barrenness of a busy life.
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23rd February to 13th
Our first experience of Turkey was five long hours at the border trying to penetrate a dense wall of bureaucratic negativity. This time, Lisa drew the short straw and did all the talking while I dozed in the sun with the horses. Men in dark suits rolled up in cars and then disappeared into meeting rooms to discuss our fate. While we waited, some journalists turned up from nowhere; photographs, questions, more photographs. Some power crazed individual was set against us being allowed in and we didn’t know why. Reason and common sense were no match for their stubbornness. Utterly dejected, we trudged back under the grand, crescent moon and stars archway, back through Bulgarian customs and back to the crumbling fleapit barn we’d prayed we’d never see again. Lisa had picked up a free map in one of the offices; “Welcome to Turkey”, it said on the cover, “Holiday Paradise Center”.
Unable to sleep for a third consecutive night, we held a team meeting in the dark hours before dawn. Three of us didn’t contribute much: Hannah (aka "Jobsworth") felt she had to keep watch in case of gypsy attack, Audin was too busy playing with his tongue on the chain link fence and Sealeah needed time to lie down and re-live the day’s excitement in her dreams. As usual, it was left to Lisa and me to make all the hard decisions. At the frontline, Turkish resistance had been strong, we now knew we’d have to be well prepared for a second assault and approaching from a different flank could increase our chances of success. So, after hours of debate, we concluded things in just a minute - we were in no mood for a repetition so without hesitation we agreed what was needed: The Thracian Deviation.
The ancient region of Thrace included parts of present day Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Luckily, the latest border change had left a big lump of Greece stretching up north to rescue us. Our Thracian Deviation involved retreating from the Turkish front, backtracking west for a day in the rain through the miserable Bulgarian town of Svilengrad and dropping south into Greece. The border was a breeze and suddenly we were back in shiny happy Euroland.
Just after dark we arrived in the first (last?) Greek village, Ormenio, where the entire male population was in the café. Within a few minutes, only half the male population was in the café, the other half were outside trying to help us. I was led to a barn and given two huge bales of ‘trefilli’ (lucerne hay) while, with full approval, Lisa parked the horses on the football pitch. “Of course nobody minds”, Harry told me, “this is Greece.” In Greek, Harry is spelt a bit like a maths lesson: ‘X a p i’. Later, in the café, where the men seemed to make one tiny cup of coffee and a glass of water last all night, Xapi gave me a quick run down of the alphabet and I wrote down a few words. We’d had no intention of coming to Greece and had crossed the border without knowing a single word. Yet another different alphabet was a bit of a pain though. We’d only just got to grips with Cyril’s funny letters in Bulgaria and now we were having to wrestle with betas and thetas, epsilons and pies.
We were heading south but soon realised that all the freak snow in Bulgaria was now melting and doing the same. The River Ardas coming down from the Rhodopi mountains was raging whitewater. The River Erithropotamos was unfordable and it forced us all the way down to the big River Evros. This had burst its banks and the flooding stretched for miles, all the way across to Turkey. With the wind whipping up white horses it was like being down by the sea, only one with houses and trees in it. A TV reporter and cameraman, out to talk with flood victims, stopped us on the road and a couple of minutes later we were being interviewed about our trip. When asked how I found Greece, I should have said that we just rode down to the end of Bulgaria and turned right but (a) this joke is too ancient even for Greece and (b) I didn’t think of it until about thirty seconds after the interview had finished.
With the Evros floodwaters on the left and the foothills of the Rhodopi mountains on the right, we made our way down to the town of Tihero. Within striking distance of the Greece/Turkey border crossing at Kipi, it was the perfect location for the lengthy planning stop needed for the Second Turkish Campaign. The horses had a small paddock, access to shelter and top quality food and less than a stone’s throw away the humans, thanks to the incredible generosity of the lovely Sophia at the Thrassa Hotel, found themselves in a luxury suite overlooking a lake. Hot water, soft bed, calming music…it was too much to take in. How could this be happening to people who sleep with buffaloes and rats?
Determined to avoid another border battle defeat, we threw ourselves into the campaign effort. Sophia at the hotel, Meni and friends at the stables, Chris from the internet café - all of them helped us well beyond the call of duty. Without them, a difficult task would have been a hundred times harder. We heard about others with horses who’d been turned away at the border and didn’t want it to happen to us. This time we were determined to try diplomacy before returning to the frontline. Via the EU in Brussels, we made contacts in the Ministry of Agriculture in Ankara and, after a bit of email/fax/phone to-ing and fro-ing, everything started to sound more hopeful. Mayors and Heads of Prefectures and all kinds of ‘Grands Fromages’ (probably feta) on both sides of the border soon knew about our situation. When the blood test results finally came from the lab in Athens, the health certificates could be signed and the written permission from Ankara followed. If Heracles was still around and scratching about for another ‘labour’ to keep him motivated, trying to get a horse into Turkey would be a fitting challenge for him. After two weeks of effort, it was time for take two.
Getting through the Greek side of the border required another visit to the ministry vet or ‘Anthi the Fire-breathing Dragon Lady’ as she is otherwise known. We’d paid a visit a few days before and had been greeted with a barrage of shouting, the general gist of which was that everything we wanted to do was totally impossible. But she blew hot and cold. After disappearing into a backroom (presumably to inject herself with a large dose of some kind of sedative) she returned all smiles and even made us a cup of coffee. These vets often have several posters of horse / dog / cat breeds on their office walls but Anthi’s wall boasted only one: fish species. How many people came travelling through this border post with fish? I can hear her now “Excuse me, where did you get that fish?” Today, because it was a public holiday, and she’d had to come to work “only for you” she demanded money “only for gas”. Compared to the direct bribe demanding approach of the Romanian vets, this was refreshingly subtle.
On the Turkish side, it was a simple case of waiting a mere four hours for the vet to turn up. He’d been told by Ankara to let us in and, now stripped of power, just oozed resentment. He brushed aside all the passports and health certificates and just kept saying “camion (lorry), you must have camion”. He could get one for us for the right fee. Bless him; he must have needed the full four hours to think that one up. Fortunately, we’d insisted that our permission stated we’d be with the horses on foot. It was stalemate for a good hour but in the end he cracked before I did and we were given the green light. By now the sun was setting behind us in the Greek hills and we had to find somewhere to stop but we didn’t care; at last, we were in, it was T-day.