We should begin with the horses. Without the horses, there would be no expedition.
Avanos. On Saturday the 16th, five of the team took to the saddle for a trial run. Leaving behind the shade of the Kızılırmak River Valley, we rode to ‘the mountain’, as it is known: Ziyaret Tepe, the hill on the slopes of which Avanos nestles. Ercihan rode Anadolu, his endurance champion mare who led the 2009 Evliya Çelebi Ride, Susan her favourite Juno, a veteran traveller.
Ann rode Kelebek, a purebred Arabian from the TIGEM Karacabey stud, who has made every expedition since arriving in 2010 at Akhal Teke. Kelebek is beloved of many, and Ann has happily partnered with her before. This was a good fit since both Kelebek and Ann enjoy a certain independence. They like to set their own pace, and are not bothered by being at a distance from the rest of the group.
Jude, just arrived from the West Coast of the States, and in Turkey for the first time, rode the grey Zorlu, a recent acquisition, and a very lively ride who travelled on the 2013 Evliya Çelebi Way Ride, regularly ridden by Mac. She bears some resemblance to Titiz, ridden by Donna in 2009 and 2010 on the Evliya Çelebi Way.
Donna rode Aşgar, the horse she would be sharing with Mac once the heat of mid-August abated. This tall bay mare from Urfa, near the Syrian border, is nothing like an Arabian. She resembles Anadolu in her legginess, her longish back and loin, and her cleverness up and down mountains and over stony ground. Jude, who breeds Akhal Tekes in Oregon, thinks that Aşgar and Anadolu may well have Akhal Teke blood. Mac had ridden her with delight at the start of the 2013 Ride.
Following sandy tracks through vineyards and small orchards, we ascended, building muscle and testing our wind, walking trotting, cantering. We left the tracks behind and cut across the mountainside, now up, now down, through patches of dry thistles and scrub. We were getting a feel for our horses’ way of going. And checking that the saddles fit well enough for such rugged terrain, with their breastplates, saddle bags, and in some cases leather water-bottle holders. A misfit for horse or rider, if undetected now, could prove disastrous later on the road. Two and a half hours passed most agreeably. We were all happy with our mounts and they with us.
When Jean arrives from Belgium, he will accompany Zenopya (one of Donna’s favourites, a genuine ‘bloody-shouldered Arabian’).
All-rounder Tuvana will come along as yedek, so that there is always a spare horse, and one for any extra riders. This is the traditional Ottoman and Turkish method. Sometimes in open country, away from roads, the yedek is set free rather than led from the back of another horse. When she gallops past, snorting, with her tail over her back, often dangling a mouthful of sweet long grass, it is clear that equestrian expeditions have been designed solely for the entertainment of the yedek. Tuvana would be bound to enjoy herself, dawdling to graze and then performing her favourite trick of coming from behind like a speeding bullet, a trick always disconcerting to somebody riding her for the first time (and sometimes for those she is passing). Right from the start, she would assert her independence.
We dined that night by lantern light on the romantic roof terrace of Bizim Ev in Avanos – with little doubt the best place in town for genuine local dishes uncontaminated by the demands of tourist fare – a fitting send-off before imagined rigours to come.
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.
Day Three. Tuesday, 19 August. Derinkuyu to west of Bağlama.
Contributed by Donna Landry
This morning some of the farmworkers’ children came to have a ride on the horses. The amiable Kelebek did sterling service as Ann led her round. We set off at 7:50, heading for new villages on the plain before planning to arrive somewhere in the foothills of the Melendiz range. When asking directions, we were headed towards Çiftlik, some 50 kilometres away. Wherever there are asphalt roads in Turkey, there is an assumption that travellers will want to make use of them. We had to keep asking for toprak yollar, dirt roads in American, assuring everybody we were in search of the old routes, the old ways and not the black-topped highways.
