Day Four. Wednesday, 20 August. From campsite west of Bağlama to Altunhisar.
Contributed by Donna Landry
Today we left camp at 7:50 and headed for the hills – literally. First we came to Donkeyville, as we named it, in the foothills behind our camp. Here we met with our first fellow riders. Shepherds on donkeys came cantering to meet us from all directions. Their flocks were mainly of sheep, with a few goats. Their dogs, big yellow kangals or karabaş (black-head) guardian dogs, were quiet once the shepherds reassured them we were no threat. No, there was no water here, but there would be at a farmstead we could glimpse in the distance. We rode up to that farm and found stone troughs of various kinds for the sheep. The women there gave us permission to water the horses.
Behind that farmhouse we ascended a very steep and stony slope, not following any obvious track. We would go up and over the mountain to come down on the other side to find Çiftlik. If we were lucky there would be shepherds’ paths along the way. If we were not, we would have to pick our way among the basalt boulders and stones and trust to the horses.
I’m told there was a hero of early twentieth-century British fiction known as ‘Trackless Butterworth’. He travelled the most remote byways and hacked his way through jungles and crossed trackless wastes, cheerfully. Well, that would be us. There were no discernible sheep tracks where we ascended, or descended, for that matter. Yet the horses and the riders who dismounted for the steepest climbs found their footing readily in the rocky going. Some of us would have followed a contour, hoping for a track of some sort — on Dartmoor we would, and Jude said the same about Northumberland and Oregon — but Mehmet went straight up and down, giving us breath-taking views of the unfolding terraced countryside of small plantations, tree-lined stubble fields, and grazing flocks. Jude was delighted with Tuvana as a companion in mountaineering – ‘I love this pony!’. Jean and Zenopya were at the side of Mehmet and Anadolu for much of the rock climbing.
Zenopya always got there in the end but she did not relish this stony going as much as Anadolu did. ‘Zenopya was sometimes trembling’, Jean said, as she found her footing.
We came down into small hill farms and crossed the highway to where elderly shepherds hailed us from groves of trees. No sooner had we crossed the road than our truck appeared, travelling towards Çiftlik for mid-day. We would have to follow the asphalt road to a certain extent to get through the pass to Çiftlik, but there was open country on at least one side of it. We ascended through the pass, the Şekkin Geçidi, at 1630 metres, and came down into the open plain of Çiftlik at 11:30. Zenopya led the charge at a swinging walk, taking a bead on the kamyonet and the prospect of refreshment.
Terribly early for lunch, but what could we do? There were troughs to water the horses, and a friendly woman with a garden of willows adjacent to the plain with troughs let us tether the horses there where they could graze as well as eat their yonca. Women and children came to talk to us, small boys on donkeys and bikes buzzed around. Two officers of the Zabıta, a municipal police force, joined us under the truck canopy to enquire about our route. They were surprised by how we had come over the mountain. But there was no clear alternative or better route proposed, only discussion of a lake we did not pass, so it seems Mehmet had read the country pretty well.
Quickly downing our first menemen (scrambled eggs and peppers) – a treat for those new to Turkey and a mainstay of travellers – we set off again in an hour to climb the second pass in hopes of achieving a village on the other side of the Melendiz range before sundown.
Clouds came over as we began riding through Çiftlik and its outskirts. The breeze picked up. Jude wondered at the modern blocks of flats that seemed to belong to another economy from anything we had seen. Was there a mine or some other source of non-agricultural employment and prosperity here? Had people returning from working abroad built some of the newest modern houses and blocks of flats that looked like those ever expanding in Istanbul or Ankara’s – or Kayseri’s or Konya’s — suburbs?
We passed a high school that advertised itself as one of ‘many programmes’ – Çök programları – and displayed a larger than life black-and-white portrait of Atatürk on horseback on the building’s side. He was in the uniform of a cavalryman topped by the cylindrical sheepskin kalpak, and calling on all of us not to forget the martyrs. Here was a theme about national pride and equestrian self-image and the defence of the nation.
As we entered into fields and scrub on the very outskirts of the town, we asked people for directions to shepherding tracks, alternative routes. No, tackling the second pass, the Topakala Geçidi at 1980 metres, would mean skirting the asphalt road but we would be able to get through on one side or the other. Sure enough, we did find evidence of tracks and trails, many of them on both sides of the road, which we crossed whenever the going looked better over there. One track, clearer than the others, looked tempting but it turned away from our direction of travel. Could we trust that we could follow it and still remain on course? Jean and Donna read the country in the same way and weighed in against taking the tempting track, which could have led anywhere. Where it led might be wonderful. Nobody wants to stick to being in sight of a road if there are alternatives. Yet we did have an approximate destination in mind for the night, and we needed to get there. We needed to cover the country rapidly if possible. Since Jean is an experienced hiker and trekkist, as well as a horseman, and he had a keen eye for crossing a piece of country, his view carried particular weight. We opted not to experiment with wanderings by the way and to keep going as straight as we could.
