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The Beautiful Freaks of Cappadocia

Turkey 28 – 30/07

About half-morning on the fourth day since we had climbed aboard, the ship was not alone anymore. The sea appeared to be as changeless as always, but in the early haze of sun, a couple of ships – of which not a glimpse had been given before – littered the horizon. At last! We were waiting for something big to happen today, but again, nothing did. Our guilty indulgence was nursing the postpartum of leaving Africa behind and planing how to come back. We felt cheated by the mellowness of the easy life onboard, the seamless transition between two continents. My usual nightly rituals used to include climbing a hill (no need, we have stairs), clearing a bit of bush (the interior designer had taken care of that), hitting the sack around 7 p.m. under the stars (couldn’t, unless we slept on deck). Sailing just wasn’t jazzy enough to keep us interested. And frankly, it was taking a LONG. DAMN. TIME. After marinating on the sea since forever, we had marmalade for brains, flabby muscles and cloudy eyes.

Only at noon the horizon cracked open and Asia gleamed in the form of Mersin. Truckers maneuvered, sweat flowed, hours passed, and us and bike were out of the ship gut and on Turkish soil. Not the bit we had planned, but as least this side the border was really easy. Turkey is striving for some reason to join the EU, so formalities were a breeze. There was no talk of bogus customs clearance, even if we had arrived in a port. No costs, not even a visa, and of course that minutes into the process we were sipping on free turkish tea. The only downside was the abominable price for petrol: 2 bloody euros per liter! Frankly, I don’t know how these people cope. Maybe the world renewed turkish cuisine helps.

What we have here is a southern special: spicy sausage on charcoal. The ‘chef’ carried a spring of fresh parsley and mint into the kitchen to chopped us a sumak-sprinkled salad. Of course tea was still on the house, and it did a lot to pop my bubble of scorn for the world we were to adapt back into. As soon as I could, I took my bike off the main tar, to where the Mt. Demirkazık of the Ala Dağlar National Park blocks the sun.

Soon there was not an ounce of steaming memories left, either — it was again just us and the bike. It was a great place to start making peace internally with our feelings for Africa and to strengthen our resolution to nomad back on its less beaten tracks as soon as we could.

Keyword: KaBOOM. I was a spring of energy, and it felt great. Dormant villages, donkey lazying, the smell of mountain grasses. Our day was happening, right there.

Wild camping is rad, because it gives us unrestrained chances to revive our connection to our environment in an intimate way. But what good is a camping spot if it’s on fenced land? Cappadocia, situated in central Anatolia solves this problem, offering access to plenty of unclaimed ‘properties’.

Those stars had seen quieter campers. By this time into our two-man show we had grown quite anxious at the proximity with our departure spot and we had an itinerary to plan. We were not ready to hit that invisible finish line yet, nor were we able to to continue our quest further east. Moneywise, gearwise, GPSwise, we needed a pitstop badly. Traveling like we did had done both good and bad to our longtime relationship. Our living space had shrunk to a moving chair by day, and to a 3 sqm room by night. But that was our mobile home, an essential constant in an ever changing world. Even when things got sketchy, we managed to hold onto our jeu d’esprit, a low-stakes way to keep a hand in the game, while trying to deal with the problem with some charm and a few laughs. Which is more than what could be said for what was going on now. Really, though, there wasn’t much to discuss. Unavoidably, we were going to Romania to sort our shit out for a while. Coming to Cappadocia to get lost among its surreal fairy chimney and pink canyons was just being in denial.

Luckily Cappadocia delivered. 10 years ago Ana was spending a lot of time in Turkey and this place, she told me many times, was an offroad paradise. It was not my first time in Turkey, but it was in Cappadocia. I was eager to verify that information.

3800 years ago, during the late Bronze Age, the  Hittites started to settle on this land which was to be colonized by Persians and Romans, until becoming a refuge for early Christians in the 4th century. The arrival of Turkish didn’t disturb life in Cappadocia, which grew even more isolated from the rest of the region. The relief played its part. Vaguely delimited by the upper Euphrates to the east and by the Taurus Mountains to the south, historical Cappadocia consists of a high plateau over 1000 m in altitude. Volcanic peaks, one of which reaching almost 4000 m, piercing through a semi-arid, landlocked territory. There’s nothing quite like it on Earth.

10 million years ago this was an inferno of bubbling volcanos. Temperature differences of the lava layers generated a soft color harmony that speaks nothing of such a violent geological past. The eruptions continued until recent times, further shaping a surreal landscape. It’s a world renowned ballooning destination, and indeed, it must be wonderful to float above such a beautiful place.

We set off from Göreme village, the tourist hub to the region, towards Ürgüp, through the pinkish folds in the Red Valley tuff.

The view required a snack, feet dangling above more beautiful geological freaks.

