Tuesday, October 9, 2007

fairy chimneys full of pigeon poo

You can look at all the pictures you want of Cappadocia, but you really have to go there to truly see how magnificently weird the landscape is.

The geological oddities of Cappadocia occur nowhere else, and driving through it I kind of felt like some character on an old sci-fi flick landing in some distant planet for the first time, and marveling through the atmosphere-proof windows at an alien landscape. And the fairy chimneys are just the beginning. At some point a long time ago, humans with some degree of intelligence decided that they would be good places to live, and civilizations proceeded to create dwellings in the fairy chimneys and cliffs.

I'm not sure if this was before or after other people, with a firm grasp on chisels, hammers, and at least one shovel, excavated extensive, multi-level cities underground. Panic-room style, they were complete with rolling doors to allow the inhabitants to seal off levels from invaders from above. Tunnels twisted and turned every which way, including up and down, and possibly extended kilometers, from one complex to another.

At some point in there, someone figured out that pigeon guano made good fertilizer. Since the cliff caves were good enough for humans, no reason the pigeons couldn't be there as well.

Then Christianity came along, and maybe it was before the pigeon poop revelation, but either way, people needed some place to worship. Caves were home, so they may as well be churches, too.

Especially if someone decorates them with really beautiful frescoes.

Then several hundred years pass before the hospitality industry in the area really takes off, and savvy hotel owners turned many of the original cave dwellings into hotel rooms.

After which a traveler from the west coast of America arrived, took a horse trek, and came within inches of falling off a galloping horse. No pictures, I was holding on for dear life. I think my guide was somewhat impressed that I managed to not take a complete dive. "Bravo." A Turk, he spoke no English, but French, so we could have basic communication, but I guess I missed the explanation of how to stop the galloping horse. The only thing hurt was my pride, which is still hiding under a rock somewhere in central Turkey, refusing to come out.

There's plenty to do in Cappadocia on two feet alone, since most of the little towns in the area are within hiking distance of one another through gorgeous and bizarre scenery. However, if I knew how to rock climb, that would have opened up endless exploring possibilities. The valleys are full of cave and cliff complexes, but some degree of climbing chops is necessary to navigate them safely. Or, some degree of fearlessness combined with stupidity to navigate them dangerously. I didn't have any of the above in the right combination, but I may have mustered enough fearlessness had one of you guys been with me. Breaking ankles with a friend always deadens the pain. I made a cursory attempt at one fairy chimney, but decided pretty quickly that I preferred my spine in one piece, so abandoned the effort.

A local told me that the ground is receding each year, so I don't think the entrances started out quite so high above the ground. Hand and footholds carved into the rock facilitate the climb, but I think you really need gecko toes for some. Also, my arms are pretty worthless when it comes to holding my weight. In elementary school, I dreaded physical fitness tests that involved pull-ups (I can't do any) or the flexed arm hang (I always dropped after about 3.5 seconds). I did go into one complex that required a flashlight, since the interior rooms were completely closed off from the outside and pitch black. The warden showed me around, explaining (in German) that innocuous holes in the ceilings and walls were for air as well as communicating between rooms. Shining a flashlight into an air vent, we saw a little bat tucked up inside. I resisted the urge to reach in and poke its nose; I've been tempting rabies fate enough for weeks, stopping to scratch the ears of hundreds of stray cats and dogs. The cave had several rooms with multiple levels, and proceeding from one room to another required ducking through tunnels at a crouch, and descending through one vertical tunnel. The vertical tunnel was just big enough to allow me and my daybag through, and had footholds cut out of opposing walls. It was as if you had to walk down a pair of ladders, one on the right side and the other on the left.

