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Beyond Myanmar: A Guide to Traveling in Style

Cappadocia, Turkey

Awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping and simply mind-boggling! I wonder if these adjectives truly describe my feelings the moment I got a glimpse of Cappadocia, Turkey. The first question I asked my guide, Hasan Kalci, who had been with me throughout my Turkey tour was what Cappadocia means. Before he could answer I had already made many guesses related with the lava-sculpted topography but unfortunately his answer matched none of those. It means ‘Land of the Beautiful Horses’ as Cappadocia derives from the ancient Hittie word ‘Katpatuka” Hasan said.

“But I don’t see any horses here,” I said. With a dismayed tone, Hasan started to tell me the history of the region and its equine connections. According to him, there was a time when this region was full of hoofed creatures. Cappadocia’s horses were swift, brave and graceful, and were therefore, highly sought after. “The horses knew the way in this desert land better than guides,” Hasan chuckled.

Geographically, Cappadocia was located in the heart of central Anatolia standing 1,000 meters above sea level. Many empires like the Byzantine, Roman, Ottoman, Hitties, Persians and the Turks have all governed this spectacular region. From a distance, the region appears to be a desert-like hostile and harsh volcanic terrain where it’s difficult for humans to tread. But a closer look tells you that deep valleys and soaring rock formations are not that harsh or else more than 200 cities and towns like Ürgüp, Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu, Avanos, Nevşehir and the sites of Karlık, Yeşilöz, Soğanlı would not have existed for many years. These cities had chapels, secret rooms, ancient tombs, caves and many walking trails and hidden passages that were carved out from the dramatic expanses of sedimentary rocks which were formed almost 9 million years ago. These rocks were eroded by wind and rain and over the years took minaret and phallic- shaped pillar forms. Hasan took me first to Goreme, the most sought-after village by the tourists, in the region, and also voted by many travel magazines as one of the most beautiful villages in the world. About two decades back the place was either visited by backpackers or tourists interested in archaeology. But Goreme is now a booming tourist town with elite and sophisticated travellers flocking to enjoy the village that is half-buried into the hill with the most stunning landscape. It is surrounded by the rock formations called ‘fairy chimneys’ which are the signature feature of this volcanic region. There, I saw numerous empty niches that were beautifully carved into these rock chimneys that had caves and labyrinths. It was indeed a surreal vision.

“These carved niches are called pigeon holes,” Hasan explained, “but there was a time when these pigeon holes were occupied by the winged creatures. Pigeons would collect the grains put out for them and their droppings were collected to fertilize the soil that has been semi-arid for centuries.” Many a proud Cappadocian farmers have asserted that their fruits are the sweetest in all Turkey thanks to their pigeons. I wondered why and where the peaceful coexistence of man and nature has disappeared. Also, I took full advantage of exploring the pigeon coops most of which were ancient dwellings too. Surprisingly, the archeological site allowed visitors to climb inside without any reservation, which is rare.

Having a population of only 2000, Goreme has winding paths and beautifully-carved homes scattered within the unique land formations. In this natural landscape of unusual appearance, very little has changed over the centuries, as the locals say. Architectural styles are based on the local stone. Just outside the city, all roads lead to The Göreme Open Air Museum which is the UNESCO protected site and the most visited tourist attraction in Cappadocia. “Watch your head,” warned Hasan, as many of us who had entered a multi-level stone cave house ducked. The ceiling was too low to even raise the heads to see what’s above us.

“There are many floors above this which were used as kitchen and storehouse. They would make wine here,” explained my guide. We saw that there were tunnels and stairs as well in inside the cave carved out of the rock and were remarkably complete.

Göreme Open-Air Museum (also named as Goreme National Park) is a monastery cluster of rock-cut churches and ancient dwellings of monks. The dense complex dates from the 9th to 11th centuries when Cappadocia was an important Byzantine religious centre.

According to UNESCO, “the incomparable beauty of the decor of the Christian sanctuaries makes Cappadocia one of the leading examples of the post-iconoclastic Byzantine art period.” As early as the third century, those ant-hill like chimneys became a hiding place for early Christians who fled persecution from the Romans, and then later, from Arabs. They dug deep into the rock, carving out underground cities. Some cities in the region went eight stories below the ground. Thousands of cave chapels and churches were built having wonderful frescoes (though many have been defaced) and wall paintings. It is the Apple Church (Elmalı Kilise) with its Ascension fresco above the door and the Chapel of St Barbara (Azize Barbara Şapeli) with its red-ochre interior decoration that truly stands out. Well restored wall-paintings of St George and interesting but much faded now fresco of the hermetic hermaphrodite St Onuphrius in the Snake Church (Yılanlı Kilise) from the Byzantine era was stunning. I was amazed to see the intricate wall paintings that covered the entire barrel-vaulted chamber of Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise). The entire area was ppacked with tourists and vendors selling their stuff.

In Goreme, almost everything revolves around the fairy chimneys or the rocks. The restaurants or the hotels are also named rock hotels or cave hotels as these are restored Cappadocian cave houses with modern amenities with traditional décor. Many cash-rich Turks and foreigners have turned them into boutique hotels. I also stayed in one of the amazing cave house-turned-hotels. The room was impeccably furnished with hand-carved furnishings and typical Cappadocian fabrics as bed linens. The best was its location – with fairy chimneys behind it and the Pigeon Valley was right in the front. The next morning, I woke up early to an exceptionally gorgeous view. At least 20 hot air balloons, some of them very large, were floating silently in the orange skies over this surreal landscape. It was an incredible sight! Despite knowing the fact told by my hotel owner, that ‘the view from a hot-air balloon ride is money well spent’, unfortunately, I could not take the fantastic hot-air balloon flight as it was very expensive ($200 per person). But that is my excuse to visit the magical place again, next time with a hefty wallet, of course. For hot air balloon rides Cappadocia has been rated as one of the world’s best three places. The balloon gently drifts over and between the pigeon houses, orchards and vineyards imparting breathtaking views of the region. Duration of the balloon ride depends on what you choose- from minimum half an hour to maximum two hours. Some companies offer private flights as well which are perfect for anniversaries, honeymoons, weddings or birthdays. A word of caution is always about choosing the company which has a license and a good experience in hot-air ballooning. Cappadocia is an unbelievable natural treasure, to say the least. After seeing the distinct and bizarre geological formations, hidden among the canyons, valleys, rocks and beneath the ground, one cannot but wonder how far the humans have come and what makes them preserve themselves and their culture, regardless of adverse forces.