We concluded our trip with a short but spectacular 3-day jaunt through the region of Cappadocia -- an area with an highly unusual natural landscape!
The wheels on the bus go round and round...
One of the best ways to travel through Turkey (if you choose not to fly) is by bus. In contrast to countries like Austria, it is actually more direct, faster and cheaper to travel by bus than by train in Turkey. Consequently, there is a thriving business for bus companies who provide transportation throughout the country. It's about 11 hours from Istanbul to Cappadocia on the night bus, which makes for a long and uncomfortable night if you have any difficulty sleeping on buses, but every few hours the bus stops for a bathroom and leg-stretching (or smoking, if that's your thing) break. To make your journey more pleasant, there is a steward who comes around (only once) to offer you drinks and Turkish soap operas (which are strangely compelling, even if you don't understand what they're saying!) playing on the TVs mounted to the ceiling. It's actually quite a nice way to travel, as the buses are new and modern and because you can reason with yourself that the mild discomfort of an 11-hour bus ride is worth the money you're saving on accommodation for the night. Oh, and I should also mention that when you book your ticket on the bus, they make sure that you are booked next to someone of the same gender -- there is no mixing of men and women as seatmates on the nightbus. (N.b.: Naturally, the booking agents do this to the best of their ability. On the night bus back from Cappadocia to Istanbul I was sitting next to an American woman who, on her night bus into Cappadocia, had been seated next to a guy. However, it's a small world for tourists, and this guy she was seated next to was a tourist I'd met in Cappadocia as well...unfortunately for the booking agent, his name was of Indian origin and ended in an "a," thus the assumption on paper that he was female.)
"What's the deal with [Cappadocia]?"
The biggest draw for visiting Cappadocia is the landscape. That, mixed with a dash of ancient and modern history, makes for quite an interesting destination.
The Lay of the Land
Cappadocia generally refers to the Nevşehir Province in central Turkey, though officially it is simply an area with no official boundaries. Generally understood to be a triangle formed by the towns of Avanos in the north, Nevşehir in the west and Ürgüp in the east, Cappadocia means "Land of Beautiful Horses" in either the ancient Hittite or the ancient Persian language, depending on your source. Settled first by Neolithic cultures and later by the Hittites, Persians, Greeks and Romans, and finally the Ottomans, Cappadocia has a rich blend of cultural history.
The defining feature of Cappadocia is its landscape. The entire area (roughly 250 miles wide and 120 miles top to bottom) is littered with unique rock formations, caves and gorges and is ringed by the ancient volcanoes that shaped the area. The most famous of these natural rock formations is the signature Cappadocian fairy chimney, a somewhat phallic column with a large round bit of rock balancing on top.
Formed over eons of time and erosion, the basic geological breakdown of these UNESCO World Heritage Site formations looks something like this:
First, way back in the day, the volcanoes ruled the land. They sent out a bottom layer of hard lava, which forms the geological base for these formations.
But as the saying goes, what goes up, must come down. So then, after the volcanoes erupted and the lava flowed, the volcanic ash, called tuff, rained down on the base layer of lava, forming a thick second layer of rock.
Finally, a tougher upper layer of basalt settled on the mix, providing the perfect geological conditions for some freaky erosion.
Over time, cracks and fissures developed in the upper layer of basalt. This allowed the rain, wind, and other elements to get to the softer layer of tuff underneath and do their dirty work. The basalt on top formed a protective shield for the softer tuff directly beneath it, but the rest of the tuff -- not directly protected by an upper layer of basalt -- was eroded away over time and exposure to the elements, leaving a rock formation topped by the tough basalt cap supported by a conical tuff column standing firm on a bed of lava. And this is the fairy chimney as we know it today.
Because many of the rocks and cliffs in the area are also made of this not-so-tough tuff, the early Christians were able to carve out hundreds of cave churches and shelters where they escaped persecution. Even several multi-level underground cities were carved out, providing protection and shelter until Christianity became a recognized and accepted religion. Although the underground cities are now just empty shells, you can see what remains of the original frescoes in many of the cave churches.
