camp in Kars where, at this time of year, both cars and people move in slow-motion across ice-impacted streets. Here you can stay at the Kar’s Oteli, the country’s most unexpected boutique hotel housed inside a 19th-century stone house restored in a minimalist style that verges on the austere. Alternatively you can head for the Grand Ani Hotel, which has two great assets for winter visits: a heated indoor swimming pool, and a sauna-hamam complex.
But it’s not just the choice of accommodation that makes Kars the best base for exploring the area in winter. Here the streets of the old town are lined with one-storey, pastel-colored buildings put up doing a 40-year period of Russian occupation extending from 1878 to 1918. Locally, they’re called Baltic houses rather than Russian ones, and certainly they evoke images of St. Petersburg, another town known for its icy winters. With time on your hands and the state of the road permitting you can also head out towards the Armenian border to view the romantic ruins of the abandoned city of Ani buried in the snow.
Once settled in Kars, you should head straight out again in search of the Kaz Evi, where you can tuck into a staple of local winter cuisine: roasted goose (kaz). And back in your hotel room what else could you possibly read but Orhan Pamuk’s Kars-based “Kar” (Snow), a portrait of a wintry world about as remote from that of the snow wrestlers as it’s possible to imagine?
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Ani Hotel, Kars. Tel.: 0 (474) 223 75 00
Laşet Motel, Şavşat. Tel.: 0 (466) 571 21 36
Kafkas Arı Hotel, Ardahan. Tel.: 0 (478) 211 36 80
Karagöl Pansiyon Şavşat. Tel.: 0 (466) 531 23 17
Kar’s Oteli, Kars. Tel.: 0 (474) 212 16 16
HOW TO GET THERE
There is an airport in Kars. Buses travel from all the surrounding towns, but the road to Kars from Erzurum is more likely to be open in bad weather than the one from Rize.