The first village today was very much an automotive stop near the highway, not very prepossessing in architecture or natural setting. Yet Ağacaşar was surprisingly welcoming. We watered the horses at a pump with a hose near a petrol station. Men gathered round to chat and help fill buckets for the horses to drink from. Boys on bicycles rode up. We said we were followers of Evliya Çelebi, taking to the road and following in his hoofprints to learn what we could from travelling as he had done. An old boy on a motorbike offered to escort us and show us the best way out-of-town to meet with a toprak yol. He was as good as his word, with the added advantage that he took us via his favourite teashop, where we could tether the horses and sit in the shade, drinking delicate little glasses of tea and checking in with the local men at their leisure. This was our first proper tea stop, one of the great pleasures of travelling in Turkey, especially by horse, which is indeed thirsty-making.
Soon we were on the road again, this time to Alay Köyu, which lay on the far side of many irrigated fields, some of yonca. We passed modern concrete houses that had been turned into farmsteads with chickens, geese, and beautiful cows. Once a heifer broke away from some women in a courtyard and bounded towards us, attracted by the horses. She was beautiful, a lovely pale pinky-brown with a dark nose like a Jersey cow, with a sweet expression of astonishment. She showed us her horns, then her heels, turning with a dash and bounding back towards the courtyard. Not far on, a herd of cattle, including a bull, turned and began crossing a field in our direction, gathering speed. The cowherd was quickly to the fore, however, and turned his cattle back, waving his stick and halloing. A few paces on, his dogs were lying at their ease in the shade.
At a small house by the track, a woman with a small boy came out and walked beside us, cautioning that there were pesticides in the fields and not to let the horses graze the verges there. Was this an omen of things to come?
A few fields later, men were cutting up the carcase of a cow they said had been poisoned by pesticides. We rode on, feeling uneasy at this accumulating evidence of modern agribusiness going wrong, or of people’s lack of understanding of how to make use of chemical pesticides, and no doubt, herbicides and fertilizers, safely. We came into Alay, heading for the main square, accompanied by the geese who often serve as early warning systems in villages without many dogs. The tea shop was in a modern range of low shops with a chemist, bordering a small green space lined with willows and poplars that provided some shade. Opposite it was the mosque, with a public lavatory that was spotlessly clean. Nearby were a stationers’ shop and two small restaurants. Soon a crowd had gathered to see the horses and Ercihan was in full public-speaking mode. He told them about Evliya, and how important it was for them to connect with their Ottoman equestrian heritage. Some questioned this, suggesting that where there were poverty and unemployment, there was a need for food on the table not Ottoman horse history. As our truck arrived with water buckets for the horses, so did an invitation from a restaurant owner to give us lunch. At the Alay Pide Salonu we feasted on wood-fired-oven roasted peppers, tomatoes, and chicken wings, kuşbaşılı pide (‘birds’ heads’ Turkish pizza, with small chopped morsels of meat), spicy ezme (salsa-like) and yoghurt, washed down with ayran, the yoghurt drink.
When the jandarma arrived to check our passports just as we were mounting up, they were, as usual, friendly and interested in the horses. But an unfortunate incident was about to occur. These things happen in Turkey, too.
After walking through Alay with the horses, we mounted up, escorted by kids on bicycles and dirt-bike scooters. There were muddy streets to cross, shambolic yards, modern concrete houses serving as smallholdings, sometimes with geese and other livestock. It was as if people had moved from their picturesque stone villages to this ugly modern and functionalist one, and many were now both landless and unemployed. The large gathering of young men hanging out near the tea shop suggested that prime minister, now president, Erdoğan’s advice to families to have at least three children was reaping its fruits.
With Jude leading the ride on Anadolu, we continued on across fields keeping the highway in view since our direction was the town of Bağlama that lay along it. We met up with the support crew by the roadside and learned that our destination was a campsite near trees in the far distance at the base of the Melendiz range. After crossing the highway we tracked across a stony plain marked with cairns and dry watercourses. We had left modern farming behind, for now, and entered the land of hill shepherds.
