When Annie tells me she’ll be in Athens for a meeting, I hurriedly ask her if she could make a one-hour jaunt to Istanbul and join me for a quick trip to Cappadocia. And since everything shuts down in the Philippines during lent, she immediately agrees, saying she wouldn’t have to work till the week after. So we meet up at Istanbul’s Ataturk, hang out for a couple of days and then take a flight to the Anatolian side of Turkey, where Cappadocia, this land of fairy chimneys and cave dwellings, lays steeped in history and utter disbelief.
My first encounter of the word was during a spelling bee in elementary school. I lost because I spelled it like this: Cappadocha. I almost fall off my seat when the flight attendant says, The time is 9:35 AM, weather outside is a sunny but chilly six degrees Celsius. Welcome to Kapadokya.
Immediately, this parallel universe plays in my head beginning with how my teacher pronounces the word correctly, how I spell it correctly, how I win the spelling bee, and how I daisy-chain one victory after another, including a humbling stint at Peace Corps, and how I become an unchallenged senator. But things don’t exactly turn out the way we want them, so I am just thankful I am shivering in my light and affordable Scandinavian sweater, waiting for the airport shuttle to leave, while the snow covered Mt. Erciyes looms in the distance. As the van jumps to a start, Annie hands me a Valda pastille, and points out that Kayseri Airport was originally spelled Caesaria Airport. So Kaiser is Caesar. What other things have I to learn then as our little van zooms past pistachio colored hills and untended sheep towards Cappadocia?
For starters, I wasn’t aware that this area of Central Anatolia is actually a diverse geographical moonscape peppered with a handful of towns with equally extra-planetary settlement-sounding names as Göreme, Kaymakli, Nevşihir and Uçhisar. My previous visual of Cappadocia was merely the tourist tip of the iceberg—the space-deprived brochure photo. As our little van weaves around rock formations and crumbling ochre towers, I realize Cappadocia is a geological and archeological paradise earthbound creatures fail to capture in posters and atlases. Each home protruding from the raked face of a hill, each cave decorated with shutters and a satellite dish, each sinewy rock tower about to crash to the ground, each dusty church-turned-mosque begins to tell a story my guidebook intelligence can barely wrap its head around.
Our van drops us off at a street corner in Göreme as abruptly as I regain normal cadence from the dreamy bliss I willingly allowed myself in. We walk about a hundred feet up a sloping, cobblestoned road and reach our digs for the next few days—a respectable three-man operation led by the portly Yasin. Finally, I can tell those who care to listen that I have slept in a cave (I shall leave out the hotel that appropriately comes after this for obvious bragging rights). He tells Annie and I we are his first Filipino guests. For around 70 Turkish Liras or 1,500.00 Pesos ($35.00) a night, I am surprised no Filipinos have bedded down here before. Then I theorize, if accommodations are cheap, a typical Filipino traveler would probably splurge a little and stay in the posher hotels in Uçhisar. Annie and I are neither typical nor posh and haven’t really come a long way economically from staying in two dollar hostels in Calcutta ten years ago. So yes, cave hotels are a huge improvement.
We walk around Göreme for a couple of hours, squealing at every random fairy chimney we see every couple of street corners. Some of them are inhabited, some shuttered down, some falling apart. As these rock formations climb up the mountains, they would give way to cave dwellings—a rather unformed huddle of fairy chimneys missing a couple of centuries of erosion. Varying degrees of occupancy are visible on the facades. Some dwellings would have an extended balcony where a humble line of day clothes awaits the sun’s pittance, and others would have perfectly fitted double glazed, tinted windows to protect their resort guests from the elements, and still others half crumbled and shuttered by a wood beam or two, unable to resist its rightful destiny towards earth.
At a pop-up street market, Annie buys a bag of sun-dried apricots for ten Liras a kilo, then we grab lunch near the bus station where our waiter cracks open a clay pot with a ladle, revealing a copious stew of lamb strips, onions, and tomatoes. Testi Kebap is typical in these parts. A meat of your choice and some vegetables are slow cooked inside a clay pot (also quite popular here) whose tip is covered in dough, which in turn cooks from the steam. With slight fanfare, the waiter breaks the neck of the pot and proceeds to ask us if our hummus were good. We nod in reply but not before he catches us staring at two stuffed coyotes on top of an unused oven staring at us.
