She Thought She Spied a Killer Beast Out There Among the Turks, and fled the river for the hills where odd adventure…
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Outside magazine, November 1997
She Thought She Spied a Killer Beast Out There Among the Turks, and fled the river for the hills where odd adventure lurks. “Hello,” said Bob the earless dog. “I’m one of many quirks.”
A looking glass experience in wild, wild Turkey
It occurs to me, as the Turk crosses the river toward us while jabbing wildly at the air with his dagger, that this is not what I expected. I’ve come to the northeastern corner of Turkey to raft the Ìoruh, one of the last free-running rivers on earth, but I keep thinking there’s been a mistake.
Our campsite, for instance, is less than 50 feet from a highway. Everyone who’s spotted us since our arrival has slammed on the brakes to get a better look. Some even took pictures. Since people around here used to be nomadic themselves, their interest in our camp setup is understandable, but it’s also disconcerting. One group laid out a picnic on the shoulder of the road,
The Turk brandishing the dagger, however, isn’t laughing. He’s wearing a white skirt, and in that Frankenstein way people have when they’re leaning against a current, he moves slowly, determinedly, one foot at a time, across the Ìoruh. When he glances up and doesn’t return my smile, only yells something and points with his knife, I swallow hard. I hate to admit it, but
But then he gets closer and I realize he’s raising the dagger only because he doesn’t want to tangle it in his skirt, which is a fishing net. As he wades into the reeds along the bank, instead of attacking, he stops and pretends to search for something among the bright flags of litter, waiting for someone to invite him to shore. I look around for help, but the New Zealander
“Merhaba!” It means hello, and since it’s one of the few Turkish words I can pronounce, I somersault it off my tongue like a gymnast hitting the mat with both feet — ta-da!
The fisherman responds with a long, sharp burst of language. Turks have little use for facial expressions, relying instead on the power of Turkish, a fierce, guttural language derived in part from the same warlike tongue Genghis Khan spoke in the eleventh century. He sounds like he’s announcing a beheading, but all I can do when he pauses is smile and nod.
He sighs as if I’m hopeless, wades out of the river, and opens a plastic bag tied to his belt. It’s full of small, silver-colored fish. I whistle in admiration. I may not know much about Turks, but fishermen are easy.
“G’zel!” I say. Beautiful.
“G’zel,” he agrees. He takes out a fish and hands it to me.
“Nice catch.” I pretend it’s too heavy to hold. When he hands me another, I roll my eyes.
“Wow!” Then he hands me another. Then another. Every time I try to give them back, he hands me another, and soon I’m brandishing half a dozen fish in each hand.
“No, no,” I plead. “They’re yours.”
He nods and squeezes another in under my thumb. I stare at him and he stares back, deadpan. I’m desperate for the right word, I’m begging him for it, and finally, as he’s reaching into his bag again, it comes.
“Tesekk’r!” I’ve massacred it, but it means thank you, and at last, gravely, he closes the bag. Then he squats and scratches something in the mud with his knife, leaning back so I can see. “Tehlikeli.”
I have no idea what tehlikeli is, but he’s drawn a four-legged animal on the run that looks very much like a wolf. The guides assured me I won’t see much wildlife; most reports of bears, jackals, wild boars, leopards, ibex, and wolves, they say, are fairy tales left over from before everything was hunted out. But maybe they’re wrong. I nod. “Wolf,”
With a terrible sigh, he straightens, gathers his net in both hands, and wades into the river. “Tesekk’r,” I call, but he never looks back.
I stare at the drawing, uneasy. A group of Turkish right-wing terrorists called the Gray Wolves claimed responsibility for several murders and assassinations back in the seventies, including an attempt on the pope. Is this what tehlikeli means? Are they around now, hunting foreigners in bright-colored life vests?
Only later that night, while roasting small but delicious fish kabobs over the campfire with the other rafters, do I realize I’m wrong. A wolf runs with its tail straight out. In the drawing, the tail curled up over the animal’s back. The fisherman wasn’t talking about wolves. He was talking about Kangals.
