A Bunch of Hot Air

CAPPADOCIA (GOREME & ORTAHISAR), TURKEY: June 16-20, 2013

Leah: I can safely say this is only the 3rd place on our trip that has reduced me to tears upon leaving (the others being Quiroga, Ecuador and all of New Zealand), if that helps explain just how magnificent our experiences were. Our time in Cappadocia (which translated means “land of the beautiful horses”) was replete with stunning exploratory hikes, fascinating history and some budget-busting incredible experiences, but in the end is was the friends, both old and new, that will always remain synonymous with our time in this unique environment.

In fall of 2009 when my sister, Diana, and I traveled through Turkey, Syria and Jordan we had the pleasure of being led by Jess. This diminutive, blonde, feisty New Zealand native had been living and traveling abroad since she was a teenager and Diana and I enjoyed her tell-it-like-it-is attitude and unending font of knowledge. We stayed in touch with Jess after our trip and she ended up settling in the Cappadocia region, so it was a no-brainer that Steve and I would swing by while in Turkey. However, Jess had also purchased her first home—a cave—which happens to be a very typical village dwelling in the region and she invited us to come stay with her when we passed through (never mind that I gave my poor parents a heart attack when I told them over Skype that we would be staying in “a rock” and they heard “Iraq”…ah, good times).

Flash forward and there we were arriving in the village of Goreme, the most famous of the remaining Cappadocian settlements. Jess had instructed us to head to her friend Angela’s Taskonak Hotel where we could grab a complimentary breakfast and then wait for Jess, as she needed to stay home until her renovation/construction crew arrived to work on her cave. The hotel terrace afforded exquisite views of the village and soon Jess was bounding up the steps: a flurry of over-sized sunglasses, blonde hair coiled back in a bun and infectious energy. We caught up over breakfast and then hopped a cab back to her place in the nearby village of Ortahisar (it’s only a lovely 45 minute walk, but we were lazy and had our bags) where Steve and I immediately suffered home envy.

How many people can truly say they live in a Flinstones house? In Turkey you need to be able to pay for a home purchase in its entirety, so there are no such things as mortgages or bank loans. Jess saved her tips for years from tour leading and with some loans from friends she purchased her place; for the first time in almost two decades she was a nomad no more. The main living area is a mixture of textures and materials (rock, travertine, wood among them) and Jess had filled her home with books galore, knickknacks from all around the Middle East and breathtakingly vibrant rugs she had purchased over the years. The attached area (or “guest wing” as we dubbed it) is under construction and will eventually contain the master bedroom and office among others. It was crazy walking through the construction debris and seeing how everything from pipes to electric wiring is chiseled into the rock and then covered back to look undisturbed.

Jess is definitely someone  you want to know; not only is she well-connected in the expat community, but her interest and experience in the Middle East allows her to speak on everything from the ancient Hittite culture in Cappadocia to the current political (in)stability in Iran. She is one of the smartest people I’ve met when it comes to world affairs and others seem to agree; she’s completed authored or contributed to several guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Footprints being among them), writes a blog, and contributes articles to international publications. Indeed, freelance travel writing is how she currently supports herself. All this means that not only did we essentially enjoy a local’s perspective on the area, but we also benefitted from her years of tour guide experience and random factoids. No more was that demonstrated than on our first night together, when the three of us dug into Jess’s homemade veggie lasagna, shared a few bottles of wine and talked about such a range of topics, books and ideas that we gasped in dismay upon realizing that it was close to 2 a.m.

As luck would have it, our American friend Coleman whom we met in Fethiye, arrived in Goreme the day after we did and we had all planned to rendezvous during our time in Cappadocia. After attending Jess’s friend’s housewarming, Jess, Steve and I made our way to the local institution Fat Boys, where besides being one of the highest rated establishments Angela of Taskonak Hotel fame also owns this restaurant/bar with her Turkish husband Yilmiz. There we met Coleman, who had also brought along Chris, a Korean by birth who has been in the US since the age of five and is currently studying for his dentistry degree at UC San Francisco (as well as having served as a dental volunteer on the humanitarian ship, USNS Mercy, which is based out of San Diego). The two of them had met in the hostel and within minutes Steve and I knew that yet again we had lucked out in meeting some extraordinary Americans abroad (the first pair being Megan and Taryn back in South America), the likes of whom we will probably be staying in touch with post-trip. It also doesn’t hurt that Chris is based in San Francisco and Coleman will be in Denver, so there really will be no excuse.

