I said my latest goodbye to Mardin from the centre of the new part of the old city. The coach left at 5.30pm and got into Sivas at about 4am. I had this sub-conscious expectation of a run-down truck stop, dawn illuminating old men with white moustaches playing backgammon and drinking tea. I was fully aware that we were arriving at 4am, but my rose-tinted imagination had it that way. So when we pulled up to a modern otopark much like many of the others I’ve seen around the larger cities of Turkey, I was surprised and relieved – clearly I’m not as much of a romantic as my thoughts. Whilst I still feel this part of the world to be far safer and more respectful than Europe, carrying a large-ish amount of cash (spread across five currencies because I’m quite the jet, sorry, bus-setter) stops me from napping with ease. Even the overnight buses (honestly, so safe for a single man who growls rather than speaks the local language) find me watching the head rest TV rather than sleep. I laid down and watched the headlights of the arriving coaches dance through the semi-circular glass front of the station. The line of coach companies had yet to open for business, and I had a deep rumble in my gut. Cursing my choice of rice and spicy aubergine stew, or rather disappointed that I’d allowed my roadside appetite get the better of my golden rule, I donned my pack and searched resignedly for a crapper. Even in the most modern terminals, the squat drops are often a grim affair, at best wet from the buckets of water available for cleaning. Being so unpracticed, it’s difficult to shit without getting my trousers wet and then wondering. To my audible joy, there was a disabled toilet available in the men’s room and I sat down like a toddler as my feet couldn’t find the floor from the raised height. The Golden Rule to long distance bus travel in Turkey is always micturate when given the chance and grab a sit down defecation moment with both hands….well, you know, just take a shit when there’s a clean Western-style growler.
Moving on from what is excellent advice, I passed the next couple of hours reading a compelling but slightly nerdy fishing travelogue until a few of the agents sleepily appeared from the mirrored back offices. I’ve been warned not to rely on my limited Kurdish in this central region, and with no Turkish aside from ‘thanks’, I went from booth to booth inflecting ‘Kangal’ with a little accent and enquiry to no avail. Heavy-eyed clerks with weary dispositions seemed to implore me to give them a moment to adjust to waking up literally in the office. The open waiting area had fewer prostrate bodies now, all in need of tickets – north-west to Ankara and further to Istanbul, south to Gaziantep, back west to Van or Batman. One vendor indicated a bus to catch, but I missed it. My simple plan of grabbing a local bus to Kangal, just an hour away, was beginning to feel naive. Then another booth opened and I repeated my one word request. “Tamam” (ok) and he wrote me a ticket – 8 lira, 8 o’clock, bay 8. I have a numerologist friend, and I’ve no idea what he’d make of this, but I’m hopelessly superstitious when travelling and took it to be A Good Sign. A smaller bus arrived, and with the conductor looking at me askance as I puffed away on my e-cigarette, I stowed my rucksack and took my seat – 13, but I always let the darker omens go. I don’t remember leaving the station, I fell fast asleep. Woken by a pleading bladder and a slowing vehicle, I looked out of my window – a massive kangal, bushy tail coiled, standing like a show dog. It was a full two metres at the shoulder and cast from cheap concrete, but at least I knew I was in the right place. I did that confused panic thing that we all do when we’ve woken almost too late, only to be ushered back to wait until we were in the centre of the 11,000 strong town. It gave me time to get my bearings, take in a little of what is an unremarkable town, strung with the bunting that drapes the country at this time of local elections. Bunting, posters of men (in this town it appears to be a moustache competition, with at least two candidates who could represent Turkey at the world championships should their political ambitions stall) and cars blaring music rather than promises. In Mardin, with its heavily mixed population, I could understand this – Turkish music from the ethnically Turkish parties, and the reedier, faster Kurdish music from the BDP. In Kangal, a poorer town, tired amplifiers and speakers nestle in bungees atop older Renaults, and the distorted result grates somewhat.
