Sunday, April 26, 2009

kapadokya, day two

Waking up to silence and sunlight is one of the greatest feelings. I believe I may have been the only person in my hotel, as I didn't run into a single guest the entire visit, even at breakfast. While it is a basic accommodation, Kilim Otelli is a quiet 15 room bed and breakfast with plenty of hot water, clean rooms and a wonderful staff of friendly people. There's a minibar with snacks and juices, a TV full of Turkish channels— I hear TV watching is a great way to learn languages— and a simple and tasty complimentary breakfast of cheeses, bread, jams and boiled eggs. Perfect for a girl like me.

Around 9:30, a minibus picked me up for my second tour. The group was a bigger one this time, 12 people in all, lead by the lovely and knowledgeable Miss Şukran. Our first stop was the Red Valley for a four kilometer hike through the most remarkable landscape I have ever seen.

At the start of the hike, a man offered us dried fruits and nuts out of the back of his truck. I have a weakness for mulberries, and downed a fistful of them before he offered me something I have never seen or tasted before. I later learned that iğde, the reddish brown olive-like fruits in my hand below, are called oleaster, and are native to temperate and subtropical Asia.İğde has a papery skin that once removed, reveals a sweet, dry and spongy fruit around a smooth long pit. At first the texture was a bit odd, but after three or so, I was hooked.

I could have spent all day in that valley, the weather was warm and sunny, and I was having such a great time with my tourmates. I really can't describe just how wonderful it was, being right there amongst the rocks, birdwatching, climbing into caves and drinking natural spring water. Speaking of birds— the valley was full of rock doves, more commonly known as pigeons. Pigeons were an important part of Early Christian life in Kapadokya, they not only carried messages to others hiding in the hills, but were also eaten, and their droppings were a valuable fertiliser. Rock faces have thousands of small semicircular alcoves cut into them to house this special bird— you can see some in the image below. Being a fan of the pigeon, seeing these little houses and hearing the gentle cooing of the nesting birds was fantastic.

After the hike we had lunch at a touristy restaurant which had decent food— one of the things that I think needs improvement on these tour packages is the dining. Turkish cuisine is unbelievably good; some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten in the world was in Turkey, and yet the tour agencies have deals with certain restaurants that aren't necessarily representative of the deliciousness of the local cuisine. The food was good, but not what I had expected— lunch on Day Three however, was an entirely different story. That was divine.

We visited Kaymaklı, one of the many underground cities in Kapadokya, which are impressive but not recommended for those who get claustrophobic. All my photos were too dark, since I wasn't allowed to use a flash. Imagine tiny tunnels carved through rock that open into a network of caves. Some caves are bigger than others, some caves are painted chapels and some are blackened kitchens. At one point in time, around 5,000 people lived in Kaymaklı— hard to imagine when you are crawling through the maze of rough tunnels.

My tourmates, who had now become my new friends, and I got to wander around and climb in the ruins of a small Greek village that I believe was called Çavuşin— I can't seem to find it in my notes. The area was once populated by Greeks until the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, which involved around two million people. You can still feel the the sense of "home" in these crumbling structures— nooks are carved into stone for shelves, you can see decorative elements added for aesthetics, platforms for beds and blackened walls where stoves once stood.

Toward the end of the day, we visited a small onyx factory and learned about the local onyx trade. Here, a skilled craftsman is shaping an egg out of a very unassuming chunk of rock. In minutes, a beige opaque block was turned into a shiny, smooth stone of yellow, orange and cream swirls. I got to take the egg home when I correctly answered the gemstone expert's pop question: "Where does the name Kapadokya come from?"

I'll tell you at the end of the tour.

One of the most breathtaking views of the day was of Ortahisar Castle from a lookout point. It was straight out of the storybooks. Modern upon ancient, cement upon volcanic rock, it's truly magical. I stopped in one of the many, many roadside shops to see if there were any more knitted socks that I fancied, and ended up chatting with this lovely lady who showed me how to wrap a headscarf in the regional style. I promised I'd send her a copy of the picture. I'm thinking I'll send along a little drawing too.

Later on that night, two Italians, a Japanese, an Australian and a former San Franciscan ventured into a Turkish bath. Yes, it sounds like the beginning of a joke, and indeed it was an experience that left us with quite a story and many laughs. I think I might save that one for the next entry, as it's quite involved, and Day three will be a shorter post. Until then, I pose this question: do you know where Kapadokya got its name?

Coming next: Day Three.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

kapadokya, day one

On Sunday night I hopped on a bus for the eleven and a half hour ride to the town of Ürgüp in Kapadokya. Kapadokya is in central Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, and is known for its unusual rock formations, colourful valleys and caves. If you find yourself in Istanbul with a couple of days to spare, this trip is an absolute must. It can be done on a budget or in luxury— being a "hungry" artist, I did what I could with the bare minimum and was happily surprised with just how much I got out of so little.

