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The land of beautiful horses

Roger Short Memorial Fund Travel Diary – Amy Paterson (2021, DPhil Pandemic Sciences)

The story of my trip to Türkiye begins (perhaps unexpectedly) in the sleepy maize-fringed, cattle-filled town of Mooi River, South Africa, in 2008. Mooi River is the sort of place where occasionally a kudu (the great big antelope with spiralling horns) is spotted in a field, or someone’s dog has puppies, but otherwise little exciting happens unexpectedly.

But, in a break from this steady stream of predictable being, right in the middle of my first year at high school, my mum came home from an overseas adventure with my grandmother. (This would in time end up being the last of these great adventures). What was unexpected wasn’t, of course, that she came home – we had been waiting in anticipation since the moment Mum drove out the small farmhouse gates in her rattling Honda Ballad. What delighted and surprised us were the photographs she brought back with her. Dazzling depictions of colourful balloons floating over hills of hidden windows and elegant horses. ‘The land of beautiful horses’ she said it was called, pointing to the bulge between the Mediterranean and Black Sea. This ‘land of beautiful horses’ became a fantasy realm for my horse-obsessed, expanding little mind.

I used the clunky home computer to discover the horses were the shiny-coated Akhal-Teke (one of the oldest breeds still in existence) and Anatolian (a breed that is a revered combination of speedy and steady on rough terrain thanks to an extra flexible ankle joint). I printed pictures of them and plastered them across my wardrobe.

I drew hot air balloons, fairy chimneys, and horses on every surface I was permitted to. Even my first guitar got a layer of paint and a scene from one of my mum’s photographs painted onto it.

On weekends I would saddle up Bluebell, my beloved little farm pony, and ride through the familiar green valleys on the way to count cows, pretending I was surrounded by fairy chimneys.

Improbable chances

In the inevitable tragedy that is growing up, at age 17, I left sleepy Mooi River and Bluebell behind and moved to Cape Town to study medicine. Between anatomy lectures, biochemistry exams, a new interest in half marathons (and all accompanying training), and eventually a job in a bustling 15-storey hospital, I forgot my dream of riding an Anatolian horse beneath a balloon-filled skyline.

That is, until a twist of fate found me transplanted from South African soil to the grand grounds of University College. And as that same winding fate would have it, on my first week in my college room I scoured the college intranet and discovered the Roger Short Fund offering funding for travel to Türkiye. With flashes of shelved daydreams, and a refreshed sense that improbable chances are worth taking, I decided to apply.

The news that I had been generously offered the Roger Short Fund came with equal parts excitement and activity. I spent evenings researching the different multi-day horse rides in Cappadocia and recruited a small crew of friends willing to come along for the (literal and rather long) ride.

The crew, perhaps unsurprisingly, were the same group of friends who had agreed it was a good idea to see how many half marathons we could do across European cities while studying in Oxford. We therefore carefully timed the trip to align with the Istanbul Half Marathon.

The great plans were almost foiled (for the first but certainly not the last time – see rest of report) when, a week before we were due to leave, I twisted an ankle in an Australian Rules football game and it swelled to the size of a Mozambican mango. For a while it didn’t look likely that I would be able to walk, never mind run or horse ride but fortunately, the swelling subsided and the limp was minimal by the time we were due to board the plane.

Day 1: The journey to Ortahisar

The journey to Ortahisar, Cappadocia, even with returned mobility, was not without hurdles. The first being the inevitable drama it is to get from Oxford to Gatwick Airport. I was accompanied on this leg of the journey by crew member Jackson (who, prior to this trip, I’d mostly only spoken to for a few minutes before starting a half marathon a few months earlier).

At approximately 5am our friendship was fast-tracked by our bus stopping before reaching London and encouraging us to find another route to our destination due to unanticipated traffic issues. We ran along the street with our backpacks and caught tubes and buses to arrive at the airport just in time. Only to discover that Wizz Air (like much of the travel industry) didn’t fancy my South African passport and wanted me to do an extra check. The “extra check” queue was four rows deep and I came very close to making my new friend Jackson miss his flight.

South African passport checked, eventually, we were en route to Istanbul, and I was happily listening to the Empire podcast’s series on the history of Türkiye (I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about the scope and human stories of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires).

At the Istanbul airport, we met up with our friend Kate and my partner Ben, in ranging stages of sleep deprivation due to their own travel mishaps getting from Amiens, France, to Istanbul in a day. We all happily slept through our last leg of the trip and woke to find ourselves in Ortahisar airport.

We scuttled out of the small airport shed in the fresh night air to try find our pre-arranged shuttle – to no avail. Eventually, we approached a shuttle driver we had heard shouting “Emy Enderson” for the past ten minutes and asked if there was any chance it was meant for “Amy Paterson” and, after almost tripping on the last hurdle, we were off on our Cappadocian adventure! Destination one was a cave house in Ortahisar with a giant red door. Inside said door were the warmest hosts we had collectively ever experienced. We were shown up to a terrace overlooking the glistening town full of fairy chimneys and then to a room filled with beautiful traditional communal seating mattresses. My Cappadocian dreams had very much just become reality.

