Tuesday, May 29, 2012

when it's okay to be a tourist

I guess sometimes it’s okay to be a tourist.


This time.

Cappadocia is a place in central Turkey that is primarily a tourist destination.  It’s no secret how much I love travel and, at the same time and perhaps oddly, sometimes dislike being a tourist, but I am very happy Cappadocia made the cut.  The landscape here is the result of a volcano eruption several million years ago that has left the land looking something like that out of a fairytale. Lonely Planet describes it like this, “Erciyes Dagi erupted many millennia ago. No one could have guessed the aftermath would look so dandy.  This ‘land of wild horses’ is eerie, beautiful, and geologically unique. Where lava once ran, valleys now undulate to the horizon’s dusty hilt.”

On a strong recommendation by Jay, our trekking guide in Patagonia last year and a native of Turkey, Michelle and I spent a few days in Goreme (Gore-a-may).  From what I could tell, Goreme seems to be the heart of tourism in Cappadocia, and it’s a nice little town as well.  It’s home to miles of foot paths for hiking among the valleys, an open air museum of rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries and about 100 hot air balloon tour companies.

We arrived in Goreme fresh off a night bus from Istanbul.  Yep, we’re back to the bus scene!  We had a reservation at Nomad Cave Hostel, one of about 100 cave hostels and hotels in the area.  The place is pretty cool and, thanks to the unusual geology and the nature of the landscape, many of the lodging establishments here are literally built in one of the caves found almost anywhere one might look.  One of the guys working at the hostel picked us up from the bus station, an unexpected and most pleasant surprise.

Cave room

During breakfast we met Nick.  From Kansas City, he was about to finish up a semester abroad (in Athens) on a long weekend in Turkey.  We invited Nick to wander the town with us.  He was as clueless as we were about what to do with his day.

Right away we stumbled upon what appeared to be a rather reputable balloon tour operator and made a deal to do the balloon ride the following morning.  Then we headed over to the open air museum.  I was a little “muesumed out” after Istanbul, but this place looked interesting.  The area was originally a Byzantine monastic settlement.  Byzantine history in Turkey dates from 527 to 65 A.D. and was later a destination for 17th century pilgrimages.

Following the museum, we had another fantastic Turkish meal for lunch. This time it was something cooked in pottery.  After lunch we set out to hike some of the endless trails within the valleys.  It became a quite fun afternoon.  Both left and right, the scenery was right out of a storybook and, for this place having such a touristy reputation, it was quiet.  There were no other people around.  Although we had a map, we managed to get a little lost anyway.  Good thing the sun does not set until after 7:30 pm!  When we finally made our way back to the main road, we determined we had wandered somewhere around 10 km or so.

Cappadocia landscape

this looks like a fun place to climb...

I wonder what's in here...
come join me Michelle!

you can do it!

Or maybe just try coming up here the easy way...

over here!

When we realized we were lost we stopped taking pictures, after this tunnel we found our way out!

A 4:30 am wake up call jarred us from our sleep the next morning.  We needed the early alarm in order to make our balloon ride.  Luckily, everyone in our 12-person dorm had a balloon reservation that morning so no one objected to commotion or the lights being turned on at such an hour!

Until today, I had never been in a hot air balloon although the thought of it always sounded fun.  In Cappadocia it is THE tourist thing to do.  And this morning I was just fine with being among all the tourists floating above Cappadocia.  It was a really cool experience.  I was rather favorably impressed with the balloon operator we had chosen.  It’s not often I go with the first company I come across for something, often requiring a bit of shopping around.  But this was great.  The company was Balloon Turca. They picked us up, on time, at 5:00 am, then picked up several others in town before taking us back to their office where tea, coffee and cookies were available.

Shortly thereafter, we were off to the launch site arriving just in time for sunrise.  There were balloons headed into the sky everywhere, and it was actually quite a pretty sight.  They loaded us into the basket.  It was a big basket, holding probably 20 or so passengers and one pilot.  The ground crew futzed around with lines a bit and shortly after 6:00 am we were floating up above the fairytale landscape.

hundreds of balloons preparing for takeoff

And launch!

