The landscape is stunning; the remanents of a half-known history intriguing; the current towns overpriced and unappealing.
After a very busy week in Ankara E decided we would spend two days in Cappadocia (Kapadokya) for my birthday – and for some R&R. We stayed in the town of Göreme, the epicenter of Cappadocia tourism. My reviews of the two – mixed.
We chose Goreme because that’s where our hotel happened to be located, and we chose our hotel (Goreme Konak Hotel and Cave Suites) because it was the only hotel I could find with rooms in an actual cave *and* a jacuzzi/bath in the room (most Turkish hotels and homes have showers) for under $100 a night. I wouldn’t choose Goreme again.
The wider Cappadocia region is located some four hours away from Ankara. One hour after Ankara city center we enter farmland – endless sweeping plains. It’s like driving out of Chicago and into Montana. A few small towns dotting the ever-rolling golden hills and dry grasslands; a farmhouse here and there; a cluster of the squat apartment buildings so common across Turkey, one mosque and a strip of shops, a gas station whipped by wind.
Two hours out we came across Turkey’s great salt lake (Tuzgölü). Clever locals had carved out a parking lot and small boardwalk with free entrance advertised on the highway. As travelers walk towards the lake two enthusiastic youth with official-looking uniforms stop them, rub their hands with a salt scrub, and tell them to rinse their hands inside the open-facade shop right behind them, thus catching scores of curious customers. The lake itself is dry this time of year, pink salt lapping its shore. We walked out a hundred or more meters, and we’re still standing on a layer of salt over a centimeter thick. Then another hundred miles of Montana with mosques and we were in the great region of historical Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is a mix of geological wonders – part of the first Star Wars was filmed here – and crumbling ruins from ancient civilizations, both Christian and pre-Christian. It’s not one place, but a collection of rock formations and strings of ancient communities carved into the stone, Roman-era Christian hideouts, and underground cities. Certain parts are more famous than others, but even the dull middle-of-nowhere religious regional seat of Nevşehir has stunning cave dwelling complexes mixed with contemporary homes in the northern corner of the city. Tours seem to all hit the same twenty small sites; other places are all but abandoned. From Nevsehir we turned off the Ankara-Adana road to Uçhısar, a mid-sized town that lives half off agriculture, half off the tourism that blankets one hill. We didn’t stop in Uchisar, but if you want more of a Turkish experience while visiting Cappadocia, it seems a better option – cave dwelling castle and church ruins on one side (not to mention a panoramic view of the entire valley with its strange rock formations) – old houses and horse-drawn pumpkin carts on the other. Local people and local life not involved in the tourism industry has all but disappeared from Goreme, located just down the winding hill.
Goreme was once a town half built into the hills, stone and wood houses mixed with older dwellings carved straight into the soft stone. Locals now prefer to live in more modern houses, and all the cave dwellings have been converted into hotels. The rest of the town is covered in overpriced cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops selling local-style ceramics, Turkish-styled hippy clothing. Breakfast paltry by Turkish terms was included with our room, but we are out three times: the first testi (pottery) kebab at Sirin Cafe, pretty good but overpriced considering the wilted salad; the second tantuni and juicy chicken kebabs at the upstairs Hasan Usta decorated with tinsel no doubt from a Christmas eons past; the third at Saray Local Food grossly overpriced and a shame to Turkish cuisine. I didn’t see any place that looked too promising; our only good meals were at simple joints with locally-priced menus a few kilometers outside of Goreme proper.
Everywhere we went people spoke to us in English. Not because E looks particularly foreign (even I’m often mistaken for Turkish before I open my mouth to say more than “please” or “thanks”), but because so many of the visitors are foreign, far more than on any place along the coast except maybe the Kusadasi old town right after a cruise ship disembowels itself. Stopping by Fat Boy’s cafe for a cup of overpriced tea our first night, it seems like Cappadocia attracts a true mix of foreign visitors. There were the young world wanderer types, those who often collect ‘exotic’ experiences only to trade them like currency down the road; older Europeans and Americans, often here for the cultural relics, often staying in upper-end hotels; and there were hordes and hordes of young Asian tourists, some Korean and Japanese, but most of them English-Speaking Chinese, young professionals or students with cameras that cost more than most Chinese spend on yearly rent and pockets full of their parents cash. We saw one troupe of middle-aged men from Beijing with enough high-quality camera equipment and high-tech trekking gear to fit an entire National Geographic crew for a three month Safari assignment. It took me five minutes to convince E that they were from an exceedingly rich sliver of Chinese society and not representative of the country’s population as a whole. In China it’s only those who have surpassed comfortably middle-class living standards who have started to popularize urban biking, camping, and any kind of ‘roughing it’ (a bit akin to Berkeley hipsters paying $200 for assugly boots that look like they’ve been dragged from Great Aunt Silvia’s attic) And in recent years re-tracing the Silk Route – which generally ends in Turkey – has become a favorite route.
However, as I mentioned before, only a fraction of the sites attract any real number of tourists. The attractions, both cultural and geographical, are spread over an enormous area – most of which claims no paid entrance. We spent half of one morning hiking through the Rose Valley, peeking our heads in half-collapsed caves and marveling at the ribbed stone ceilings of an old monastery, wondering how these strange rock formations were formed. After a delicious lunch of peppers & egg scramble and gözleme at a nearby cafe we wandered on up the road, stopped at a preserved cave church with a magnificent painted ceiling, for which we paid $4 to see. Most of Cappadocia is free to wander. There are the “open air museums” at Goreme and Zelve, but the only difference seems to be that the artifacts there are more concentrated. Even a hundred kilometers away there is more to see – underground cave systems, and a whole valley filled with the last remnants of what once must have been a great civilization. Most of the dwellings are half-collapsed, doors high up in walls open to a twenty-foot drop, half a conical wall with windows that now shed light on no room. What exactly Cappadocia was like before is hard to imagine; I suppose in five-hundred years more of the soft stone will wear away and very little will be left to remember it at all.