First on my agenda today was a hot air balloon ride. I’ll come around to why it’s said that if you ever want to splurge on a hot air balloon ride, Cappadocia is the place to do it. I was in two minds about this. All operators in Lonely Planet listed their prices at 180-250 Euros, certainly not what I wanted to spend. Apparently this is because all the ‘reputable’ balloon tour operators have banded together and reached an agreement to offer only one balloon ride a day for safety reasons, since winds become more unstable as the day wears on. Shadier tour operators do more than one flight a day and can thus offer cheaper prices.
To be honest, I wasn’t that concerned about safety. For all that matters, I’d have been perfectly happy with a farmer’s cousin filling up a jute bag with air using a kerosene stove as long as it meant I got a hot air balloon ride out of it. So when my hostel owner – who, by the way, mosies off every winter to Thailand and whom I was exchanging SE Asia backpacking stories with – said he had an underhand deal with one particular balloon operator to offer the flight at 125 Euros, I jumped at it. I knew the prices wouldn’t be any better at any of the other shadier operators, and here I was getting hooked up with one without too much effort. It’s still a lot of money – this item is sure to stand out as one of the biggest expenses of this trip – but You Only Live Once.
I was picked up in the morning (more like woken-up-after-sleeping-through-alarm-and-had-to-dress-up-in-three-minutes-to-leave) by my balloon tour operator and taken to their offices for breakfast. The sky was dotted with hot air balloons. They looked like such graceful creatures, slow-moving whales of the sky. There are about fifteen balloon operators in this region and their numbers are evident when you look up at dawn. Must be a good business to get into.
We were then taken to our launch site by van. This was the second flight of the day for my balloon operator so we waited for the balloon to empty out, replacing the occupants one-by-one to balance out the weight distribution. In all, there were twenty people in our own party.
Hot air balloon take sequences have safety briefings too. Landing is the hardest part, as the basket hits the ground running so to speak, and we were briefed on what our brace position should be as we landed. Take-off is exciting – these four propane burners open up full throttle and spew hot air, and the balloon canvas slowly fills up and goes firm. And then ever so slightly, you drift away from the ground.
Our pilot was Rodrigues, a jovial Portuguese who’s bald and thus wears this silly afro wig to keep his head warm when flying. He started flying hot air balloons in November 1992, so he’s been doing this for about 20 years now. His first season in Turkey was in 2006-2007, following which he worked in Tanzania’s Serengeti. He moved back to flying in Turkey after that stint because he enjoys a much better social life in Turkey than out in Africa’s bush plains. He’s done five seasons of ballooning in Turkey, including this one.
The flight was kinda middling throughout. Our maximum altitude with respect to launch point was 30 metres and top speed during the flight 12 km/hr. We simply didn’t get the favourable winds that we needed to safely go higher up than that. At one point, out basket brushed against tree tops and there was a noticeable nervous hush in the crowd as the pilot joked it off as the wicker basket’s bottom being wiped clean now. We flew low over a couple of valleys that surround Goreme, Uchisar, and Avanos.
Looming power transmission cables signalled a premature end for our flight for safety reasons; the scheduled flying time of one hour was cut short to forty minutes. Landing wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be as there was a crew on ground to tip the basket right using rope tackles. Fittingly, for the underwhelming flight, we landed in a field of manure.
There was a champagne toast – well, technically Turkish sparkling wine – (orange juice for those who don’t drink) afterwards since it’s a custom to do so after hot air balloon flights. Legend has it that the first hot air balloon fliers knew they would probably be met with pitchforks when they landed in some farmer’s field. Indeed they were – but a toast of champagne shared with them had the pitchfork-wielding farmers mollified. They really go a step extra to stroke your ego, giving you a signed flight certificate from the pilot too.
So I got taking a hot air balloon ride off my bucket list – but if you’re visiting Cappadocia and want some advice, here’s what I have to say: pay the difference and go for one of the more reputable operators, which only do a single flight earlier in the morning. It was evident just looking at them that they could safely climb to a higher altitude, and thus afford you better views.
I put Goreme on my itinerary because of this fairly unique kind of rock formation that you find here: they are called ‘fairy chimneys’ and as you can see in this picture in the distance, they look like giant dicks with holes in them. These rock formations were built out of gradual natural erosion of sandstone and volcanic ash – the volcanic ash coming from three nearby volcanoes, the closest of which is Mount Erciyes. Many of these were later chiselled away by the inhabitants of Cappadocia – and the soft volcanic rock made it easy – into churches. If a fairy chimney here has a ‘normal’ rectangular entrance, it’s a house; and those with arched entrances are typically churches of some description.
Goreme used to have a thriving industry collecting pigeon poop from holes in this giant dicks called pigeon cotes, and then using it as manure. The pigeons, sadly, are no longer that extant in this region. Over many years rampant commercialisation had resulted in ugly signs all over the place and use of non-indigenous construction material. Nowadays, it’s more or less back to using stone and rock to retain an authentic feel in houses, and this is what you’d find in most of the ‘cave hotels’ here. Some of them are genuinely old places – sometimes buildings with a different original purposes like granaries – that have now been turned into hotels or houses.
There’s another reason this place is such an important tourist destination: this is an important place for Christianity. A lot of modern Christianity’s tenets come from saints who took refuge in the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia region, first from the Romans who were persecuting them, and then from Arab crusaders. Goreme Open-Air Museum (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has six major churches dedicated to the influential saints of Cappadocia, including one called ‘Sandal Church’ which is supposed to have an exact fresco copy of Jesus’s sandal prints from Church of Ascension. The fact that an exact copy of Jesus’s sandal prints exists absolutely anywhere in the world, of course, once and for all answers the question whether Jesus wore sandals with sand grinders attached to their bottom.
