Cukurca district has long been in the news for PKK attacks, but the recent Natural Sports Festival has painted a very different picture of the district.
CUKURCA, Turkey — As the rafting team of Cukurca district in eastern Turkey reached the finish line of the turbulent Zap River, they jumped into the muddy waters in celebration.
In his wet clothes, 18-year-old Emir Cakir, the captain of the team, stepped out of his boat, climbing to a jetty next to the finish line. A resident of Cukurca, he has been leading the district's four-member rafting team for over a year.
“Rafting means trust," Cakir told TRT World. "You are rowing your oars, trusting your friends. You are looking at them and you are rowing according to their speed. Your friend has been benefited from your power and you have been benefited from your friend’s power.”
Water, rowing and friends, Cakir said, are the essential elements of a true team spirit. “I cannot explain my rafting experience," he said, falling short of words to explain rafting through the stormy waters of the Zap River.
"You can just live through it. It’s a sensation," he said.
Cakir said he's glad that Cukurca district is hosting the Natural Sports Festival and hopes that the government can host more sporting events in the future.
Although the district is marred by violence, where the Turkish army has lost the highest number of its soldiers to the PKK terror attacks since 1984, there's still hope in the region.
The PKK, which has launched a three-decades terror campaign against the Turkish state, leading to tens of thousands of deaths, is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU.
“I hope this place gets more beautiful, pulling even more crowds,” Cakir said.
Cakir, like his friends, has grown up in the tough neighbourhoods of Cukurca, where gunshots during the night have been an inseparable part of life since 1990s.
But under an active district governor, Temel Ayca, life in Cukurca has drastically changed in the last 18 months. The town’s second Natural Sports Festival, which has hosted more than 400 visitors during the events from rafting to paragliding, base jumping, paintball and offroad, signifies that normalcy is somehow finding its way in the district.
Ibrahim Maranligil, a 36-year-old businessman from Erzurum, and an off-road driver for nearly 10 years, was one of the participants in the festival, which has been held between May 2 and May 5.
Maranligil has also helped organise the off-road event with his friends, bringing 10 expensive off-road vehicles with more than 30 drivers to Cukurca from Turkey’s different locations, ranging from Istanbul to Bursa, Corlu and Erzurum. The off-road vehicles have been brought to Cukurca with two trucks.
“The cheapest vehicle is valued nearly $50,000 and the most expensive one costs close to $160,000,” Maranligil told TRT World.
The Cukurca experience has been a mind-boggling experience for off-road drivers coming to the event from Turkey’s western provinces, Maranligil said.
“What you see on television about Cukurca is as different as the mountains you see here,” Maranligil said, explaining what his off-road peers felt about the border district.
“They have been astounded by the hospitality, love and affection of Cukurca’s people,” Maranligil said.
He said he felt that the Cukurca experience was the best off-road experience ever for his peers.
In return, it was also a spectacular taste for Cukurca’s people, who could only watch these kind of shows on television until this May. Some of Cukurca’s young men and children have also been hosted by off-road drivers in their cars.
“The most important thing for us was to see the smile in children’s eyes and we were able to see that,” Maranligil said.
The festival has also hosted Cengiz Kocak, Turkey’s best base jumper and one of the world’s bravest, who has been instrumental in drawing the country’s attention to extreme sports.
Kocak and his two team members, along with TRT World’s team, climbed to the top of Cukurca’s Hasgel mountain with an arduous three-hour trek on May 2.
“I was fearing so much before the jump. Maybe 10 times more than you guys. The difference between you guys and me was my focus for finding solution to finish the jump,” Kocak said.
“I am able to jump because I can defer my fears,” Kocak told TRT World.
He successfully finished his jump following a dangerous route - the longest distance for any base jump across Turkey at 1,000 metres, stretching from the mountaintop to the Zap valley.
“I was yelling when I was falling down from the rock. Why was I yelling?” he asked.
“Because I was the only guy falling down from that rock during the entire human history.”