Kangals are Turkish dogs specially bred to protect fat-tailed sheep from predators. They’re large, notoriously vicious, and probably responsible for the ancient Turkish curse “may you be torn apart by dogs.” My trekking book mentions them as one of three problems to avoid in eastern Turkey — the others being Kurdish guerrillas and drug arrests. I’ve also seen a Turkish
And lastly, there’s my friend Bob, who has climbed Mount Ararat, just south of here. “If you run into a Kangal,” he said the night before I left, “you won’t even believe it’s a dog. A huge, oozing, pus-eyed, drooling, snarling, rabid, disease-ridden killing machine, yes. But not a dog.” After a pause, my husband added that he’d just heard about a star called Canicula that makes
What’s it’s like to raft the Ìoruh? i can’t really say. Certainly I was on the river for 11 days doing what most people call rafting. I had thrilling moments, hysterically funny moments, and moments when I was so sure our boat would flip in the rapids that I felt an actual sense of relief when it finally did. But to assume that a trip down the Ìoruh in
But for me there was more to the trip than rafting. We were in a corner of Asia Minor so far off the beaten track that little has changed since the eleventh century, when Christian infidels fled in terror before the glee of the newly converted Islamic Seljuks. Every day we floated past crumbling ruins of Georgian castles, past rice fields glowing green as precious silk carpets,
Indeed, the fact that the river, while insisting on my respect, has not demanded my undivided attention seems more of a gift than a disappointment. I enjoy a good hard kick of adrenaline now and then, but I’m 43 now, and in the last few years I’ve seen so much death happen for no reason that I don’t think I need to find out anymore if the same thing will happen to me. Once you
Rafting is only a part of it.
None of which I try to explain to my fellow rafters. Five Brits, three Israelis, and a Malaysian, all likable enough, but why are they here? Jimmy, for instance, the young Englishman who hopes to become an Extremely Rich Person. “All I actually want out of this trip,” he confides while slathering something like cooking oil on his chest, “is a tan.” His best friend, Brett, with a
cigar-chomping grin, a taste for beer, and a buzz cut, seems to be focusing his energies on finding (or at least talking about finding) a Super Natasha, one of the high-class Russian prostitutes that are said to spill over into Turkey. There’s Pez, the overly cheerful ex-addict, and Nora, his small, sorrowful-faced Malaysian wife, who’s bent over an issue of the Star tabloid.
“Just something to keep from getting bored,” she says, turning the page on Mel Gibson. Each night, when the only reminders of where we are are our own faces and the campfire and the roaring of the river behind us, it feels like spring break in Fort Lauderdale. But that’s after dark. As soon as dawn arrives, we’re back in Turkey again, and to my delight, the more I see of it, the
less I’m sure of things.
The whole Islamic deal about women, for instance. At the Istanbul airport, in western Turkey, women wear less than fashion models in Miami, but at the airport in eastern Turkey, in Erzurum — also known as “the city that has never recovered from winter” — armies of females float by completely draped in black. There’s also the walking sack — an adult human who
After we leave Erzurum, signs of rising Islamic fervor seem to shrink along with the size and number of minarets. The minaret, that narrow tower from which the muezzin calls people to prayer five times a day, never completely disappears, but in more remote villages it’s reduced to a wooden pole with a rusty bullhorn on top. These are places where the power of folklore vies with
This last superstition has helped Turkey, which is the only land bridge connecting Europe to the Middle East (and thus to Africa and all of Asia), survive visits from some of the greatest travelers ever known: Marco Polo, Omar Khayyßm, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Jason and the Argonauts, Cleopatra, Noah, Napoleon, Xerxes, Don Quixote. All the great empires
But in the rough backwoods of the Ìoruh valley, where in spite of all the comings and goings of empires, civilization has never amounted to much more than a handful of villages cut off from the world for months at a time by snow, only one empire truly left its mark: the Seljuks of the eleventh century. Seljuks: bravest of all warriors, best of all horsemen, a fierce,
And the women! Unlike in cities, where they remained hidden under bolts of cloth and behind doorways, here they come rushing from the fields, red-cheeked and laughing, shoving handfuls of apricots, cherries, and mulberries at us, their eyes shining with pride.
