[May 12, the bus through the mountains]
“You wake up and you’re in the mountains.
‘We’re going up,’ says Galen.
We try and snap an amateur photo of the earth dropping away from the side of the road into a forest valley. We’re driving at cloud-level. Next we’re over the pass and descending through a wood-n-nail village that seems about ready to collapse with one strong gust. Women gardening, men building a house of stone, an old man sitting cross-legged on the porch of his purple hilltop home while a cow grazes in the field below him, a dog leads a goat across a patch of dirt. Then comes the river, joining us alongside the 2-lane road, always a welcome guest on this journey. There are working, breathing, functioning cities out here. I don’t understand it. In fact I am envious of it. I doubt they have debt to worry about. What do they worry about? Wandering livestock and poor crop results.
Then Borkça, a city in the mountains, as real as a neighborhood in Istanbul but with a river running through it and gorgeous green hills in all directions, rock faces jutting out over the river alongside apartment buildings and telephone wires. At the edge of town there’s a dam and, beyond that, an enormous muddy-colored lake.
“We’re almost in Georgia,” says MC.
We stop in Artvin to pee, get water and buy chocolate.
We go through a long tunnel with no lighting save our headlights. One after the other. The only way over the mountain is through it. The road is unpaved, dusty. A storm is approaching as the sun goes down.
Lightning flashes light up the fog, enveloping us. The rain falls in thick drops. The mountains seem endless, ominous, daring us to proceed. The bus rumbles around tight corners and down zig-zag paths without railings.
“Don’t tell me,” says MC, afraid, and I say, “It’s nothing, just the edge of the world,” as I look down the mountain cliff one meter past my window. “This is the part I won’t tell my mom about,” she says.
We feel safe when we’re back down by the river, our old friend, its muddy waters a comfort in these rain-soaked rock valleys.
“I’m glad we didn’t rent a car,” Galen says.
“It’s a good thing we weren’t hiking,” notes Kelsey.
Galen explains that we were on the new road (up at the higher point of the valley), which is still under construction (hence the lack of lighting in the tunnels). As of now we’re on the old road that goes along the river. The plan is to convert this valley into a reservoir, so this road won’t be here someday. “Get a good look,” says Galen. “If you ever come back to the country, this’ll all be under water.”
Our driver is chain smoking. If I had to handle this road in a bus, I would be too.
Thankfully it stops raining.
We stop in a nearly vacant town and the driver delivers a fan belt to the gentlemen sitting outside of a roadside market. Most of the buildings are empty shells. Construction vehicles line the riverbed. In the distance, towering above, one of the new bridges, a sign that someday soon this town will be under water. Still there are people here. You wonder what keeps them. Perhaps the only people who live here are the ones who will help to sink it. It’s actually kind of depressing down here in the stone valley. Everything is grey and black and dirty brown and muted green. It feels so hopeless.
Road sign: ERZURUM 160 km
Window dirty from the rain, camera rendered useless.
The rock walls here are layered in waves of stone, similar to tree rings.
We pass the lake at dusk. It’s a healthy blue surrounded by rock cliffs. Probably beautiful in the daylight. Now: solemn, tranquil, at rest. We are all getting sleepy. Lake spreads into marshland and squeezes back into a river.
We stop for dinner near a gas station / mechanic shop where the saddest-looking stray pup begs with its sad eyes for our junk food. I stare for a while at the silhouette of mountains with that smile on my face of someone who can’t believe they’re where they are.
Anyway, where are we?
A cute kid offers us all hand sanitizer on the bus. Later, Galen lets him play games on his iPhone. We’re still 80 km out. When reception is strong enough, we catch snippets on the radio of the Galatasary / Fenerbahçe match. Out the window it’s all dark, save for the lights of houses leading us to civilization.”