Just in time for sunrise

up and over the landscape

fairy chimneys at sunrise

It was awesome!  The pilot took the balloon up and down into the valleys and over the fairy chimneys.  A few times he let the balloon descend almost back to the ground before opening the burners and rising again, barely avoiding a crash.  I’m certain the close calls were all for effect, and it was a sweet effect indeed.  Midway into the ride we went nearly back to the ground only to be met by a member of the ground crew who tossed a bottle of champagne and a handful of flowers up to us.  Again, pretty cool.

Here comes the guy with the champagne...








Let's go higher

I think we were in the balloon for nearly an hour, longer than I ever would have expected for such a touristy excursion.  The landing was impressive as well.  It appeared to be a rather tricky process but in the end the pilot and ground crew, acting together, landed the balloon directly onto the trailer that would take it home until tomorrow’s ride.  The more I think about it, the landing may not have been nearly as difficult as it seemed.  After all, they do do this every day.  Actually, I think the whole process rather resembled what Rover must look like to bystanders when being docked, stern end in and with no engine, most Wednesday nights!

Landing tatget is that trailer bed

Pilot checking out the landing site

Ground crew in action

you can't see it, but it was a successful landing!
Here’s what the brochure says about hot air balloon flights in Cappadocia:                                                                           
“…The sort of flights we do here cannot be done anywhere else in the world.  All you can do with a hot air balloon is make it go up or down, and make the balloon rotate around itself.  Therefore the balloon is totally dependent on the prevailing wind and goes where the wind takes it.  Here in Cappadocia we fly close to the ground, and flights are so perfect, one would actually think the balloon had steering facilities.  But the explanation is rather simple.  In Cappadocia being the middle of what is known as continental climate, there is a great difference of temperature between night and day. During the night, there accumulates a mass of cold air within the valleys.  This mass begins to flows just like a river around sunrise time.  It is thanks to this reliable flow that we manage to perform the astonishing flight we do almost every day of the year…”

After successfully landing the balloon -- in perfect tourist fashion -- the ground crew had set up a table of flowers and champagne “over there” for a small, post-flight celebration.  I partook in the celebration with a smile. They even gave each passenger a certificate of the flight. I don’t care. You can’t travel the globe and not be a super tourist once in a while!

fancy champagne set up

Pilot opening the bottle

Picture with the pilot

All that and we were back at our hostel before 7:30 am.  Hmmmm…  seems like a good time to have the included breakfast and take a nap.  We must rest up for an afternoon of continued tourist activities!

This afternoon we set out to find one of the nearly 40 underground cities in Cappadocia.  The books say there are over 100, but only 37 have actually been excavated and explored.  The cities date back to the 6th and 7th centuries.  According to the history, “…when Persian and Arabic armies set off to vanquish the Christians, beacons were lit and warning could travel from Jerusalem to Constantinople in hours.  When the message reached Cappadocia, the Byzantine Christians would escape into secret tunnels leading to vast underground cities.”

Given that it was the weekend, we opted not to visit the most popular spot and, instead, went to one that we both thought looked interesting to see and which was easily accessible via public shuttles.  45 minutes and 7 Turkish lira later we made it to Derinkuyu.  There were only about ten giant tour busses in the parking lot when we arrived, but we did somehow manage to wander the tunnels pretty much on our own, all seven levels down and up.


How much fun can two adults have while exploring a cave and desperately avoiding large tour groups

That's a stone door.

 Ventilation shaft

After the underground cities, I took another short nap. We had plans to meet up again with Nick for the evening.  He had scheduled an ATV tour today after the balloon ride.  After a shower and putting a little effort into making ourselves look nice, Michelle and I headed out.  Where did we go? We went to a place called Fatboys. We had been there for dinner the night before, too.  Not too many locals here, mostly young tourists because, after all, Fatboys is the number one listed bar in the Lonely Planet!  Still don’t care. This weekend I’m a tourist, and we had a fun night!

As the night went on they started to make intersting drinks

I think this is the motto at Fatboys

 And finally, a little bit more of the food we enjoyed in Goreme...

Kofte, Turkish meatballs

This is a meal they cook in a clay pot and crack open at the table

Aryan, it's a diluted yogert sort of drink, with a fancy background!

rainbow in Goreme, just prior to our departure

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