In the tracks of oxcarts Independence Trail

Turkey's longest hiking trail after the Lycian Way and St. Paul's Way, Independence Trail, where international signs guide the way, is a favorite with hikers and bikers.

Nature has just begun to paint the world with many colors. I breathe in earth's unique and heady fragrance. And I stop for a moment to remember the past and the all the named and nameless women heroes who passed down Turkey's road to Independence.

The creak of oxcart wheels rends the nocturnal silence. Weary bodies bent double under the burden on their shoulders trudge along the ancient way in tattered rawhide sandals. They march firm in the conviction that every step they take means more ground covered on the long road to independence. For exactly three years they have been patiently bearing to Ankara the weapons and ammunition shipped to Black Sea İnebolu from Istanbul and Russia. “I've got my sights set on Sakarya, and Dumlupınar,” said Mustafa Kemal, 'but my ear is on İnebolu.” And his words 
ring in their ears like an anthem of freedom. The epic of a nation's rebirth is being written here at every kilometer. Laid at the end of the 19th century with the common labor of convicts and volunteers, this dirt road, down which caravans of oxcarts once rolled to freedom, is being transformed into Independence Trail.

International signs guide the way
Efforts to revive Independence Trail, one of the landmarks of Turkey's national struggle (1918-1923), and turn it into a hiking and biking trail bore fruit last April. Launched by the Office of the Governor of Kastamonu province, the initiative began to take shape under governor Nurullah Çakır. Following a team effort, of which I too was a part, the most beautiful section of the ancient way, through İnebolu, Küre and Kastamonu, was opened to nature lovers. This 105-kilometer-long route was first registered with the GPS navigating system, and signs showing direction were then erected along its length. Placed at regular internals along Turkey's third longest hiking trail after the Lycian Way and St. Paul's Way, the system  of red and white international signs facilitates the work of nature lovers by guiding hikers.

We start our hike from in front of the Turkish Hearth building directly opposite a small fishing harbor pounded by the Black Sea's tempestuous waves. We make our way first through the streets of İnebolu, adorned with old houses. Wooden houses, painted barn red, that remind me of my childhood. I feel as if I know this place. Geraniums hang from the windows, intriguing doorknockers grace the enormous doors. The old ammunition dump at İnebolu, Turkey's only township boasting an Independence Medal of the Turkish Republic, has been turned into a thriving textile factory today.

On the way out of İnebolu, the Taşoluk junction heralds our departure from the congestion of urban life and into the arms of nature. Now macadamized, the old road is densely forested on one side with a deep valley on the other. Clusters of houses scattered in the hills greet their backpacking visitors through the foliage. Small greenhouses covered with sheets of white plastic catch our attention among the hazelnut orchards when we reach the village of Uğrak. Global warming  has begun to make new farming methods like greenhouse gardening viable on the Black Sea.

Leaving the village of Yukarıçaylı, we continue hiking with the valley on our left now. The road winds up to Çuhadoruğu through cherry, beech, chestnut and pine trees. The old oxcart trail is carpeted with thick green grass. The dense forest that surrounds the villages lying opposite is a sign of nearby wildlife. The wooden houses in the villages of Ayva, Soğukpınar, Adar and Beyler that line the slopes have slowly begun to be replaced by concrete structures. We are curious about the makeshift huts in some of the hazelnut orchards. Resting briefly near a fountain, we chat with an old codger who tells us with a smile that these huts are called 'sayvan' or 'gümele' and are used by farmers who come to watch for wild boar that might damage the crops.

Giant rail cars dangling overhead catch my eye.  Built by the Germans in 1952, the telefrique between İnebolu and Küre was used to carry copper down to the harbor. Repaired in 1982, the system was abandoned years ago when the villagers turned to trucking. The enormous cars, each one 750 kilos in weight, hang suspended now in thin air, surveying the earth below in their rusted out state. Reaching the settlement of Sarıkaya, we arrive at the second of the three stations that made up the system. For a minute I picture the telefrique being repaired and revived for tourism, transporting trekking buffs from İnebolu up to the station with a breathtaking view of the landscape down below all the way.