When I did disembark onto the street, I was immediately tugged by a taxi driver. In his hands he held a ragged tourist information pamphlet and jabbed his nailless index finger almost through a photo of a spa. The type where little fish feed on your flaking skin. Should I be offended that he doesn’t see me as much of a man, or flattered that I’m clearly the type who takes care of himself. The truth is somewhere in between, and I wasn’t in Kangal for fish. There are pictures of the dogs absolutely everywhere, and given the chance I’d vote for them. But as they’re not standing and I’m not voting, I just pointed at one of the photos and looked at him. Now that I was in Kangal, my Turkish was down to zero words but he got hold of my intentions, so I trusted my gut. I pointed to a cheap looking hotel, he fetched the owner from the butcher’s below, I dumped my bag and we were off. Not even being able to ask the price, I pointed to my wallet and he just cheerfully said ‘meter, tamam!’ OK, whatever, he seemed a sure bet to find the dogs. A large man, he talked incessantly and his breath was not good. But he was friendly enough and locked into my use of hand signals to augment our chatter. 2km out of town, he swung right across the road and we parked at a kennels. The gates were locked and my corpulent ‘fixer’ snagged himself through a barbed wire fence, so I followed. There was a large poorly maintained house behind us to our left, but up ahead were 7 or 8 pens in which I could see the fawn bodies and dark masks of kangals. I motion-suggested to Yilmaz that we might like to ask first, but he just strode on and I followed for the second but not the last time that day.
I was slightly wary of the four or five large animals not in cages, stretching out in the sun of the spring morning. Aside from the puppies almost a year before, I have never met a pure kangal. Some friends have a kangal/German shepherd cross back in Erbil, a stately chap called Faisal. I’ve met him a couple of times, and love his temperament – gorgeous and enjoys a fuss, but not overly affectionate; just calm and the friendly side of brooding. However, research kangal online, and one finds the overwhelming amount of material is dedicated to their fearless nature. There is also a lot of material about them being amazing family pets, fantastic with children and coping with their place in a group of humans. However, to be faced with five untethered on their own patch as an introduction is a striking proposition. As it happened, they lifted their heads, barked their deep welcome and got back to the sunning themselves. The pens were about 2.5m wide and ten deep with shade and a kennel at the back. They needed a clean, but I’ve seen worse conditions. Each housed a dog and a bitch. In the first, an older dog lifted his shanks and stretched his fore legs, before yawning and pacing up to the thick wire between us. He was a dark fawn colour, a ginger tinge in the sun almost. Thick and powerful, his muscles were visible through his thick coat, and he stood at waist height. His face was jowly and black as soot, the looks that have gone on to be familiar in any number of mastiffs. His companion by contrast, was sleek and lighter in build and colour. Her face was tighter, the black hairs of her mask spread thinner. In short, she was a very pretty, elegant dog, whilst he was a handsome, confident beast. These differences aren’t based on the sex, but it’s rare to see a big bitch – or at least, that’s my observation on the basis of this day. Walking down the cages, we saw just one puppy, which sat back and eyed us with a head cocked in vague interest. Some dogs showed signs of having been in fights – whether for ‘sport’ or work, this is what they are breed for in these parts.
Walking back to the car, I felt a little deflated. This was a bloody long way to come to just visit a zoo for ten minutes. I reached into my bag and passed a note to Yilmaz. Written by my friend Rojda the day before, it read in Turkish, “I apologise for not speaking Turkish. I want to find working Kangal dogs. Would you please introduce me to a village mukhtar (mayor) so that he may show me a coban (shepherd) and his dogs? With great respect and gratitude.”
Back in the taxi, I noticed with alarm that the meter was up to 50 lira (over $20) already. He was on the phone as soon as we hit the tarmac and we drove further out of town. Hanging up laughing, he turned to me and explained, I think, that we were going to visit a mukhtar with the best dogs. He kept talking, which made me uncomfortable, and I cracked the window to allow his breath past me. It was around then that I became acutely aware of my own odour and admonished myself. Poor bastard was earning his money with me in the car, and I snuck a look at that relentless meter. 80 lira. This was close to what I had budgeted for this journey, and we weren’t on the return yet. We forged on in the gently rolling landscape, the mountains in the distance still capped with snow. The earth was brown from ploughing, and the fallow acres remained the dusty colour of the dogs, springs rain yet to weave its verdant magic. Eagles soared against the blue heavens. After about 10km I took a very obvious look at the meter and sighed. Over 100 lira, and he just tapped my hand as if to say “Don’t worry.” I didn’t fully trust him, but figured we must be close. But every time we turned a corner or breached a hill, there was nothing. We entered a village and I felt we must be there. But we ploughed through and took a dirt road, actually a smoother ride than the pot-holed asphalt over which he drove with abandon. 20 minutes after leaving the kennels, we arrived at a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Once at the end of the drive, in front of the house, I could see four dogs chained up. I went to get out of the door, but Yilmaz motioned for me to stay in and blew his horn for attention. I always exercise caution with any dog I don’t know, and these were large wearing steel spiked collars. Yep, I’ll wait for the big guy. And look at the meter. Shit, 150 lira.