“Cok g’zel!” I cry.
It’s a cold, rainy morning, and I’m crouched at the water’s edge several hundred yards from camp, washing sand out of my toothbrush. Before noon we’ll land at the village of Zeytinlik, where the river guides will put my fellow rafters on a bus to the airport, deflate the rafts, and head for the Zambezi in Africa. Another guide who recently joined us, Trekker Eames, has agreed
Something’s missing from this trip, and though I can’t put my finger on it, traveling with ten tourists is part of the problem. The more we’ve seen, the less they notice, and the less they notice, the more fun they have. Not that I blame them. They’re on holiday. As for me, I’m sorry I’m not as easygoing as the river guides. Nothing bothers them. Day after day they prepare
I’m not sure this is real. I look over at our camp wondering if one of the rafters can explain it. Then I look at the Kangals, and a whole series of calculations spins through my mind about the width and depth and speed of the river between us. But they aren’t moving, just sitting there, one next to the water, the other on a boulder. They wouldn’t try crossing the river here;
Then I start getting this feeling. It’s the same contradiction of shivery excitement and flat-faced numbness you get just before you commit to a current that will slide you into the foaming mouth of a roaring, belching, boat-swallowing rapids. It’s the feeling that you’re hanging fear and joy in the balance off the end of your paddle and you’re about to choose joy — that
What happens? Nothing. The rafters get more excited than the Kangals. The Kangals simply stretch, turn, and trot up the hillside. In a moment, they’re gone.
The best way into the ka‡kars is by dolmus, which means “stuffed” or “shared taxi.” This form of transportation requires patience, because the driver refuses to move until his dolmus, like the similarly named appetizer, is properly stuffed. Still, if you don’t have claustrophobia, it’s a fine way to meet Turks. This time we’re only three hours late, and as soon as we
Accordingly, a tape comes on, and in the ear-splitting, heartbreaking yowl of the Turkish saz, the driver reaches under his seat for a plastic bag full of 32-ounce cans. He passes one to Trekker, who passes it to the guy in the second row, who passes it to the little boy in my row, who passes it to the man in the back. The driver offers beers to the rest of us as well, prodded no
doubt by his Seljuk ancestry, but public drinking is not much appreciated in this part of Turkey; in fact, the chunky little woman crushed against the wall next to me makes a point of tucking her white chador firmly over her mouth. The driver shrugs and returns to his driving. Trekker and I exchange a roll-eyed look of relief. We’ve got a long way to go, it’ll be dark soon, and
the road is so narrow we’ll have to pull over to let donkeys by. If we crash, break down, or run over someone, it’s probably better if only one passenger is drunk.
That, of course, is when we hear the small ffft of the driver opening a beer for himself.
But nothing’s so bad that Turks can’t figure out how to make you enjoy it. When the driver begins to argue in the rearview with his imbibing friend without watching the road, a woman has her little boy quietly hand out candy. When the drinker demands another beer and begins arguing back, shouting so everyone can hear, a man in a tatted skullcap leans forward to sprinkle my
But we don’t die. As we climb higher and the air cools and night comes on, the argument between driver and drunk peters out. After a long, mournful silence, the drunk demands another beer and it’s passed to him, but instead of joining him, the driver tosses his empties out the window, lights another Marlboro, and out of nowhere begins to sing. They both sing, a sad, quiet
At midnight, when we crawl to a stop in the pitch-black village of Yaylalar, the drunk turns out to be a red-faced walrus of a man slouched against the back window, stroking the thin head of a small boy asleep in his lap. He whispers something to me, and then I hear him say it to the man behind me as well. He says it to everybody as they get off. When I ask Trekker if he heard
“G’le g’le? It’s a way of saying good-bye when someone’s leaving on a journey. It means ‘go smiling.'”