Day 2, Part 1: Lucky Indeed

We woke to the sound of the call to prayer and a stone ceiling that extends seamlessly into carved bedroom walls. Next came street chatter and a swirl of excitement that today was the day we would start our horse ride through Cappadocia… and then a message from Lucky Horse Ranch to say heavy storms were predicted and we may need to cancel. They asked that we postpone the start of the ride to midmorning.

We saw the opportunity to explore the unique corner of the world we found ourselves in and decided to make the most of it. Soon we were off wandering the stone-carved streets in search of breakfast – trying not to be repetitively startled by the cats that gracefully leapt from every street corner. The only thing I could find to compare Ortahisar to in my mind or travel journal was the fictional city of Cittàgazze in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (perhaps it confirms the uniqueness of a place when the only echoes it offers are those of fiction).

After a breakfast of locally prepared fruit and nuts, the weather report improved and we were off to Lucky Horse Ranch on the edge of Göreme National Park.

The ranch was tucked away in a valley of the region’s distinct and beautiful traditional rock formations. We were greeted on arrival by six dogs and ten chickens, and then the owners, Irfan and Flora, who welcomed us into their home for apple tea while we waited out the last of the rain.

We were then introduced (to our delight) to a beautiful string of Anatolian (Anadolu) and Arabic horses, each adorned with a necklace of Turkish beadwork. The horses waited patiently as we placed a bridle and saddle on each and Irfan matched us to a horse based on experience.

As the crew member with the most time on horseback, I was given a supposedly spirited Arabic horse, Akidae, with a delicate white star beneath her forelock, who ended up being an absolute saint of a horse. Ironically, my partner Ben, since he was the least experienced rider, was given a sturdy Anatolian pony called Bonjuk, who ended up being far more of a handful due to his unrelenting desire to snack on every passing bush. With Benny and Bonjuk snacking at the back, we set off for Red Valley.

Day 2, Part 2: Red Valley and Rose Valley by horseback

The sun streaked through the clouds as we entered the Red Valley. We stopped at an old church carved into the rocks and dismounted to look around. Jackson (who studies art history) explained the history and symbolism of the ornate stone paintings (and the erasure of many of the faces). The experience of riding through the fairy chimneys and valleys of Göreme National Park on such simultaneously agile and surefooted creatures is near impossible to describe but I hope the pictures that follow do it some justice.

We stopped again to get freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice from a stall then road to a lunch stop where Flora met us with Gözleme (a savoury Turkish-filled turnover). As we rode through the Rose Valley that afternoon, Irfan told me his family’s story and how his love of horses started by helping his grandfather to plough the fields in his home valley (where he still lives today) with his grandfather’s pony. He told me his family has been living there for five generations and the whole extended family still eat together every Friday. It left me reflecting on the universal deep grounding that comes from a connection to place and community.

We ended the day at the cave we would spend the night in, where two of Irfan and Flora’s friends met us and offered us apple tea and homemade honey. They lit a bonfire and laid a sumptuous spread of Turkish food and wine. We ate and spoke as we watched the lightening over the valley. Irfan taught us that the easiest way to remember how to say Teşekkür ederim (thank you in Turkish) is to say ‘tea, sugar and a dream’ – and tea, sugar and a dream it truly was. Collage of riding scenes from Red and Rose Valley Collage from exploring the cave church in Red Valley Pictures from our incredible ‘cave camping’ accommodation

Day 3: Rain on the reigns

Day three started with heavy rain and, as a result, a sleep in in the cave. When we crawled out, we found another generous feast prepared for breakfast (including some out-of-this-world olives). Full of delectable olives and coffee we saddled the horses and set off for White Valley. Since everyone had gotten comfortable trotting the previous day we picked up the pace a little (much to Bonjuk’s dismay at the back). The paths through some of the region, particularly in the White Valley area, are narrow and tricky to navigate, and we marvelled at how effortlessly the horses correctly placed all four of their hooves to find their way up, over, down, and around the terrain. At one point, Bonjuk, in his dismay at having to trot rather than snack, picked a fight with Kate’s horse, Kismet, who leapt sideways to evade the unwarranted confrontation. Kate did exceptionally well to hang on and avoid a nasty fall.

Soon the rain started up again and we spent a few hours trying to ignore it. Eventually, many of the routes became unpassable and we headed back towards the ranch. But before we got back, one of my personal highlights of the trip occurred – we set off up a hill and I turned to see Ben (who had only been on a horse once before this trip) confidently cantering up behind me with all the joy that simultaneously soothing and thrilling gait has brought me since I was a child.