The next day we are at the second stage, which descends from Çuhadoruğu to the valley of the İkiçay. The cloud of mist that envelopes the summit disperses as we descend and a superb landscape lies spread out before us. Another forest dressed in every shade of green, village houses scattered over the hills, a rushing stream that renders the valley fertile, and the Karacehennem pass rising in splendor in the distance. The fragrance of the  ubiquitous pines is ever in our nostrils as we trek gaily along. Next to the trail, like a page out of history, we come across an old kilometer stone with a yellowish brown '70' inscribed on it. Carefully we stand it up again in the hopes that it will guide future travelers. The İkiçay bridge tells us we've reached the main highway. At a restaurant beside the stream we down a bowl of the region's famous Ecevit soup to give sustenance to our weary bodies. Then we leave the old oxcart trail that joins with the asphalt road to Küre and turn off on an alternative path we had previously marked on our route. After the district of Yusuf, the road to Alacık and the turnoff for Karagürgen, we are at the Ayrancı picnic area. This meadow in the middle of the forest is also a convenient camping place.

We spend the evening as guests of Küre's Mayor, Mr Engin Ayrancı, at the municipal social facilities at Belören. As we sit around the bonfire that illumines the darkness, the mayor tells us about the area with a friendly smile that warms the heart. The dense surrounding forest goes a little way towards masking the mineral quarries that scar the landscape. When we hear that Ersizler Canyon, Çatak Dam Reservoir, Doğanlar Castle harking back to the Paphlagonians, and Karacehennem pass are all suitable hiking trails, we make a joint decision to mark them as well.
In the morning we start our hike from in front of the Ecevit Khan, a medieval inn which is being rebuilt in keeping with its original design. Some sixteen such inns,  at Seydiler Yumurtacı Hüseyin Ağa, Üyük, and Ödemiş, dotted the old oxcart trail, which was once the region's most important transportation network. Originally built as resting places on a long and arduous journey, they have fallen prey to the depredations of time. Only the Ecevit Khan has been restored today and revived for tourism. Its neighbor, the village of Ambarlı, continues to exist as a tranquil backwater. Crossing the eponymous bridge, we turn down the forest road to the village of Çataltepe. Another old bridge and mill tell us that we have come to Ödemiş. Running briefly parallel with the main road, our route reverts again to its former state at the village of Gücü. Some old village houses, historic granaries, İmrenler höyük (mound), and another kilometer-stone with the number '35' later, we end our day in the village of Seydiler.
Independence Trail continues between Seydiler and Kastamonu, now as a dirt road, now as asphalt. Passing the villages of Ahmetbey and Oyrak, we pay our respects at Kürcalar to the grave of Halime Çavuş, one of the woman heroes of the War of Independence. Crossing Şeker Bridge, one of the main stops on Ataturk's visit to Kastamonu, we enter the town, which welcomes us to the bustle of everyday life with its old market, graceful mansions and history-steeped streets, the city.

A new hiking and biking trail
Ideal for hiking and biking, Independence Trail is at the same time Kastamonu's showcase. It would be unthinkable to come this far and return without taking in the town's natural beauty. With Mt. Ilgaz, Valla Canyon, the Yaralıgöz Mountains, Ilıca Waterfall in Küre Mountains National Park, the Araç highlands and countless other beauties of nature, Kastamonu is a virtual paradise on earth.

Extending for a total of 105 kilometers including its alternative routes, Independence Trail actually runs all the way from Çankırı to Ankara. The last sign for now on the old oxcart trail, much of which follows the main highway, is being erected with care at the Mount Ilgaz pass on the Kastamonu-Çankırı border. Kastamonu took the first step towards making it possible to walk from past to present in the historic oxcart tracks of Turkey's War of Independence. It's time now for Çankırı and Ankara to step up to the plate...