The sun was once again a fiery furnace overhead. We picked our way through desert flora among the basalt stones, including thistles that looked like wild artichokes, according to Jude. Suddenly we emerged into the pass and on a downslope met with our trusty truck crew, brandishing water buckets and cold tins of ice tea. It was nearly 4. Never was such a sight more appreciated. They had refilled the truck’s water supply back at the pump with troughs, and in this waterless place this was a blessing.
Heading off across the road once again, we entered into a winding stream course and a much rockier terrain. We were successfully off the road but could we continue through this trappy country? Here farmers had built dry stone walls of basalt like the granite walls on Dartmoor hill farms. Some of them came down to meet the stream we were following. There were now small rocky fields with beef cattle in them above us to the right and west, between us and the road. Such enclosures are rare in Turkey where the fenceless openness of the country is one of the great advantages for riders. The only way forward appeared to be to take down some of the stones for the horses to cross and then rebuild the walls has they had been, as happens on Dartmoor. We did this twice, scrambling over and then stopping to replace the stones. Now spotting the cattle farmer’s house in a small grove of poplars, we headed for this idyllic site.
We were in the rugged hill country of Taşlık, with not so much as a hamlet marked on the map. We were met and hailed by Ismet Bey and his extended family, including a grandmother who looked on in dignified silence, and the children Murat, Musa, Sema, and Berat, who fearlessly stroked the horses. There were stone yalaks brimming with water. When we were treated to glasses of fresh ayran on a sparkling tin tray, nothing could have been better. Rather than running us out of Dodge as cattle rustlers, since we had come from out of their own enclosed fields, Ismet’s family welcomed us as the mad Evliya followers we were.
Crossing the highway from the farm gateway towards the southwest, we found ourselves in high grazing grounds with dairy cattle and a few sheep. A feel of the steppe gave way to a sandy track and the sandy track to a steep slope we slithered down. A shepherd in a car talking on his mobile phone got out to talk to us and accompanied us down the winding hill road to where a huge flock of goats was drinking at troughs. Although we protested that the horses did not need to drink then, since we had only left the cattle farm within the hour, he insisted on getting the boys to move the flock on from the toughs so the horses could drink unmolested.
Beyond the troughs an unpaved track extended in our direction. After the briefest of nose-dampings, the horses appeared ready and eager to move on. We trotted and cantered down the winding track, down, down, until we came to what appeared to be Altunhisar. The road surface was unpaved but still not ideal for going at speed, hard in places and softer and sandier in places. Not quite road-hammering, if the horses trotted within themselves. The collective pace, however, was at full extension for some, with some cantering. It was only just all right, given the surface. The need to make up time was always there as an excuse.
Entering a stone-built hillside village, where several of the houses had wooden cumbas, or upper-storey porches like deep bay windows extending over the street, we soon caught sight of our minibus, the more mobile of the two support vehicles. Mac was there to reassure us that we had a campsite in Altunhisar and should just continue down the hill through the village, which would have orchards and green spaces but nowhere to camp with the horses, until we came to the Hayvanlar bazaar, the livestock market, where we had permission to camp and stable the horses. The green village was Yeşilyürt, and it was indeed beautifully green, and had beautiful old stone houses where the women gathered to call out to us. One grandmother jovially offered, when we said we were riding to Istanbul, ‘In that case, you had better get going!’ This brought a laugh and much friendly waving as we moved on.
Idyllic orchards lush with grass, surrounded by stone walls, abutted farm courtyards, many of them built around flat-fronted two-storey stone houses. Soon we passed the old fortified caves carved into the cliff face that may have given Altunhisar the ‘hisar’ of its name. We were entering the modern world again. Near the bottom of the slope of the town we came to the Hayvanlar Pazarı, facing the football field where a few boys were playing in the dusk. Beyond that lay a park commemorating by name local martyrs of the Turkish government’s war with the PKK, a militant Kurdish separatist party, a conflict ongoing since the 1980s and early 1990s until recent talks with the AK government have made an opening towards peace. It was 7:30 and getting dark as we ushered the horses into individual pens, watered and fed them, and put up the tents. Cars kept arriving, from a mayoral sedan to three different police cars with flashing lights, to enquire who and how we were. Having the market meant that they were required by custom to accommodate people travelling with animals, apparently, and they wanted to be reassured we would be moving on in the morning! Somehow a fire was lit and enough chicken barbequed to satisfy the hungry masses. The dogs of Altunhisar barked throughout the night. It was our first time camping within earshot of a town.