Travail and Travel: Misadventures in Cappadocia

The sky is darkening gradually as the pale pink sun drifts slowly toward the horizon. The climb is beginning to wear on us and I give her a look of disdain as she stops to rest, even as my own heart is beating a feverish patter. Behind us, the fairy chimneys are beginning to come alight beneath the gathering dusk.

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Years ago, the first people to settle here thought the cone-shaped formations rising from the valley floor were chimneys of little fairy folk who lived there beneath the ground. Over time, the area became inhabited and people began to hollow out and move into the now-vacant structures.

On the hilltop now, we pose for a few pictorial souvenirs, although the looming darkness soon thwarts our attempts to further document the evening.

We are staying in Goreme, the traveling hub of Cappadocia. Best known for its fairy chimneys – great rising cones and shapes of rock – formed by the eruption of Mt. Erciyes. The rock formations were later used by the Byzantine’s to carve out, not only homes, but also churches and even great caves, which housed thousands of people.

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Today, Cappadocia is a tourist hub of Turkey, partly for the rock formations and underground lairs but also because hot-air ballooning has become a huge draw within the area. An gorgeous sight, at sunrise.

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Attila agitatedly kicks the lever repeatedly until the engine comes to life with more of a murmuring purr than an antagonistic roar, but I am satisfied.

I mount the bested beast and cautiously wheel our way out onto the waiting road. The sun is peering out from the overcast skies and the assailing wind that shrieks high and harsh around us is frigid and sends shakes through me.

We crest the first few hills and pass through a market where an old man stands on the side of the road, shouts “Hello! Hello!” with his arms outstretched, and points to his camel, chewing distractedly beside him, and I honk my horn in a two-note salute as we skirr past.

We circle round the town and find ourselves at Pigeon Valley where the countless doors and vestibules carved from the stone lead forward to the great rising citadel to the north that overlooks Uchisar and all of our surroundings and we take some obligatory pictures navigating through the countless huddled tour groups and have a cup of tea, perfectly alone at a cafe next door.

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When the journey resumes we drive into Uchisar and are jostled and bumped down the cobblestoned scraping streets surface with the citadel rising high above and then we are heading down to Derenkuyu and the underground cities there but the wind is a cold and merciless enemy that billows and buffets our forms until our hands are frozen and we have to pull over to rest and breathe deeply and try to regain the elusive warmth that has deserted us.

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When we pass through Kaymakli we know that we are close and at the sign for the underground city we pull in and then park and once more, feel the heat begin to seek us out and offer deep moving apologies for her long absence. We continue on our journey and head through a mini-bazaar, through the hassling shouts and proffering of touts, and then upward into a cave. The cave itself is a dark confine and we wander about with mild feelings of claustrophobia and vertigo, approached repeatedly by “kind” guides who seem very worried about us losing our way within the labyrinthine passages.

One Guide: There is so much information here, you will not know what each area holds until you come with me…look! (pointing at a room with a sign marked ‘food storage’) This is where they used to store food, BUT you will not know this without me. You will only walk around in the dark. Me: No, that’s ok. Thank you though. A few more minutes of this… Guide: So…your final decision is just to walk around here in the dark? Me: Yes, thank you though. Guide: I am turning now and leaving you milling through the vast subterranean complex, confused and unaware. Me: Ok, thanks again.

We crouch and stoop, moving ever forward through the vast maze of caverns and cells. It’s eery and magical here beneath the earth and I find myself wishing we had saved on accommodation and simply brought some sleeping bags down to rest amidst the shifting darkness and listen to the earth move and shift like the breathing of some mighty animal.

These caves have a long history. They were used by Christians to hide from Persians and Arabs wishing to persecute them. While not inhabited year-round, the secular villagers would flee beneath the earth at the first word of trouble and seal the openings with great millstones, securing both the entrances and their survival.

Wandering now amidst the great vaults, I am fascinated by the thought of living down here before the age of electricity and I try to picture these caves swarming with people, lit only by the dim glow of candles, perhaps the hushed frantic whispers of fear when a garrison of footsteps might sound above, echoing down the long halls and chasms like a great thundering earthquake.

