Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cappadocia: Caves, Chimmneys & Crowds

April 1-3, 2016

The weekend after my parents left, Alex and I visited one of the most beautiful wonders of the world. We "gezmeked" to Cappadocia (the verb gezmek in Turkish means to wander/travel around). This region is historical and a very popular tourist attraction, and we visited just before the full tourist season started in mid- to late-April. The weather was perfect, too. Even though I was cranky on this trip, I have to admit Cappadocia is my second favorite place in Turkey after Pammukale.

Bus ride
We took an overnight bus on Thursday and arrived to Cappadocia, or Kapadokya in Turkish, on Friday morning. On our journey, we met a Pakistani family who is originally from Lahore but currently lives in Saudi Arabia. The married couple Nadia and Ayaz, who were lovebirds since their university years, had three kids ages 10, 7, and 3. Being the social butterfly that I am, I mingled with them and enjoyed getting to know them. Like us, they were also headed to Cappadocia from Antalya. But unlike us, they were on a 10-day tour of Turkey—they started in Istanbul, visited Seljuk and Izmir, Pamukkale in Denizli, then Antalya, now Cappadocia, and will end in Istanbul again. What an ambitious trip, and with kids too! My family came for 10 days too, but we were only able to cover two cities. I guess it depends on the age of travelers; this couple was in their mid-30s and my parents are well over 50. To travel to that many places in a 10-day time frame requires ambition, sense of adventure, and most importantly, energy—last of which my parents definitely do not have at their age. I told the couple that I had been to all the places on their list except Izmir, which is scheduled for April or May.

After 10 hours of uncomfortable sleeping, the bus stopped and the bright sun rays woke me up. Soon thereafter, a solider with guns came onto our bus and collected everyone's ID's. Security around Turkey is tightening due to recent events and buses are often stopped for a check. We were fine after we showed our residency permits. The bus, which was supposed to go straight to Göreme (Cappadocia's city center), dropped us and the Pakistani family off at Neveşehir, a town about 15 minutes outside of Göreme. We were led into a station where an old man tried to sell us a balloon ride as well as red and green tours. His prices were: balloon ride for 130 euros (414 lira), red tour for 80 lira, and green tour for 90 lira. At first I didn't want to ride the hot air balloon because it's too expensive and out of my budget but then the "YOLO" (you only live once) mentality overcame me and I changed my mind. I was still skeptical to book through this guy though, so I encouraged Alex to wait until we got to our hostel. At least, that’s what I was going to do.

Göreme Garden Hotel did not live up to expectation.
We stayed at Göreme Garden Hotel, which is run by a Turkish man (Deniz) and a woman who was born in the USA but grew up in Australia (Lisa). The online description for this hostel was deceptive; this place was not a garden by any sense of the word, but more like a farm. We saw cows and chickens roaming outside of it, and the plants appeared to be newly seeded with only twigs to be seen. The rooms were minimal at best, and the location was tucked away from the city center. We slept in a three-bed room with a communal bathroom located in the hallway of a building that appeared to be occupied by only us at the time we checked in. There was a plug next to Alex’s bed, but not mine so I charged my phone next to the door. We had a small balcony looking out to the dried  “garden” and the front gate. For what we were paying (26 lira/night/person), the accommodation was shabby but doable.

The second thing that irked me about this hostel was their tour prices and how they presented them to us. When we inquired about the balloon ride and tour prices, as many hostels tend to have better deals than bus stations, they were wishy-washy in their responses. For example, they told us that a green tour would cost 120 lira (30 lira more than the Neveşehir guy) and that the 130-euro balloon ride was the only one they recommend because they trusted the company (Türkiye Balloon). However, they said they could not give us any guarantee for the 90-euro balloon ride because it was through a company they did not know (Atmosphere). I found this off-putting because how can you sit there and tell me you've been on over 200 balloon rides and not know this one particular company in town? I understand hotels have a greater incentive to push customers towards pricier balloon rides, but it's rude to leave guests in a limbo because they are counting on your expertise to make an informed decision. At the very least, they could have told us what they don’t like about Atmosphere instead of offering zero insight. I quote:  “I can't tell you anything about Atmosphere but we guarantee a great trip with Türkiye Balloon. If you don't like Türkiye Balloon, you can come back and ride another one for free.” I was annoyed by this response. In the end, since we didn’t have many options, we took a leap of faith and registered through our hostel for the 90-euro balloon ride and the 110-lira green tour (we bargained the price down by 10 lira because we have museum cards). People typically just walk the red tour because it’s scenic and saves money, so we decided to do the same.