We were wholly thrilled on our timely return to the ranch (right before the clouds broke) but this quickly turned to sadness as we said goodbye to our new horse and human friends. We caught a cab to our second stay in Ortahisar (a fairy chimney house with beautiful Turkish rugs) and then wandered into the town of Göreme for dinner – and our first taste of Turkish delight!

Day 4: ‘The City’

The next morning we left Ortahisar (with warm memories despite rain and lightning and none of the famed air balloons I had drawn as a kid). We arrived on the bustling streets of Istanbul and found our Airbnb lit up with a pink neon light.

Overwhelming at first – the scenes soon became familiar – the fruit shop on the street corner with the smiling man whose only line to us was ‘no problem’, the Turkish delight salesman who would give us free tea tasters, the plaza full of fish restaurants that is dead in the day and alive with music at night.

We caught a train to the half marathon registration – and caught our breath as we crossed over the Golden Horn.

We spent the afternoon fulfilling other big travel dreams of gazing up at the Hagia Sophia’s ceiling, layered in history, and the intricate tiling details of the Blue Mosque. Jackson, again, was invaluable in sharing his art history knowledge at each location, including the geopolitical tale of the Obelisk of Theodosius. We ended the day with a dinner of delicious testi (pottery kebab) at the Garden House 1897 – topped off with a vain attempt to try all possible flavours of Turkish delight. We crashed from the sugar high straight into bed.

Day 5: Race day

Day five started with equal measures of excitement and dread as we made our way to the start of the Istanbul Half Marathon. I had spent the night unsure if my lingering ankle injury was up to it and concluded I would take it slow. Ben had kindly decided to run/walk-as-needed with me so we went in feeling relatively relaxed compared to the rest of the crew.

At the start, we bumped into a group of friends who had also travelled from Oxford to run and spirits were immediately lifted. Music blared, the sun shone, and we danced our way to the start line.

Taking the run slowly ended up being a great decision. Ben and I soaked in the views as we passed iconic landmarks including the Suleymaniye Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, and the Saint Stephen Bulgarian Orthodox church (a neogothic church made entirely of cast iron). We also got to take in the festive atmosphere created by the Turkish supporters and musicians along the route. Despite the injured ankle and immensely slow pace, Istanbul created potentially the best half marathon conditions I’ve ever come across.

On our way home from the run, we stopped off at the Spice Bazaar to refuel. No words could do justice to the vibrant colours, smells, or sounds. I bought my body weight in olives of every colour and Baklava in shapes I’d never seen before.

Another perk of the half marathon (and cause for credit to the city of Istanbul) was that the city had arranged for everyone who had a half marathon ticket to have free public transport for the day. While Kate and Jackson rested from their far more strenuous run, Ben and I decided to hop on a tram and visit the Panorama 1453 Historical Museum.

Complete with extensive murals, beautiful maps, a 360 degree panorama painting, and a full immersive light show, the museum tells the story of the conquering of Byzantine Constantinople by the troops of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer on 29 May 1453. I was entirely transported to the moment the walls fell.

Perhaps the story about the siege that fascinated me most was the Ottoman’s tactic to get around the Byzantine chain defence of the Golden Horn. The story (in a very simplified retelling) goes something like this: Byzantium had placed a metal chain across the length of the Golden Horn and effectively prevented any Ottoman warships entering this strategic port. But one night the Ottomans got creative and took their ships out of the water. They rolled the 60 ships on wooden logs over land using manual labour. They then slipped them into the water of the Golden Horn under the cover of morning mist. This breached the most powerful Byzantine defence and was critical in ensuring success for the Ottomans at Constantinople.

History cup filled, we ended the day with fresh fish in our street plaza and Turkish ice cream from the friendliest, most mirthful of Turkish ice cream sellers/tricksters. And then, naturally, topped it off with more Turkish delight.

Day 6: Goodbye for now

We spent our last half day in Türkiye taking in the sites and tastes we had so quickly come to appreciate as daily occurrences during our short time in the country.

This started with Turkish coffee (accompanied by free strawberries and Turkish delight – in the usual generous fashion of Turkish cafés) and then Pomegranate juice (one of my favourite tastes of Türkiye).

We meandered through Kapalicarsi (Grand Bazaar) admiring the beautiful crockery and jewellery (and buying a few precious pieces to take home with us).

We ended with a final feast of a meal (including all the stuffed grape leaves our hearts desired) at the Hidden Garden. As we left for the airport rain began to fall despite glorious sunshine (what in South Africa we call umshado wezinkawu (a monkey’s wedding)) and I learnt from Jackson that this ‘sunshower’ phenomenon is one of the most diversely expressed concepts around the world.

We said our goodbyes and inadequate thank yous to Türkiye and left with a sneaking feeling that we would be back.

A further huge thank you, again, to the Roger Short Fund for making this childhood dream a reality.

Find out more about the range of travel grants and scholarships available to assist Univ students on our Travel Grants page or read further travel reports.

Published: 12 March 2024

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