Hiking the Phrygian Way

/ By Josh

Growing up in Canada’s Pacific NorthWest, hiking was a part of life; a part of my life that I thought I had left behind when I moved to Turkey and the great metropolis of Istanbul. As it turns out, Turkey is home to a number of amazing hiking routes that take advantage of the country’s diverse terrain and climate and lead hikers along a never-ending chain of ancient wonders scattered amidst Turkey’s natural beauty.

One of these routes is the 500+ kms set of trails that wind their way through the ancient homeland of the Phrygians, an early Iron age people who settled in the dry highlands of western Anatolia and carved monumental facades in the soft volcanic rock.

Aslantaş Monument Phrygian Way

Now, as Sean and I are both married with kids we can’t exactly just take off for a couple of weeks at a time to hike the whole thing at once (not that our tender feet could handle it either). So Instead of tackling this mammoth route all at once we decided to dip our toes in, so to speak, and start with a single-night trek into the Phrygian Hills of northern Afyon.

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We started off from the side of the highway north of the mineral spring town of Gazligöl (‘gassy lake’, a beautiful name to be sure) where we immediately spotted the deep cut ruts of ancient wagons in the soft volcanic rock. We followed the red and white markers through scrubby bushland, skirting tilled fields and rocky outcroppings, making great time and just enjoying the stillness and beauty of nature.

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A red and white marker along a deep-cut cart track.

Things progressed smoothly up until we came to a point where the trail ran into a recently built dam. Construction of the dam killed any chance of finding trail markers or a worn trail in the area, and after searching the area we were completely stumped. Checking our map and guidebook we figured we could attempt cutting cross country towards the next landmark and probably find the trail along the way.

Turns out even in a relatively flat terrain it can be pretty tough to walk in a straight line. Deep gorges carved by rainwater in the soft rock and dense thickets of juniper, oak, pine, and hawthorn made the valley floor nearly impassable. We may have been able to push through, but the thorns and sharp branches were eating through my sleeping mat at an alarming rate!

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Mushroom-capped rocks and scrubby bushlands below.
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While sheep and goat bones are pretty common, canine skulls are quite rare.

Keeping to the bald ridges with their strange bulbous rocks rising out of the white sand, we managed to make our way to our first landmarks: Aslantaş and Yılantaş (‘Lion Rock’ and ‘Snake Rock’) Monuments. The monuments are a pair of Phrygian chamber tombs, one in ruins and the other quite intact. Funnily enough, Snake Rock has collapsed so that the only visible part of the monument is the massive head of a lion lying beside the road. So, two rock monuments of lions but one is called Snake Rock Monument.

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The lion of the Snake Stone.

Back on the marked trail we were once again making good time. At this point the trail was quite wide and well worn. In the white, powdery ground we could see sets of narrow tracks leaving shining smooth marks in the dust. We figured they must be made by some sort of little wagon, only we couldn’t find any horse tracks. Confusingly we found the tracks leading off a steep bank into the bush at one point. It wasn’t till dusk, as we descended into the village of Demirli, that our little mystery was solved. Locals here like to use lightweight wooden carts with steel covered wheels pulled by donkeys to haul wood from the hills and do other light farm work. The donkey’s hooves are small and unshod, so they barely leave any marks on the hard rock while the wheels leave smooth lines in the dust-filled ruts.

Oddly, the Demirli villagers we spoke to kept calling me kuzum, or ‘my lamb’, not something I’m particularly accustomed to being called. I may not be a Tom Selleck or Hugh Jackman type of rugged, but I feel I’m a little more manly than ‘my lamb’ would imply.

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Shepherds at dusk.
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Looking for caves to sleep in a short distance from the village of Demirli.

One of my greatest hopes for this hike was to spend the night in one of the region’s many caves (this way we wouldn’t have to carry a tent with us either). Sadly, with the darkness deepening quickly and no caves to be found in the area we settled for a broad shelf of stone below a pair of looming rocks where we’d be away from the herds (as well as their droppings and the flies that follow them) and Turkey’s terrifying sheepdogs.