The color-coded tours offer different destinations.
Lastly, the thing that pushed me over the edge with this hostel was when Kadir, the boy running the place in Deniz's and Lisa’s absence, tried to charge us for Friday’s breakfast without telling us it would cost us money. When we arrived at 6am on Friday morning, Deniz served us each a kahvaltı platter without telling us that this meal would cost us 10 lira each. We assumed this was included in the hostel price, since we are staying for two nights and therefore guaranteed two breakfasts. When we emailed Lisa about our negative experience with Kadir, protecting her employees like any good boss would do, she clarified that breakfasts are usually served after the night we book. She apologized that Deniz did not mention the cost to us when he served us breakfast. I was baffled again: if we are going on a balloon ride on Saturday morning which includes breakfast by the balloon company, why would we need a second breakfast by the hostel?? It was clearly a hidden rip-off, and I was not having any of it. I told Lisa they can count our Friday breakfast as our Saturday breakfast, since we would be eating with the balloon company on Saturday evening. She wasn't happy but agreed. Needless to say, I'll be leaving Göreme Garden Hotel an ill review. My recommendation for anyone visiting Cappadocia is to not stay at this undeveloped ‘garden’ whose hosts are clearly crooks.

Ancient Anatolia or Asia Minor, the large peninsula where modern Turkey is located, consists of several regions. One of the most important was Cappadocia, the ancient name of a large region in the center of Anatolia, with natural pinnacles and rock churches. Originally this region was vast, stretching from Kirsehir to Malatya to the northern part of Adana. Its name was probably derived from “Katpatuka,” meaning land of the beautiful horses, in Hittite language. Many different empires have ruled and lived in Cappadocia, inherently making the region a true melting pot of ethnic groups and religious beliefs: Hittites, Assyrians, Lydians, Persian, Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans. Historians note that the tuff-coned landscape of Cappadocia was formed after volcanic eruptions, and Christians who were persecuted by the Romans sought refugee in this region. They built underground cities and churches in every cave, where they inhibited.
The city center is called Göreme, which literally means "see not" but colloquially means "invisible." I find this to be ironic because Cappadocia is so scenic so why shouldn't people see it? The word "Kapadokya" is a Persian word meaning beautiful region.

For a brief historical overview, I recommend this website.

Friday: Red Tour on our own
After checking in, I decided to take a nap while Alex roamed the city center a bit. The plan was to meet up with the Pakistani family and roam the Red Tour trails together, but due to some miscommunication, this did not happen. After I woke up around noon, Alex and I trekked towards the Open Air Museum, stopping along the way to marvel at the caves and to take pictures. At this museum, we ran into some Americans with tall hiking backpacks and a lot of Asians with cameras. I noticed that there were large groups of Asians on “silent” tours; they had earphones plugged in and their tour guide spoke softly into her microphone. I thought this was a smart idea for two reasons: first, it doesn’t disrupt other tourists and second, it prevents tourists who sneak into tours. While we didn’t have a tour guide, it was nice to just walk around and marvel at the orange, rocky beauty. I have never seen something like this, though I know such landscapes exist in western United States in states like Colorado or Arizona.
Alex and I walked and walked and stumbled on the Rose Valley, which gets its name from the reddish rocks. It seemed deserted to us but we ventured down the winding path anyway. Water supply was low and my attire—turtleneck black blouse underneath a string dress, complete with black leggings and high boots—was not appropriate for the scorching weather. I figured it would still be cold (Cappadocia is known to be freezing) and was pleasantly surprised by the early April weather. Needless to say, I hiked while sweating buckets. We found an abandoned car and some trash at the bottom of the Rose Valley; I made some silly videos; and we decided to head back. I had zero energy left to walk down the highway, so when an empty van passed by, I waved my arm and hoped the driver would stop. He did. We hopped on (though Alex was a bit uncomfortable) and made small conversation until we reached Göreme. We offered to pay for the ride, but the gentleman didn’t take our coins. One should always take caution when hitchhiking, but I made an informed decision seeing how Cappadocia is so touristy and the highway was only going to one place. Meeting strangers is part of traveling.

