From 2,000 year-old hamam to eastern-most temple of Zeus in Anatolia. Donna writes:
We had arrived at dusk at Sefa Koyu the night before. The day’s ride to Sefa Koyu had unfolded during the first seriously gloomy weather since our journey began in September. A cold wind was intermittently blowing. Ercihan, Caroline, and I had been joined on horseback by Pinar, a trekkist and friend of Ercihan’s from Istanbul. Mac was still riding the cab with Metin, Sedat, and the puppies Emine and Pamuk, trying every day to get his boot on over his wounded toe and not quite making it. He had hopes of being able to ride into Kutahya in a few days’ time. Mountain passes, mountain villages where apples and apple peelings were being dried on the terraces and in the streets, occasional drifts of woodsmoke, and many cats, marked our journey from our camp outside Kalkan near Simav. We rode through Kalkan and Senkoy, which both had lovely curving streets and old wood carvings on many houses. Then we skirted Inlice, another mountain village built of wood, but unlike the others not humming with life. Inlice was indeed the Turkish equivalent of Oliver Goldsmith’s deserted village. All the population except one elderly woman had gone, leaving her, as Goldsmith wrote, ‘the sad historian of the pensive plain’, or in this case, pensive hillside.
This was a district of wonderful textiles as well as late season harvests of fruit and vegetables. Alongside or under the drying apples were colourful kilims and chuals -- woven storage bags. We found a big kilim partly burned and discarded by the side of the road, in shades of brown, black, green, cream, and yellow. Stopping to perform a Nomadic Artifact Rescue Operation, we cut away the burned sections and tied what would become exceptionally eye-catching and comfortable saddle blankets back home in Avanos onto the backs of our saddles.
Stopping for tea at Kestel, we were reunited with the van crew and warmed ourselves at the kahvehanesi with several glasses of chai. A few kilometres more, we were told, and there would be a suitable campsite. But when we arrived at it, it turned out to be at the edge of a ploughed field on a windswept hillside just off the road, with hardly any grass for the horses and hardly any flat spaces onto which to pitch tents. It was cold, and growing colder by the moment.
As so often happens in Turkey, some people turned up just then, telling us that, if we rode on, in less than another ten kilometres, we would come to another village with a hamam, a ‘misafirhane’ or guest house, and plenty of good grazing. We agreed enthusiastically to press on since there was still just enough daylight left.
And so we came to Sefa Koyu, where thermal springs have been providing local people and weary travellers with hot bathing pools, showers, and spa treatments for millennia. Inside an enclosure, but open to the sky, lay a stone terrace with a deep pool steaming in the cold. Next to it an even hotter shower plunged perpetually. The horses were turned out in grassy parkland, dotted with picnic pagodas, which provided them with windbreaks and us with shelter as the rain came on. We pitched tents in torchlight because the promised guest house had not been cleaned in some time, and Metin declared it ‘pis’, and entirely unsuitable. But with a thermal spa on hand, dating from before the Roman occupation, and a reasonable place for the horses to spend the night, we were content.
It was the end of October, and the weather appeared to be turning with the calendar page. November beckoned, promising to feel less like autumn and more like winter in this hill country.
The next day we said goodbye to Pinar. Ercihan, Caroline, and I were partnered with our usual horses – Anadolu, Sarhosh, and Titiz -- with Ilos (who had been, and was intended to serve as, Mac’s mount and had carried Pinar) as stand-by or ‘yedek’. Our policy with yedeks had been to lead them if there was any danger of traffic or interference with local lifeways, or if we were following tracks where we needed to leave as few traces as possible. But in open country, if they peaceably followed the others, there was no need to lead them. Ercihan’s horses are usually very good about this, as about being picketed, or if one of the ‘serbest’ or free ones, staying in camp even if not tied.
There had been days of riding along in rivers, for instance, with the sunlight glancing off the ripples, and beautifully clean river bottoms glistening in the sun. We might ride for a long way in the river itself, cooling the horses’ legs, or we might make frequent crossings from bank to bank. Usually the yedeks behaved themselves, splashing along happily as if being ridden, and making it easier for us to negotiate steep and wooded banks without being encumbered by a led horse.
On this morning, however, Ilos, who is very forward going, seemed determined to enjoy herself in wilful ways, rushing ahead of us, taking her own line, attempting to lead the ride instead of Anadolu, who resented this, and even disappearing at times as we tried to stick to our course and not be diverted by her antics.
