Scaling the heights with Denis Cecil Hills in the 1960s

19th, 2012
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[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes]

“Summer had cooked the sea into a warm blue soup. The hot beach pebbles scorched the soles of my feet, and the withered pines along the sand dunes were rustling with a maddening uproar of cicada.

I looked up to where a patch of snow was twinkling on a Taurus peak and decided I could stand the sea no longer. Up in the mountains … were brisk air and cold nights, grass and snow-fed runnels, and the thrill of journeying from one high saddle to the other.”
Dennis Cecil Hills’ classic travel memoir, “My Travels in Turkey,” devotes a few pages to Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean shores, but his real passion was for its high plateaus and mountains. No ordinary traveler, Hills arrived in Turkey in the mid-1950s to teach English, having already pedaled his linguistic wares in Nazi and post-war Germany, Poland and Romania. Like so many visitors, he’d only intended to stay a short while, writing, “I would teach the Queen’s English to young Turks, enjoy the Asiatic sunshine and consume my generous holiday allowance in an orgy of violent exercise; and when I had had enough; pack my nailed boots, rucksack and grammar books and move elsewhere — to Kabul, Addis Ababa, Peru?”
Hills, though, was captivated by a land where he was to spend seven years. For him, Turkey was “too big to be explored in a hurry, and the Turks do not wear their hearts on their sleeves for all to see at a glance. Lured each year by the prospect of another long summer vacation spent amongst Turkey’s mountains or dawdling along her coasts … I have been unable to tear myself away.”
Travel in the eastern part of Turkey in the late ’50s and early ’60s was difficult. Foreigners had to apply, through their embassies, for written permission from the security authorities in Ankara. It was usually refused. Hills was lucky, and in 1957 set off for the East, where Turkey’s frontier nuzzled up to the shah’s Iran and the Soviet Union. His goal was Noah’s mountain, legendary Mt. Ararat — at 5,165 meters, by far the highest peak in the country. He first reached Doğubeyazit, a ramshackle town in the shadow of the mountain. His hotel, ironically dubbed the “Hilton” by travelers forced to overnight here en route for Iran, he describes as “a mud building of creaking, oil-lit rooms swarming with bed bugs and farmers sleeping fully clothed under dingy quilts. The lavatory was an unspeakable hole dug into the floorboards at the end of the corridor. A man with a squint brewed us tea in a tin boiled over burning dung. So thick were the flies we were driven to drink it up on the roof.”
Doğubeyazit retains a reputation for wildness and discomfort, but there are now several passable hotels. More importantly, the fairytale İşhak Paşa Sarayı, the fortified palace-cum-mosque of a Kurdish chieftain, described by Hills as “pitted with gunfire and falling disgracefully into disrepair,” has been beautifully restored. Having explored the 18th century palace, Hills and his ill-assorted team — including Ahmet, a chain-smoking journalist who’d never climbed in his life, Dr. Bozkurt, who’d shown his inexperience by trying to fit his crampons to his boots backwards, and the inveterate bachelor Muzaffer, a wiry staff sergeant in the Turkish military — set off for the mountain.
Buffaloes ferried the team’s loads to the lower slopes of Ararat, where they came across a Kurdish encampment. They were greeted by “three turbaned men” who “sat us down on a rug spread out on the grass, called a young woman twirling a spindle to bring us a bowl of yoghurt, and fingered out ice-axes with amused contempt.” Their hosts were less than impressed with Hills and his fellow climbers, saying: “Some claim to have reached the top of Ağrı (Ararat), but where is the proof? When you return you may boast of your success, but we shall never believe you.” Undeterred, the team set up camp and spent a day acclimatizing to the altitude.
The following day they made progress up Ararat’s slopes, this time on foot. That night they rolled their sleeping bags out on a broken bed of rocks and slept uneasily in the freezing cold. Awaking early, they found the weather changed. “A thunderclap exploded directly overhead, and a flurry of ice-flakes turned almost instantaneously into a violent gale of snow.” Two of the party gave up hope and retreated; the rest waited and were rewarded when the storm abated an hour later. They carried on and soon “we caught sight of the top, shimmering through torn clouds — a broad and smoothly rounded dome of ice covered with fresh snow a few hundred yards away.” Hills and his companions climbed the summit, congratulated each other on their success, bemoaned the lack of visibility, shivered violently in the bitter wind (this was August) and retreated.
