Day Five. Thursday, 21 August, 2014. From Altunhisar to Zengen.
Contributed by Donna Landry
We set forth at 7:40 from the cattle market, basking in the morning cool, and wound the rest of the way down the town’s streets until we came to the main road and crossed it to ride across the tarla, the surrounding fields. Again we were cheered by women in headscarves. The fields were mainly of stubble, though we did pass some with melons that seemed to have passed their peak on the vine. Would they be harvested, and if so, when?
Eight kilometres from Altunhisar on the way to Bayat we came into dried wetlands. We were crossing a dried water meadow where a small flock of sheep were grazing among the reed beds. The shepherd kindly let us water the horses from his troughs. Crossing this huge common, and noting the holes made by the susluk, the Anatolian ground squirrel, we came upon another, this time huge, flock of sheep led by a beautiful donkey with the biggest ears you have ever seen. The common was now overlaid with concrete water courses which had to be crossed. Kelebek, as the yedek today because there had been a slight swelling near her girth, probably from an insect bite found that morning, helicoptered over the concrete trench. She thrust herself high in the air, as if levitating, or being a fired rocket, legs dangling down, as she went over it. No question of jumping it according to any conventional style.
Open grassy spaces have an exhilarating effect on many horses, and riders know this. Jigging and jog-trotting and little curvets at canter are invitations to gallop. But this going was not very suitable for it. Too many holes and hidden water courses with soft going, not to mean scattered flocks of sheep. Now ponying Kelebek was Jean, who instinctively took Zenopya and the yedek out to one side at a steady walk, away from the mincing Anadolu and her wannabe side-kick Zorlu. Pursuing a different but parallel line put an end to competition. Jean was thinking like a horseman. Things settled down immediately.
Along the road there were hedge-banks made of dried dung cakes piled onto saplings. This was new to me. Many were beginning to sprout, creating a living hedge plus bank. This might explain the row of veteran trees, poplars that had been felled and left in place, their jagged roots thrusting skyward on the roadside. Running alongside a low-slung industrial warehouse-style building that was unmarked, this could have been another hedge-bank in the making, replacing the avenue of trees to secure an enclosure.
Eight kilometres further on, we came to Bayat. We passed a modern block of flats with a banner campaigning for Erdoğan and the AK, in counterpoint to graffiti for the MHP, the Turkish Nationalist party, scrawled on an electrical junction box we had passed earlier in the morning. Bayat has a very clean-swept meydan, or town square, with a tea shop opposite the mosque. The only shade lies along the wall of the cemetery to the side of the tea shop. That was where we tethered the horses. Our truck arrived just as fetching water for them began to seem really urgent, and the desire for tea for ourselves scarcely less so. In the tea shop the route was discussed and maps produced. The friendly proprietor, who looked like a frontier desperado with long hair and a moustache, gave us tea after cold bottles of soda water. The kind-faced muhtar made suggestions about routes. There were disagreements about how to read a map in relation to where we were and where we wanted to go. Once it was clear that most of us at least knew which direction Kayseri was in, where we had come from, and where we wanted to go, heading towards the Karaca Dağ mountainous park where there were reputedly herds of feral horses, we mounted up again and set forth.
This time we would actually have an encampment and a rest during the hottest part of the day before riding on in the late afternoon to our proper campsite. While the horses rested, Mehmet would go scouting on the motorbike to find a really good campsite for the night. We headed for Çukurkuyu for the mid-day stop. There we were hosted by cattle farmers who lent us the use of several tree-lined ploughed fields, perfect for our purposes. The not-actually-electrified-tape corral went up, and we and the horses all had shade if we wished. Some people slept, some wrote in their journals, some practiced their Turkish, some had showers at the kamyonet for the first time.
After lunch and Mehmet’s return, it was time to saddle up. Something told me that there might be some fast work ahead: perhaps it was the prospect of riding into the cool of evening. I took my stirrups up a notch just in case. Riding across a desertified plain in the dazzling sunset we did indeed trot and canter on. The fifteen or twenty kilometres that could have taken 2 or 3 hours at a more casual pace we did in less than an hour. The horses arrived at camp still full of go. We managed to walk the last stretch; nobody was sweating.
At the edge of Zengen was a green place, a well watered glade next to a stone reservoir pool with stone troughs, and beyond that the cemetery and an ancient hüyük, or earthmound. In the cemetery were some very old gravestones in the rough-cut Selcuk style and an assortment of nineteenth-century and more recent graves. There was one, perhaps for a dervish, with a white stone-carved turban traced with lacy orange lichen that was so warm to the touch it felt alive. Later an eloquent young woman with long black hair, a teacher, came with some children when it was unfortunately already too dark for them to see the horses, and told us that the hüyük was indeed both ancient and unexcavated, as far as she knew. The town had once been called Zengin (‘rich’) but was now known as Zengen, which doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a name. She told us that there were indeed feral horses at Karaca Dağ, but ‘az’, a few, not so many as there once were. This suggested that culling of some sort had taken place, a move applauded by Jude, who knows all about the probable fate of many mustangs in America today now that culling is banned and the population is growing in unsustainable ways.
It was fully dark now, and route planning by maps was coming to an end. Then Ahmet 1 arrived from Akhal Teke with Mac and Erdinç. He would lead the ride, freeing up Mehmet to drive the truck and scout the territory for camping. Further map consultations ensued. Jean’s compass would be put to use for sure. Those of us returning to Avanos that night departed, regretting that being on the road with horses was for us now coming to an end. The extreme heat had done its work. Ride ‘em, covboy, but let the horses find the way, was all we could say. After five days it was clear that, as Jude might put it, it wasn’t anybody’s first rodeo.