It was getting late, and the freeze from our wet socks and shoes would soon spread to the rest of our bodies. The red and white paint that showed the way along St Paul’s trail – through south-western Turkey – were hidden under a thick layer of snow that blanketed the valley we were hiking through.
The beauty of our surroundings comforted the fact that we were lost.
The sun was still bathing our faces in a life-affirming warmth as we stumbled upon a number of goat-herders’ cottages. We opened one. Simple, dilapidated, empty. A few pieces of plywood nailed together, as air-tight as a cheese grater. A home in the summer for a goat-herder or picker of wild oregano, but abandoned in the winter when the snow-line encroached.
It was exactly what we needed on this wintry evening: a floor with a roof, and a fireplace of stone. We scurried the surroundings in search of dry-ish wood and, with only an hour of daylight left, bunkered down for a night in the Anatolian mountains.
The St Paul Trail is the second of seven long-distance Culture Routes in Turkey, established by British women Kate Clow, who moved to Turkey in the late 1980s. It’s a 500km-long path through rural valleys and along mountain ridges, switching from ancient Roman roads to cobble-stones to animal tracks.
It supposedly follows the missionary journey that St Paul took in the first century AD, when he walked from Antalya to Yalvac to spread the word of Christianity, sparking a movement that is today one of the most dominant influence in modern history. These days the trail combines nature, history, and adventure through 2000-year-old ruins and Turkish heartland where locals survive on goats, sheep, and the trade of wild mountain herbs.
My hiking partner Katelyn and I had no intention of walking the whole trail and, in the middle of winter, did not expect an easy time. We decided to take a week to explore the most scenic, mountainous and isolated section: from a Roman ruins site in Selge to the main city on the shores of Lake Egirdir – about 140kms of trail through the Koprulu Canyon, along the Sarp Daglari mountain range, and via the ancient Byzantium city of Adada.
Without typical Turkish friendliness and generosity – which we would become very familiar with – we may never have made it to Selge on our first day. We were in the small town of Perge, and trying to tell a taxi driver we didn’t want his services while he stubbornly claimed an absence of public transport to where we were going. A random passerby took an interest in us – two foreigners laden with heavy packs – and was soon on his cellphone, calling the only van driver who had Selge on his regular circuit.
This stranger, Yousef, then boarded the van with us and invited us to his home in Selge, where we dined with his family. It was a typical house in the area – simple, with a wood stove in the lounge where the whole family slept side by side.
Nearby were the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, the detritus of fallen pillars giving the area a sense of chaos. What was once a thriving, resource-rich Greek and then Roman colony from around 300 BC to 500 AD had become a quaint village. The men farm goats, while the women knitted handicrafts. The transformation begged the question: Which pace of life would you prefer?
It was in Selge that we became familiar with yufka, the local flatbread, eaten with village staples tahini, yoghurt and cheese from the family goats. We ate as they ate: on the floor, sitting with a blanket over our ankles to collect the crumbs, and reaching for communal plates in the centre. This was always followed by Turkish tea served in glasses that seemed better suited to cognac.
Our stay was so warm and amicable that it founded a new rule: to accept any local invitation that came our way.
Our first morning on the trail was quickly interrupted when the skies opened, filling the valleys and stream-beds with an ethereal mist, and encasing our feet in cold sogginess. For three hours we persevered, our spirits lifting when we came upon a small, seemingly deserted village.
We were immediately drawn to a sheltered patio at the front of a house with an unlocked gate, where we sought refuge after calling out to anyone in the house and hearing no replies.
We stripped off our wet gear and started putting up our tent when the village’s only winter resident, Esma, caught sight of us and demanded money.
It wasn’t her place, but that didn’t matter. It was the first time we had encountered a touch of hostility – not unreasonably, as we were on someone’s private property – but her disposition took a turn for the gentler after we paid her about $10 in local currency.
Soon we were seated in her heated lounge, drying our mittens on her woodstove, and warming ourselves from the inside with her tomato soup, yufka, and more sugary tea.
Our Turkish vocabulary was expanding rapidly. The words for ‘how many goats?’, ‘New Zealand’ (which would never elicit even the faintest glimmer of recognition), and various food items quickly became our conversational comfort zones.