The bus is overnight, which is fantastic if you can sleep the whole way and potentially boring if you can't and want to look out the window. Luckily I was able to get some sleep as the seats were really comfortable and I had the good fortune of having an empty seat next to me on a full bus. The bus attendant was very friendly and offered us coffee, tea, water and a packaged cake throughout the journey. Just after we hit the road, he sprinkled a sweet-smelling cologne into our palms, which was quite refreshing. I really enjoyed the ride.

If you ever take a roadtrip within Turkey, there are a few things you should know. The rest stop and bus stop bathrooms are not what you'd expect to find in the US; first off, make sure you have plenty of change and a packet of tissues in your pockets. I cannot tell you how many times tissue packets have come in handy. A trip to the toilet might cost you between 50 and 75 kuruş and ladies, few bathrooms have a toilet you can sit on. If you've ever peed in the woods, you'll be just fine. The toilet is a like a large porcelain tile on the ground with a hole in it that you squat above and do your thing. There is no toilet paper, just a pitcher and a faucet, so pick up a few tissue packets at the store. It's not my favourite kind of thing, but I'm used to it and don't let it put you off from a roadtrip in this marvellous country.

We rolled in at around 8 am, I checked into the Kilim Otelli to drop off my bag, shower and get ready for my first tour. I decided to book a package of three tours since I was travelling alone and not familiar with the area. There is so much to see in Kapadokya, that I highly recommend joining a tour or two, there are guides for every language that are both friendly and knowledgeable. Our group on Day One was lead by Fatoş and Yunus of Red Valley Tours— we were only a tiny group of four, which was quite fun. We started off in Devrent Valley, which is known for its bizarre rock formations and fairy chimneys.

Fairy chimneys are tall spires of soft volcanic rock called tufa, that are topped with a harder stone like basalt that is less prone to erosion. The result of years upon years of rain, wind and water carving the landscape is quite stunning, you can sit for hours imagining shapes within the rocks. The softness of the tufa made it easy for people to carve caves into the fairy chimneys— Kapadokya is full of homes, churches and even cities carved into the rocks by Early Christians fleeing persecution from the Romans around 300–1200 CE.

The next few photos are from Paşabağları, which has some incredible fairy chimneys and chapel-caves. The weather was perfect, I could run around in a t-shirt and have a dondurma, Turkish ice-cream, which pleased me.

We then visited a carpet weaving centre. It was interesting to learn about the entire process from pulling silk from a cocoon, to dyeing, to weaving. While I enjoyed learning about the carpets and looking at all the gorgeous patterns and colours, I couldn't help but feel as though we were brought there to buy. I rather would have spent the hour or so hiking— if you aren't into shopping on your trip, make sure you ask your travel agent to book you hiking and outdoor tours. My itinerary said nothing about carpet workshops, onyx shops, or spending time watching potters, so I was a little miffed to be inside on such gorgeous days in a geographical wonderland. All the people in the workshops were so nice though, I had great conversations with many of them and I got to play around with clay in the clay workshop in Avanos.

Here, the silkworm cocoons are being soaked in hot water to loosen the silk threads, which are whisked apart and hooked up to a spooling-type of mechanism. Below you can see wool that has been dyed with baskets of the natural sources of the dyes, and all the beautiful patterns woven by the women in the workshop.

The town of Avanos is known for its centuries old ceramic tradition. The Kızılırmak, or Red River, is the longest river in Turkey and is a major source of red clay used by the potters in Kapadokya. I volunteered to attempt throwing a pot on the wheel, and fortunately I don't embarrass easily— I ended up with a very lumpy slumpy thing and clay all over. I had taken a ceramics class back in college and was terrible at it— I once made a very heavy teapot and sugar bowl, one plate and a whole lot of lumps. There were no teapots to be made that day, and one of my tour mates took a picture of me laughing my head off with my "sculpture" spinning on the wheel. Hopefully she'll email it to me so you can see it.

Towards the end of the day, we headed to Göreme to visit the many caves and hidden churches. Beautiful frescoes are still remarkably clear on the walls and ceilings of the carved churches. Some are quite intricate and others are simpler and more geometric. You can still see stains of candle wax dripping down the walls. I like to imagine what it must have been like for the people who painted those frescoes, climbing up rock faces into small candle lit spaces with their tools...

Our final stop was a panoramic view of Uçhisar Fortress, which as you can see, has an entire network of caves cut into its massive structure. There was a tree with wishes tied onto its branches, and with a strip of blue fabric placed in my hand by one of my tourmates, I tied my own wish to a solitary branch.

Kapadokya is also known for fantastic knitted socks, gloves and sweaters.
I have been wanting a pair of these thick, soft socks for years. I am wearing them now as I type this.

Coming next, Day Two.