Bahçesaray is among the towns that experienced the heaviest snowfall in Turkey and though the effects of climate change are felt everywhere, winter challenges remain the same for this "ninth planet," as some locals call it. It is an appropriate nickname for the town of some 14,000 that is cut off from the rest of the world with its ubiquitous, thick piles of snow.
The town is accustomed to harsh winters, a staple of eastern Turkey, but it is better remembered by the country as the epicenter of two disasters two years ago, in the span of two days. Karabet, a treacherous passage connecting the town to central Van, the eastern province with which Bahçesaray is administratively associated, was the site of an avalanche on Feb. 4, 2020, which buried a minibus and bulldozer. While frantically searching for two people buried under the snow, search and rescue crews themselves fell victim to another, larger avalanche. Forty-two people, including 11 gendarmerie officers and nine village guards were killed and 84 others were injured in the double disaster.
An iron, sliding gate with a hefty padlock on it is an unusual sight for a town road, but it is a necessity for Bahçesaray. A sign reading "road is closed temporarily due to adverse weather conditions" is hung on the gate, whose perimeter is clear of snow. But a few meters down the road, columns of snow block the place. A crew from the General Directorate of Highways (KGM) possesses the key and they have to inform authorities including the local gendarmerie commander before opening it for visitors. Few people are allowed inside and outside and though the road appears clear at first, mountains of snow piled on two sides and intimidating white masses accumulated on the slopes make it impossible to cross the terrain for inexperienced travelers.
KGM crews escorted me along the 40-kilometer (25-mile) road where cellphone reception is zero and blizzards constantly minimize the visibility. Crews pointed out 16 potential avalanche spots along the way. Also along the road, they remembered every spot where their colleagues were killed during avalanches in the past. After a while, heavy snow and blizzards make it impossible to advance. We returned to where we started to reach the town and took the longer, 300-kilometer road, through neighboring Bitlis province.
Five hours after leaving central Van, I finally reached Bahçesaray, which stretches across Müküs Stream. Locals gave me a warm welcome and one of the first jokes I heard was about the wintry past of the town. "Roads were entirely cut off for nine months," a local explained. The situation is better now with modern snow plowers and security measures keeping roads clear for longer. "We were God's country for nine months and a district of Van for remaining three," a local joked.
Winters are a boring occasion for the town due to closed roads, but they have found a way to stave off boredom: chess. From houses to coffeehouses, chess is a very popular activity, unlike elsewhere in the country where men usually spend time playing cards and okey, a type of rummy, in the coffeehouses to kill time.
Ömer Tuğrul Kundakçı, newly appointed district governor of Bahçesaray, accompanied us to the remotest village, which is part of Bahçesaray. The road to Dikmetaş was blocked with piles of snow reaching a height of up to 8 meters (26 feet). Snow plowers cleared the snow as I tagged along with Kundakçı and other officials. Kundakçı said they are looking for permanent solutions to winter-related problems and were carrying out projects, including tunnels and new roads that will facilitate transportation in winter.
New roads and tunnels will also reduce the avalanche risk but they won't bring back the lives lost. Ahmat Alav lost his wife Muteber in 2020 avalanche. She was returning to the town after visiting her grandchildren when the avalanche buried the car she was traveling in. Alav still grieves her death but he feels sadder for members of search and rescue crews who died while trying to save his wife and others. "They died for us. I wish it never happened," he said.
Though locals learned how to live with months of heavy snow, the situation is different for others, like health care crews. Dr. Büşranur Dağ and nurse Celal Orta are among them. They tried to reach two patients in need of care at home in Dikmetaş but even without snow, it is a troubling experience. The steep road to the village is covered with thin ice which no vehicles can pass. After a walk for about 1 kilometer, they reach the village. "I love Bahçesaray very much except in winter," Dağ, who started working in town about 1 1/2 years ago, said. Health care workers are among those under constant threat of avalanches. They are scared but their passion for their work helps them overcome this fear.
"Geography is kader (fate) but here, it is keder (woe)," Kerem Oktay, a local, said.