(God do I hate large tourist groups. I don’t hate tourists per se; I am one myself after all. I don’t mind small groups either. What really ticks me off are large, elephant-like herds of 20-30 tourists that you get to see in Goreme’s Open Air Museum. Ferried along in air-conditioned buses, barely walking any distances at all these slow-moving elephants block your way every which way, half paying attention to what their guide is saying and making it a pain in the ass for independent travellers to see the churches. And the fucking elephants just keep on coming, one after another. They must be spending upwards of hundreds of dollars yet none of them would fork out an extra three dollars worth of tickets for one of the most beautiful churches in the Open Air Museum compound that is ticketed separately. All they want to do is slowly amble with fucking sunblock applied on their pasty bodies when they aren’t spending any serious time in the sun, take a few pictures in front of a hunk of rock for their grandchildren, and not understand one thing about the place. Really, I want to take a scalpel and slice them from scrotum to sternum, every single one of them. Large French tourist groups particularly piss me off. There’s something about their oohs and aahs and mercis that I find really fucking annoying.)
So where was I? The churches, yes. Unfortunately, photography in any form is not allowed in most of the churches since flash photography over ages can actually make the frescoes fade (and you can’t count on elephant herds to remember that – and they didn’t). Many of the frescoes related to Saint George and the legend of him slaying a dragon, which evoked a lot of memories since I studied part of my school life in St. George’s School. In addition to the pictorially detailed frescoes, many of the other ones were plainer, symbolic images pained using ochre colours (see for instance the one above) to disguise overt displays of religion at a time when the inhabitants were being persecuted.
I also spotted what appears to be a squat toilet inside one of the fairy chimneys. (Sorry, I didn’t hire the audio guide again.)
By far the best is the Dark Church. It costs an extra 8 lira to get into, but is totally worth it. The frescoes are in an excellent state of preservation and it’s a tiny church, and for that reason it is ticketed separately to keep tourist numbers low. There were two American women having a stubborn argument with a tour guide that Joseph (son of Jacob) had only one consort, Virgin Mary, and that he had no other wives or children other than Jesus. They were glumly shaking their heads and going on about “what they teach in aahr Bahble”. Ever noticed how conservatively religious people tend to be most misinformed about their beliefs?
In all, it’s a pleasant hour or two scurrying around small hills and looking at pretty well-preserved churches in a unique setting, only if you can grit and bear the large tourist groups. (The independent travellers are fun. There was this couple, where the guy had been a sniper in Israeli forces, and he was absolutely eloquent on the topic of behavioural economics.)
Walking back down from the museum, you see a tree on one of the side roads adorned with blue-coloured discs. These are put there are Turks have a superstition about “the evil eye” and use these to ward of said Evil Eye. You often see these trinkets in souvenir shops.
There’s also a ‘UFO Museum’ about a possible UFO sighting in Goreme that I was really excited about visiting, but it seems that in the off-season it turns into a pottery shop. I had to content myself with clicking pictures of broken alien mannequins guarding the entry of the pottery shop.
I was starving by this point, so I walked down to Goreme town centre (it’s a small town) to this small, unassuming restaurant tucked away in a corner called Firin Express. The gist of a flyer at every table in the restaurant claimed that their kunefe was “ISO 9001 certified” (at least, I think that’s what I think it said; I don’t understand Turkish). I wasn’t disappointed by my choice of dessert.
The highlight of this restaurant, being a pideci, are its pides – ‘Turkish pizzas’ which I can only describe as akin to a thin calzone stuffed with your ‘topping’ of choice and cut into little chunks. I ordered a potato pide stuffed with potatoes, spices, vegetables, and cheese. Truly filling meal, for the equivalent of less than two pounds. This clearly seemed a restaurant of local repute as I saw fancy cars pull in and get pide after pide as takeaway. They also gave me free tea. Hearing one of the little delivery boys hum the tune to Loreen’s Euphoria (the Eurovision 2012 winner, for those don’t follow) as it came on TV says a lot about Turkey’s European ambitions. Or perhaps the kid just liked the tune.
One place that I failed to find despite multiple efforts is Flintstones Cave Cafe & Bar. It’s listed in Lonely Planet as an absolute Goreme insitution. My desire in visiting these stemmed from two things that I really wanted to find out. First, whether they served a cocktail / mocktail / any drink named Yabba Dabba Doo. Second, whether its dessert menu had an Upside-Down Flint-Rubble Double-Bubble Cake. Goreme is a small town with all shops in one single road, and yet I simply couldn’t find it in the place where Lonely Planet claimed it was. I did find something called Flintstone’s Workshop, closed at the moment, further away. It’s perplexing because every other establishment listed as right next to it are there where they are supposed to be…but NOT Flintstones. I don’t know what’s up with that, and I was disappointed.
I finished reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent travelogue at Meeting Point Cafe & Bar, run by a friendly Turkish-South African couple. (I highly recommend reading the book, by the way: it’s about Bryson’s search for the quintessential American ‘small town’ and is funny a way only British writers can be.) I spent the rest of my time mooching off the free wi-fi in the café finishing up this blog entry, and then hung around lazily at Red Red Wine House – another café/bar where Carlos Santana once visited. Right above which is Mydonoze Cafe, that has a cozy decor and stacks of vintage LP records. Between the last two places, my last hours in Cappadocia were spent to a relaxing mix of rock and jazz.