Monday, July 9, 2012

Day Nine: The Mysteries of Cappadocia, Unanswered and Beautiful. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day nine of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

In the early morning, the sky of Goreme is filled with the busy twitters of waking birds and the far-off hoots of sleepy owls.  Across the road from our hotel, an old woman eased her way out onto the terrace of her house, where she plucked cucumbers from the green burst of her garden.  A hot air balloon slowly lowered itself through the blue sky.  In an hour, the other tourists would come out of their rooms and sit down for breakfast, but for the moment I was alone, savoring the silence and the view of this strange city, too beautiful for words, too beautiful to even be a real city.

In the East, we felt like we were the last tourists on earth.  Children gawked at us, waiters asked us curiously where we were from and then frowned when we said ‘America’, the English was halting and uneasy.  But Goreme, in the ancient province of Cappadocia, was a tourist Disneyland.  We were helpfully provided with English signs, English-speaking shopkeepers, internet cafes, car rentals, knick-knack shops, and bars presenting authentic all-you-can-drink ‘Turkish Nights’ complete with belly dancing.  

Normal turkish life was absent, or at least hidden.  There were no dolmuses, not small bufes with rotisseries of doner turning in the heat, no cram schools for the kids.  I would like to say that I was disappointed to have everything around me be so safe and so accommodating, but after a week of adventure, it was a small relief to have a place where I felt like I belonged.


Goreme is famous for its fairy chimneys, large protuberances of rock erupting from the earth ten or fifteen stories into the air.  They look like hundreds of giant fingers, reaching up from the gorge of Goreme.  The rock is made of soft volcanic tuff, and over thousands of years people have carved houses and churches and cities into the stone.  Because of this, these bizarre towers of rock are often crowned with windows and pigeon holes, doors and stairs, that make them look alien and wonderful.

We drove towards the city of Urgup, passing by farmland rich with apricot trees, pumpkin and melon patches, grape vines, and wildflowers.  We parked on the side of the road next to Devrent Valley, a forest of fairy chimneys.  The powdery white paths that climbed the side of the valley were dotted with tourists.  They looked like ants scrambling up a pile of sugar.

We followed the tourists.  The fairy chimneys rose around us, strange, curious, like nothing we had ever seen before, like nothing we could explain.  Some were thin, some were thick.  Some looked like mushrooms with fat steps and tiny hats.  Some were stubby cones.  Some looked like perky breasts with tiny nipples, others looked like snaking phalluses.

After lunch we headed on another hike, this time in Pasabagi, a burst of roof-shaped fairy chimneys surrounded by a broad plateau.  A group of older Korean tourists were herded past an old church cut into the rock.  A band of Japanese tourists in fedoras, sports coats, man purses, bluetooth headsets and space shoes looked like they have been dropped in the canyon straight from a better future, gazing about themselves in every possible direction pointing camcorders and cameras.

We ducked into the church, behind the mass of Koreans.  The walls were scored with carvings, blackened with the soot of fires and candles, inlaid with alcoves, fountains, settings, and foot-and-hand holds that lead up to a second floor.  It looked like a Flintstones house.

Then we wandered up the snaking trail, going higher, getting farther away from the tourists, gaining a better view on the amazing landscape, and I tried to describe the things that I was seeing.  But I had no names for them, no way to put into words the odd collection of the pillars of earth except that they were different, picturesque, otherworldly, novel.  How did these things even happen?  I didn’t know.  They were as likely the work of a bored artist, sketching out an alien landscape as they were a product of the geologic forces that accounted for such everyday things as lakes and mountains.

And then all at once I didn’t care to solve the mystery of what created the fairy chimneys.  They were beautiful, and I was silenced by their beauty.

It just felt good to be walking in the kind sun, away from the city, out of the car, going out of earshot of the babble of languages.  After the boredom of yesterday’s ten-hour drive, our hike returned us to the realer world of walking and sweat.

We were silent.  But this was not the grumpy silence that had overcome us before.  We were silent because our lips were dumb to the pleasure of our legs and feet and skin as they walked surely over the uncertain ground.  And so what use did words have?  I didn’t want to understand how the fairy chimneys were formed, or who had carved out those rooms of rocks, or the history of invasion and conquest that scoured the landscape.  I just wanted to walk and look.

We made it to the topmost point and looked out for a moment.  Then we walked gingerly down the loose slope.


We ate dinner at the Top Deck Cafe, a year-old restaurant of stupendous hospitality and warmth—the best dining experience I’ve had in a whole year and a half of living in Turkey.  As we stood outside the restaurant, looking over the simple menu, the owner and chef Mustafa Ciftci swept us into the kitchen, where he showed us all the food that was on offer that day.  There were succulent lamb chops, chicken soup, mezze—Turkish appetizers—and vegetables.  Mustafa’s wife Zaida worked in the kitchen, while the couple’s two daughters provided us with menus and brought us to our seats on the floor along the wall.

The restaurant was a traditional Goreme house, a cave carved into the solid rock.  The eldest daughter, took our orders, and soon our small low-lying table was spread with a beautiful mezze plate of rice-stuffed vine leaves, home-made humous, chicken salad, eggplant, and a half-dozen other dips, spreads and nibbles, which we tucked into hurriedly, hungry from travel and the hike.

Soon our main dishes came.  I got the lamb chops.  The meat was so soft that when I picked up a bone the flesh simply fell off onto the plate.  The couple sitting next to us from New Zealand said it was the best lamb they’d ever had.  And they were from New Zealand, where there are more sheep than people.

As we ate, a conversation bubbled amongst the tables around us.  In the far corner an American man and a Turkish-American woman who were spending three weeks exploring all of turkey.  Next to our cushions were the Kiwis, who were sleepily full.  They were taking a year off everything to go see what they could of the world.  At the table to my left sat an older Dutch couple who were about to brave the wonders of the east.  We swapped stories of traveling Turkey, and jokes, and advice, and the restaurant was noisy with good-natured laughter.  The restaurant had the sort of conviviality you always want when you’re traveling.  Everyone was kind and happy, willing to talk and to chuckle.  And it had all happened so naturally.

When the meal was done the younger daughter brought us tea and the guestbook to sign.  The book was thick with compliments in dozens of languages, sentences upon sentences, pages upon pages.  It was amazing that the place had been open for only a year, and received this much good-will.  I picked up the pen, but for the second time that day my words failed me.  I couldn’t say anything.  The meal had been fantastic, the conversation friendly, the atmosphere open.  But I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t spoil the magic of that dinner by putting it into words.  So I wrote only a sentence, and passed the book on.  We drank our after-dinner teas and prepared to head to bed.

As we left, passing by the kitchen which stood next to the front door, we stopped to pay our compliments to Mustafa and Zaida.  We ended up standing there, chatting to the whole Ciftci family—mother and father and two daughters—until past ten at night.

“This cave is actually where I was born,” Mustafa told us, pointing to the far right corner of the dining room.  “There.”

The Ciftcis treated us like old family friends.  We showed them how to get English books on their iPads but soon ended up playing the Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig) App.  Our conversation fluttered with little tangents and jokes and digressions.  And for a moment it didn’t feel like we were in a restaurant where we had paid for the pleasure of eating, but at our friend’s house, chatting in the sleepy time after dinner.  We left reluctantly, pulled to our beds by tiredness and the promise of another full day.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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