Next morning we wake to a new world. Gone is the hot, stark desert country of the Ìoruh, with its carefully irrigated pockets of greenery and latte-colored river. In the thin, cool, alpine air of the Ka‡kars, the streams are as clear as foaming blue glass and every inch of land is covered in green, rich robust fields of green. Thick-boughed firs have replaced the
Out in the middle of the main street, Trekker is sitting tailor-style in the dust, trying to hypnotize a rooster by talking like a hen. I can tell by the way Trekker’s eyes have changed color since we’ve been out of earshot of the Ìoruh that his heart has started to grieve for whitewater, but all the same his hen talk is pretty damn good. The rooster, however, looks
“Last time I tried this,” Trekker says cautiously, “he came right for me. Nearly bit off my nose.”
“Then why are you doing it again?”
Three yaylars lie up in the wide bowl of the Kiramet Valley, and the only way to get to any of them is by footpath. Yaylars, another remnant of the Seljuks’ nomadism, are villages without names or addresses, without streets or cars or phones or doors that lock. They’re simply villages for nomadic herdsmen that are abandoned to the weather in winter. The first two yaylars were
Back out on the path, however, we met the drunk from the dolmus. Dressed in a ratty blue suit and old dress shoes without heels, he carried his livelihood on his head: a metal tray stacked with bright plastic goods — soap holders, sandals, knives and forks, buckets, knitting needles. He explained that everything he had was already spoken for, so he couldn’t sell us
As we climbed, picking out the third yaylar against the rocky hillside from a distance was like trying to spot a bird’s nest in the grass. It was still obviously nomadic, the stone work much cruder and closer to the earth, with no windows and few doors. Again we walked from one end to the other without seeing or hearing anything but the echo of our footsteps and the clicking of
Trekker shrugged. “Try giving her a lolly,” he suggested. I dug out a candy from my pocket and offered. She eyed it from the side, the way a bird will study a worm, then dropped it in the toe of her half-knitted sock and, still knitting, marched to a low wooden door, which she opened, entered, and shut hard behind her.
A few minutes later, trekker stops in a field of wild roses, forget-me-nots, and foxglove. “Wait a minute,” he says. He removes his Turk’s cap, rubs hard at his dreadlocks, and puts his cap back on. “Did I just dream that, or did it really happen?”
Maybe it’s the openness of these highlands or the way the light falls, so clean and clear, or the fact that we’ve walked through three villages almost without seeing anyone, but Trekker’s right. Things feel…different. The land feels as if it’s moving, rushing under our feet, almost like something breathing. I turn to the hillside, thinking what we need is a few minutes’ rest,
There’s nothing between us this time — no river, no fence, no trees, not even a decent boulder. His face is black, his body rake-thin, his feet as big as lion paws. He could take all three of us.
“Weird,” says Steve. “A dog.”
It’s not just a dog, you idiot! Run! Then I look over at Trekker and he’s not running either. Nobody’s running! We’re going to die!
“Hey there, Bob,” says Trekker. He turns to me. “It’s OK. It’s Bob.”
I can barely speak. “You know this dog?”
“Sure, everybody knows Bob. Here, Bob.” He holds out his hand. “Come, Bobby. Here, boy.”
The dog stares at Trekker, then looks away.
“But…Bob?” I stammer. “How did he…?”
“Look at his ears when he turns.”
I look and the animal turns to look at me, turns as if his neck works on a screw. His ears have been bobbed, cut off at the skull, leaving open holes into his ear canals. Like little manholes without covers. I suck air through my teeth. “His owner did that?”
“Lots of Turks do that to their dogs to make them meaner. But Bobby doesn’t have an owner now. He’s wild.”
