Paula Swenson

An Anatolian Adventure

In Travel on March 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Time traveling in Turkey — heading to Cappadocia, (Kapadokya in Turkish).  For the geographically challenged, this region of Turkey sits in the middle of the country, in central Anatolia.  It is the land of ‘fairy chimneys’ – extraordinary rock formations created by natural erosion of a soft rock formed from volcanic ash (called tuff) capped by a layer of harder volcanic rock.  Wind, rain, and expansion and contraction caused by temperature extremes have worked together to create an otherworldly landscape.  It’s very hard to describe adequately, but is a truly unique destination.

We started our trip with a bus journey to Ankara, Turkey’s very modern capital city. For travelers like us, who crave the old and unusual, Ankara doesn’t hold a lot of attraction, but it is about halfway between our starting point of Bursa and Kapadokya, so we made it our stopping point, finding the prospect of a 12 hour bus trip less than attractive.

We set out from Bursa mid-morning on the very day the Queen of England was slated to visit Bursa . . . we were fortunate to be headed the opposite direction, as the traffic approaching the city was at a dead standstill, waiting for Elizabeth II’s motorcade to enter the city. From the windows of the bus we saw some interesting mosques set in scenery that reminded us of the American west.

Upon our arrive, we checked into a mid-range hotel that was conveniently located to the metro and downtown amenities and set out to explore the oldest part of Ankara, the ‘citadel’ – ramparts and fortifications atop Ankara’s highest point, abutted and surrounded by a literal village of Ottoman era houses in varying states of decay and decrepitude.

The swarthy inhabitants appeared to be Kurds and gypsies, in both look and lifestyle very far removed from the urban Ankarans below the foot of their hill. We saw a group of women in traditional wide Turkish trousers and colorful cotton head wraps with hand-crocheted lace edging who were sorting sheep’s fleece by color on several sheets spread out on the stony ground.  They declined to be photographed, but were happy to try to talk with us in a combination of Turkish and sign language, and soon we were surrounded by women who had ducked into their homes and returned with baskets of evil-eye trinkets and crocheted items.  I did break down and buy a trinket and a small crocheted item, fortunately I hadn’t much cash on me (or perhaps unfortunately, the crochet work was stunning).

Life carries on in this neighborhood at a slower village pace and it seemed like stepping into a different pocket of time, a sort of Turkish Brigadoon, without the ‘romanticized’ filter.  It was certainly a different era on that hilltop from what could be seen and faintly heard below.  The loudest sounds here were not traffic and sirens, but the twittering of small birds and the musical laughter of the women as they talked over their handwork, the sounds of the city below a faint soundtrack in the distance.

When we first visited Turkey 8 years ago, we were overtaken by an impression of a country with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st.  Living in bustling, industrial Bursa, heart of the thriving textile and automotive sectors of Turkey, has little of that feel. We see the occasional horse-drawn car and the simitci (men who sell the ring shaped, sesame-covered bread called simit) still roam the streets, trays stacked high with simit balanced on their heads . . . but mostly it is a city, not unlike cities everywhere.

So now, while crossing the vastness of the central Anatolian plateau, we were reminded of the dichotomies of this place.  Mules are as likely to be employed working the land as small tractors.  We also saw from the bus, on 3 separate occasions, men plowing the fields by hand with small wooden plows that most of us would probably expect to see only in a museum on early agriculture.  The sight was all the more poignant and unfathomable set against the grand scale of the endless fields stretching to the far horizon. You begin to understand why the young people from these far places willingly flock to Bursa, Izmir, Istanbul, etc, and vie for a chance to work in a factory for 350 YTL a month and filling meal every day (about 178 Euro/ $280).

This central Anatolian plateau is the meeting place of the Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates. Being in this geographical boundary area, it has two chains of extinct volcanoes, whose former activity helped shape the unique landscape. Ringed with mountain ranges of varying age and steepness, the landscape is reminiscent of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.  Perhaps this helps explain the enduring popularity of BONANZA (?!), the first American TV program ever shown in Turkey.

The next day we traveled through more of this landscape to reach Nevsehir (New City) the capital of the Kapadokya region.  We stayed there one night, and then moved on to the smaller town of Urgup, where we stayed in a hotel that had once been the guest quarters of a Greek Orthodox Monastery.  This area is famous for it’s magical looking rock formations, but also for the vast underground cities created in the 6th to 9th centuries housing as many as 20,000 people.  The same phenomenon that creates the ‘fairy chimneys’ allowed inhabitant to carve out homes and, indeed, whole cities inside the soft volcanic ‘tuff’.  Many of these towns were created in the 2nd Century AD, by early Christians escaping the persecution of the Roman Empire.  From the 9th Century onwards, the area attracted more and more Christians, and a vast number of churches and monasteries were carved into the hillsides of places such as the Goreme Valley (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site).

We visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, and it was fascinating . . . but the pinnacle of our trip was, far and away, the Hot-Air Balloon excursion over the area.  Words cannot possibly describe this experience, even the photos (which are magnificent) cannot really express the feeling of floating soundlessly over this fantasy landscape, the dawn sky filled with brightly-colored balloons like a jolly sort of alien invasion. Suffice to say, we would have got up before dawn to do it again the next day had it been possible.  It rates as one of the most amazing experiences of my life to date.

Back on the ground, we were incredibly fortunate to find a local guide, Hasan, who took us on a private tour of the sights we most wanted to see for a reasonable rate.  This allowed us to stop and photograph at will, and go at our own pace. The amusing bit was that he spoke to us almost entirely in German.  He understood a lot of English, but was more comfortable speaking German, having been born and raised in Munich! Fortunately we understood his German pretty well, so it worked out just fine.

We had an unexpected personal encounter with the place and its history during our stay in Urgup, an impromptu tour of an area of the town called Kaypakli.  It is one of the carved out mountain bits; on the far side of it, many of the dwellings are still inhabited, but the near side was abandoned for some time.  Recently the city has begun a restoration effort and there is scaffolding and evidence of ongoing archeology and the site is fenced off from the public for now.  We had wandered up to the edges of the fenced area and Steve was shooting photos in the late afternoon light.  There was a man who obviously was both living and working there, who had nodded to us and gone on about his business. A bit later he came out of his cave home (we could see a TV flickering inside) called to his big black dog, who had been keeping an eye on us, and then motioned to us to follow him.  He proceeded to guide us, with dog and flashlight, through the entire restoration site!  He spoke only Turkish, but managed to communicate volumes about he uses of the various areas, and we had an unmatched opportunity to see the whole project “up-close and personal”. At the end we thanked him profusely, and I finally remembered enough Turkish to ask his name. He is called Yasar (yah-sher) and we learned later that he is one of the engineers on the project.  What good fortune for us!

It was a magical trip, full of new and interesting experiences.  If you visit Turkey, we strongly recommend putting Kapadokya at the top of your itinerary!

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© Paula Swenson 2008 – original publication in an e-travel newsletter May 2008.

  1. Love this sort of story… Yasar is the kind of person I’ve come to expect to find when I travel. My secret? I smile and laugh at myself- a lot.

  2. Thanks Anne, I agree a smile and a sense of humor go a long, long way! Appreciate you stopping by 🙂

  3. Kapadokya is a great holiday place. Peri bacalari is very strange acient buildings. If you visit Turkey, you must visit Cappadocia…

    We are looking forward you…

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