Ercihan’s brilliant sense of direction and eye for country meant we kept making good time in spite of having to outwit Ilos. On steep and wooded hillsides, away from roads, it made more sense not to lead her but to keep persuading her by various strategies to rejoin us.
Then we came to a narrow river overhung by trees, which looked black and possibly fathomlessly deep, but it was difficult to tell in the gloom. No obvious ford presented itself. Ercihan and Anadolu went down the bank cautiously, but Anadolu, having put one foot in the water, trembled on the brink. She danced from side to side and finally tried to jump across instead of fording sensibly. She cleared the water, but only just, hitting her knees on the opposite side and scrambling to her feet. She and Ercihan recovered instantly, no harm done whatsoever. However, I thought it would be better for my horse not to have to have me on board if she too were to hit the bank. I had spotted a makeshift bridge nearby, a single plank, the wooden equivalent of a granite clapper bridge, and, dismounting, ran across it to the other side of the stream. Holding Titiz’s reins, I encouraged her to jump across to me. ‘Look out! She will jump on you’, shouted Ercihan. But by this time, our partnership was such that she knew exactly what to do, and she jumped across to land safely next to me, although she still hit the bank and landed partly on her knees as Anadolu had done. Not like Irish hunters, these otherwise handy Cappadocian steeds.
As the least experienced rider, Caroline was frightened and worried about what to do. She too dismounted. Giving my horse to Ercihan, I went back across the plank, took her horse’s reins, and got Sarhosh to jump across to me just as Titiz had done. Caroline then walked the plank, visibly relieved. Ilos was left alone on the other side. We thought she would jump across to join us.
Normally Ercihan’s horses are phenomenally good about this kind of obstacle. They do the sensible thing rather than panicking or causing trouble. We had learned much from our Turkish horses about how spoiled and silly most English and North American horses are. But on this morning, Ilos behaved perversely. She refused to cross. We mounted up, calling to her. Even when we attempted to ride on in a tempting fashion, she stayed on the opposite bank. She was not behaving like a brilliant Akhal-Teke Riding Centre expedition horse, but like . . . a normal horse. Which is to say that like cats, horses can and will be perverse. How I wished I had just gone back across the plank again and led her while she jumped across, as I had done the other two. And which I would have done if riding on Dartmoor or in the States, because one does not expect the kind of rational cooperation from most horses that we had come to expect from Ercihan’s. In the end, he dismounted, went across to Ilos, and led her over. Everybody was beginning to feel a bit tired and pinched with cold and impatient to get going again.
This was the only river crossing during our entire expedition in which the horses did not ford quietly and sensibly, or on rare occasions of leaving the floor, pop over without a fuss. I have to say that jumping is not a strong point amongst these horses. Although they are very sure-footed, and excellent at climbing and descending even the steepest of mountains, they often leave their legs behind if there is a biggish ditch or other obstacle to jump. Sarhosh, Caroline’s little gray mare with the heart of a lion, was the only horse to jump the stream cleanly that day.
After Karbasan, we stopped to eat the biscuits we were carrying in our pockets. We had alternated between field and forest crossings and unmade roads.
The cold is now unrelenting, and we can see what must be snow on the high tops of distant mountains. We dismount and lead the horses for a while. Then we come into Dushecek, a name suggesting a village at the end of the world. Here we are delighted to find tea available in the centre of town, and a small market in progress. Many men in tailored jackets and flat caps gather round to admire the horses. We buy carrots for the horses and bananas for ourselves and gratefully drink the hot sweet tea.
We are about to descend to the plain in which we will find Cavdarhisar, ancient Aizanoi, a city of Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. It is reportedly a fantastic site, though not much known about on the tourist trail. Having only heard the vaguest of descriptions, I am filled with anticipation to come upon a city of marble with bathhouse, amphitheatre, and great temple . . .
Sleet begins to fall as we descend. We are now riding on earthen tracks between ploughed fields in red clay country. The horses pick up galoshes of red clay on their feet.
