Lunar Landscapes

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, November 2, 2005

We caught a dolmus from our hotel to the otogar. Passengers pay as they get on, passing their money up to the front, or to the person who happens to be closest to the driver which happened to be me, so I played the role of money taker/change returner. We noted the driver took his foot off the gas as he drove through intersections and on any (even slight) decline, probably to save gas. Gasoline is about 260 TL per litre - that's two and a half times what we pay at home, so we shouldn't complain! (We've noticed that a lot of the taxis use LPG which is somewhat cheaper.) They certainly crank the heat up in vehicles if they weather is even a little cool. I was glad to get out!

Our bus left at 11 am, but little did we realize there'd been a time change at midnight and clocks were turned back one hour! (Not being used to time changes, we didn't have an inkling.) So we just had to wait a little while longer for the bus to depart.

We drove through a dusty, flat valley, flanked to the north by mountains. There were farmers in their fields harvesting potatoes and some sort of root crop (perhaps rutabagas or sweet potatoes?) which were piled high like haystacks, as well as shepherds herding sheep. Soon the rains will come and with the rain comes lots of flooding, so although the countryside appears dry now, it won't be much longer. Many of the houses were saw were made of mud bricks or finished with a mud wash.

In our guidebook the authors warn us that tempers can flare towards the end of Ramazan because people have been through a month with little sleep and a greatly reduced diet. We witnessed two altercations the day we travelled from Konya to Goreme. At the bus station in Konya, several men started to attack another man until the police intervened, and on our bus, two men across the aisle just in front of us started to argue (something about one of the men's cell phone). We didn't catch on to what exactly was going on in either case.

Our first night in Goreme we decided to go out for a romantic dinner at a nearby restaurant recommended in our book - the Orient Restaurant, a cozy place with lots of atmosphere. It was hardly romantic though; I sniffed and snorted (and got progressively worse) though the meal, using every paper napkin within reach. I asked Martin, as tears poured down my face, if I looked as horrible as I felt and he replied, as diplomatically as he could, "Well, your eyes are a little watery". That was an understatement - I couldn't even see!

Regardless, we still enjoyed a great meal. Oftentimes, restaurants here give you the option of ordering a la carte or from a "fixed" menu that still provides you with some choices at a lower price (which is what we chose). After eating all the soup, mezes (appetizers), main course, dessert and fruit, we waddled back to our hotel (or I should say I waddled; Martin couldn't waddle if he tried). Somehow I don't think anyone will comment on how svelte I look when we return home from this trip (like they did after SE Asia)!

There is a great selection of accommodation in Goreme (pronounced goor-a-may) - everything from cave hotels to elegant pensions. We chose Walnut House, a beautiful old mansion that has only six rooms and were lucky to get a room. (I had tried to book ahead on the Internet, but the email bounced back.) All the rooms have vaulted stone ceilings; the cozy lobby is filled with carpets/kilims and other Turkish decor. Ali, who worked at the front desk and whose family owned the hotel, was very amicable and helpful in providing us with information. Our room was nicely decorated, clean and the bed was comfortable! We've slept on a lot of hard beds in Turkey.

Goreme is a small tourist town of 2,000 people that sprang to life as a result of the surrounding landscape. It is a magical place set amid towering tuff cones and honeycomb cliffs; wind-weathered volcanic rock has been shaped into fantastic and strange formations - kind of a combination of the Hoodoos in Alberta, Canada, the Badlands in South Dakota and Bedrock (i.e., the Flintstones). It is a weird and wonderful place; there are many unusual land formations in this area of Turkey called Cappadocia, a World Heritage Site.

Our first day was spent exploring the Goreme Open-Air Museum, a cluster of rock-cut 11th century Byzantine churches, chapels and monasteries, an easy 1 km walk from the village. There were few tourists and only a couple of tour buses so it was a most enjoyable time to visit, though we were beginning to rethink our timing when it started to snow later that afternoon!

On day two we took an organized tour further afield. This included an underground city, a monastery housed in the rocks, a camel station where travellers on the silk route could stay for the night, the Ilara valley, a visit to a pottery factory and the famed fairy chimneys, yet other curious rock formations in Cappadocia.

There were about 300 underground cities in Turkey dating back 4,000 years. About 30, such as the one we visited, have been excavated. These series of tunnels and underground rooms included kitchens, sleeping facilities, churches, confessionals, stables for livestock, as well as wineries and prisons. Large ventilation shafts provided light and air, and were also the means by which soil was removed when the tunnels were dug. At one point in history, Christians hid from the Romans in these underground cities. After my reaction to the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam I was concerned about claustrophia, but these were not nearly as narrow or as dark.

Hiking is also a popular pasttime of tourists who come here and there are many wonderful hikes. (One of the problems, however, is that most of the trails are not clearly marked and it's easy to get lost so you need a guide.) We went on a short 3 km walk in the Ilara valley. Along the way we saw pigeon hole cliffs where pigeons were raised for food as well as carrying messages. Their dung was also used for fertilizer.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the fairy chimneys the sun was going down and it was impossible to get any good pictures. The tour didn't depart until 9:30 am and with the recent time change that meant that it was dark by about 5 pm. We resolved to try and come back the next day.