By the light of our headlamps we gathered dead pine branches that local shepherds had overlooked in their scavenging, prepped a cookfire, and cleared a spot in the deep bed of pinecones for a spot to sleep for the night. While we were sitting around the fire roasting chunks of sausage (we brought a whole coil from Afyon which proved to be about three times what we needed), we noticed a light making its way across the fields and up to our little camp in our patch of wood.

Our guest turned out to be the Muhtar (something like the village head) who had come to tell us that we weren’t allowed to be camping there!

“What if something were to happen to you? Who would be responsible?”

“Us”, we answered in unison, though to little effect.

He said we could finish our meal then come down and set up camp in the village, making it clear that there wasn’t any discussion about it. (Next time we plan to camp more remotely as the guidebook suggests.)

We ended up spending the night chatting with the Muhtar’s son and, come morning, we all had breakfast together. While the Muhtar used our safety as an excuse to get us to camp in the village, the main reason had much more to do with his war against treasure hunters and vandals who have done untold damage to historical sites all over the country. He had caught countless diggers and even had to have the military come out and defuse explosives that treasure hunters had wired up to get into stone chambers.

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Where we had hoped to camp…
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…and where we actually ended up spending the night.

One reason we had for wanting to avoid town was the dogs. Turns out we were right and, now that we were right in the middle of the village, we had to spend the night listening to perpetual barking. Even worse, there was a dog loose who got it in her head that we were the most interesting things in the world and would regularly try sneaking up on us in the dark. At one point I woke up to a loud growling right next to my head. The growling was actually a sleep deprived Sean trying to scare the dog away. Pretty weird way to wake up.

The next day was a long succession of high ridges and fairy chimney lined valleys. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by Lawrence of Arabia, but in his travel stories he describes in minute detail EVERY valley he walked through over the course of years. As he was a cartographer and a spy he can be forgiven for drowning his readers in details regarding the coarseness of the sand from one place to another; I, however, won’t do that to you and will just let the pictures of this amazing place speak for themselves.

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One of the most beautiful points along the trail that day. Grooves cut by millenia of cart traffic can be clearly seen in the narrow pass.
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By far the deepest-cut cart track.
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The one and only steep descent we had to make on the generally plat trail.

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While I grew up with a fair bit of hiking, it was all very different from what we got to see along this stretch of the Phrygian Way. When I would hike back at home it would usually consist of hours of uphill walking through thick forest leading to a final summit, with a sudden and glorious view of the valleys far below and further rows of mountains marching to the north and south. Along the Phrygian Way however, you only encounter the occasional patch of wooded area and the views are everywhere all the time; another fascinating rock formation or historic monument around the next corner.

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In terrain like this it can be nearly impossible to figure out the trail without the markings.
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“look for the lone juniper” finding the waymark was always an encouraging event.

One tricky aspect of hiking in this sort of open country is that it can be very hard to maintain a clear trail. Herds of sheep and goats make their own tracks and rain washes the white powdery sand into long tracks that look just like paths. We lost the trail a few times but always ended up back on it eventually by way of a vague sense of the right direction, some blind luck, and some helpful local drawing water or watering a flock at one of the countless wells along the way.

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Washing food at one of the many wells along the route. The long troughs are for the herds.

After the monument of Aslantas the trail to Döğer becomes a gravel road, which becomes a cobbled road, and eventually a paved road leading through a far less wild-feeling country. The hills became lower, grazing lands gave way to tilled fields, and we began to pass by the occasional farmhouse. These short last kilometres felt the longest due to an unpleasant combination of lacking scenery and the sudden appearance of blisters all over my feet. The deep dust of the trail had constantly filled our shoes and caused havoc with our feet. My socks were shredded when I took them off that evening, and my feet little better.

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Approaching the Aslantaş monument.

Just on the outskirts of Döğer some college students took pity on us and picked us up. They even managed to chase down the minibus for us and had us back into Afyon in before we knew it!

With a few hundred kilometres of trail remaining and most of the greatest Phrygian monuments and cities left to explore, I hope we’ll be back on the trail soon! We may even manage to camp in a cave next time.