Living Like the Locals
Traditionally, many residents of Cappadocian regions also lived in hollowed-out cave houses -- some on cliff faces, some at the base of fairy chimneys, and some into the sides of the mountains. Although a few people still live in such houses today, most residents live in what we consider "normal" houses. However, the thrill of living in a cave is still alive and well for the tourists who come and visit, and the hotels and hostels in the area -- especially in the village of Göreme where we stayed -- seem to be almost exclusively cave rooms. As one might expect, our cave room in the hostel was a bit chilly and damp, but well worth the experience.
How to See Cappadocia in a Mere 3 Days
Because we were pressed for time, we only had three days to see this rather large region. Wanting to optimize what little time we had, we decided to explore the town of Göreme where we were staying on the first day, and then take two all-day tours (a North Tour and a South Tour) advertised at the hostel on the following two days. It was clear by the end of the first day that we easily could have stayed much, much longer in Cappadocia, so we really milked the time we had for all it was worth. I'm convinced we got the most out of our mere 3 days as was possible for two car-less, hapless tourists.
The Göreme Open Air Museum
The Göreme Open Air Museum is a classic but fitting first stop in Cappadocia. Located only a short walk or shuttle ride from the center of town, the museum is an outdoor complex of rock-cut churches and monastic spaces dating from the 10th to 12th centuries. You'll have to pay an entrance fee of about 15 lira to get in, but once you're inside you have access to a bunch of classic Cappadocian rock churches that are conveniently all in one place. The frescoes here are in remarkable shape, and the art history dork inside me really dug the fact that you can see both iconic and iconoclastic frescoes side-by-side. (I later found out that this is typical of many Cappadocian cave churches and monastic complexes, not just the ones in Göreme.)
Even for an art historian (yeah, yeah, I use this term loosely), all of the churches and frescoes began to look the same after a while. However, the vantage point from the Open Air Museum provided an excellent view of the countryside, and after we left, we decided to walk through the rock formations and explore some trails before heading back into town.
Hiking and Biking Through Cappadocia
There are any number of hiking trails and biking routes through Cappadocia. If we'd had more time in the region, I would have wanted to go out exploring. As it was, we spent the morning of our second day exploring the nearby paths, romping through the hills, and exploring the rock formations and rock caves we encountered. It was like a giant playground for adults, and I could have easily spent all day out there without getting bored.
Üçhisar Castle is a fortress carved into the highest peak in Cappadocia. People actually lived in the castle until the 1950s, when erosion became so bad that it was dangerous for people to remain. Today it reminds the modern visitor of a human ant farm carved into the face of the cliff.
Cappadocia is also a rich source of onyx, which I learned is not just the rich black stone seen in jewelry today. Onyx is actually a type of quartz that ranges in color from white to black, and in Cappadocia it has been quaried, carved and polished for centuries. We went to an artisan center and watched a demonstration -- shamelessly aimed at getting tourists to the gift shop, but packed with interesting information nonetheless -- where they showed us the entire process of cutting, shaping and polishing the stone. Starting with a rough chunk of onyx, the demonstrator shaped it into the form of an egg on a pedestal before finally polishing the egg shape of a translucent shine. At the end of the demonstration, they asked if anyone knew the meaning of the word "Cappadocia"...and that person who answered just happened to get the onyx egg as a prize.
Fairy Chimneys in Ürgüp, Paşabag / Monks Valley, Imagination Valley, and Pigeon Valley
Really, the names say it all. In Cappadocia there are any number of spectacular valleys with rock formations and hiking trails, each one slightly more psychadelic than the rest. Since fairy chimneys can range in size and shape, no two valleys really look the same. Many have described the landscape as something like a moonscape or an alien planet. In this case, I'll just let some of the pictures speak for themselves.