Cappadocia is a pretty big area, so I decided to cover part of it on horseback. And I really almost did fall off at high speed. Riding a galloping horse is damn difficult, you have no idea unless you've done it. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have told Hassan (my guide) that we could gallop, but I'm all about seizing the opportunity when it presents itself. I'm not sure I had the best horse the stable had to offer (I heard her name as Despina). While I was wrapped around one side of her neck, I did get a few microseconds to wonder if she realized that her rider had been displaced, and if it bothered her at all. Evidently it didn't. She was also skittish of dogs, which I found out within 20 minutes of starting the ride. A bunch of unleashed curs from the surrounding farms had a field day barking their doggy heads off, snapping at heels, and chasing us down the path. Clearly ruffled, Despina stuck with the guide horse for a few moments before taking off down the path. My nonexistent horsewomanship probably didn't help matters. I couldn't keep her at a steady pace. She was either really pokey and falling behind, or on the trot to catch up. Thirty-four kilometers later we were back at the farm a couple hours ahead of schedule, but I was ready to get off. Whole muscle groups I didn't know existed were getting a workout, and my lower back felt like it had been gently pummeled for hours. I was exhausted; a good exhausted, but exhausted nevertheless. It was a totally worthwhile trek, going off the beaten path, crossing freeways, wandering through residential neighborhoods, and seeing neat things. One of the best was The Church of Three Crosses, which I would have never seen had Hassan not pointed it out. Picking our way down a narrow path in a valley, he told me to look up, and through an archway in the rock about 20 feet up I could see big crosses carved into the ceiling of a cave. Three of them are there, each different, and each quite intricate. Access wasn't absolutely vertical, so I was able to scramble up for a closer look and to poke around the separate rooms. I was too tired to dig my camera out and take a picture, but Hassan and I agreed about the church; "Trés jolie."

Still saddlesore the next day, I rode the much more comfortable buses to a couple of the underground cities. Getting to them from Gorëme, the town I stayed in, entails going the modern day city of Nevşehir, the main gateway to Cappadocia. Nevşehir has the bleakest otogar to date. I barely ever saw any passengers there, the entire interior appeared lit by two low-wattage light bulbs, there's no information booth to be found, and indifferent bus agents just stand around ignoring everything. Unless they are trying to sell you something. Pulled off the bus from Pamukkale sometime around 07:00 when first arriving, in order to transfer to another, an agent from the Metro bus company told me he'd make sure I got on the connecting bus, and then proceeded to try and sell me a tour. He seemed rather put out when I turned down the offer. Even the promise of a Jessica Alba look-alike tour guide wouldn't sway me. There's a number of people I wouldn't mind being stuck in a cave with, but Jessica Alba isn't one of them. The agent seemed mystified. Then told me to wait in the lobby. I was only too glad to be relieved of his attentions. Anyway, two of the underground cities can be visited quite quickly, since they are a short dolmuş ride away from one another, Kaymakı and Derinkuyu. Kaymakı is the superior of the two; Derinkuyu has the air of tourist-industry sanitation, cleaned up and tidy. At Kaymakı I had the chance to sneak down some unlit tunnels with the aid of a flashlight; not sure if I was supposed to go there, but no one was around to tell me not to. There wasn't much to see other than dirt, tunnel walls gradually closing in, and an occasional empty room, but then again, there I was in a milennias-old troglodyte cave system. Sometimes it's not What's There that matters, it's just the There that matters. Only the top levels are accessible to tourists, and in some cases the complexes haven't even been completely excavated. They just keep going down and down for levels, and spread outwards. Even livestock was kept underground - on the first level only, so lower tunnels would only have to be made big enough to allow human passage. I tried to take some pictures inside, but it was sort of a futile effort - it was either too dark and I got a blurry shot, or the ultrabright flash took out all the mystery of the place.