Two hours later Bob’s still with us. He walks at a distance, either ahead or behind, never close enough for touch. As he walks, he snacks on grasshoppers, snapping them out of the grass. If I ignore his visible ribs, his coat as dull as straw, and the oozing sores around his mouth, he’s a handsome dog, long and graceful, his eyes a strange clear yellow, his heavy tail a
But he’s not a dog to be taken lightly. Trekker and Steve call him to come closer, which he does only when they’re not calling. He is with us but is not with us. He moves quietly, like a wolf. When we stop to eat, he sits apart. I’ve assumed he’s sticking with us only so he can cash in at lunchtime, but now that we’ve brought out the food, he’s watching clouds roll in, he’s
Trekker laughs. “All I got in there is lollies, Bob,” he says. He holds out another piece of sausage.
But Bob doesn’t move. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t wag his tail. He just stares at the pack, waiting for it to open. Because he lacks ears, he has nothing more than the depth of his gaze to communicate desire, but if a dog can turn a stare into a physical vibration, Bob is doing it now.
“All right,” says Trekker, unzipping his bag. “See for yourself. There’s nothing in there for dogs.”
Which is how we find out what keeps Bob’s teeth so white. Lollies.
Ten minutes later, still chewing on a piece of taffy, Bob gets to his feet and walks off. Instead of following the trail, he heads straight uphill, moving quickly, as if someone’s calling him. “There’s nothing up there, Bob,” yells Trekker, but Bob keeps moving, drawn by unseen spirits, and again I feel the chill go through me. We all feel it. Without talking about it, we start
But we need to discuss whether to keep going or start heading down. The clouds are frothing overhead and off to the west, dropping in like sea spray through a crack in the black curtain of rock. The question is not do we want to get wet, but for how long. As it stands, we’re an hour from shelter, much farther if no one at the yaylars takes us in.
“So, Trekker,” I say carefully. “What do you think?”
He tosses a stone in the air and catches it. “I think we ought to run guts and pull cones.” When we don’t answer he grins. “It’s a Kiwi river guide’s saying. It’s what you do when your life revolves around living. It means we ought to ask Bob.”
Bob is heading up the ridge, almost in the clouds, picking his way through a patch of wild rhododendrons toward a snowfield in a saddle of rock. We all start calling him. Bob! Bob!
He stops and looks back over his shoulder, as if pausing to ask, What? Then he turns back and starts climbing again.
And though I can’t explain it really, that’s why we started following him.
By the time we got to the snowfield, the clouds had dropped around us in a wall of white. Gone were the jagged ridges of rock above, the vast green sweep of the Kiramet Valley below, and the gigantic sense of openness and space. We were closed inside a fog so dense we couldn’t see more than 50 yards. Black boulders stuck out of the snow like gravestones, and after we passed
“You seen Bob?”
“Not yet. You?”
“He’s probably around here somewhere.”
We all turned at the same moment and found him waiting, barely visible in the fog, his black face watching us, chin flat to the snowfield, butt high in the air. For most domesticated dogs, such a gesture is an invitation to play.
“What’s he doing?”
“I have no idea.”
And then we heard him bark, a single deep bay of a bark, and in a twisting leap that took him clear off the ground, he landed low and lunged forward into a full charge, his earless head forward and low, mouth open, tongue flapping like a little red necktie over his great grin of teeth. He was charging us, he was charging me, and if I didn’t flinch it was only because I knew it
“Look at him go!”
So I looked and turned and there was Bob, braking and leaning for the spin, skidding, spraying up snow like a skier under his claws, then heading straight for Trekker. He faked out Trekker by inches, then went for Steve. Then for me again. One after the other he charged us, around and around and around, his big yellow eyes rolling in their sockets, his sides heaving, his
The Terrible Turk!
Laura Hendrie is the author of the novel Stygo.
Photographs by Stephen Alvarez