Since the beginning of my trip, whenever I mention plans to visit Turkey every traveler's immediate response is, "You have to visit Cappadocia!" Oddly enough, many people recommended Cappadocia to me even ahead of Istanbul, but I figured they couldn’t all be wrong - there obviously must be something special about this region of Turkey. I honestly didn’t have even the slightest idea of what I would find, but looking back I’m thrilled I visited. I’ve seen numerous exotic locations so far on my travels, but none compares to the incredibly unique landscape of Cappadocia.
Backpackers know best… don’t question them.
Contrary to what I first thought, Cappadocia is not a specific city, but instead a region in Central Anatolia encompassing a number of cities. While the largest city in the region is Nevşehir (map) most travelers head for a small town of Göreme (map) situated right in the middle of a protected national park. Due to Göreme's size and remote location, many hostels/hotels organize quick, one-hour shuttles from the main airports and bus stations - but all that requires planning that I rarely feel like doing. Instead of booking ahead, I opted to spend four hours of my day hopping on five different local buses as I zigzagged my way through six different towns from Kayseri to Göreme. Frustrating, yes, but after my experiences arriving into Ukraine and Turkey, being abjectly lost for hours on end in a foreign country holds no terrors.
I did learn one very important Turkish word that day: Otogar ("bus station").
When I finally made it to Göreme, I was mesmerized by how small the town is. It takes less than 20 minutes to walk across town and the entire city is comprised of humble little cave hotels/hostels built directly into the side of a canyon. High above the city are small rectangular holes carved into the side of the cliffs - the last remaining indication of the ancient Christian inhabitants that once called this place home. As a result of Göreme's size and the fact that I was visiting during the off season there wasn’t much to do in town, but it hardly mattered thanks to the miles and miles of hiking trails throughout the area. My six-day visit to Göreme was spent meandering through the numerous valleys, but there were two particular hikes that stand out in my mind: Uçhisar and the Rose/Red Valley.
From Göreme, the city of Uçhisar is clearly visible on the horizon as a towering stone skyscraper. Located just a few miles southwest of Göreme, the entire city is built into a giant, freestanding rock outcropping on top of a hill. From a distance, the entire city appears built into a large, dry bone protruding from the desolate, inhospitable landscape. All along the edge of the cliff, hundreds of small dwellings are carved directly into the rock face. Many of these old homes are open to the public, but for every cave I explored, there are two more either barricaded or completely inaccessible.
My hike to Uçhisar though the Güvercinlik Valley (aka Pigeon Valley) was relatively straightforward. The trail is well marked and Uçhisar is almost always visible so I always knew what direction to walk, but the terrain surrounding me looks like a strange new territory on a foreign planet. The only homes in the area were small, dark openings high above in the cliffs overlooking the valley and the atmosphere feels like a strange cross between the planet Tatooine from Star Wars and the movie The Hills Have Eyes.
After years of erosion, the lower half of the cliffs are towering jagged stone walls while on top the softer rock forms smooth, rounded mounds oddly reminiscent of silly putty left out on a counter. The tranquil atmosphere was completely devoid of chatty tourists; the only sounds I heard were the gentle crunching from sand below my feet, the ruffling of leaves in the passing breeze, the melodic chirp of the local songbirds, and the periodic buzz of bumblebees. It was a cool, crisp day without a single cloud obscuring the blindly bright sun and a sweet scent filled the morning air from the surrounding vegetation. Midway through my hike the faint, eerie sound of the call to prayer back in Göreme echoed through the valley. The muezzin's elongated chants filled the air accompanied by the howl of local dogs trying to sing along. The experience served to further reinforce the idea that I am in a very strange and distant land.
After two hours of walking and a few wrong turns, I made it Uçhisar. The time passed surprisingly quickly since I was perpetually engrossed in the landscape and in awe with the towering walls of rock that encircled me. I began my ascent up the side of Uçhisar and was caught off guard by how deserted the lower portion of the city is. There are a handful of old caves still in use, but just about everything else was either demolished or under significant renovation like in Göreme. Even still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I expected a young Anakin Skywalker to emerge from one of openings and wave to me.
I’ll take it easy with the Star Wars references, but just so you know, Cappadocia was an inspiration for the desert planet of Tatooine.
At the top of Uçhisar where there is far more activity and I spent the next two hours exploring dozens of old, man-made caves. The size and complexity of the various dwellings varied greatly, but I couldn’t get over the fact that at some point in time, people actually lived in these places - this was someone's home! It was all the more impressive considering the absolutely stunning view from every single home. I know people back in NYC who would pay millions for an apartment with this kind of view, but I sincerely doubt anything could compare to the majestic view of Cappadocia from Uçhisar.
Although I will say the square footage of these tiny homes is comparable to an NYC apartment.
I felt like a child hopping, climbing, and exploring all of the various caves much like my adventure through Lagos. I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like to live in these caves. What was the family’s set up? Where were the beds, kitchen, and living room? What was life like living in isolation? How many years did it take to carve one of these rooms? My imagination ran wild and even through I saw countless old homes, whenever I saw an opening I just had to explore inside to see what it looked like. The day passed unbelievably quickly and before I knew it the sun began to set. I took the long way back home to Göreme through Love Valley to see the famous phallic shaped “fairy chimneys” that would make even the most confident man envious.
The following day I hiked with a group of friends from the hostel through the Rose and Red Valleys. While the day was overcast, windy, and rainy Roman, Johannes, A.T., Marshall (who I met in Sofia), and I were determined to see the valleys - the weather be damned. The trip was far more entertaining thanks to the great company even though the five of us spent the vast majority of the afternoon completely lost. I’m sure we saw both the Rose and Red Valleys, but none of us could tell the difference or even determine where one valley started and the other one ended. Eventually, we gave up on finding the official trails and instead made our own paths through the numerous dunes, cliffs, and ledges. The hike was a group effort and by the end of the day, the more ridiculous or risky the path, the more we wanted to take it. At the top of the cliffs, we were rewarded with one spectacular view after another, but could only enjoy it for a few brief moments as we were pummeled with dust and stones kicked up by a ceaseless torrent of frigid air.
We were legitimately concerned one of us would be blown right off the edge of the cliff.
For such a small town, my trip to Göreme was absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience especially in the middle of December. While never did get around to taking one of the hot air balloon rides the city is known for, I am thankful they were running on the morning I departed. Even though I had to wake up at 5:15 am and trek uphill in near-freezing temperatures, it was absolutely worth it. During the summer, upwards of 120 balloons are launched every morning, but during the winter months it is around half that. Nevertheless, the view from the top of Göreme was a sight to behold as dozens of colorful balloons hung silently in the morning air. There was a feeling of tranquility that wafted through the city as the balloons slowly floated across the landscape off in the distance. It is a sight that I will never forget for the rest of my life and was a perfect way to end my trip through Cappadocia.
Although the silence was frequently broken thanks to the sarcastic commentary of a hostel friend, Dave, who joined me that morning:
"This would have been such a nice picture if all these damn balloons weren't in the way."
I am forever grateful for the numerous travelers who recommended the region to me… you guys are now two for two in my book! (Both Croatia and now Cappadocia) For any of you keeping up with my travels, you will remember an earlier post of mine from the Plitvice Lakes where I referenced the infamous Buzzfeed list of places everyone should visit before they die. Well, Cappadocia is another one of those mesmerizing destinations listed that I can now happily cross off! Even with all of the hype, Cappadocia is definitely worth a visit and I highly recommend it if you plan on visiting Turkey - I’ve never seen such an incredibly unique landscape before in my life!