Pottery in Avanos
At the north end of Cappadocia lies the sleepy town of Avanos. There's really not much going for it, except for the fact that, well, they've been producing pottery for thousands and thousands of years. In fact, it was the Hittites who first started collecting silt from the nearby Red River to produce their signature red clay, and the same type of pottery is still being produced in Avanos today.
The Red River, aptly named for its red silt, is the longest river in Turkey. For millenia now, the local Avanos potters have gone down to the river to collect the red silt and then let it ferment for two weeks into a workable clay. This soft red clay is then thrown on a kick wheel the same way it was when the Hittites were around.
At the pottery center, we watched a young man of no more than 20 years old give a demonstration on pottery throwing, starting with a raw chunk of clay and ending with a beautifully thrown vessel. Our tour guide narrated the whole process in detail, and when the young potter was finished and removed the pot from the wheel, the guide said, "Now that you've seen how easy that was, who'd like to give this a try?" As soon as he posed the question, I knew that I really, really wanted to try throwing a pot. I've never used a pottery wheel in my life, but the idea of making my own vessel in the same way as the Hittites was irresistable. However, I'd already won the onyx egg, so I didn't want to appear overeager and steal somebody else's chance to participate.
To my surprise, the room stayed silent. No one said a thing. And after I looked around the room to see how other people were reacting, my eyes fell on the guide and we made eye contact. "You want to try?" he asked.
"Who? Me?" I asked, looking around at the people seated next to me.
But he clearly meant me, so I went up to the front (quite happy on the inside) and donned some giant puffy pants and footies caked with dried clay.
Taking a seat behind the wheel, I started to kick it rather awkwardly, but I just couldn't work up enough speed. So the potter came up beside me and kicked the wheel as I placed my hands on the clay, not having a clue what what supposed to happen. It quickly became clear that I didn't even know where to start, so he showed me how to dig my thumbs into the clay and bring up the sides to form a bowl. It was so much harder than he made it look, and I noticed that every little movement threw off the shape of my bowl, making it hopelessly asymmetrical. In the end, my wonky bowl looked nothing like the potter's, but I was proud of my very minor accomplishment. But what a unique experience it was to throw traditional pottery in Avanos!
Cavuşin Old Village
A quick stop, but interesting nonetheless, is the Cavuşin Old Village, a town carved entirely out of a cliff face. It's the kind of thing you expect to see in an Indiana Jones movie.
Derinkuyu Underground City
An underground city is also something you'd expect to see out of an Indiana Jones movie, right? Derinkuyu is the largest of Cappadocia's underground cities, weighing in at an impressive 10 levels and diving as deep as 85 meters below the surface. The preliminary passages and levels were built by ancient peoples, but the city didn't become the underground metropolis that it is known as today until the early Christians expanded it to escape Roman persecution. (Are we noticing a trend here? The early Christians did not have it good in this area!) Equipped with chapels, kitchens, tombs, ventilation shafts, and even stables, the city could accomodate thousands of people at its peak. However, all of this was not accessible from the outside -- the original entrances were not from tunnels to the surface but rather from private houses on the land above. Such underground cities were not permanently inhabited, but rather only in emergency situations; the entrances could be sealed by large stones, and the extensive storerooms below could hold enough food for both people and livestock. Today, only 10% of Derinkuyu is open to the public, and not even all of it has been excavated. There are several other similar cities in the region, but Derinkuyu remains the largest and most popular for tourists.
For a nominal fee, visitors can also enter the Ilhara Valley and take a walk through the 10-mile long gorge carved into the volcanic rock by the river. Along the valley are more stone churches, walking trails, and now small restaurants for visitors who need a little pick-me-up after a long day of sightseeing. The nearby Mount Erciyes is probably responsible for much of that volcanic rock, but it hasn't erupted for over 2000 years.
A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Finally, who can leave Cappadocia without a salute to George Lucas' very own planet of Tatooine? Yep, that's right -- filmed right here against the curious backdrop of the Cappadocian rock formations, this is the home to our dear friends, the Sand People.