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Posted by Tim on Dec 9, 2005
Three Reasons to Visit Cappadocia

There's no place in the world like it. For some reason, though, virtually no one seems to have ever heard of Cappadocia. (Including the two of us, until about eighteen months ago.) This small region in central Turkey is mostly unknown to the wider world, and in fact only rates a handful of pages in the country's Lonely Planet guide. And that's a crying shame.

Let me be clear about this: you need to pay Cappadocia a visit. Yes, you. This corner of the world is crying out for you to come leave your footprints on it, and I'll give you three very good reasons why...

What Mother Nature Has Done There

Cappadocia is a surreal, mind-boggling landscape.

Rose-red mountains loom over featureless plains, cracked open to reveal narrow valleys snaking between steep canyon walls. Stunning ranges of cream-colored scalloped hills tumble and spill into unearthly patterns and contours.

Jessica and I would continually find ourselves staring at it all in disbelief. It all looks so unreal, we'd say to one another. It's not just that it looked like some kind of sci-fi movie set, it's that it looked like a badly-constructed movie set. Everything looked like it was built out of foam rubber and chicken wire, like if you leaned on it it would break open or fall over. It was immensely difficult to train our minds to accept that it was all real, that we weren't in some kind of Disney theme park.

And far and away, the most bizarre part was the fairy chimneys.

Imagine an immense column of stone, sort of a naturally-evolved Washington Monument. Now imagine a barren plain covered in dozens of them. Some are shaped like arrowheads. Some are capped with precariously-balanced oversized boulders. Some look like they were designed by Dr. Seuss.

And some... well, let's just say that you can't look at some of them without giggling.

I'd seen photos of them before we came to Cappadocia. In fact, as Jessica has explained, they were the entire reason we came to Turkey in the first place. But I wasn't prepared to come face to face with them, with how enormous they are, with how damn many of them there are.

I certainly wasn't prepared for my first glimpse of Göreme, the glorious little town in which we headquartered ourselves for our exploration of Cappadocia.

There are dozens of fairy chimneys in Göreme, towering over the houses and restaurants surrounding them. It really is an astounding sight. But not even Göreme can hold a candle to the alien landscape that lays at its doorstep.

We spent seventeen days there, and were in fact told on a number of occasions that we were setting some sort of a record (it turns out the average length of stay is a tragic one and a half days). The biggest reason we stayed for so long is the hiking. The walks we took through the countryside around Göreme were nothing short of astounding. You can start walking in a direction chosen entirely at random, and within minutes you'll feel like you're exploring the surface of Mars.

On our first trip out into Cappadocia's great outdoors, we headed for a spot on the map intriguingly labeled "Swords Valley." Soon enough, we found ourselves making our way through a deep and winding crevice, often less than four feet wide but seldom less than thirty feet high. The walls on either side of us sloped inwards, making us perpetually feel like we were navigating a tunnel rather than a valley.

At times the way was choked with greenery, and we had to squeeze ourselves past trees and bushes to continue. On three occasions, our path ended abruptly, face-to-face with a sheer drop of ten feet or more. Hewn into the cliffsides were handholds, a ladder carved perhaps twelve or more centuries ago.

Always we were penned in on either side by the tall white walls of Swords Valley, pockmarked with caves and the small box-shaped carvings of ancient pigeon farms. The sides were so high and the valley so narrow that we were nearly always crawling through shadow, and left to wonder how on earth anything green could grow in the perpetual twilight of the valley floor.

And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, it opened up into an apple orchard. A sea of autumn reds and yellows, hidden from the outside world save for those entering via the bizarre pathway we had followed.

And that was just Swords Valley. There are dozens more.

What Man Has Done There

An indelible mark has been left on that spectacular landscape by the men and women who made their way there during the first millennium. Early Christians burrowed deep into the cliffsides and fairy chimneys, carving out spectacular homes and churches. The entire landscape of Cappadocia is honeycombed with these ancient dwellings, nearly all of them now long-abandoned.

This made the walks and hikes we took through the countryside all the more amazing. We were constantly coming across doorways carved into rock, or entire hidden rooms lain bare by erosion. Some of them were of an intricacy that could hardly be believed: tunnels, secret passages, rock-carved ladders leading to second and third floors, and more.

It really was just amazing.

Jessica called it a "playground for grown-ups." We felt like two kids in a candy store, excitedly exploring structure after structure. We were completely alone in this alien world, having little adventures in and amongst a setting beyond anything I'd ever dreamed of as a child.

It isn't just that the vast majority of these rock-cut structures have no staff and charge no admission: it's that nearly all of them are completely ignored and forgotten.

I remember being unable to shake a vague feeling of disbelief as two of us spent one morning exploring an ancient network of homes and tunnels. Here was something that would be absolutely swarming with tourists if it was in the US, and yet we never saw another soul the entire time. We climbed to the highest level of a Fred Flintstone-style skyscraper, looked out over the moonscape before us, and did not see a single other person anywhere.

Some of them were more ornate than others on the inside, carved smooth and incorporating supporting pillars. Many were covered in thousand-year-old frescoes, often red in color. Some contained small chambers carved into the floor, the size and shape of graves. Confirming this impression, one of the churches in the Göreme Open-Air Museum bears these same chambers. The difference is that in this case they still contain piles of bones, now carefully protected by a layer of plexiglass.