We try to guess its cultural significance but could not come up with any. With the number of empires which marked Cappadocia its property, it’s not hard to see why. Owing to a hospitable and servile nature, Cappadocians had been under Hittite, Persian, Armenian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish rule, not to mention every conqueror in between. Hence, the explosion of cultural diversity evident even in the most minute details as the Greek Nazar or evil eye and the Persian patterns of Turkish rugs.
Having a couple more hours to spare before sunset, Annie and I decide to walk towards the Göreme Outdoor Museum. Our directions, though utilitarian as street signs are non-existent in this village, confound us and we walk several miles away from the village and into an unmarked clearing that enjoyed rock formations as its backdrop. We get off the road, into knee-length grass and wildflowers and walk into a couple of cherry trees, rife with misplaced blossoms. We hear a group of people ride their all-terrain buggies up and down some manageable slopes while we take photos of an obviously occupied cliff house with wintered out grape bushes. I insist on walking further uphill, so we climb some more until we hit a cliff with breathtaking views of the Rose Canyon, which, as my map says, is the exact opposite direction of the outdoor museum. The sun begins to set, flattering the canyon in unbelievable shades of pink and red and russet, and though we have lost our way, it is nice to be found in this fiery glow.
After a few ubiquitous jump shots, we decide it is time to head back. Out of curiosity, I suggest we head off in the direction of the village, but away from the road. Of course, we find out that this is a bad idea, as we seem to stop at one treacherous cliff after another. At one point, Annie is stuck on top of an extremely steep incline. I coach her to run down in tiny mincing steps in which, after obtaining a Masters Degree in Peking Opera, she is able to negotiate quite effortlessly. So, instead of a remarkable impromptu adventure, we find ourselves pulling our legs out of freshly tilled farmland. Annie shouts, Now I know how carabaos feel like, from up ahead.
Back at the hotel, we ask Yasin to help us get seats on one of the hot air balloons that every other visitor to Cappadocia is inclined to take. He tells us the chances are slim as the past couple of days have had strong winds and by the looks of it, tomorrow’s isn’t any better. We ask him to put us on the list nonetheless.
We get back to our cave room in defeat. The room feels like a hollowed out boulder with a dent above the bed headrests large enough for some throw pillows and cushions. What a weird sitting area, Annie declares. Our room is freezing and while we crank the radiators to full, there seems to be no heat coming from it. So we turn on the electric water jug and pour each other some Elma çai. We decide to just relax and go to a hammam tonight, which of course, never happens as three cups of apple tea later, we are snoring. In a cave.
There are several tour operators that organize convenient trips around the valley, but since we want to save a little and we can afford to lose a little bit of time, we strike out on our own. Buses run from one village to another every thirty minutes with almost German efficiency. This is what Annie and I take the next day to get to Nevşihir where one can transfer to several other villages around the area. Fares range from one to three Liras (Php 20.00 to Php 60.00 or $0.30 to $0.90) each way which is a far cry from the 120-Lira organized tours.
We get to Kaymakli to check out the 8th century BC underground city, famed for its varying roles of sheltering persecuted peoples as one empire took over another. Originally cave dwellings carved out of volcanic rock by the Phyrgians, the Kaymakli Underground City was then expanded through interconnecting caverns and dwellings by Christians who were exiled by Muslim Arabs during the Byzantine period. The desperate feeling palpable in eight storeys of underground tunnels sired ingenious architectural touches such as ventilation shafts, invader traps, and pocket churches. The underground city continued to be a safe hideout for its inhabitants through the centuries against the invasions of Mongols and Ottomans as late as the early 1900’s. The anthill cross-section passages require any normal sized adult to bend or crouch to get from one cavern to another. On some, I believe the tunnels could not have been more than three and a half feet high. What interests me the most is the grape stomping area where different levels are carved on the floor to drain juice straight into wine vats. If I had lived in Kaymakli during its heydays, I would have been found in this room. Annie replies that if she had lived in Kaymakli during the same time, she would have been found in the food storage areas.
