It was a long 9-10 hour overnight bus ride from Antalya. I figured that if I was going to have to be on a bus for so long, I might as well try to sleep through it. But of course, I wasn’t so lucky. The bus, while comfortable and quiet enough, stopped every hour or so to pick people up, and stopped for a 15-minute rest break every 2-3 hours. And when I managed to finally get to sleep, I was abruptly woken up by a big ‘thunk’ in the front of the bus. It transpired that the bus had hit a dog. The driver pulled over to check for damage to the bus, and then continued on. I didn’t get any sleep after that.
So, I was somewhat bleary eyed as the bus headed into the Cappadocia region as the sun rose, but the sight that greeted us quickly brought me to my senses. It was absolutely stunning – unearthly, but stunning. Pretty much like the view in the photo above. Hundreds of stone cones and pillars poking out of the ground littered the landscape and dozens of colourful hot air balloons floated in the air. It was unreal. It was like seeing the stage set to some crazy sci-fi movie with big bug-eyed aliens running around. Or maybe a scene out of Lord of the Rings or Mad Max. I later learned that a scene from the original Star Wars was filmed here. That’s no surprise
The bus dropped me off in Goreme, the small village in Cappadocia where I would be staying at 6.30am. Of course, there was no one at the family-run hotel to let me in at that hour, so I just dumped my bag and made my way down to the closest valley where the balloons were hovering and just watched. What an amazing way to start the day.
I returned to the hotel at 8am and was shown my room and given a complimentary breakfast. And then I crashed. I was absolutely knackered after virtually no sleep on the overnight bus – and since I had 5 days in the region, there was no need to rush out the door for sight-seeing. I had a good solid 4 hours sleep.
So what is this place?
Cappadocia is in the central Anatolian region of Turkey – pretty much in the centre of the country. It sits on a 1000m high plateau that lies between two volcanic mountains that were active 2 million years ago. The lava flows left a soft tuff layer, 150m thick in the valleys between the mountains. Over the ensuing year, rivers flood waters, strong winds have gradually eroded the soft tuff layer, leaving behind the pillars, cones, pinnacles and mushroom shaped structures now referred to as Fairy Chimneys.
In some areas, the pillars appear to be wearing caps – this is the result of the softer tuff eroding underneath harder rock sitting on top. I guess at some point, the hats will fall.
But what makes this geological phenomenon even more amazing is that thousands of years ago, beginning in 400AD, people carved out homes, stables, storehouses, churches, monasteries and even whole underground cities (up to 8 levels deep!) out of the soft rock. The original cave homes were usually positioned fairly high up and accessed through ladders and internal stairways. There are also a large number of cave churches, chapels and cathedrals.
The larger, multi-level structures were designed in such a way that they had large holes between each floor, at alternating ends of the rooms to provide access as well as air ventilation. Being solid stone, they maintained a fairly even temperature all year around. In winter, a fire would quickly warm the rooms up with the walls retaining the heat. In summer, they provided cool shelter from the otherwise oppressive heat.
You’ll see in some of my photos there are small holes dug out of the external walls. These were designed to attract pigeons; their droppings provide an excellent natural fertiliser for their gardens and vineyards.
I met a few locals who grew up in the caves. In the 1950’s the Turkish government started to force people out of the caves. The soft stone was unsafe with many of the caves cracking and collapsing. Having said that, people do still live in them, and new homes and hotels are being built with the cave as their foundation.
Lost in Cappadocia
After having a little sleep on day of arrival, I headed out to explore the closest valley to Goreme, Rose Valley. There are a dozen are so valleys in the wider area: Rose, Red, Love, Pigeon, Devrant, Sword, Baglidere, Zemi, Zelve valleys– to name just a few.
It was my intention to just grab a few sunset photos and explore the easier parts of the valley, saving the main walks for the following days. It should have been easy enough – the trails were obvious, and I had a good map and GPS on my phone. So off I went.