It was almost lunchtime. We grabbed some items such as large water bottles from a nearby convenient store and decided to go for Chinese food. I didn’t like the dried out noodles, but the service were nice. I’ve had Chinese food in Turkey twice now, once in Istanbul and once in Cappadocia, and both times have been a disappointment. I conclude that Chinese cuisine is not popular in Anatolia. We walked around the city center some more, did some shopping, and ran into our Pakistani friends. We retired to our hostel, and later had tea with the Pakistani family in their cave hotel.

The Dervish Cave Hotel, where our friends stayed, was splendid—it had all the amenities of a hotel and it was in the shape of a cave. As we chatted over tea, we learned about our friends’ plans for the next day. We changed our mind about booking the green tour with our hotel, and instead booked it through the Dervish Cave Hotel. Alex was hesitant about this because she didn’t want to upset our hostel people and reasoned that it would be easier to get picked up at our own hotel if our hotel booked it for us. However, I argued that Dervish Cave Hotel was not only giving us a better deal (100 lira instead of 120), they would also pick us up at our hotel so that solves her transportation concern. Plus, I wanted to spend more time with the Pakistani family we had just met. It took some convincing but she finally agreed. Later that night, we canceled the green tour with our hotel. 
Saturday: Balloon Ride & Green Tour
On Saturday, we woke up at 4am and were ready by 4:30am, as directed. The Atmosphere Balloon Company’s van picked us up and dropped us off at their center, where we had a small breakfast. It was a pleasant surprise to run into another Fulbrighter, Nicole Ga, who was in Cappadocia for the second time with her friend who was doing a Fulbright in Bulgaria. The van ride was bumpy and twisty, and after about 30 minutes, dropped us off at the balloon site. There were large crowds waiting to board balloon baskets, balloon people trying to heat up a balloon, and people taking pictures. We took a few snaps and were put into a basket, soon thereafter. I ended up with Nicole on the one side, and Alex ended up with Nicole’s friend on the other side. They have to balance the basket with about 9 or 10 people on each side.
Once the balloon took off, I couldn’t believe we were air borne! The ride was worth every penny! I've never been on a hot air balloon, so this was my time floating in the sky in a basket. The views were incredible! We could see the pointy, golden caves below us and a hundred other balloons in the sky among us. It felt so surreal. I felt like I was in a postcard. The sunrise was just absolutely gorgeous, I felt as if I were staring into the eyes of the sun, parallel from it. I once co-piloted a two-passenger jet with Steve White, son of my Bowdoin College scholarship donor. Flying over Brunswick in that aircraft was an amazing feeling. It was the first time I operated a machine while in the air, I was definitely nervous. What made the balloon ride different and exhilarating is the fact that the basket didn’t have closed doors or windows. I could freely wave my arms in the air without a seatbelt or goggles. I took some pictures, made a “happy birthday” video for my family members who have an April birthday (Mom, Laraib, Maryum, Dani).
After the basket landed on top of a truck, the balloon pilot gave us “certificates of completion” and popped open champagne bottles to celebrate. I opted for the sparkling water and we all raised a toast for our accomplishment. The van dropped us off at our hostel at around 10am, so I took a quick nap before our Green Tour began.

The Green Tour
The Green Tour was a full-day affair. It was long and exhausting, but incredibly informative and eye-opening. It’s called a “green tour” because all the locations are located near luscious greenery. When we boarded the 12-person van, a tall Asian-looking lady welcomed us. As our tour guide, she asked everyone their names and country of origin. Our van consisted of the Pakistani family from Saudi Arabia with their three children, Alex and myself from the States, two Canadian young girls, a young Asian couple, and a Turkish man training to be a tour guide.

