Head for the hills: It’s Ayder Plateau time

Ayder Plateau | Summer’s here — big style. Thermometers are rising beyond 40 degrees on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, and tourists are arriving in ever increasing numbers.

Local Turks involved in tourism struggle manfully through their tasks, wondering wryly why anyone would exchange the pleasantly mild summers of Northern Europe or Russia for the brain-blistering heat of Turkey’s western and southern coasts.

I was discussing this apparent absurdity with my closest Turkish friend, Esat. Sitting on his balcony, we gazed longingly at the Lycian mountains, which provide the backdrop of the place we have chosen as home — the Mediterranean city of Antalya. Darkness had fallen, the savage intensity of the sun a dull memory, but the heat remained. All day the concrete of his apartment had absorbed potent solar rays. Now, like an unwanted night-storage heater, it was radiating them all out again. Esat looked at me, a far-away glint of longing in his eyes. “Terry” he said wistfully “In my yayla…” His voice trailed away. There was no need for him to finish his sentence, and we both laughed. Having visited his Ayder Plateau, I knew exactly what he was thinking.

The dictionary defines a yayla as a summer pasture or mountain plateau, but to many Turks it is far more than this. For Esat, it was a childhood spent running through grassy meadows liberally spangled with flowers of every hue, legs dripping with early morning dew and sheep bleating on the higher slopes. White mists rolling down each afternoon from the rounded peaks to envelop the rudimentary hut his family called home. Fresh milk, fresh cheese, fresh butter, fresh air, big skies, warm days and cool nights. Tumbling mountain torrents to mess around by, rocks to climb and friends to play with in every hut scattered across this yayla, high in the mountains above Gümüşhane, in northeast Turkey.

Ayder Plateau

Wherever there are mountains in Turkey, there are Ayder Plateau. Their origins are to be found in the nomadic roots of indigenous Anatolian tribes and the original Turcoman, who arrived from Central Asia during the 11th century. The raising of large flocks of sheep and goats, the mainstay of any nomadic pastoralist economy, relies on moving relentlessly from spent to fresh pastures. Over the centuries, as Anatolia’s tribal structure has broken down in favor of a more settled way of life, true nomadism has died out. It has been replaced by transhumance — the regular movement of people and their flocks from one fixed place (usually a lowland village) to highland pastures.

Does this traditional way of life have something to offer us in our increasingly urban world? What could be more sensible (and environmentally friendly) in the summer heat than to head for the cool beauty of the mountain pastures rather than the sweltering, crowded coasts? Some provinces in Turkey (particularly in the Black Sea region) recognize the potential of yayla tourism and have encouraged the building of some facilities, but for the most part visitors to yaylalar (the plural form of yayla) have to accept rudimentary facilities and camp. The rewards though, outweigh the privations.

Many yaylalar are now connected to the outside world by dirt roads, most of which are perfectly manageable for ordinary cars. Those in the Toros, that mighty chain of limestone peaks stretching the length of the Mediterranean coast and beyond, are home to the Yörük. This originally nomadic group of tribes has declined in number, but its remnants still make the annual journey from the coast into the Toros each spring. Pitching their black goat hair tents on the yayla, for the next few months their lives are dictated by the needs of their flocks. Shepherds (and their fearsome guard dogs — big, furry kangals with spiked collars to protect them from wolves) spend the day driving their charges across the mountainsides in search of grazing, whilst the women prepare meals, milk the flocks and produce yoghurt and cheese — for their own use and for sale in local markets. If you choose to camp on a Ayder Plateau, the Yörük, still obligated to visitors by traditional codes of honor, are sure to welcome you.

The wandering life of nomadic pastoralists holds a peculiar fascination for western travelers. That doyen of female British travelers, the doughty Freya Stark, observed the following about the Yörük way of life in the 1950s: “The life of insecurity is the nomad’s achievement. He does not try, like our building world, to believe in a stability which is non-existent; and in his movement with the seasons, in the lightness of his hold, puts something right, about which we are constantly wrong. He is in fact the reality, to which the most solid of our structures are illusion; and the ramshackle tents in their crooked gaiety, with cooking pots propped up before them and animals about, shows what a current flows about all the stone-erections of the ages.”