Poor Jess couldn’t believe how many Yanks surrounded her that night; indeed, Fat Boys swarmed with them. However, Coleman and Chris took an instant liking to Jess, her bluntness and spitfire ways included. The admiration was even ratcheted up a notch when Chris learned that Jess was one of the contributing authors on the brand-spanking-new edition of Lonely Planet’s Turkey guidebook (she tries to keep that quiet) and from then he seemed to maintain a bit of hero worship. Yet again we all became caught up in conversation, stories and laughter as the food and beer flowed and before we knew it the time was well past 1 a.m…how did we keep doing this?!

The following days were a blur of taking in the sights and experiencing the magic of this geological wonderland. A bit of background: 30 million years ago the nearby volcanoes covered the surrounding area in mud and ash, which turned into a malleable stone called tuff. Due to wind and water erosion ever since then, this soft rock slowly gave way to form the valleys and so-called fairy chimney formations that make the region famous. We made the most of it by hiking through picturesque Pigeon Valley and even scored a carved stone turtle when a local man, Usman, gifted it to me when I was able to correctly answer where I was while we passed by his random makeshift tea stand in the middle of the valley.

We also spent some time at the infamous Goreme Open AirMuseum, a former monastic settlement carved into the rocks and fairy chimneys offering stunning frescoes inside some of the churches and much history to go along with it. We also took a day trip with Coleman and Chris to the underground city of Derinkuyu, which may have originated as far back as 1900-1200 BC and were used as shelters by various groups over the years during invasions and wars. Derinkuyu itself extends over 165 feet underground and once contained stables, wine presses, living quarters, churches and armories, as well as toilets and ventilation shafts. The four of us had a blast stooping and shimmying through narrow passageways and steep staircases as we explored this underground labyrinth. 

As there were no signs and I couldn’t remember the historical details from my previous visit in 2009, we also invented explanations for what we were seeing, including what we dubbed the “disco club” (complete with dance floor, bar area and place to queue for the bathrooms), as well as a separate room a few floors up which we thought contained what could have been the hot tub, although we learned from eavesdropping on a tour leader that the round pit was actually a baptismal font. Whoops. Either way, absolutely fascinating to think about the troglodyte living conditions thousands of years ago as civilizations did what they could to stave off invasion and conquest. After slaking our hunger with some phenomenal green curry at a random Goreme restaurant, we all turned in early, as we had a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call the next day.

Steve: Why did we have a 3:45 A.M. wakeup call the next day you might ask? Well I’ll tell you, but let me back up a bit first. So back during our first meetings with Coleman in Fethiye he had mentioned that hot air ballooning in Cappadocia was circulating the backpacking underground as a must-do. I’m pretty sure I was half-paying attention at the time and Leah essentially decided that we were going. But in all fairness it didn’t take much for me to swallow the relatively high cost (by backpackers’ standards that is…by world standards it’s a deal) even though Leah proceeded to show me over and over that if you Google “best places to hot air balloon” Cappadocia always shows up in the top ten.

Returning back to the present and there we were getting picked up by our shuttle at 4 A.M. to gear up for our flight. Jess had highly recommended Butterfly Balloons since they had an impeccable track record—as if we wouldn’t have heeded her recommendations as it were, we were also informed that several weeks prior there was a collision between balloons from other companies which resulted in the deaths of three tourists. We might have been able to find a cheaper deal but we knew we were with a good company and safety isn’t something these cheapskates would skimp on.

After a light breakfast Leah, Coleman, Chris and I found ourselves in the fields of Cappadocia where numerous balloons were being prepped for liftoff. Since winds increase as the day progresses all flights take place in the early morning so on this particular morning seventy balloons were in some stage of flight. We hopped into our baskets and within ten minutes we found ourselves slowly yet steadily lifting off the ground. I must admit the gentleness of the ascent (coupled with the fact that we didn’t skimp on costs) precluded any panic or anxiety from creeping into the experience. Instead of fear I was quickly overcome by the peacefulness of the Cappadocian landscape as it calmly drifted underneath us. For forty-five minutes—it seemed liked five—we glided over the fairy chimneys, rock caves and well-tended orchards that give Cappadocia its reputation. (Leah: we also had the best vantage points for the pigeon holes; past cultures kept pigeons and used their droppings as fertilizer, but Jess has told us that now Turkish men keep them as pets and can be seen on top of their roofs cooing to these sky rats, cuddling them in their arms and teaching them to perform tricks.)

