Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cappadocia

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One of the things Lana really wanted to do while in Turkey, was to see the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia and take a hot air balloon ride there.  It was a Bucket List Thing.  And so, after a few days in Istanbul, we took a short flight from Istanbul to Kayceri, which is roughly in the center of Turkey, and then caught a shuttle to Göreme, where we’d be staying.  The drive took us through beautiful countryside, past snow-capped ski resorts.

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We stayed in a hole in the wall.  No really.  The Lalezar Cave Hotel, like many of the hotels and homes in the area, was dug directly into the rock of the valley walls that surround the town.  Even the bed frame was made of stone.  As neat as the idea was, in practice, the room was a little damp and cool.  However, we had a very active itinerary, and would essentially be in our room just to sleep and shower, so it was more than fine; the breakfast buffet was definitely home made, and excellent.

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The next morning, we were awakened at 4:00 AM by morning prayers, broadcast over loudspeaker.  We needed to get up at 4:20 for a sunrise balloon ride anyway, so it wasn’t a problem for us.

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The heat from the torch was intense—you can see it reflected on Lana’s face,  below.  Fortunately, there was a metal heat shield between us and it, which kept us comfortable.  The flame was actually pleasant in the cool morning air.

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Once our balloon was inflated, we climbed into the gondola—it was quite large, there were 23 passengers and one pilot, but we all had our own, nice edge-side view, due to the layout.  After some instructions on the position we’d assume for landing, the pilot fired up the torch again, and we felt a subtle shift of motion, and we were aloft.

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We drifted up over the knife-edged fingers of the eroded valley walls; they were very intricate from directly above.

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The sun and our balloon both rose, and we met over a ridge.  The torch was off by now, and we were coasting on the breeze in complete silence.  It was an amazing feeling; it was definitely one of those magical moments in the trip that we felt lucky to experience.

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Some Bucket List things don't live up to the hype. But I think the smile on Lana's face says it all.

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This is a good example of how large the gondolas were; much larger than the hobbyist balloons we’re used to seeing at home.  As the sun rose further, the winds shifted, and our pilot had to improvise a landing site, while talking to the ground crew by radio about where we’d be.  We all assumed our crash landing positions (a deep squat, with our backs against the wicker partitions of the gondola, facing away from the direction we were approaching the ground).  It was a little bumpy—the gondola drug for a few feet before stopping, but it didn’t feel scary.  We enjoyed some snacks and drinks from a table the crew had set up for us while they packed the balloon up, then got a ride back to our hotel in a minivan.

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After breakfast, we left on our next adventure; a hike through the Ilhara Valley.  We got to know four of the people in our group who had just finished an internship together.  They were from Egypt, Russia, Portugal, and India, and were taking this tour before they parted ways.  They were really fun to talk to.  The hike was also quite pretty.

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This area of Cappadocia is known for early Christian churches carved into the rock hillsides, and we visited one of those in the valley.  After lunch by the river flowing through the valley, our minibus picked us up, and we drove to Castle Monastery Church, a larger church complex carved into a cliff wall.  There was a warren of passages between rooms, winding inside and outside.  We enjoyed exploring it.

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Our final stop was Derinkuya Veralti Şehri, the underground city.  Hittites had started the city around 1000 BC as a way to escape the seasonal flow of armies between Asia and Europe.  Over time, the city dug deeper, and at its peak, could support up to a thousand people, their livestock, and food stores.  Well designed ventilation shafts provided passive circulation of air, and internal wells and latrines allowed the community to stay safe and hidden until the latest army had passed or been defeated, above their heads.  Fortunately, neither of us have problems with small places—you can see that they didn’t waste effort in digging tall passages.  We descended all 7 levels, about 160 feet underground.

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After our tour, we explored the town of Göreme a little more and found a wonderful family restaurant for dinner.  We got back to our room just before 10 and collapsed into our stone bed.

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We headed out—later in the morning this time—for another tour the following day.  Our first stop was at Urgup Castle, which is also a local high point.  We happened on some of the fancy, local pigeons, with have feathers that cover their feet like spats.  Pigeons are an old tradition here, and in many places, we saw extensive dovecotes carved for them into the rock walls.

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Blue glass eyes are also an old tradition, and we saw them hanging in most shops, or even embedded in the walls of homes, to ward off evil.

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We continued on to the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a valley filled with very old Christian churches and some of the first Christian monasteries in the world.  Like most structures here, they are carved into the rock walls.

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We also visited a ghost town, which is the result of a political resettlement of a Greek community that once lived in the area.  Some locals are moving back in, and there were for sale signs everywhere we looked.  We picked out a starter cave.

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Our final stop was at one of the best examples of the ‘fairy chimneys’ we’d been seeing the past few days.  They are composed of a hard rock cap over a layer of softer rock; the cap slows erosion of the column under it.  The softer rock is easy to carve, and many of these formations are partially hollowed out as dwellings or churches.

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We returned to Istanbul for a few days, and took some time to slow down, as well as making much needed travel plans and reservations for Croatia, where we’d be meeting our friends Rob and Sara.  Lana also had to slow down, as she was sick for one of those days.  Our last order of business was to finalize the purchase of our final flight leg from London to Denver, with mixed feelings. We didn't want to go home yet, but we knew we were getting run down with all the traveling, and not enjoying the trip as much as we had, or as much as we should.  We would see some of Europe, and meet up with some great friends, which would carry us through the next 6 weeks. And then we would come home.