Then suddenly the footing improves. We decide to pick up the pace a bit. Caroline, who began the ride not really having ridden since she was a girl, and rather apprehensive about riding at speed, is now willing to have a go. First we trot, Titiz stepping out as she does, with her lovely floating action, so that I can see her putting her toe out with every stride. We sustain this pace steadily for nearly the first time on the whole expedition. We have most often walked at a smart marching pace, with occasional bursts of speed. Often the going has been uncertain or treacherous. Many enticing stubble fields are riddled with ‘gelincik’ holes. (These gopher-like long-tailed weasels hibernate for the winter and had already gone to ground in late September. We have only seen one on our entire journey, though many signs of their existence.) For almost the first time ever, Caroline manages to keep Sarhosh happily trotting behind Titiz. Without Caroline and Sarhosh breathing down his neck, about to gallop on his heels and upset Anadolu, Ercihan too is trotting purposefully. He and Anadolu appear carefree. The kilometres fly past. We draw rein and walk for a while to catch our breaths. Then Ercihan mischievously says, ‘Why not canter?’
Some of us have been longing for this moment, having sneaked in short canters and even shorter gallops here and there, but not having been able to suggest that the entire group move on at speed in a sustained way with confidence. Now happy with how Sarhosh performs when settled behind Titiz, Caroline agrees. We canter. We are neither running away nor being run away with. We are rolling merrily along in a hand canter. No pulling or throwing our heads in the air. The rhythm of our hooves drums excitingly on the earthen track. We are flying, but not in an uncontrolled way. It might even be called a good ‘hunting’ pace, perfect for covering whatever terrain looms up out of the unknown when travelling across country. If only we had all been in such tune with our horses from the beginning; if only the going had been as good as this; if only . . .
When Anadolu’s canter slows, Titiz and I begin to trot. Titiz has a big stride, both at the canter and at the trot. Her ordinary trot is the equivalent of many shorter-legged horses’ canter. Sarhosh sees a trotting horse ahead and makes a dash for it, passing us, laughing a horse laugh. Ercihan and Anadolu pull up, now that this mighty lion-hearted dynamo is once again on their heels. . .
We are coming into the red clay galoshes country again now, anyway. The plain has become like fenland, with ditches and dykes and concrete irrigation watercourses on legs ranging alongside the ploughed or fallow fields. It is drizzling lightly and the light is failing although officially there is still an hour or so of daylight left. We come to a main road and are joined by Sedat and our new hosts from Cavdarhisar in a car. Sedat and Ercihan switch places, though Sedat rides Ilos, bareback and in a headcollar, and leads Anadolu. We follow directions, cross fields, come to another road where the car is waiting again with further instructions.
Is that a temple we can glimpse in the distance? On the other hand, I think, it could be a sugar factory. . . We continue to cross fields, come to a village where a man in a suit escorts us on foot in the gathering dusk though orchards and gardens, and finally come to a main road lined with ancient remains. There is indeed a temple, and what a temple. A huge temple of many columns. A veritable Parthenon. I have been told that this was Zeus’s easternmost outpost in mainland Anatolia. The road is lined with huge blocks of marble, many of them carved, Corinthian capitals on their sides, sarcophagi. We have arrived at Cavdarhisar.
I believe we have another three days’ easy riding to Kutahya from here, first on the plain but then again in mountains. And there is snow on the mountains already.
Once during the day, on a particularly cold hillside, Ercihan had whispered to me that he thinks that this will be the last day’s ride. I want to protest but cannot at that moment. Our journey cannot be over, surely, not yet, not yet. I want it never to end, but at least we should have another week or even a few more days. At least enough time for Mac to get back in the saddle. At least enough time for Caroline to put her newly found confidence and pact with Sarhosh about travelling calmly at speed into effect again and again.
Ercihan thinks he cannot go on, and he is worried about the horses. The weather is certainly against us. Crossing the mountains that surround Kutahya will be particularly hazardous if there is snow and ice. If it is this cold already on the plain, what will it be like up in the high country? The horses must not be kept outside in the cold if there is snow.
Tonight the horses will be stabled in the village, and we will be put up in the belediye guest house.
Little do we know that the police will impound our van the next morning because of a question of title left over from a previous owner. This logistical difficulty has nothing to do with Ercihan and everything to do with the dealer who sold the truck to him.
So go to Kutahya we must, with greatest possible speed, our support vehicle under police escort, and with the horses riding in another truck, kindly supplied by our friend and mentor in all things cultural and equestrian in Kutahya, Birol Bey.
After a press conference in the mayor’s office the following morning, we will officially have fulfilled our obligations. We will have completed the initial phase of the Evliya Çelebi Ride to establish the Evliya Çelebi Way. But nothing is over until it’s over. And there are miles to go and further reports and reflections to convey. Watch this space.