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Sheepdogs, blisters and tea: 100 km on foot through rural Anatolia

Posted at 14:00 December 6, 2012 in City

In April my son and I returned from a rather over-ambitious camping trip and I found myself burdened with a load of camping stuff sitting mockingly, accusingly unused in my bedroom. It needed to be put to use, and I needed to take a walk. After some research, I discovered the Evliyah Çelebi Way, ordered the guidebook, and set about planning my odyssey. Çelebi had been an Ottoman traveller, diplomat and adventurer. The Way is the initial part of his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1671. As for me, I was born in Jamaica, grew up in the UK, and have been living and teaching here in Istanbul since ’97.

I was at a point where I wanted to get out of Istanbul for a while and clear my head; I also wanted to travel. Rather than take a bus and see Anatolia with 37cm of leg room, I felt like I needed to count each step, and let everything thing slow down, watching mountains and rivers, valleys and villages pass me by, making each metre travelled a personal experience. For several years I’d also been feeling the urge to challenge myself and accomplish something from start to finish. As a teacher, one rarely gets that sense of having achieved something by their own efforts and skills alone – it’s a collaborative process; and if I couldn’t do it with my hands (doubtful since I’ve no carpentry skills to speak of), then I’d do it on my feet.

Initially, I’d planned to take my trip solo, not too concerned that I had no real experience in this sort of thing; it was essentially walking, and since I’m a pedestrian by both nature and nurture, I figured it was my kind of undertaking. A week before my scheduled departure, a colleague asked if he could join me. He had plenty of previous experience (unfortunately I realised later that all his anecdotes involved getting lost at some point) so we bought some food, planned a shorter 150km trek to Bursa, and arranged to meet in Yalova on the 22nd.

North of Kızderbent

He’d mapped the coordinates into his GPS, with a margin of error of no less than 500 metres– it was particularly great to discover that while trying to descend a mountain through dense scrub and trees. Hopping a dolmuş to Altınova, we dropped south, (having backtracked two kilometres) and found the river we would follow for the next twenty-two kilometres down to Kızderbent. Five minutes into the journey we discovered our first Incredulously Curious Local. After ten minutes explaining ‘I am English, my name’s Adam, yani Adem, he is American, though yes he does look a bit strange for an American, that’s because he was born in Pakistan. He’s a Muslim, I’m Christian’ (I’m an atheist, but have found that many Turks, more so in rural areas, just don’t understand how anyone can be an atheist) and ‘no we don’t have a car, or bikes, and yes we are walking all the way,’ we were back on Evliyah’s trail.

Kızderbent, a traditional village house

We ended up repeating this conversation in each village we stopped at, with the addition of where we’d been, where we were going, and in one village, Mahmudiye, the understanding that no one else had used this trail in quite some time. We’d been suspecting that this might be the case, given that the guidebook occasionally seemed to be describing another walk in a parallel universe. I’d been highly suspicious of the map since the first evening, when we discovered that one village just so happened to be fifteen kilometres from where it should’ve been… a minor detail, really.

You know what’s not a minor detail? The local dogs. We were ambushed wending our way through a gravel pit, and chased five hundred metres by three snarling, salivating, maniacally possessed beasts, probably named Pamuk or Fındık, or something equally innocuous. As a result I spent the entire trip down a mountainside, convinced that I could hear a dog barking in the distance, and expecting to find a whole pack of them around each bend of the dried up river bed, probably waiting for a delicious snack.

Strays were one thing, but the kangal sheepdogs were a whole ’nother ball game. The two pictured are called Toni and Chelsea, and they’re beautiful, loyal, intelligent animals. Well, until a sheep happens to head in your direction, and they turn into foaming, spring-loaded, harbingers of imminent dismemberment. Sometimes the shepherd would whistle them back, but others, they’d just lean on their staffs and watch the fun. I’ll admit there isn’t much distraction in watching sheep graze, but some of these shepherds have a particularly obtuse sense of humour.

Ahmet the shepherd with Toni and Chelsea

I’d often heard of the hospitable nature of Turks, but it isn’t until you’ve wandered into a village, dusty, hot, tired, stale, and unshaven that you realise how true it really is. Numerous times a ten minute rest stop would still be underway forty minutes later, when one glass of tea had become five. At each village, I’d tell our story at least three times as more men arrived at the kahve.

Villages felt like home after only five minutes, and I was struck by the disparity: only in cities do you receive the challenging ‘You’re not from around here’ stare as you travel through a mahalle. We were welcomed into every village with offers of lifts, words of advice and encouragement, and sage heads nodding. Taking our leave, we shook hands – still a meaningful act more than a perfunctory gesture in these remote areas – and munched on our recent gifts of grapes or apples or olives as we made our way towards the inevitable cemetery at the edge of each village, trying to remember if we should fork left, or right…

Time takes on a different meaning in rural Turkey. In Mahmudiye, 1893 is considered a recent year (the year the village was founded by refugees from Bulgaria). We walked in roughly fifty-minute blocks, but gauged our progress by the ever-growing blisters on my feet and the number of stones my friend seemed to accumulate in his sandals. Had it been one hill or two since the last pack of dogs tried to attack us? How many times have we crossed this river, and why did that book tell us to bother at all? And was that the second, or the third left we just passed? Neither of us particularly wanted to go back and check, so we just headed south, counting blisters, stones, and olive trees. The call to prayer is more personal, and the way in which it punctuates the day coming through a wooded valley, or rolling over the rocky highlands is particularly welcoming, and evocative.

On the first night we camped out, by then we were averaging about twenty-five kilometres a day over five hours, so we decided to stay in hotels. There are places to camp in İznik, Yenişehir, and İnegöl, but we did what Evliyah would’ve done (minus the servants and mules) and slept well, and had a hot breakfast prepared for us (mostly hot, anyway; in one hotel in Yenişehir we found ourselves wondering what day the egg had been boiled).

We passed a family as we were walking down from Yeniyöruk. This was shortly after we’d been ambushed by two of the biggest kangals I’ve ever seen, but we were hardened men by this point, and counter-charged. We’d had enough barking and snapping after 3 days on the trail and (thankfully) the feral beasts turned tail and ran. We limped on, basking in the glory of our feat. Although we’d initially only meant to stop and ask to refill our water bottles, we were treated to a full kurban meal, including a huge plate of homemade baklava.

The walk into İnegöl was punctuated by the occasional left or right turn, one last spirited ambush by three Beagle puppies, and watching various men perform the sacrifice required on the first day of Kurban Bayramı. I stood and watched as a beautiful black cow was ritually slaughtered. I have no particular moral compunction about killing animals for food, and it’d be hypocritical of me to comment on whether it’s right to do it for religious reasons, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it was an intensely personal experience.

The author in Yalova, heading home

We decided against walking to Bursa. By that stage we were both hobbling on our last plasters. We’d walked, slid, limped and slogged 100km in four days. Sitting in a taxi, explaining where we’d journeyed from, the driver turned to me and said, ‘Vallah abi, ben sana taktir vereceğim.’ He looked at me with appreciation and respect, and I remembered why I’d set out in the first place. It felt good, that sense of achievement. Adam Bowden

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