I booked a 2 day tour package to Cappadocia in Central Turkey. It’s the first “package” tour option I’ve booked since I began this trip and it was worth every penny. Cappadocia is so old and remote that without a tour I fear I would have missed the vast majority of what I’ve experienced without it.
I found a travel agent on the main street next to my hostel. There is no shortage of travel agents so the way I fount this one was totally out of convenience. It was on the corner and hand a friendly looking guy staffing the office 17 hours a day. The people in the shops, restaurants, and hostels in Istanbul work hard for your money.
So it was an overnight bus to get to Cappadocia, actually Urgup, and actually it was four busses. This was my first bus travel during the trip and I’ve never done any kind of long distance bus travel in the US before so this was a new experience. I’ll say I much prefer train travel. You can get up, move around, and take a bathroom break when the need arises. These options are not available on the bus, or the Turkish busses at any rate. I met up with a group of Canadians that would make the long travel more interesting. Two nurses living in Switzerland, an artist from Vancouver and a student from Montreal. We banded together to form an English (and French) speaking team to attempt to decipher the Turkish bus system.
The busses stop about every 3-5 hours for a bathroom and snack break. I’d brought a 1.5 liter bottle of water and some crackers to get me through the night. After finding out about the stop schedule, which was more like “some time in 3-5 hours we’ll stop” I decided not to hydrate too liberally.
We arrived in Urgup about 8:30am after changing busses around 7am. The others shuffled off to their respective hotels and I to mine. They all had tours starting immediately at 9am whereas I had the day off to sleep and walk around the town. I was staying in the hotel owned by the family of the travel agent that booked my tour. For a little while I thought I was the only one staying at the hotel but later I would see proof of other life. On all the brochures they heavily featured the pool in the pictures. Unfortunately, due to the time of year I would be visiting, the pool was off limits except for the Polar Bear Club.
I got situated and took a nap to try and build on the sleep I’d managed on the bus. I wouldn’t call what happened “sleeping” and might have been better off without it. I eventually got up and ventured into town to see what there was to see.
The whole region of Cappadocia is wonderful. Cappadocia was settled some 4000 years ago by the Hittites. They used the soft pumice stone that defines the region to build cave housing. Some 2200 years later (250-ish AD) Christians in the region would use this same tactic to build houses, churches, and even underground cities. During the 8th century ,when the Muslims would dominate the area, the Christians would create massive underground cities supporting up to 5000 people. I’ve been in the largest of these cities and it is truly amazing what they accomplished. We could only go five levels deep, there are 12. The bottom few are currently underwater. Imagine a giant human ant colony. Tunnels and rooms shot off in every direction. Some of the level-to-level tunnels were so tight my knees were touching my chin. Apparently it wasn’t designed for Iowan corn-and-beef fed humans.
Day one of the tour I was introduced to our tour leader. A woman whose name in Arabic means “Thank You”. Her mother had given birth to five boys and when she was born she was named as a gesture of gratitude. She led us though the myriad shelter houses and Fairy Chimneys in the region close to Urgup. They are called Fairy Chimneys because, prior to the advent of geological knowledge, they were thought to have been built, and inhabited, by Fairies. To give you an idea what it looks like watch Star Wars Episode I. It was largely filmed in this area.
We went to a ceramic shop and saw demonstrations about how the products were made and how to tell the difference between a hand made piece and a factory made piece (Hint: price is a big tip-off)
We visited the open air museum, which is actually an old Christian cave city in various states of preservation. From a distance everything looks like little bird holes in the rock. These are actually shelter homes built in the second century. However, there really are a huge number of bird holes in the houses themselves. The Christians would use pigeons as messengers to communicate between these rock cities. I’m thinking they ate the pigeons as well, possibly as a form of evolutionary training. If the pigeon came back with the original message, obviously it wasn’t very good at its job, maybe it would be better at being soup?
Like I said the entire landscape is littered with these cave houses and all the present day cities that surround the area have leveraged the soft stone to build hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops in the same fashion as these ancient settlers. It’s a pretty cool tourism trick as well. I originally wanted to stay in a cave room but was convinced that the Ottoman style room would be warmer as Cappadocia was quite cold this time of year. Unfortunately the heat in my Ottoman style room was out so I got to experience the cave room temp without the actual cave room.
Then there was “Turkish Night” I met up with team-Canada and we all boarded a bus out to a cave restaurant somewhere about 20 miles outside of town. Turkish Night is a for-tourists exposition of traditional dances, whirling dervishes, belly dancers, and the like. All the food is included and all the beer/wine/raki as well. Raki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raki_%28alcoholic_beverage%29) is medicinal tasting liquor made from musk pomice (grape juice, skins, stems, seeds, etc…) It also may have been a leading factor in my willingness to accept the belly dancer’s request that I join her and several other men grabbed from the crowd to make her dancing skills look that much better.
Once I was out on the floor with the other men we realized the gravity of our situation. This was no American ethnic restaurant evening entertainment. We were instructed to take off our shirts. I went from terrified to “What the hell, I’ll never see you people again” pretty quickly and tried to make a good effort. After the fact I would be complimented on that effort by several people when I was exiting the restaurant and later the bus. Either I actually had done ok, or they understood, and were coming to the aid of a man who had just taken his shirt off and wiggled about in front of 300 people. Either way, it’s a good story.