We started with the Derinkuyu Underground City. We started at the ventilation shaft above ground and made our way down to the climate controlled underground tunnels—I wish I had brought a jacket because it definitely cold! We walked down dark, narrow stairs (using phone flashlights at times) and had to watch out for big open holes. According to the guide, only 25% of the troglodytic city is open to the public and excavations are ongoing. The underground city is said to be some 8 stories deep; we saw a winery, a baptismal, meeting rooms, a church, tandoor (in-cave oven), a well, many graves (some with bones still in them), and a kitchen, but no toilets, which I thought was interesting and a bit gross. However, this could be because the underground city—which held up to 2,000 people at one time—was used only during invasions to hide from enemies and only for a few months at a time. “The structure dates back thousands of years. Apparently, the Hittites used the first two floors for their animals. Over time the different local inhabitants dug deeper and deeper. They say that every house in the town has a basement that connects to the subterranean metropolis. The above ground invaders must have wondered if they had entered a ghost town or magical land with disappearing people!” (Source)
Next on the itinerary was the Selime Monastery, a very cool rock structure carved out from within a ginormous mountain. According to the guide, the monastery dates from 8th-10th centuries and included a missionary school, a living area, and at least one church, as well as monks’ quarters, a large kitchen and even a stable for mules. It is therefore the biggest religious building in Cappadocia. After some upfront information, the guide let us explore the monastery on our own. We carefully walked through the walls and trenches of this fortress-like structure. We played hide-and-seek using “secret” passageways, twisting stairways, and ever-steep ladders. There were even holes big enough climb into. Click here for more on Selime Monastery.  

We had lunch at a riverside restaurant, which included soup, salad, and a choice between trout, chicken, vegetarian, or meatballs. Most of the dishes were baked/broiled except for the grilled chicken and Adana şiş. I ate fish because I love fish. Drinks were extra (a can of juice cost 4TL and a half-liter bottle of water was 1TL).
Next, we drove 30 minutes out to Ihlara Valley Hike, a lush, green river canyon. The valley is 14 km long, and we were dropped off at about the 3km point. After descending a couple of hundred stairs to the canyon floor, our guide showed us the Ağaçaltı cave church dating to the 4th century with paintings from the 10th century. Then we were allowed to roam around freely. I walked with Nadia, since her husband decided to skip this portion of the tour and stayed in the van with the kids who were becoming grouchy. The walk near the water bank was lovely; we stopped every so often to take photos by picturesque water stops and tall cliffs with caves shining from them like jewels.

By 5pm, the group was super tired and energy was low. We made a very quick stop at Pigeon Valley, overseeing another beautiful part of Cappadocia. Unlike other places on this trip, I simply didn’t have energy to pose. Alex, Nadia, and I took turns taking each other’s quick snaps before joining tourist crowds across the street at sweets stores. Lokum was overpriced, so I didn’t buy anything, but the free samples for pistachio, rose, and chocolate lokum were delicious. The sugar rush was just what I needed to make it through our final stop.

Last but not least, everyone mustered the strength for the final stop on the Green Tour: Onyx Jewelry Factory & Demonstrations. We saw an artisan make onyx “eggs” and other cool shapes from stone. There was dust everywhere in the shop. Nadia’s two kids won the token pieces. We then walked through a jewelry shop. I tried on plenty of rings made of precious stones, including Turkey’s famous turquoise stone, but nothing was in my budget and I hesitated making a valuable purchase due to the fear of losing it. I’ll put these gems on my wish list and have my husband buy them for me. Soon after the tour ended, we crashed.

Sunday: Fairy Chimneys & Roaming Around
On Sunday, we wanted to wake up early and hike up to “Sunrise Point” where balloons could be seen flying over caves. Despite our efforts to set alarms, we simply couldn’t get up. Instead, we enjoyed an adventure to Fairy Chimneys. And it was an adventure. The city bus dropped us off at a random location; we wandered like nomads along roadsides; and after much dehydration, finally stumbled upon the famed fairy chimneys. The tall sculptures surely looked like fairy houses! We were accompanied by an Indian boy whom we had met the evening before from Nicole’s hostel group.
I don’t know why, but I was grumpy again so while the fairy chimneys were lovely, I was just didn’t enjoy them as much. Part of it was petty disputes with Alex and another part was the weather. We all had lunch together, and then I excused myself. I told Alex I would meet her at the bus stop in two hours. I walked around Göreme on my own and shopped for gifts—mini purses, postcards, coffee toasters, coffee runner for mom. At one store, I spotted mini Cappadocia caves and chimneys made out of pottery. I smiled at the elderly woman selling them and walked towards her. I purchased two from her. Then I saw her husband sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette and drinking çay. I spotted a tavla board nearby, and pulled up a seat next to him. “Oynamak ester misiniz?” Do you want to play? My excitement for life returned, as if a soul had reentered my body. I smirked at my opponent, and rolled the dice.


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