One of the people on our tour was an interesting woman by the name of Heather from Ann Arbour, Michigan. Trained as a teacher, she had spent eight years teaching middle years kids in the US, then went to Hungary with the US Peace Corps and taught ESL there for another eight years. (It was obvious when she spoke that she was American but she had also picked up another accent that I found out was probably Hungarian.) Her favourite place in the world, however, was Nepal where she had spent a year during her her studies at university, so she decided to find a way to spend more time there. She gave up teaching, set up a travel company that specializes in tours to Nepal and has been happily touring clients ever since. She also runs a bed and breakfast and has other small jobs to help fund her travels. She is very concerned about the stronghold the Maoists have established in Nepal; on the surface, communism is a very appealing ideology to people living in extreme poverty, but, in practice, it is seldom successful.

When we met her, Heather had walked out of her house on October 7 and and managed to get all the way to central Turkey without flying. She had taken the Queen Mary from New York and travelled by train/bus through Europe and Turkey. When we saw her off at the bus to Istanbul she was on her way to Bulgaria, Hungary and then to Paris. She had a very ambitious travel schedule and was covering a lot of territory in the two months - which meant more than a few overnight buses and trains! Heather was the first American we've met who actually admitted to saying she was Canadian when she thought it might be in her best interest.

We also met a young guy from St Catherines ON, DJ, who was travelling around Turkey with his parents who were visiting for a couple of weeks. He was teaching math at a high school in Ankara so we passed on Karla and Rhett's contact information to him.

And we did get to see the Whirling Dervishes! We went to a Turkish night that included dinner, drinks and traditional Turkish dancing. As it is a religious ceremony or ritual dance representing union with God, you are not allowed to take photos with a flash until after the actual ceremony is finished. They begin with a prayer, then the dervishes drop their black cloaks and begin to spin in a counterclockwise direction, holding their arms up to receive blessings from heaven. In a trace, they spin around and around to the music for what seems an eternity! Amazingly, they do not not seem the least bit dizzy at the conclusion!

The dance troupe who performed the traditional dances, a group of young people from nearby Avanos, were excellent. We had no doubt that they were enjoying every minute performing for an audience and the dancing was polished and professional. As a home economist with a clothing and textiles major and a keen interest in historical costume, I always notice the costumes and was impressed with them. Although the women's dances are less spectacular and athletic, it is always their costumes that have me wildly snapping photos. The dancers encouraged the audience to clap along to the music and at a couple of points during the performance brought people up from the tables to dance with them. There was a great deal of undulating (the high pitched sound that women in the Middle East make). Turks can also move various body parts (like their shoulders, stomachs and hips) in a way we Westerners can't, so when the belly dancer got some male participants to join her, it was pretty funny. As usual with these sort of package performances, the food was less than exciting.

Goreme and surrounding area is largely agricultural and the volcanic soil is very rich. Grape vines for producing wine grow amongst the projecting rocks. Apricots, pumpkin, pistachios and apples are also grown in this area.

We made a visit to nearby Urgup to the Yakif Bank to see it we could manage to recoup our 50 TL from the bank machine in Konya. It's low season here and there are few buses; as luck would have it, a man travelling in that direction stopped to give us a ride. We had been short-changed by the ATM on a Friday; this was the following Wednesday and it was the first day the bank had open since! It also closed at noon for Biram, the three-day holiday that follows Ramazan! No one at the bank spoke English, so they had the carpet dealer next door come to help translate. We provided details regarding time, location, etc and they called the bank in Konya. Of course, with all the holidays in the past week and the upcoming one, the ATM machines had not been checked and will not be balanced until next week. We left our email addresses and the carpet dealer told us he would let us know the outcome. Well, it was worth a try.

Since we'd made the trip to Urgup, we decided to have a look through the old city and walked up to the viewpoint on top of the hill. As we climbed, we heard the haunting call from the mosque. Martin says he will miss that call when we return home; it's just so enchanting.

We caught a dolmus from Urgup that travelled past the fairy chimneys and, as we approached, tapped the driver on the shoulder to tell him we wanted out. It was well worth returning to see these strange projectiles. Getting a bus back to Goreme was another matter. We started walking the 7 km back hoping to flag down a dolus, but 4 km later decided to try hitchhiking. The second car that came along gave us a ride back.

Walking along the streets of Goreme, a woman called us over and invited us into her home carved out of the rock. The walls were all white-washed and the stove was blazing. She was roasting sunflower seeds which she offered us as well as apple tea. Her cute little granddaughter chattered away to us in Turkish (and, of course, we didn't understand a word); her daughter was there and later, her husband showed up. I was wary that she would try and sell us something and she did: knitted gloves and mitts (with holes) that didn't match in design or size, as well as cheap headscarves with edges that she had beaded/crocheted and tatted necklaces and bracelets. None of it was particularly appealing, but to be polite we purchased a couple of things (at exhorbitant prices probably). We were successfully lured into her lair and felt rather stupid about it though it had been interesting and worth the 15 TL we spent on things we didn't want. Martin was greatly relieved to get out of there as it was very hot sitting by the stove. Even at a very young age, the granddaughter was quite the salesperson - when we weren't responding to her grandmother she would take over and try to ply us with their wares.

Our last night in Goreme we went out to a restaurant (The Alaturca) that, according to our guidebook, was one of the best restaurants in central Turkey. Although the food was very good (albeit not particularly warm), it just lacked the atmosphere and warmth of some of the smaller, more intimate places. To us, it didn't compare with the place we ate at on our first evening here.

Cappadocia is a wondrous place yet to hit the really big times and be spoiled by an huge influx of tourists. It is doubtful, but I hope it will remain this way. Walnut House was our favourite hotel thus far; it is a very charming place and Ali and his family couldn't have been more welcoming. I will always remember the way he smiled - his face would light up and he'd give you a little wink. We'll be back someday!
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