The rain subsided by morning as we began the arduous task of climbing the hillside above the village of Caltepe in switchbacks. It was unsurprising when the trees thinned, revealing a terrain blanketed in ankle-deep snow. It wrapped the landscape in a kiss of white, but made finding trail-markers virtually impossible. They’re meant to be at least every 100m, but with no sign of any, we often simply chose the path of least resistance. When that led to an open area, the next move was total guesswork, often ending up in time-consuming trial-and-error.
Luckily we found and followed a trail as it fell steeply through forest, and into the sleepy town of Kozdere. It was the biggest settlement we had seen for days, so we roamed the town looking for supplies, but only found a family who gave us an enormous bag of yufka, and then refused to take anything in exchange except our thanks.
The following morning, an octogenarian with a slightly wobbly gait invited us for tea after seeing us walking the street. We followed him up some rickety wooden stairs to a sunny verandah, where his wife laid out a familiar spread of bread, tea and olives on a blanket.
They talked continually and laughed heartily, despite our blank faces of non-comprehension. With the aid of our dictionary – Turkish is conveniently phonetic – we deciphered a few words and discovered something universal among couples who had endured decades together: mild callousness. ‘Crazy, old baggage,’ he kept saying as he pointed to his wife.
Our bellies full, we left the village and attacked the south ridge of Sarp Daglari to about 1700m above sea level. Progress was slow as we scarred the virgin snow with our footprints, while distant snowy ridges put on their rose cloaks for sunset.
Eventually we arrived in Beydili, population 12-ish, to familiar Turkish hospitality. A woman tending to her goats soon offered us tea and a spot to sleep on her floor. The neighbours joined our special meal of rice with carrots and leeks, tomato soup, cabbage salad and candied quince – and always with yufka.
It was a gleeful evening with lots of smiling and nodding. In an attempt at humour, I looked up the word for ‘smelly’ and repeated it several times while pointing to our snow-soaked socks that were drying on the woodstove. But my words were taken literally, and one lady ended up washing them, despite my protestations.
And when I continued to make the same joke while pointing to our naked feet, her brother earnestly doused them in some kind of perfume.
It seemed a picture of idyllic life, growing organic produce and tending to goats in a tight-knot and generous community. They seemed content, free from all the pressures of the rat race, from the anxiety of a hectic, city life of a million things happening in the blink of an eye.
But this place was also so isolated and far from opportunity, and if I lived here, how would I even know about all the wonderful places I’ve been privileged enough to experience around the world, courtesy of an income and education that would have been amiss here?
The household’s children, like so many among the families we came across, had left the rural life in search of higher education or work. Would they thrive and never look back, or shun what they find and return to the simplicity of rural life?
As we left in the morning, full of thanks and goat cheese, Katelyn’s achilles injury from a few years ago started to niggle her. The pace slowed to a crawl as we descended to terraced farmland, where we hitch-hiked to Kesme. From there, she decided to take public transport to Lake Egirdir, where we’d meet up again in a few days.
Hiking on my own, the Muslim call to prayer sang out as I climbed into the surrounding mountains towards the Roman ruins of Adada. I soon dropped into an open plain to find a small theatre, and a series of temples in various states of decay. One corner pillar, with stone blocks protruding from all sides, resembled an abandoned game of giant jenga on the brink of a collapse.
Ancient coins suggest that Adada dates back to at least the second century BC, and lasted until the ninth century AD. Various 2000-year-old temples populate the site along with a main acropolis, a forum that could seat 1000 people, and, on a nearby hilltop, crumbling towers protruding from a patchy canopy.
And no people. Such a treasured site in New Zealand would surely be fenced off, with no interaction permitted. The absence of anyone give me the freedom to wander, to leap from giant stone to giant stone.
In the south-east corner, a Roman road consisting of a series of large, superbly cut stone blocks led into the hills. As the late afternoon sun sapped my energy, I trudged downhill to a small village where I jumped on a local bus towards Lake Egirdir.
This is not a journey to speed through, I thought as the bus took me towards my rendezvous with Katelyn, but to be savoured with long days and as many local interactions as possible.
The remoteness of the week had left me feeling content, though I wondered how happy the people I had met would be five years from now. Maybe it’s blissful ignorance. You can’t yearn for what you’ve never had.
As the bus neared the town on the shores of Lake Egirdir, a bustling city compared to the mountain villages I had been through, I immediately felt a longing to return to simplicity: the historical ruins, the grand vistas, and the gentle kindnesses that had gifted me so much over the past week.