We entered camp at about 4pm. Again it rained on us just after we had set up camp, but cleared up before sundown. The site was beautiful, in a tree-shaded stubble field, and had everything one could wish for except a water source. Yunus Emre and Mevlut prepared a delicious turnip stew. Even habitual meat-eaters praised it, though they questioned privately why we had had vegetarian rations two nights running. There was another splendid campfire. Plans were made for Ince Mehmet to lead the ride the next day on Anadolu, for Jude to ride Tuvana for a change, for Ahmet 2 to ride Zorlu so that we should not have a yedek as we crossed the mountains.
Day Two. Monday, 18 August. Ibrahimpaşa to Derinkuyu.
Contributed by Donna Landry
We set off as agreed at 7:30 towards the underground city of Derinkuyu. Soon we would be out of familiar territory and exploring new paths far from the tourist trail. As we left Cappadocia behind, we had a fine view of Mount Erciyes and the rising sun on our left to the east, and then at our backs. This great mountain, together with Hasan Dağ, part of the Melendiz Range to which we were heading, and which is said to be the primary donor of today’s tufa, produced the volcanic landscape through which we were riding.
Our first taste of remote modern Turkey came with the town of Kavak Kasabası (‘Poplar Smalltown’), a place of many cave-depots for cold storage of fruits and vegetables. Lemons and potatoes were especially featured, the lemons coming up from Mersin, the potatoes locally grown. Where there are natural caves and small hills from which warehouses can be hollowed out, it is possible to retain an even cool temperature, especially if air shafts are attached. We skirted small forests of these, feeling acutely we were on the verge of industrial farming for the first time. Where fruit had been trucked in and deposited, much of the packaging was lying waste in colourful piles. The scent of fermenting lemons was pungent.
It occurred to me that both outgoing Gül and his AK successor, Erdoğan, ought to see more of what we were seeing as we were seeing it. If they couldn’t ride horses, they could ride quad bikes. The çöp, or refuse, problem in Turkey is endemic and growing exponentially with economic development, especially beyond the reach of tourist buses. It seems beyond the current capacities of villagers themselves to deal with the accumulation of plastic alone. Perhaps this could be a development supported by the Gates-funded project – which is about educating and skilling people. The libraries involved could help to mobilise municipalities and smaller communities to tackle waste collection and disposal. Education in recycling of plastics and other non-traditional materials could lead to new business and employment opportunities. Cleaning up the countryside from the intensifying littering and dumping would benefit local people. We were not the only ones to notice differences amongst places, places people took pride in and looked after, and places where the environment seemed neglected and the people alienated from it. The current government has not taken much action that could be called environmentally sensitive, favouring big infrastructural projects such as dams, bridges, and tunnels without much, if any, environmental or ecological consultation or assessment. Yet if these questions are not addressed, there are always consequences in the long-term. There can even be a backlash. How soon before tourists stop coming to litter-spoiled places? How soon before water contamination and maximal extraction-exhaustion become major problems for Turkey?
Such thoughts were fleeting as we rode high in the hills, looking down on Güvenlik and Kaymaklı, passing between large cultivated fields of pumpkins, squash, potatoes, green beans, barley, and wheat. The pumpkins were particularly surprising to see in such quantities, especially since they look exactly like Ottoman turbans as pictured in so many old miniatures. These fields were irrigated with underground systems and sprinklers. The older network of roadside fountains and troughs for watering grazing herds was nowhere to be seen.
Thus began the theme of the search for water in a land famous for its freshly flowing snow-melt- and spring-fed rivers and streams. There has been a drought in Turkey this year. After a mild winter, limiting the snow accumulation, and a late frost that killed early sprouting crops and flowering fruit trees, the modern irrigation systems were also taking their toll. We passed dry, disused çeşmes. The upside was that the irrigation systems sometimes include beside their pumps rectangular storage tanks like David Hockney’s blue swimming pools. The horses could drink from these or from the inevitable plastic buckets left lying about. We made several stops of this kind, for the horses to drink and graze, and for us to consume a few cucumbers or tomatoes from the small market gardens usually surrounding such a pumping station.
