Turkey is unendingly, unmitigatedly surprising; each area having a look of its own distinction. At the beginning of the four hour bus ride from Ankara to the area known as Capadoccia, one hardly sees a steep hill, but rather miles of endless, golden wheat fields. Occasionally there are billboards with beautiful models showing off bare bellies, long manicured fingers pulling on Wrangler jeans. Then come the marsh shores of the great salt lake, Tuz Golu. For miles there is nothing but salty dry white earth. Far on the other side of the lake, one can see small houses and minarets pointing up, like needles into sky.
The landscape begins to change once more and then, around a sharp curve comes a scene that shocks the imagination. Out of nowhere, a land so different, so wild, so old, so rugged; a fantasy land of strange rock formations, fairy chimneys and cave houses, some still inhabited. Imagine if you will a countryside with combinations of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all intermingled.
Our bus stopped at the center of a small town called Goreme and parked next to several other tourist buses. Some tourists were just arriving, others leaving; tourists of every age and economic class, some in jeans and carrying back packs, others wearing pretentious outfits and healthy golden tans. We arrived just as a muezzin was calling afternoon prayers. Several tourists were shouting to their companions, trying to figure out where the loud singing was coming from.
I was traveling with my American wife and my Turkish mother who lives in Ankara. At eighty one and still very active, my mother led the way as if this used to be her little village, asking a young man which way to the Ataman Hotel. To her, everyone is honest and friendly. She enjoys the beauty of the landscape, but more importantly she enjoys the local people she encounters.
For my wife, there is not enough time to soak it all in. My wife, even if she tried to dye her hair darker and put on local clothes to blend in, couldn’t. With her blond hair and Nordic look she announces to the world she is a tourist.
As for me, the locals can not tell. I could pass for tourist or a Turk.
After checking into our suite and enjoying an afternoon cup of cay, we decided to do some exploring. I have not driven a stick shift in over 20 years and knew it would take some time to get used to. With a perplexed look on the rental car owner’s face as I ground some gears, we were off. I managed to navigate the car down a narrow, rutted dirt road in hopes of finding one of the ancient cave churches that dot the landscape.
As we climbed out of the car a local woman approached us with the familiar merhaba, iyi gunlar! I explained to her that we wanted to see the cave church, but my mother did not want to explore with us. The two women were instantly friends, chatting away. The local woman provided my mother with water to wash her hands for her afternoon prayers and served her cay. We left my mother perfectly content to sit and talk with her new friend while my wife and I struggled up a steep slope to the entrance of the cave church.
A young guide offered to show us the caves. From the intense afternoon sun we entered the coolness of the caves, navigating through narrow, dusty passages to find an alter where early Christians prayed. The place began to give me claustrophobia and I felt one of my anxiety attacks coming on, but we continued our exploring. According to our guide, the church was also used for making and storing wine, showing us where the grapes were smashed and large pit where the juice was collected. As we returned to the front of the cave our guide pointed out a large circular stone the early Christians used to roll in front of the entrance to hide themselves from their barbarous enemies. In Turkey there is a saying, “The earth opened and gobbled everyone.” I could see now how the ancient people could disappear, seemly swallowed up, their enemies unable to find them.
Having had enough climbing for one afternoon we returned to our hotel for dinner. My mother excused herself to say her evening prayers while my wife and I relaxed on an outside patio watching the sun set; its last rays washing over the cliffs with a rainbow of colors.
As we dressed the next morning we noticed hot air balloons lifting off from the top of the cliffs across from our hotel, carrying tourists into the air for a view of the entire valley. Our hotel itself was partially carved into the rock, the restaurant a large cave. Our windows opened onto breathtaking scenery, cliffs, caves and strange rock formations.
Having missed breakfast, we walked the short distance back to the center of town to check out the local restaurants. As we read the menu at each restaurant we were good naturedly enticed to come in. At the third restaurant we checked out I heard some American tourists on the balcony above us and thought this might be a good place to eat. On the way up the stairs I tried to hold my mother’s arm. She slapped my hand with irritation, “Ben elden ayaktan dusmedim!” I can take care of myself, she said.