It started off pretty straight forward – nice wide, obvious paths, and the opportunity to climb up into some of the caves for a nosey around.
The path started to narrow as it moved up through the valley. I double-checked my map and my position and I could see that the main road was only 100m ahead. Sunset was an hour and a half away. No problems here. Or so I thought.
My path became narrower and narrower, until I was walking in a crevasse between large boulders. The crevasse wasn’t even wide enough to put my foot down flat. I came across some ladders to climb up over the boulders so I knew that I was on the right path. But I was also getting just a teeny bit worried. If I got stuck somehow, or fell of one of the steeper ladders, I knew I would be in trouble. I had visions of getting my foot jammed into a crevasse and having to chew my foot off. I checked my map again – only 50m to go. There was no point in turning back, especially as the sun was starting to set.
Eventually I came to a dead end. What the stupid map on my stupid phone didn’t tell me was that I would need climbing equipment to get up and over the final boulder and out on to the main road. There was no way I would try to scramble up and over it when I was on my own. Whilst I remained calm, I was also a bit nervous about my predicament. It was going to get dark in another hour, I was only wearing a T-shirt and jeans (it gets bloody cold here at night!), my phone battery was low…. and no one knew where I was. I could end up camping out in a cave, cold and uncomfortable, on my first night. I’m all for authentic experiences, but this was not what I had in mind.
To make matters worse, I didn’t have good footwear. I was wearing my Teva-like sandals but they were definitely not sturdy enough for what I was doing, and indeed, at one point, my foot slipped, tearing a bit of the shoe. (I had to get it glued back together when back in town).
Once I hit that final boulder, I knew I had no choice but to turn around and head back. I had to climb back down the 3-4 ladders (scarier when you are going down, AND in a hurry!). Luckily, it didn’t take that long until I reached the open path again. I was much happier at that point – I knew even in the dark I could find my way out if I needed to. As luck would have it, a man had driven along the path and was unloading some rocks from his car. (Thoughts of coal and Newcastle came to mind!). He pointed the direction to Goreme – but then called me back and offered me a ride in his car. I gratefully accepted at this point. That was enough adventure for one night.
I probably made the situation sound worse than it was. But I did have a moment of mild panic and awareness of how easy it is for plans to go suddenly wrong. I made sure my hotel owner knew where I was going after that so that he could call the army in if I didn’t come back!
Up up and away
The highlight for me was the hot air balloon ride – it’s almost mandatory here. For the last 20 years I’ve wanted to do ride in a balloon, and I finally fulfilled that wish in what is considered to be one of the best places in the world for ballooning.
I was picked up at 4.15 and taken to balloon headquarters for an excellent buffet breakfast. By 5.30 I was in the balloon awaiting lift off.
The balloon lifted up so gently and so quietly I didn’t even realise we had lifted off right away. We just peacefully drifted upward. Our balloon captain was an Australian guy who was entertaining and knowledgeable about the area. As I learned, he can’t control the direction of the balloon – only its height. By pumping in more gas, the balloon lifts up and catches a different air stream which changes our direction. So we floated up high into the sky for the views, and down low into the valleys for a bit of excitement, lifting up and over pillars as we got close.
There are dozens of balloon companies that operate here although they all offer pretty much the same ride. Either a 60 or 90 minute ride, and depending on how much you pay, you will share your balloon basket with 12-24 people. I opted to fork out more money for the smaller basket and longer journey. Was it worth it the extra money? Dunno, and I haven’t dwelled on it. I’m glad I went for the 90 minute ride to give me extended time up on the air – some people suggested it wasn’t worth it. I thought it was. My only suggestion would be to not bother booking the flight until you get to Cappadocia. I made the mistake of booking online ahead of time, and it cost me much more for the privilege. I should have known better, but I bowed to the pressure of it being the busy season and that I had better book if I didn’t want to miss out. That’s not the case. They have 85 balloons that go up each day. Some of the balloon companies have a dozen or so balloons that they can take up. They will be sure to get you up there one way or another.