Eventually we came to higher country with cattle, more trees, some orchards, and grand views over the valley of Derinkuyu. Here there were farmsteads from which we were hailed by women in bright headscarves and asked where we were coming from and where we were going. A couple pruning their apricot and walnut trees gave us directions. Kelebek took this opportunity of our pausing for a chat to attempt to roll but didn’t get very far, as Ann got her up instantly, clinging on even when jolted in front of the saddle and then back again. (Zorlu had had a go a couple of hours earlier on a sandy track, tipping her hand to Jude that she would give no warning if she saw a desirable place to get down and dirty in.) Those who like eating sunflower seeds were given whole sunflower heads to sample as they rode along. Ercihan and Susan were experts at this game. And since we hadn’t taken much food with us, still novices as to what and how much to carry for the day . . .
As we came down towards the plains below, we skirted migrant worker camps. There was a huge one for Syrian refugees, with scores of tents and vehicles covering a treeless hillside. The dry and rocky steppe gave way to fertile fields on a vast plain. Were these among the luckier refugees, to be able to earn a pittance by working in the fields during harvest time?
After passing more fields of lushly watered crops, including delectable looking green beans, we came to our campsite on a market gardening farm on the plain. It was 3:30 by now, after 8 hours in the saddle, and had begun to cloud over.
We had mainly walked, trotted only intermittently, and had one longish fast canter. This was the plan. We were in training for endurance. Although the horses were already fit, we would condition them further by slowly increasing the amount of faster work they did incrementally, day by day. We hoped this would coincide with the temperatures dropping as August became September. Of course our speed would also depend on the nature of the terrain.
The horses were turned out to roll and graze and eat yonca. Storm clouds blackened suddenly, and we had just enough time to cover our saddles and baggage with tarpaulins before the deluge, and take shelter under the truck canopy. Soon a rainbow appeared. We dined that night on taze fasulye, the green beans we had coveted, and drank Turkish red wine by the campfire for the first time.
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.
Day One. Sunday, 17 August. Avanos to Ibrahimpaşa.
Contributed by Donna Landry
Starting out on an expedition is always nerve-wracking. In Turkey it is also always late, or at least several hours later than it might have been. And in mid-August, every delay means the sun is higher and hotter in the cloudless blue.
Today’s getaway was complicated by the coincidence of another riding tour heading out from the ranch, the popular Cappadocia Highlights, which drew riders from the riding holiday companies In the Saddle (UK) and Equitours (USA). We would set off together, take different routes, and meet again at lunchtime near the White Valley. Climbing up into the hills above Avanos, heading westward before turning south across the river, we caught glimpses of each other when we stopped to water the horses.
It was morning still but already the heat was making its presence felt. Once across the river by the western-most Avanos bridge, we entered the badlands, looking out for shade and water as we went. After a quarry or two – everywhere in Turkey there seem to be quarries, for road-building, construction, tile-making — we headed through narrow defiles, following small water courses that cut their way through the volcanic tufa that gives the area its distinctive features. A big black jack donkey was tethered by a stream. He couldn’t believe his luck that so many mares were passing and worked himself into a powerful braying fit. The mares, however, took no notice and walked sedately on.
We came upon a Turkish couple with their vehicle parked near a spring, enjoying that simplest of pleasures, sharing a patch of shade under a rocky cliff and cool spring water. A rabbit bounded across our path. Clouds shrouded the sun, briefly.