Ayder Plateau

In a similar vein to Stark, the famous Turkish author Irfan Orga, having spent three weeks amongst the Yörük, wrote: “Stability has no meaning for him. It is a mode of expression, a feeling he rejects instinctively, not believing in it. He is too realistic to believe in stability. Just as time does not govern him, nor does conformity. He conforms to tribal customs, it is true, but only in so far as his own nature permits. He is, in fact, the only free man left in the world.”

As a holidaymaker, visiting the summer pastures for a few days or weeks, you can be forgiven for indulging in the same rather romanticized notions of yayla life expounded by Stark and Orga, and console yourself with the fact that it is not just foreigners who “holiday” on the yaylalar. Turks who have long since given up the wandering life return to their roots by driving up from nearby towns to spend time living an approximation of the life their forebears once did. Many come from further afield — from Ankara, Istanbul and even from Germany, Holland and elsewhere, invariably to yaylalar where they have family connections.

If you are unused to camping out in the wilds, the Black Sea makes the best choice. Here, due to the severe climate and the abundance of timber and useable stone, the summer pastures are studded with permanent wood and stone chalets. These yayalar remain cool and lush throughout the summer. The Yörük yaylalar of the Toros are hotter, drier and less green. They are also less permanent, as the pastoralists must move several times in the yayla season. On the other hand, watching the gaggle of shepherds, resilient womenfolk and tough kids pack up their tents and belongings and set off for a higher pasture is like stepping back in time, and conjuring up a time when hundreds of nomadic tribes wandered across the uplands of Anatolia, driving vast flocks of animals before them.

Ayder Plateau

Even the most urbanized Turk appears to retain the nomadic instinct. In the UK we prepare everything for a picnic in advance — at home — from sandwiches to flasks of tea. The picnic over, we return and disassemble everything — at home. Turkish people, however, pile their cars high with an excess of consumables plus, crucially, the paraphernalia to prepare it. In goes the barbeque, the charcoal, the brazier for brewing the tea, the teapot, the glasses, the spoons, the sugar jar, forks, knives to cut the bread, vegetables, fruit and whatever else. Following the meal, the washing up is done in a nearby spring and everything goes back into the car. It’s as if they could quite easily just carry on to the next place, prepare another meal, then spread out a few blankets and spend the night just like their Turcoman forefathers. Home, it appears, is not only their apartment in the city.

So this summer why not see what it’s all about. Use your common sense, chuck the basics of life into your car (or backpack) and head — like many throughout this land — for the cool of the hills and mountains. My friend Esat is already packing.

Fingertip facts

Three yayla

Yedi Göller: Experienced walkers only: In the Aladalar mountains, a Yörük yayla only reachable on foot. Set amongst the high peaks of the “Speckled Mountains,” with several small lakes nearby. Approach from Demirkazık village, south of Niğde in southern Cappadocia. Best in July

Melekler Yaylası (Angels’ Pastures): Possible for casual campers. Beneath Mt Dedegul (between Beyşehir and Eğirdir), reachable by dirt road, summer home of Yörük from Serik, near Antalya. Beautiful meadows, a gushing spring and delightful walks. Best in May/June.

Yukarı Kavron: A lush meadow beneath the highest peaks of the Kaçkar range, in northeast Turkey, reachable from Ayder village, approached from Trabzon or Rize. Pension accommodation available. Best in July/August.

Books and Web sites

Travelogue: “The Caravan Moves On” by Irfan Orga and “Bolkarlar” by Dux Schnieder

Trekking: “The Mountains of Turkey” by Karl Smith and “The St Paul Trail” by Kate Clow

Travel: “The Rough Guide to Turkey; Lonely Planet: Turkey”

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