When we emerge once more into the daylight, the noonday sun beats unrelenting against our dilated pupils and the natural lighting feels like an interrogating spotlight demanding our deepest secrets.

We flit about between the market stalls and shops waiting outside the cave. Small boys with eunuch-esque voices invite us inside to shop, beckoning with “please” and “sir” and “madam”. We stop to look at some pillow cases and the shopkeeper comes over, watching us appraisingly and we, in turn, appraise his fabrics. Shopkeeper (after awhile): Twenty-five lira! More inside! Come, come!

We follow him with trepidation into his waiting showcase. We haggle then and hustle and take a walk, discussing strategy. When we return we are ready. We resume shuffling through his wares, the same as before. She strikes first: “How much for four?” His eyes widen only momentarily and he quickly recovers. “Four…uh…each is twenty-five so maybe…uh…ninety turkish lira.”“What about seventy?” The counter is offered and once more he staggers. “No seventy…but, eighty, I think OK.”I turn to face her, careful to conceal the triumph rocketing across my eyes.“Eighty…” I sense his nervous palpitations as the seconds scrape by. “75 and it’s a deal,” she strikes back within seconds. “75?” He pauses, then sighs, Ok.

She’s already rifling through his linens. Tearing apart the carefully constructed pillars of fine fabrics, in search of colors that coordinate and patterns that mesh. The shop-owner and I can only stand back and witness the carnage-filled chaos that ensues, looking at each other occasionally, as though to acknowledge that we both see the enveloping madness occurring before us. Finally, she’s selected the tapestries, they’re all different shades, but somehow fit together.

The castle steps are hewn from slabs of stone and the khaleesi rises up, sheer and intimidating. Atop the tower, a Turkish flag flies proudly, swaying hard with the wind over the wide town. Below us, the orange roofs and brick pathways intertwine and intersect, swerving away into infinity.

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“I’m going to push you off this tower.” I say to her, and I turn, preparing to witness a look of terror in response to my threat, but she stares back at me, unimpressed and unafraid; A warrior princess. “Sure you are.” She says to me, turning away but letting her eyes linger on mine for a second longer, either to let me know that I don’t scare her or because she fears me making good on my threat. “Hey wait! Come back here!” I say, giving chase and nearly falling down a set of stairs, an awful portent of things to come.

The ground is rushing up at me. Sudden. Wild and ferocious like a rabid dog’s jaws. I am half aware of the bike, no longer under me, skidding to a stop and toppling over as I plummet at the gravel.

My palms scrape along the rocks and I feel them burn when I struggle to rise. The bike is still idling, lying on its right side. I pick it up and avoid eye contact with the only other man in the parking lot. She was behind me on the road and reached my parked location a few moments later, as I am nonchalantly taking photographs and trying to ignore the post-traumatic shaking that grips my torso. As we turned to mount our bikes once more, I turned and looked at her:

“I fell off my bike before you got here.” “What?!” She says, but I am already way ahead of her, down the road, avoiding the scorn and concern in her eyes.

It happens again a few moments later as we turn onto our street, only this time it is cement that I fall onto, and she sees me this time. I look first at her and smile a devil-may-care grin, turning away before it is distorted into a grimace. Next, I look down at my hands. Both are skinned now and are bleeding softly, like a child sobbing quietly in a corner, thinking that if you don’t hear him you won’t know how hurt he actually is.

I realize that I’m still in the street, as a car appears, waving at me… the man’s face a concerned question. I raise my hand to show I’m okay, but realize it probably looks like I’m showing off my injuries. The driver, afraid and watching my potentially leprous hands, drives past fitfully. I stare down at the scooter, cursing it angrily, but afraid to lash out at it, not wanting to damage it further.

She appears at my side, “let’s take these damn things back,” I mutter. I’ve bruised my hip too, I realize as I fearfully climb back on this death trap, apprehension rotting an ulcer in my gut.

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