A Unique Turkish Experience – A Black and White Photo Essay

One day we were on a road trip in Eastern Turkey and we had the most amazing experience. This was an experience that we could never have planned or would have ever expected to have, one that will stay with me forever and ever.

Sheep, Sheep, and more Sheep!

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
We looked up the mountainside to see an entire line of sheep. This is one of the youngest girls we saw trying to help herd them in the right direction.

We had been in the town of Van where they had a huge earthquake and much of the city was destroyed. The people in this back country of Turkey, not far from the Iranian border, are very, very friendly. We’d been traveling for a couple of weeks and even though there were four in our party, one of us had taken ill and had decided to stay in the hotel and relax for the day.

The rest of us, Jim, Lisa and I decided that we needed to go on a road trip and that we would go down to Van Lake. There you take a boat over to an old Armenian Cathedral which is extremely popular. It was a hot and steamy June day, so it felt good to be out on the water. However, once we disembarked and started wandering along the path, it heated us up right away. The cathedral is a stunning work of Armenian architecture and stone carvings and just walking around the grounds was interesting as well.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
An old man keeps the sheep in check as the women are ready to milk.

We were quite ready to get back on the boat and feel the cool breeze on our faces, and then we sat and had a grilled lunch underneath the trees overlooking the lake. Of course we still had the whole afternoon ahead of us, so we decided just to go for a nice ride in the mountains, partly to cool off, but also just to see more of the beautiful countryside.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
Covered from head to toe, with tattoos on hands, the women pause for a quick photo. Smiles all around.

Call us crazy, but we headed towards the border of Iran and we were so close that at times we could have crossed over it without knowing. In this area of the world there are not that many border patrols or customs agents, and we certainly were not near a large border crossing of any type. We certainly had no plans of crossing the border, but we thought taking a look wouldn’t hurt.

We were driving over this high mountain and the roadway was being renovated, but there was a lot of traffic on it, going both ways even though there really was only space for one vehicle going one way. Drivers had to get creative in the way they met a car or in our case, truck coming at us. It wasn’t so much scary as downright hilarious. We weren’t too worried, we just were having fun.

Enjoying the ride, the scenery was spectacular and we saw lots of activity. There were all kinds of domestic animals, like donkeys, sheep, and goats that were being herded by nomadic families and their huge dogs. We saw men with their kafiyehs and women in their colorful layers of clothes, tending the camps, babies, and many animals. Everyone was busy doing what they do everyday. It felt like we were watching a National Geographic special on TV.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
In the high heat of summer, milking is hard work.
A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
The “overseer” checks the herd for wounds or other problems.

The Largest Flock of Sheep I’ve Ever Seen!

Turning the corner, we looked up on the side of the mountain and were met with the most amazing sight. There must have been 500 sheep, lined up in an almost funnel shape. At first it was not obvious what was happening, but upon closer examination we realized that it was an entire village out to milk the sheep.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
So much fresh, rich sheep’s milk.
A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
The sheep seem to know the drill, but there are plenty of people around to help keep them in line.

The process was fascinating; some children and a few women had the chore of herding the sheep into the “line” where about 20 village women of all ages sat in a circle. The sheep were pulled and milked, then guided down the funnel to a man sitting in the middle of the line. He was checking them out, possibly for wounds, making sure they were milked, who knows what else. He was obviously the “quality assurance” guy, and then overseeing the entire process were two older men, who didn’t seem to do much else but watch while leaning on their canes.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
I love the veils with the hand embroidery that the village women wear. So beautiful.

We tried to figure out the entire process, but we quickly learned that my limited Turkish wasn’t being understood. I have no idea what language they spoke. We could really only communicate with hand gestures. We had brought them a can full of mixed nuts, because sharing out in the back country is always a sign of friendship, and they invited us to try our hand at the milking.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
I’m taught to hold the teet with my hand with my thumbs inside. It’s a skill I’ve yet to master.

I, never say no to these types of opportunities, which sometimes I immediately regret. I can’t say I regretted plopping down among the milkers, but I quickly learned that there is a trick to milking a sheep that has been living in the pasture, with no water, for some time. The sheep that came to me was covered in smelly, disgusting feces so my hands and lower arms were quickly covered in muck as well. I looked over at the other women and yet their hands were unbelievably free of crap.

Obviously there is a way to go through or around the sheep’s legs to avoid the messy wool, an age-old secret that I was not privy to in my sterilized buy-your-milk-at the-market life. Everyone got a good giggle about it; I washed off my hands and then tried again. I did seem to get a few drops of milk into the bucket, but I can’t really say I was a successful milker. I might starve if this task was left to me for sustenance.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
Everyone is working hard. Can you see the levels of the jugs? I wonder how much milk a herd of about 500 yields?

As much fun as we were having, being a part of an ancient nomadic tradition, we knew that we were disrupting the routine and taking time away from other tasks that needed to be done in the village. Turkish village life, and especially nomadic life, is hard and sunlight hours are precious.

We noticed that there were no babies in the field, and I’m sure each of those ladies had a few waiting for them somewhere along with whatever other chores they had like beating rugs, washing clothes, and making dinner. They were in that field to work and I’m sure wanted to get the job done.

By this time, we were really starting to get overheated again. The temperature was somewhere upwards of 30°C, and we were hot and glistening. In my western dress of capris and a short-sleeved shirt, I couldn’t stand the heat, and it always surprises me how covered up the women are during the summer. Each one had layers and layers of clothes. They were covered head to toe, and yet they didn’t seem to perspire at all, or maybe they just don’t complain like we do. Of course, they are primarily Muslim, but the veils these women wear are more of a village veil than a religious veil, a veil they’ve been wearing for thousands of years.

Just watching them work hard, in the hot sun, completely covered, and yet willing to let some strangers come uninvited, interrupt their work, and even invite them to participate is such a humbling experience. It’s one I will cherish as a special travel memory for my entire life.

A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay
It takes the whole village to milk the sheep and keep things going at a quick pace. Everyone has to get back to all their other chores at home.

Have you had such an amazing travel experience? We would love for you to tell us about it in the comment section below.

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A Unique Turkish Experience - A Black and White Photo Essay

14 thoughts on “A Unique Turkish Experience – A Black and White Photo Essay”

  1. Grey World Nomads

    Awesome pictures! So real and touching. I love that you show them monochrome. A very different experience which will stay with you.

  2. What a great experience. It would be fascinating to watch the herding and milking of the sheep. You now have be wondering how these woman managed to stay clean while milking.

    1. Donna, I’m telling you none of their hands and arms looked like mine, and all their white clothes were still white. There’s some secret to it, I’m sure.

  3. Isn’t Turkey the best place for road tripping? We travelled here in 2012 with our son and girlfriend in an old beat up Transit Van that he bought in London. What we loved the most were the small villages dotted along the Turquoise Coast. We were able to stop and buy fresh sour dough bread, goat’s cheese, huge big red ripe tomatoes and giant juicy peaches for lunch, which I can still taste! Your experience with the sheep farmers would certainly be something to remember. The black and white photos are sensational.

    1. Jan, I have always wanted to live on a farm, and I take advantage of milking whatever comes my way. To me, though, this was beyond the farm. I loved the mountain pastures. It’s a memory I’ll always savor!

  4. Hi Corrine. What a fantastic (and unexpected) experience! Love the photos. I now have a vision of you up to your elbows in sheep crap! :) Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

    1. Ruth, Chatting is an overstatement here. We didn’t seem to share much language, and what we had was both a limited Turkish. It was an amazing day!

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