Temur, our pilot, instructed us on the finer points of flying as he pointed out the different crosswinds that occurred at even minimal changes in altitude. Due to said winds, when it was time to land we found ourselves coasting at a much higher speed than our pilot would have preferred. With the help of the experienced ground crew we touched down and while in our landing positions—squatting while holding onto the ropes inside the basket—we found ourselves being dragged by the deflating balloon and subsequently our basket tipped over. It made for quite the photo op and was soon followed by a well-deserved champagne toast.

After our balloon tour was over and we were dropped back into town—by this point it was just after 7 A.M.—we hung out and swapped pictures before meeting with Jess for an exclusive hike through her favorite landscapes. We began by wandering through Zelve another archaeological site similar to the Open Air Museum but with a fraction of the tourist traffic. From here we hiked through Rose Canyon and stopped off at some of Jess’s favorite spots, including the oldest church in Cappadocia. Enjoying each others’ company we took our time, stopping for teas, fresh orange juice (Leah: picking apricots straight from the trees that dripped with their weight) and even squeezed in a book signing or two. Chris—who made the mistake of telling Jess that his friends call sometimes call him “Sparkle” and would be called that for the remainder of the day—had Jess sign his Lonely Planet; it was a fair swap though since he gave us the recipe for the delightful cocktail for which he received his name. For the latter half of the hike we were accompanied by a handsome German shepherd that followed us high and low and into every cave and abandoned dwelling. At one point he made his way up a steep ladder to join us in a church but couldn’t bring himself to scramble back down the ladder. I eventually had to carry the whimpering mutt down the ladder with my best small-town fireman impersonation.

Later that afternoon and the next day we found ourselves having tea in the well-known Tribal Collections carpet shop. Ruth Lockwood, an affable Kiwi who happened to be one of Jess’s best friends in Goreme, had established herself as one of the most respected dealers in the local industry and for good reason. The depth of knowledge she had on the different regions, designs, uses, ages, materials, etc. for all of her rugs was astounding. In fact, Leah had met Ruth previously on her tour since a visit to the shop is one that respected tour companies choose not to miss for its educational value. On a high from the excellent time that we all had in Cappadocia we were all keen to purchase a unique piece to remember it by; I won’t drop any prices but if you look at the Tribal Collections site you’ll see that they deal in quality and we each made some healthy purchases. Chris and Coleman picked up stunning rugs from some nearby Turkish tribes and Leah and I scooped up an Iranian donkey bag. The latter may sound strange, I know, but it is a visually moving piece that was important to a nomad long ago and will continue to be important to these nomads as we move on in our lives. (Leah: It's technically a 40 year old woolen Soumak flatweave from the Sahseven tribe, but let’s be honest...who doesn’t want a bit of Iranian donkey in their lives?)

Leah: We closed our time here with a (free) stunning breakfast at the Hezen Cave Hotel, thanks to Jess’s friend, Nil, who manages it. The food was groan-inducing, the view unbelievable and the cave rooms we were shown afterward made us want to book in immediately.  Cappadocia was a feast for our souls, eyes and palates and we couldn’t have asked for a better host or friends to share it with. From the infectious Jess-isms to which we were constantly privy (things like “bless his cotton socks” instead of “bless his heart”) to both the serious and seriously hysterical conversations we had with Goreme residents and other travelers alike, every day was a blessing and a gentle reminder that it’s the journey that matters, not necessarily the destination. A special thanks to Jess, Chris and Coleman for making this Turkish sojourn a true trip highlight for us—Inshallah, we’ll be seeing you again. (Steve: And thank you for the Sriracha Chris…it’s going to be a lifesaver in Eastern Europe!)


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Mann June 28, 2013 at 12:05 AM

Sounds amazing! I just feel the sunshine and smell the fresh air and taste the food. I never knew I wanted to go to Cappadocia!

Leah June 29, 2013 at 12:20 PM

You would love the manti--little pasta nuggets doused in a yogurt, garlic and chili sauce...I still dream about it. Oh yeah, and the landscape is pretty insane too!

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