Cappadocia on wheels – get your motor running
There are several tours that operate daily around the region. I have stated before how I loathe tours, but I also know that sometimes they make sense. I opted to do the Green Tour, which took me to places further away that I would have not made the effort to get to myself. It wasn’t too bad although I do hate the feeling of being herded around the place like cattle!
Visiting one of the underground cities was probably the most interesting – although most crowded, too! The city was 8 levels deep, and included kitchens, a winery, stables, a meeting room. Everything a village could need – underground!
But what I REALLY enjoyed was doing an ATV quad bike tour. I ended up having a personal sunset tour –just me and the guide. And because I already knew how to ride a bike, he didn’t have to waste time teaching me the basics, so I got a much extended version of the tour through several valleys and up to Cavusin, an old village built into a rock face. I loved it!
The following day, I then got a personal tour on the back of a motorbike for a few hours to visit some other areas in the wider region.
And on another day – I had the use of a car for a few hours so headed up to Soganli, about 60km away I think. By this time, I had seen my share of caves so didn’t bother checking too many of them out. After a while, all caves look alike – you see one, you see them all. But it was just nice to be able to drive on the open road, by myself, and seeing some of the stunning scenery along the way.
Cappadocia and its incredible landscape is simply a place that you just never tire of looking at. Or photographing. I’ll apologise now for the abundant photographs that probably all look same-same in the slideshow – but how do I pick only a few?
Although the area is extremely touristy, it still had a nice relaxed feel about the place. I could walk into a valley and not see another person for an hour. The people here were so kind and generous to me – from the hotel owner who chatted to me over breakfast in the mornings; the woman that prepared breakfast, the guy that took me out on ATV and motorbike trips, and the restaurant owner that served me in my favourite little restaurant. I came here for 5 days, but extended to 7 just because I loved the feel of the place. And by staying longer, I got the opportunity to meet and talk to some of the locals on an extended basis which gave me more of an insight into life in Turkey.
I think it would be fair to say that Cappadocia was one of my favourite places in Turkey. Given the high level of tourism here, that surprised me. I’m an island girl at heart, but I’d happily come back to this magical place.
If you have’t had enough of fairy chimneys yet, here is a two minute video that gives a bird-eye view from the balloon. (You might want to turn your volume down – when they turn the gas on, it’s loud. There is no other talking that is of interest on the video.)
I love this place – it’s touristy, but it’s friendly, magical and unlike anything that I have seen before.
Back to Istanbul
After extending my time in Cappadocia, I caught a flight back to Istanbul, where it all started 2 months ago. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about being back here – if you recall, I didn’t always enjoy it last time. However, I booked a hotel in Kadikoy, a non-touristy area of Istanbul, a residential area for the apartment-dwelling, middle-class people of Istanbul. I much prefer it here. It felt more… real. The restaurants were better, cheaper. And there was a shopping mall! There is nothing like going to a shiny shopping mall to make you realise how shabby your travel clothes have become!
I was much happier to be back in Istanbul this time around, and realised how much I had learned to really like this country, and understand it a bit more. I didn’t mind the stares anymore, and just smiled back. I went to one small local-style restaurant and chatted to a man there. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he was pulling pictures down from his wall to show me where he was from. I’m not sure what else he was telling me, but it was very friendly and animated. And then he wouldn’t accept any money for my dinner. And that’s the sort of kindness that I have been shown time and time again during my two months in Turkey.
Where to next?
Today, I’m heading to Budapest, Hungary – where I will be based for the next month. I will be visiting with friends Peter and Andrea, who Alan and I met in the Banda’s (Indonesia) last year. I’m very excited to be meeting up with them again. In fact, two days after I arrive, they will be whisking me away to join them on a short trip to Slovenia.
And tomorrow – I will meet with my parents who are finishing their 2 week cruise in Budapest.
It’s going to be a busy month – and one that I am very excited about.
And now – I have a bus to the airport to catch!