Our flight from Istanbul to Kayseri proved completely uneventful. Once again, we used Pegasus Air and the tickets, including 10 kg of additional baggage allowance, came to about $140… for two! Take that lousy Ryanair! We were quite happy to leave rainy Istanbul and touch down in the drier, though colder, region of Cappadocia (known as Kapadokya in Turkish).
The area is famous because of the early Christians who hid out in what is now central Turkey in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Since they were persecuted by the Romans and Byzantines (until about 313 AD), they hid in stone caves and underground cities that they carved right into the rock. Modern Cappadocia has thousands upon thousands of cave houses, cave castles, cave monasteries, cave fortresses, etc. It’s really a fascinating sight to behold. In fact, Robin found us our very own cave hotel in Ürgüp!
The following morning, we awoke to a few dozen hot air balloons hovering in the sky above our hotel. Ballooning is a pretty standard activity in Cappadocia, though we couldn’t spare the cash for it this time around. It was certainly fun watching from the ground, though.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring remnants of the nearby cave dwellings, many of which were sadly filled with trash. Since there are so many in the region, the locals don’t seem to take great care in preserving them.
That afternoon, Robin went out for a horse ride and — in addition to galloping across open plains and riding through cave-tunnels — learned a bit about the region from her guide. One of the more interesting tidbits is that many people lived in cave houses until the 1960′s, and some people even raised pigeons in large cave birdhouses. The pigeons were a source of fertilizer for the local farmers, but chemical fertilizers ended up putting an end to that way of life.
Since getting around Cappadocia isn’t exactly easy (buses are plentiful, but their schedules aren’t very convenient), we opted to rent a car the following day. We mapped out our route, hopped in the vehicle, and promptly got lost. It took us 3 or 4 consecutive loops around the village square to find the right road to head out of town.
10 minutes later, we were surrounded by a surreal landscape. The rock formations around Ürgüp and the rest of Cappadocia are the result of different layers of rock that erode at different rates. Over millions of years, the softer rock washes away and reveals some of the strangest shapes you’ll see anywhere. The result is some pretty freaky stuff:
Many of the formations are composed of tall, cylindrical towers capped by cones of denser rock. Cappadocians call these “fairy chimneys”, but they look like, uh, something else to us:
Just a few miles away from Ürgüp are two small towns, each with its own bizarre rock fortress. Our first stop, Ortahisar, turned out to be the weirder of the two. We parked the car in the town square and started walking toward the “castle”, when a friendly old lady called us over to her house and said “Sheep. Baby! Sheep. Come, come.” She showed us the entrance to her backyard. We hesitated and refused to go in, wondering why she was talking to a couple of strangers in the first place. Just then, her husband appeared behind us. “Go, go. In!” he said, and basically pushed us into the yard. He didn’t give us much of a choice. We’d been kidnapped! The old lady proceeded to show us the baby and mama sheep in a “barn” filled with garbage, then grabbed Robin and dragged her to her stoop. Out of thin air, she produced a drum and started playing it while making strange kissing sounds and leaning up against Robin’s shoulder:
At this point, I gave her a couple of Turkish lira and we bolted for the door. On the way out, the old man gave us a couple of apples from a tub (which turned out to be quite tasty) and we sprinted up a sidestreet. Just a little too weird…
Uchisar (15 minutes away) turned out to be the rich man’s Ortahisar, with a couple of trendy French restaurants and busloads of visiting Germans. The fortress was a little larger than Ortahisar’s, and the view more spectacular.
From Uchisar we headed to the Ilhara Valley, site of about a dozen early Christian churches carved right into rock cliffs along a beautiful stream. The churches were mostly hidden from sight to thwart persecutors, and their sophistication varies quite a bit throughout the valley: some have helical staircases that lead to a second story, arched ceilings, and columns carved from the cliff’s stone. Frescoes are still present in many of them, though many are painted in a very crude manner. Still, these are priceless artifacts that help archaeologists understand civilization during that time, and we were shocked to see that so much damage had been inflicted by visitors: initials were carved into the plaster of the frescoes, and graffiti was everywhere. The park’s rangers should have been stationed in each of these churches, but they weren’t and people were in the process of destroying them forever. It’s quite sad, really, and another example of poorly behaved tourists (though it’s not clear if the damage was caused by tourists from outside Turkey or from within).
We left the Ilhara Valley as the sun was beginning to set. We had a 2 hour drive ahead of us and just enough gas to get home. While Robin was driving, I consulted Google maps. There appeared to be a great shortcut that bypassed one of the larger towns along the way, so I gave her directions. Everything went swimmingly until we took a left turn down a dirt road. According to Google, it was supposed to lead us straight through a tiny village, but we ended up completely turned around, driving up and down dirt alleyways and dead ends. Our gas was running frighteningly low. We finally managed to get back on the main dirt road, and drove into a darkness that I have rarely seen — it was beyond pitch black! Robin avoided the odd farm tractor and monster pothole, and we slowly made progress toward our village. With almost nothing left in the tank (the needle had been on E for about 20 minutes), we glimpsed the lights of Ürgüp below us. The remainder of the drive was downhill! We basically coasted much of the way there, and then dropped off the rental with nothing but fumes in the tank.
Still a little stressed from our near-disaster with the rental car, we decided to visit the Göreme Open Air Museum the following day, and we opted for a nice dolmuş as the means of transport (2 Turkish lira per person). The museum, sadly, turned out to be a Disneyfied version of the Ilhara Valley, complete with large tour groups of poorly behaved visitors – the kind of people who look at cordoned-off sections of the park and then hop right over the chains to go take pictures anyway.
With a whirlwind tour of Cappadocia behind us, we headed to the Kayseri train station for an overnight trip to Istanbul. And that’s a story deserving of its very own post…