Why you should care

Because very few outsiders have ever witnessed this.

Just before midnight in the town of Güroymak in Bitlis province in eastern Turkey, it’s so cold that the hard ground underfoot feels like it’s been poured straight from cast iron. I’m looking for a nearby hamlet of about 10 houses called Budakli — one of only a handful of places anywhere in the world where water buffalo wallowing in natural hot springs can be photographed in a scene backlit by an ethereal, snow-covered landscape.

In this part of Turkey, winter shapes almost every aspect of life. Temperatures regularly hit minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit — a chill that often sees the region outfreeze Anchorage or Moscow. If you don’t cut enough timber, your family may freeze. Fail to stock enough feedstuff and you run the risk of cattle starving, leaving you penniless for the year ahead.

These hulking, slow-moving animals are no domestic cow.

The buffalo herders usually take their animals to the hot springs on Sunday mornings, an English-speaking local named Taner in Güroymak tells me, and his dad says he’ll drive me the 15-minute journey the next day for a fee.

The buffalo (manda in Turkish) in Budakli are housed on the first floor of residential homes. Windows and doors are closed tightly so that the families upstairs can enjoy the warmth generated by the beasts — an ancient and ingenious use of natural heat. When Subhi Avcil, a third-generation buffalo stockman, opens the door into the animals’ quarters, a blast of steam billows out. Inside it’s a balmy 85 degrees. “There has been buffalo here for a hundred years, maybe more. We keep them because their milk is better than a cow’s,” Avcil says. Then we’re off with the buffalo along a snow-covered track to the mystical hot springs.

subhi avcil is a third generation buffalo herdsman in budakli, bitlis province

Subhi Avcil is a third-generation buffalo herdsman in Budakli, Bitlis province, Turkey.

Source Courtesy of Stephen Starr

These hulking, slow-moving animals are no domestic cow. The sight of them raising their heads to look at you, pointing their dagger-edged horns upward, brings to mind that video clip of a herd tossing the body of a lioness high into the air somewhere in Africa. As I snap photos, I’m thinking, If they decide they dislike me, there’s no chance of running away in this snow. With a snort and a swish of their tails, however, they turn and wade into the steaming springs.

As anyone who has lived in subzero climates for more than a couple of winters knows, staying sane means getting out into the world, whatever the weather. Some in Budakli join their buffalo or horses in the piping-hot water. Others bring their kids and even cook lunch while bathing in the springs.

in the freezing winter budakli's hot springs provide a chance to be and cook outside

In the freezing winter Budakli’s hot springs provide a chance to be (and cook) outside.

Source Courtesy of Stephen Starr

But these graceful animals, bred for their rich milk, are becoming rare. “Buffalo were extremely important in the past for agricultural work and for on- and off-farm transport, [but] their numbers have fallen by 90 percent,” says Trevor Wilson, who writes academic articles on livestock in the Middle East region. The main reasons, he says, are “urbanization and the movement of youths away from the land.”

But who would want to leave a place like this? Not the buffalo — that’s for sure.

GO THERE: BUDAKLI HOT SPRINGS

  • Directions: After a two-hour flight from Istanbul to Van, take a taxi to Van’s main bus station. There, hop on a three-hour bus ride west to Güroymak (Norsin in Kurdish), where the hotel receptionist can help negotiate the price of a 20-minute taxi ride to the hot springs beyond Budakli.
  • Stay Here: The Grand Yuksel Hotel on Güroymak’s main street is warm, clean and serves breakfast.
  • Pro Tip: Have a little patience! Buffalo herdsmen may take their animals to the springs only on certain days. Handing over 100 lira (around $30), however, will motivate them to take them out the same day or the following morning.

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