At the other end of the spectrum are the simple pigeon farms that cover the walls of so many of Cappadocia's hills. Once the only source of fertilizer in the region, some of these have now been exposed by erosion, revealing the network of small shoebox-sized niches carved into the cliffsides. Some of them are still in use today.

All of these are surreal enough, and walking amongst them can make you wonder if you have stumbled into Middle-Earth, perhaps. Or Tatooine. But they are nothing compared to the underground cities.

There are in fact nearly a dozen underground cities in the region, four of which are open to the public. The largest of them, Derinkuyu, has nine vast subterranean levels and was once home to over 20,000 people!

Touring these cities is an amazing, if somewhat claustrophobic, experience. A route through the enormous underground structure is lit with lanterns, but side tunnels branch off in every direction, and if you have a flashlight (as we had) you can spend hours exploring to your heart's content. Many passages aren't high enough to stand up straight in, and in some you have to actually crouch and crab-walk your way along.

I recall one tunnel in particular: it led down at a steep angle and was barely wide enough to move through at a crouch. It was insanely long, and the ceiling was continuously getting lower as it went along. Eventually, it opened out onto a large room filled with cubbyholes and "closets" of some sort. It was an amazing experience: standing alone in that enormous room far below the surface of the earth, depending on a small flashlight for illumination, and knowing that returning to the main lit passageway would mean renegotiating that claustrophobic tunnel. Not the kind of thing you experience every day.

Except in Cappadocia.

The Best Reason of All

We have both absolutely fallen in love with Turkey.

The people here are just the nicest people in the world. You can't stand still for thirty seconds without someone offering you a complimentary cup of tea (apple tea, by the way, might just be the zenith of human civilization). Smiles come quickly and easily, and shared laughter even more easily. Nearly everyone here seems to speak English, and if you can manage one or two words of Turkish you're met with an overjoyed astonishment. Shopkeepers seem to forget entirely about their wares for the chance to share some tea with you and help teach you a little more Turkish.

Outside of Istanbul, small children will spot you as a tourist and excitedly run to the edge of their yards to wave madly at you and yell "hello!". Families will wander over to you at bus stops to chat, so that their children can practice their English. Schoolchildren will give you their address and ask if you can write to them. Even Ecuador wasn't this friendly.

The food is mouth-wateringly good. The Turks have some damn fine ideas when it comes to things like lamb, cheese, and bread. We've both become particularly addicted to a dish called guveç ("goo-VECH"), which is a musakka-esque dish made with shredded beef, tomatoes, potatoes, and cheese. I'm getting hungry again just writing about it.

Moreover, Turkey is a nation of people who know the value of comfort. They're into enormous piles of big fluffy pillows spread about on the floor, giant comfy couches, and what we can attest are just the most comfortable beds in the world. You find yourself sprawling in decadent comfort on a restaurant booth that feels like a mattress, smoking apple tea through a water pipe and playing backgammon for an entire afternoon. Truly, friends, this is the good life.

Never have we felt so welcomed. Everyone here seems just to be happy to meet us, absolutely thrilled to hear we're from "amer-eeka", and pleased as can be to offer us some complimentary tea and some lively conversation.

One night in Göreme, I discovered that I had accidentally ripped my sweatshirt. When the manager of our hostel found out, he had his mother sew it for me. That's Turkey in a nutshell, really.

Friends, the very best reason to visit Cappadocia isn't to see fairy chimneys, or visit an underground city, or even take a balloon ride. The best reason to visit Cappadocia is because you'll have the chance to meet these amazing people for yourself.

Jessica the hedgehog
December 9, 2005 at 9:32am
Hey! You forgot Reason #4: the International UFO Museum located just outside of Göreme! Oh my, it was an intereting thing to behold indeed. :)
December 9, 2005 at 9:46am
It's amazing this place hasn't received more attention?! I'm glad you guys got to spend soo much time there.
December 9, 2005 at 10:08am
no #3 but better than Loofa
December 9, 2005 at 10:34am
just more fuel for having turkey right on the top of my list of places to visit. sounds wonderful. i think i'm running out of superlatives, and i may have to start making some up. thanks for sharing, though.
December 9, 2005 at 10:57am
hehe… I just noticed the 'hogs in the forefront of the pic up there.

I don't know WHAT I thought of Turkey, (Or what I'd see if I ever ventured there?) but I don't think this was it. Cappadocia is, indeed, beautiful and rather awesome.

December 9, 2005 at 11:05am
I will get you Philsie! Love you guys!
whit and bonnie
December 9, 2005 at 1:37pm
Tim and Jess:

Thank you for sharing Cappodocia with us. You express so well the wonder of it all!

I cannot imagine two better specimens of "American" to send around the globe. I suspect your new friends are as delighted with you as you are with them. Then, of course, I'm a tad biased!

December 9, 2005 at 2:14pm
Looks like Cappadocia is going on my places to vist someday when I get really, really, really rich. Of course Ireland is number one, but then again I am a Kerry girl… *tee-hee*
December 9, 2005 at 10:13pm
What will Mother nature think of next?
December 10, 2005 at 9:12pm
Ooh! That looks beautiful! And congratulations on the engagement too, I'm a bit behind things! :)
Carried away
December 30, 2005 at 5:52am
Just, WOW! It's so magical!

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