Tea and Bear Talk in Turkey | Travel | Smithsonian
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Tea and Bear Talk in Turkey

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The road south out of Bolu, Turkey, goes straight up the north flank of the Koroglu Mountains as a 10-percent grade turns the dry valley into green pine country with just an hour of hard pedaling. The ascent levels off at a wide, rolling plateau of scrub, sheep and a few quiet villages. Shops are hard to come by, and for supplies I stopped in Kibriscik, a town of 2600 people. I went straight to the mosque, where fountains always provide cool water. A table of men seated under tree nearby called to me. “Çay!” one said (pronounced “chai,” which means “tea”). “Okay, after market,” I said and rolled down the street to buy a few staples at the village store. Along the way more calls came. “Hello! Sit! Sit! Çay!” I had booked myself solid on tea appointments before I went a block. I bought dried figs, almonds, cheese and raki, and as I loaded my bike, another man came to me. In English he said through a mouth full of brown teeth, “You drink tea with me!”

I looked at my wrist. “I have a 5 o’clock down the street. Will you join us?”

His name was Hasan and he immediately instigated a phone number exchange as part of some vague plan by which I am to help him secure a job in America when I return home. He was, he said, a doctor. “What kind?” I asked. “Sports? Heart?”

“Woman,” he barked, then changed the subject. “Alex, where will you stay tonight?”

“I don’t know.” I pointed at my sleeping bag. “Camp.”

“Alex,” he said, looking into the distance, “there are very dangerous animals in Turkey. Bears. Wolves. You must sleep in a village.” A younger man across the table mimed an impression of the late Bart the Bear, roaring and clawing at the air. I’ve heard this kind of fearful talk so many times in Turkey and Georgia—people afraid of anything wild, untamed, unpredictable—that I almost roll my eyes when I hear warnings about animals now. I shrugged and took my leave. Down the road several miles, I turned up a canyon toward Sakal Yaylasi, 21 kilometers into the mountains. It seemed to be associated with the Turkish park system and I figured it was a campground. But I got no further than six kilometers up the road when a man in the village of Alemdar flagged me down as I passed his yard. “It is too far to the yayla,” he said in Turkish. “For 60 lira I will drive you.” He pointed at his dented car.

“No taxi,” I said. “Only bicycle.”

He wouldn’t hear of it. “Are you alone?” he asked, striving to talk me out of it. “It’s too dangerous.” His kids had assembled around us now. “There are bears.” His boys growled and clawed the air.

“Ah, bully your bears! I’m going!” I yelled.

But he put a hand out, ready to physically stop me from continuing up-road. He again offered me a ride, and he grew exasperated and angry when I declined. He was fuming and clenching his fists. Finally, I said, “Okay! I go back. To Ankara. No camp! Bears! Bears!” I roared and swiped at the air. I rolled back downhill—but quickly dodged up a dirt road along a stream gully, and I found a place by the creek to sleep. I threw out the tarp. As darkness fell, so did a rare silence in these parts; there were no dogs yelping or prayer calls or engines grinding or kids screaming, just the wind in the canyon and creek trickling over the rocks. The day was done, but as the full moon broke over the horizon, the night was just beginning.

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