Where some sort of erosion resistant basalt caps the softer, 100-150 m thick tuff stratum, the Cappadocian land is populated with strange columns. These are hoodoos (also called fairy chimneys), tall, totem pole-shaped spires of rock, shaped over millennia by flood waters and wind, protruding from the bottom of the arid consolidated volcanic ash.

The fragmentary, Dadaist moonscape was proper detox for our Africa postpartum. I was again in my prime environment. So… We took a small path that eventually freewheeled us through a diminutive village hidden in the bush-littered valley. A man on a donkey gave us the ‘what planet are you coming from’ look. No wonder. If a decade ago Cappadocia was a place where the traditional life magically coexisted with the arrival of tourism industry, today that trickle of vacationers has become a flood, and such villages have become almost extinct. Anatolian apricots are still grown in the valleys and gözleme still cooked on hot plates at home, but tourists are rarely aware of all this. Where Ana spoke of dusty gravel now lays an efficient network of tarred roads. Avanos, where she once informally played with clay, has become a proper town and pottery legend, with its own Hilton resort. Of course, we must not fear modernization, and I suppose it is more democratic  to allow more than the regular hippies into the region. But man’s appetite for profit has little if any boundaries, and for Ana it was difficult to look in vain for traces of lost Cappadocia. These are photos from the Love Valley taken by Ana more than ten years ago.

The landscape has retained its mesmerizing allure. We thought the absence of punctures in our well worn Heidenau would be reward enough, but somewhere between Avanos and who-knows-where, white sandstone started glowing.

Romanticizing the past, talking and riffing an occasional fully formed joke about the rocky genitalia of mother earth, we had effortlessly rolled into a particularly fantasyland section. Any sense of order and any imagination provoked, and subsequently defeated by the many colors, textures and irregularities of the land. I could have been in a whole other galaxy for all I cared — this landscape was making my Yamaha look good.

Cappadocia doesn’t overbill the ‘you’ll love to ride it’ angle, either – there’s plenty to knock things off any offroad to do list. Like deep sand in a forest of fairy chimneys.

Soon sunset was getting ready to happen and tuff and I were getting serious. I had to get over the touristy layout of the next site, but once I did, the cameo that rock and sand made in a day filled with tarmac and resorts was like having Cyril Despres step out of your closet and asking if you want to borrow his life for a day. I was chuffed.

Troglodytes have carved churches and homes in the soft tuff, and even built underground cities. We waited for the sun to set, while trying to imagine what it must have been like to squat in this unworldly place, and listening to sparrows ending another day in the sky. Soon the authority of the starlit sky over everything below it could no longer be questioned. The earthy boulders, the sand-hugging vegetation, the hoodoos, all frozen in silence.

That evening we stayed in Ibrahim’s guest house. We did not plan to, but it turned out he had been born in that very house, carved in the age old tuff by his grandfather. His mother still lived there as well. Ana mentioned how Cappadocia had changed and that kickstarted a conversation that required more time. Zapping through one of his books, Ibrahim told us his own story of how to cope with the boom of tourism. Of how what is left of older generations has become home prisoner in a land conquered by 5 star resorts and a bit of corruption. We shed a tear for those people we had searched in vain for all day long, for those white-scarfed ladies who used to cook lunches on their kilim-covered platforms, for those donkey riders Ana could vaguely remember. For our own grandfathers, whose pigskin shoes and wooden tools have long burnt into the pits of modern Romania. The photos below are from a government sponsored album and some are more than 30 years old.

A few old bits hanged on the walls of the inner yard: a comb for weaving kilims (traditional Anatolian wool carpets), a spinning wheel, a saddle. Once useful tools, now charming decoration.

Göreme itself hardly resembles a village anymore. There are fancy establishments and cafes everywhere, an information touchscreen and even a bus stop, and streets are lined with vehicles of all description available for rent.

Despite being on the territory of one of the world’s best cuisine, we were fueled by nothing but white cheese, olives and tomatoes, all good, but all bought from the supermarket. The restaurants are no longer for budget travelers, and traditional food is virtually nonexistent. We did find mantı (turkish hand-rolled ravioli), künefe (a honey drenched pastry with a cheese filling) and lentil soup. They tasted nothing like they’re supposed to. But gastronomical and cultural disappointments aside, this place is still undeniably alluring.

One pleasure still afforded by Cappadocia — whether because of public demand or a sensible development policy — is a relative lack of the commercial ethos that consumed so many other places. Of course, as we visited during a heatwave when few people were around, our optimism could be unfounded. If developers stay within the confines of settlements and common sense, the legend will have to adapt, but it will be allowed to go on. With its impossibly beautiful landscape and its constantly changing sameness, Cappadocia is only advertising the love for freedom, to create, and to be, and that in itself is enough for us.