We leave Kaymakli and head out. Our eyes hurt a little from the shock of the sun, like babies coming out of wombs the first and last time. We hurry to a café to grab another apple tea and are charmed by the elderly gentlemen occupying every chair in the building, smoking away, twisting their beards as they play backgammon with the astuteness and resolve of Dr. Jekyll. When we leave, they raise their hands goodbye without parting sight of their respective gaming tables.
We take another bus to Uçhisar so we could see the fascinating Uçhisar Castle and the unparalleled views of the surrounding Pigeon Valley and the Göreme area. We walk around its base first, and explore the abandoned dwellings, some as big as studio apartments, others just a nook. We walk up to its peak about 200 feet from the bottom and take in the painfully romantic hues of the undulating rosy pink valleys and the rigid, cubic, amber houses radiating from the minarets of a local mosque. It is past five PM and the call to prayer emanates from the mosque, adding honey to an already silky dream I can barely consume.
We walk down to the surrounding shops and get some things to bring home and which will probably fail miserably in reminding us how awesome this trip will have been. One shopkeeper we buy rings and ceramic coasters from, serves us several cups of Elma çai, pins an evil eye on our lapels for good luck, and sends us away. Another shop owner takes us down three levels of cave into his workspace, where dust, clay, ceramic and paint cans litter the floor. Annie asks him if the government writes titles to cave properties and how acreage is calculated if space extended into the ground. He doesn’t understand the question but proceeds to give us a historical lesson on how his Ottoman family bought the cave from Armenians, who in turn bought it from Hittites many, many years ago. Then he sells Annie a ceramic bowl.
We walk down to the road where a bus would bring us back to Göreme but again, lose our way in the mazelike overlap of alleys and streets. We make a short cut and jump through someone’s yard, someone’s cherry farm, and around an abandoned fairy chimney or two. Back in Göreme, we visit a mom and pop restaurant run by an affable character whose two English phrases are, My name Mustafa, and, My wife cook. He has one French phrase, Bon Apetit!, which he uses to tell us to start eating. When we finish eating his heavenly minced lamb stuffed aubergine paired with a chilled Efez Pilsen, we thank and compliment him, to which he answers Bon Apetit! again.
The next day, Yasin tells us that the weather is OK for hot air balloon flying but he could not get seats for us, as the people who had reserved and had been cancelled the previous days now get first dibs on the balloon rides. I’m sure the overpriced balloon rides would be a thrilling experience, but as Cappadocia unfolds to me in bits and pieces, I find seeing all of it from above less and less compelling.
We finally find the right direction to the Göreme Open Air Museum—a complex of dwellings and churches carved into caves and fairy chimneys. It is massive and full of well-preserved frescoes and friezes, if a little touristy. Nearby, the Tokali Church boasts the most complete wall paintings detailing the story of Christ in the area. Its cruciform, apses and domes are a huge accomplishment considering they were all hewn from solid rock.We sneak out just before a horde of tourists arrive in a white tour bus, and start walking the mile back to the village. An ice cream vendor, in a Kahramanmaraş vest, invites us for a scoop of ice cream. We indulge him and are surprised to see a marked difference from the ice cream we are used to eating. This doesn’t melt easily, doesn’t dribble, is chewy and is quite smooth and rich. Dondurma or Turkish ice cream is distinct in that it uses salep, a thickening ingredient found in local orchids and a resin called mastic. Its popularity has caused the dwindling of the orchid species and is now banned from export to other countries.
When we get to our cave-hotel, we realize it’s almost time to leave. We haul our backpacks into the airport shuttle that promptly parked at our doorstep. I give Yasin a hug and promise him we will not be the last Filipino guests at his hotel.
I cannot for the life of me imagine how poorly informed I was of Cappadocia, and I have barely scratched the surface. Of course I knew about the fairy chimneys, but I only knew as much as a guidebook and Wikipedia can tell me. They could not have possibly afforded me the feeling of hair standing on end as dusk claims these paintbrush columns while the ululation of a distant Muezzin bounces from canyon to chimney to cave to oven, where a hefty housewife cooks the food that will remind her husband how much he loves her.
In another parallel universe, I am orating the benefits and pitfalls of a common ASEAN currency because I knew how things are spelled. But I am not in that universe and I couldn’t have been happier my elementary teacher mispronounced Cappadocia.
All photos ©M. Sanchez and M. A. Luis