We sat at a corner table with a view out over fairy chimneys and cave houses. While I ordered our meals and drinks, my wife started to take pictures. Our waiter made a comment about saving her film because what we were seeing was nothing compared to what was out there. A few minutes later he brought bottles of local beer for my wife and me, ayran for my mother and a slab of pide bread measuring over one and a half meters long with local cheese and butter. We all looked at each other. Surely the waiter had made a mistake? This was not what I had ordered. I called him back.
“You must be mistaken! We did not order this bread!”The young waiter smiled and said, “It is compliments of the house.” We enjoyed the freshly baked lavash and tried to wrap up the remaining to take with us, but the waiter came back and told us he would give us fresh bread to take with us.
During our lunch I overheard an American tourist asking for directions. I offered to help her and she was relieved that I could translate for her. My wife asked how she was enjoying Turkey and she replied ambivalently, “Oh well, you get what you pay for, I guess.” She explained that her hotel had great views and service. “It’s just…it’s okay,” she remarked.
“Come now, what is the matter? You’re enjoying the great views and service, right?” I asked her.
“Well, it’s the bathrooms,” she finally admitted.
I laughed. “Yes, it can be a bit difficult having to squat every time Mother Nature calls.”
I remember the first time I brought my wife to visit. She had a difficult three days and finally I had to take her to a hotel. I certainly understood how this American tourist felt. I was born and raised in Turkey, but have been away for over thirty five years and find it difficult myself to use the older form of toilet.
One of the most interesting things I noticed on this trip is that there are now more and more of both kinds of toilets in most public places, all kept very clean, all with water jets targeted at that particular spot. I have found it quite soothing, using water jets rather than irritating dry toilet paper. To my surprise my hemorrhoids healed in the first week we were there. However, the Turks use the jets for a different reason. Islam requires one has to be completely washed in order to pray.
After brunch, carrying a large take away bag with fresh pide and cheese to munch on later, we walked back to our hotel to check out and retrieve the rental car. I stopped at the rental car office on the way out of town and asked if there were any guides available. The young man who had rented us the car told us that we would have had to book a guide the day before. Seeing the disappointed look on my face he told me he was born and raised here. Although he was not university educated, he knew every cliff, every cave, all the scenic places around Goreme. I asked him to join us. My wife climbed into the back seat with my mother and Faruk joined me in front.
Faruk took us first to a place not many know about. He called it ‘ghost town.’ My mother declined the climb, telling me that she didn’t want to be a tourist. When I asked her why, she told me she felt sorry for tourists, always hurrying about, trying to see everything, tiring themselves out and never really happy. She was content to sit in the open air restaurant drinking her cay.
We started our climb. Each cave we poked our heads into amazed us, ancient cave churches with faded frescos, mosques, all with carved out walls facing Mecca, space for the imam to stand and pray, cave houses that had been inhabited thousands of years ago. How many civilizations had passed time here? Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans? At the top of this particular climb we had a breathtaking view out over pastoral valleys.
We climbed back down, collected my mother and traveled on to Avanos, located on the banks of the Kizilirmak River, Red River. The red clay from the river banks has been used for centuries to make pottery, still formed by hand, potters using kick wheels. We purchased a beautiful wine container painted by hand with a Hittite pattern and were given papers to certify that the piece was not one of antiquity.
Happy with our purchase, Faruk next took us to the Zelve Valley with an open air museum and canyon filled with fairy chimneys, churches, mosques, cave houses and a large monastery. A central ridge separates the valley into Christian and Moslem sections, with a church and mosque carved back to back out of the same rock.
On to Pigeon Valley, where pigeons were kept for poultry and fertilizer. Faruk told us that farmers still use the pigeon fertilizer and insist that Capadoccian fruits and grapes are most sweet and succulent because of the pigeon droppings.
Our last stop, late in the afternoon, was a little village perched high above a valley filled with more fairy chimneys and cave houses. Faruk knew one of the shop owners and we sat with him and his wife and enjoyed ayran and locally made ice-cream. We took strips of paper napkins and tied them around a wish tree, making our wishes. We said our goodbys to the shop owner and his wife and returned to Goreme to catch our bus back to Ankara.
As I turned in the rental car I handed Faruk seventy lira. How could we possibly thank him for such an unforgettable day? He proudly declined the lira and told me how much he had enjoyed the day as well. I turned and handed the money to his boss who discretely said he would give it to Faruk later. We said our last goodbye with promises of returning. There was so much more here to see. We had only scratched the surface of this magical land of Capadoccia. We knew we would be back.