We hit an undulating chalky track across country – perfect for a pipe-opener. What began as a canter turned swiftly into a gallop as was likely to happen with horses that had been in training and fed to prime fitness. Now we would see how well we could all travel at speed. I was pleased that Aşgar listened, coming back to me when asked, and steadying into a good hunting pace. While the leaders disappeared over a rise, we carried on freely, the reins light in hand. Then on the next downhill we increased our speed, to feel what we could do. She flew. She neither pulled nor took a strong hold. All her paces were elastic and comfortable, and galloping flat-out was as smooth as a river flowing. She was unfussed by being seemingly alone with me in that fantastic landscape. When we caught up with the others and the dust had settled, the sun once again blazing overhead, I was confident that we would go well together over whatever terrain and at whatever pace was required.
We skirted Göreme just after Turkish mid-day (yarim: 12:30), crossing two roads and passing a roadside restaurant, where we turned to trot along the tree-lined sandy track of the Zemi Valley near the El Nazar Kilisesi (church). After a mile we turned into a shady glade where the horses could graze in the undergrowth. This first lunch stop was hosted by our expedition crew of Yunus Emre, Mevlut, and Ahmet 2 (‘CanCan’, JonJon), and we were eventually joined by the Cappadocia Highlights riders, led by Ahmet 1 and Raphaëlle Lachèze. There was much interest amongst the group in Mac’s forthcoming book about the outgoing Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, who was born on Turkish Independence Day in 1950, the first year that there were multiparty elections. His is a Midnight’s Children story. His family origins lie in Kayseri, one of the ‘Anatolian Tiger’ towns of Turkey’s economic boom and conservative reform movement, but also include summer holidays in Izmir, a secular Aegean stronghold. Gül studied and learned English in England, got a PhD in economics in Turkey, was an academic economist in Turkey and then an Islamic banker in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before becoming caught up in Turkish politics as an MP for Kayseri, eventually a representative to the Council of Europe, briefly Prime Minister for the ruling AK party, and then President. Abdullah Gül and the Making of the New Turkey (Oneworld, 2014) traces the fortunes of how Gül’s and his party’s rise to power has brought about a seismic shift in the distribution of wealth and political clout, for the first time tilting towards benefiting the inhabitants of the Anatolian heartland though which we were riding. What might we learn from observing the effects of these policies?
After a late lunch of meze and a tomatoey pasta dish in the shade, topped off by watermelon, we set off when shadows were beginning to lengthen to ride through the spectacular White Valley and on to Ortahisar en route to our designated campsite at Ibrahimpaşa. Accompanied by shadow horses and riders in silhouette against the white tufa cones and phalluses, we scaled heights to peer into immaculate vineyards and small cultivated fields. Here we had glimpses once again of the unspoiled Cappadocia of 20 years ago, when Mac and I first came to ride here.
We clattered into Ortahisar as the sun was turning to that golden hour when the local stone glows with the fading heat of the day. Watering the horses at a çeşme, a fountain with a yalak, an attached trough, we savoured freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice from the village square, and bought dried fruit, apricots and figs, to carry in our saddle bags. Turkish horses love fruit in any form. I wished I had bought at least half a kilo when I saw how eager Aşgar was to help me devour the kayısı and incur.
Passing flat-fronted and sometimes flat-roofed stone houses, a style we would continue to see in remote villages on subsequent days, and which in Cappadocia is acknowledged to be ‘Greek’, we swept downhill through Ortahisar and then along until we rounded the turn to glimpse Ibrahimpaşa, another but much smaller stone-built village, seemingly carved from the tufa, clinging to its own cliffside in the gathering dusk. We didn’t know it yet but this campsite would not be so much camping as glamping.
We were to stay at the small ranch of ‘Bombacı’ Adem Bey, a fellow horselover, near his and his wife’s Babayan Evi hotel and restaurant. A clean sandy corral for the horses where they could relish their beautiful yonca, alfalfa hay, and their high protein muesli mix from Zeytinoğlu Yem. And a cave house with guest rooms and an outdoor dining table for us. The meal was fantastic, prepared by Adem’s wife, a noted chef. There were even squash flowers, a rare delicacy, as well as fresh vegetables and fruit, and two delicious meat stews, one of cumin-laced lamb and one of beef with chick peas. The arduousness of actually camping was yet to come.