Carpet shops are endemic in Turkey, and carpet merchants are constantly trying to get the attention of tourists. Having no interest in purchasing a carpet, I usually ignored them (say hi, keep moving), but in Cappadocia noticed that lots of people were using old woven saddlebags on their motorbikes. Thinking a set would make a nifty souvenir, I made almost every merchant in Gorëme lay out their wares for me. This involved pulling out all the saddlebags they had, laying them on the floor, and then holding them up one by one. If I didn't like one, it would go back in the pile. If I was interested, they kept it out. I didn't find a set I liked well enough to purchase, but did get lots of cups of tea. Walk into a carpet shop, and tea appears. Tourists are usually served apple tea, elma çay, which it so apply it's basically like drinking apple juice. Evidently Turks never drink apple tea themselves. I preferred getting the black tea with sugar cubes. So no saddlebags, but I did make friends with a jocular rug doctor named Fati. He invited me into a shop for tea, and to have some iftar snacks some of the local shopkeeps. It's still Ramadan, and by sunset everyone is ready to eat. Observants do well to make sure they eat something before dawn in order to last until sunset, and to make sure no one sleeps through past sunrise, people walk around town in the middle of the night playing drums, banging gates, and otherwise making noise. I don't think it happens everywhere; I overheard a hosteler saying it's limited to small towns. Gorëme counts as small if nothing else, and through a half-sleep one night I heard the drums. On another night I was awake late enough to hear them start, which was around 02:30. Kind of early, I thought. Hours until sunrise. A Muslim who ran a café I ate at explained that some people get up to eat something, just to go back to sleep again. I know I could do without eating all day, but there's no way I could do the sightseeing I have been without drinking. Informed that Ramadan occurs ten days earlier each successive year, I'm not sure what happens during the hot summer months, especially for those who do manual labor.

During the days I spend in Cappadocia, I spent some hours hiking between the towns scattered around the area. Çavuşin has an entire cliff village, now deserted, looming over the town that's the perfect place to be to see the sun set. Uchisar has a castle, and is otherwise devoted solely to tourists; since it's past high season, the town was utterly deserted the day I visited. Most of the tourists have gone by now, leaving empty streets populated only by the ubiquitous stray cats and dogs, and shopkeeps looking lonely. One of the weirdest museums I've been in to date was in the town of Avanos. Owned by a famous local potter, it has nothing to do with ceramics. It's a hair museum, and displayed in several cave rooms and hallways are snippets of hair from thousands of people, taped to cards with the name of the donor, maybe a photo, phone number, date, and other personal information. Paper, scissors, and tape was provided for anyone wanting to donate. I didn't. There was an air of fetish collecting about it, which may be an unfair assessment, since I didn't actually ask anyone about the motivation behind it. Or maybe just all that hair creeped me out. I used to live in a flat in San Francisco with five other girls, and our shower drain would always get clogged, and I could never deal with clearing it out. I made a deal with a flatmate - she would deal with the drain, I would deal with the occasional cat poo that appeared outside the confines of the litter box. But I could deal with the cat hairballs. They were a lot smaller than the girl hairballs.

Being a foreigner in Turkey can be mentally exhausting. Renowned for their hospitality, many Turks just want to chat with anyone new walking by, and invite you in for at least two cups of tea. There were a few nights where I got back to my room hours after deciding to go there. Tea and conversation. More tea and more conversation. And lots of people want to talk to anyone walking by who looks like they have money to spend, fully intending on separating them from as much lira as possible. Not wanting to be impolite without reason, and because it's not always easy to read intent, I usually stopped to chat for a bit, but after a couple of weeks no longer cared if I committed the cardinal sin of rudeness. I was just too tired of having the same conversations over and over again. And as a lone female I know I attracted way more attention than others from carpet merchants, restaurant touts, and guys on the street wanting to know if I needed any help. No one was dangerous, some were just annoyingly persistent. Checking with some other single women travelers, I confirmed they had similar experiences, and also found that I wasn't quite as pestered when walking around with a guy. If anything, it's the one aspect of Turkey that I found unpleasant; when out and about by myself, I could never quite relax. Some degree of guard always had to be up.

By the way, pointy-toed shoes are in with the Turkish boys. John Fluevog should open a shop here.

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