Hills scaled Ararat’s icy heights a couple more times, and was to ascend two other volcanic peaks, Mount Erciyes (3,916 meters) and Mount Hasan (3,250 meters), both of which lay on the fringes of the weird and wonderful Cappadocia region in Central Anatolia. The alpine peaks of the Kaçkar range, rising high above a band of temperate forest parallel to Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast, proved even more of a challenge. The lushness of the range impressed Hills’ climbing buddy, the same staff sergeant who’d accompanied him up Ararat. “Muzaffer, used to the treeless spaces of Kayseri and Elaziğ, could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the dense jungle that covers the valley walls — beech, alder, firs and pines crowded on an impenetrable carpet of brambles, great ferns and rhododendron thickets.” Hills was fascinated by the ethnic mix of the hills, Laz on the Black Sea side of the range, Georgians on the Anatolian side, both of whom still used their own tongue amongst themselves — and, in true highland tradition, each vehemently disliked the other.
The pair finally reached the upper heights after a couple of miserable days walking through rain and low clouds. The sun came out and illuminated a breathtaking “alpine paradise” that so moved Muzaffer he exclaimed, “Why go to Switzerland when we have all this at our doorstep?” The next day the intrepid climbers reached the top of the 3,937 meter Mount Kaçkar.
Hills’ greatest feat, however, was to wangle permission to climb in Turkey’s wildest region, the Cilo-Sat mountain range, which rises majestically in the far-flung southeastern corner of the country. From Yuksekova, on the main road to the Iranian frontier at Esendere, the now familiar partnership of Hills and Muzaffer headed west across the Gevarova plain toward a wall of gleaming alpine peaks — the Cilo range. They pitched their tent in a Kurdish yayla (seasonal grazing ground) in the shadow of Turkey’s second highest mountain, Reşko. The yayla dwellers were as curious about the strangers in their midst as Hills was about the timeless routine of yayla life (grazing, milking, butter-churning and cheese and yoghurt-making). According to Hills, the aged wife of the encampment’s headman “frowned distrustfully at Muzaffer — to be a grown man of 29 without wife or children was unnatural and improper.” Not that Muzzafer was uninterested in women. When a group of the younger shepherdesses “began to dance rhythmically back and forth” outside their tent as the two men were retiring for the night, he whispered to Hills, “The girls are very beautiful — but they smell of goat.”
The two climbers set out early the next morning. Their aim: to scale Reşko’s 4,134-meter peak. They finally reached the summit ridge in the late afternoon “a broad, tilted platform flecked with ice patches, precariously joined to the massif we had ascended by a ridge of rotten stone no wider than a goat track which spanned an abyss of terrifying depth.” Wisely the experienced pair decided to turn back; with darkness hastening on, retreat was the only sensible option. En route, in a narrow gorge “facing us on the track, was our first bear.” Fortunately Muzaffer knew what to do and “fired his small pistol into the air and gave a tremendous shout and, to our surprise and relief, the bear turned and lollopped harmlessly away.” A dangerous abseil in the half-light followed, then a row as to whether to hunker down for the night where they were or carry on. Hills won the argument and the descent continued. Out of food, the torch battery lifeless, Hills conceded their retreat was “a deserved nightmare” and at midnight they were forced to sleep on rocks next to a snowdrift.
They reached the village of Serpil the next morning, where their mule-driver, Raschid, awaited them. Hills and Muzaffer spent the next few days wandering through Turkey’s remotest valleys, today unfortunately strictly off-limits because of the danger of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks, right up to the Iraqi frontier. This border is now heavily guarded, but Hills describes a deserted spot where “a single boundary stone marked the frontier,” adding, “With my feet in Iraq I sat against the boundary stone and sucked a lemon.” Muzaffer commented bitterly, “This is the stone that has cut Turkey off from the oil-fields of Mosul. But for this mark we would be rich!” Hills was more interested in the fate of the Nestorian Christians who had once inhabited these mountains and valleys — only forty years before his visit they had been driven out of their ancestral homeland for supporting the Russians in World War I.
Hills concludes the section of his book that deals with the Cilo-Sat ranges, and its largely ethnically Kurdish population, with words that still hold some truth in 2009: “In this isolated enclave, Turkish influence is at its lowest ebb. But for a scattering of soldiers and officials, the Turk himself is a stranger to the wild valleys east of Çölemerik (Hakkari). Suspicious of government, mobile, clannish clinging to their own language and songs, and to the old ways perpetuated by their chiefs, the Kurds of Hakkari are no easy subjects to handle.”
Born in Birmingham, England, in 1913, Hills studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. He was, however, remembered more for his womanizing, wrestling, night climbing and rugby than his academic achievements. He fought in World War II and worked for the military after the war. Following his sojourn in Turkey he went to Uganda, where in the leaked manuscript of a new novel he labeled Uganda’s leader, Idi Amin, a “village tyrant” and compared him to Nero. Sentenced to death by Amin, only the personal intervention of the British foreign secretary, James Callaghan, saved him. Hills died in 2004.
Resource: Today’s Zaman

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