The big guy was actually slight, wearing a beard and farming clothes, bottomed with amazing rubber shoes patterned like brogues. He waved us out with a smile, chattered away in Turkish and took us around the back of his house where we saw four more chained males. An older one, the grand old man, came down to us and Yilmaz hid behind me before the chain restricted his progress. I laughed a little, as I’ve been guilty of this, but our host’s ease around them and lack of instruction to us dispersed any worry. Then we double-backed down the driveway to a barn. Behind the barn, various poultry and fowl gobbled and squawked and there was a bitch and a dog, chained. In went the breeder, careful to close the gate behind him He released the chain from the concrete pile keeping this magnificent male in check. Up past his owner’s waist, he growled happily and trotted out in front of us. It reminded me of my teenage days when I would take our wolfhounds up onto the local common land – some wag would always ask, “Who’s taking who for a walk?” and if I’d known the Turkish, I might well have been unable to restrain myself from asking it. The dog marked his territory without breaking stride, keen to see his pals up the road.
The meeting between the dogs was tense. It was clear to me now, that these dogs were used mostly for fighting each other, the way they strained at their chains.
I hate dog-fighting, abhor it, but it wasn’t my place to pass judgement on this man’s choices. I was merely thrilled to be amongst them. 15 months ago, I saw my first picture of a Kangal, and here I was, seeing them in their home region. The alpha clipped to another concrete retainer, we were invited in. The small home is filled with trophies from shows (the alpha won the Turkish equivalent of Cruffs two years ago, as Best In Show. The runner-up was a Yorkshire terrier!). At the computer I was shown videos that confirmed my fears. Dogs set against each other, but mostly protected by their thick fur and trimmed ears (something else that turns my stomach). More upsetting was the video of four dogs slowly, incrementally ripping a boar apart. The noise was grim, but it was the lack of bite on the neck to kill the quarry that had me looking away. I was shown about 90 seconds of this footage, and would guess the animal struggled for several more minutes. Then I was shown photos of dead wolves held up next to the dog that had killed it – whether working to protect sheep or hunting for sport, I don’t know why these clashed. I hope it was for the former, but am realistic enough to surmise it was the later in all probability. Most disturbing of all was the picture of a small leopard, lifeless on the floor beside and behind a Kangal. It was difficult to estimate its size, but I’d hazard a guess at three feet from nose to tail. Perhaps the size of a large ocelot. In contrast, photos of the alpha being climbed on by the two young kids who found me intriguing, confirmed what I’d heard about temperament.
Worried that the meter might still be ticking, I got Yilmaz’s attention. Outside he still avoided the dogs, but I couldn’t leave without stroking the calmest of the pack, which lived under the front door steps. He was pretty, rather than fearsome, and loved the attention. Our host took my hand and led me up the hill to the alpha. He clearly meant for me to have a moment, so I did. It was amazing. This beast, clearly the strongest and most fearsome of the pack, turned into a puppy. Pawing at me, nuzzling, playfully taking my hand in his jaws. I tried to get him to ‘dance’ to get his paws on my shoulders, that iconic big dog pose, but he wouldn’t. I had some photos taken with him though, and I still curse the missed opportunity for an ‘epic selfie’.
We arrived back in town and I’d decided that I’d offer $50 for the ride and negotiate from there. It seemed fair for a couple of hours work in a town where the taxis don’t seem at all busy. The final reading was 285 lira – just shy of $130. Yilmaz didn’t seem offended by my opening offer, just shook his head with a smile. He made a chopping motion half way up his left forearm, indicating he’d accept half price. Another $10 and 20 lira satisfied us both. No need for a fight.