2005 -- Biking and Exploring Turkey

July 16 -- Nevsehir -- Turkish Hospitality

Our all night bus is a bit of a disaster--uncomfortable seats, no air-conditioning, and it only stops twice in 11 hours for restroom breaks.  But we pick up an extra day to spend in Cappadocia, a high and dry plateau in central Turkey famous for its otherworldly rock formations.  We start cycling from Nevsehir, and only ride an hour before arriving in Uchisar, a small town dominated by a giant rock formation called The Castle, which has been carved out like Swiss cheese to make cave homes, for which the area is famous.

After climbing and explorng The Castle, we meet a little old lady on the street carrying bags of groceries from the market.  She wears the traditional women's clothes of the area, a white scarf wrapped around her head and neck, a billowy, floral blouse, and great baggy floral trousers that are so voluminous they first appear to be a skirt, but allow her to move freely, bending or stooping to work, even in the wind, and still keep her legs completly covered.  She takes one look at us and begins talking and motioning us to follow her. 

At her house she lights a small portable kerosene stove to make tea and prepares a meal of cheese, olives, bread, butter and the best apricot jam I have ever tasted.  All the while she keeps a running dialouge in Turkish, talking so rapidly we don't even get out our dictionary to attempt to decipher, we just use sign language and interpret through her tone and facial expressions as best we can.  She it totally taken with Tass, and claps her hands with glee when they laugh together, often grabbing Tass to give her kisses on the cheek. 

After our meal she gives us a tour of her small stone house.  Upstairs is a big room she wants to show us, her former bedroom.  She motions that she no longer uses it since her husbands death.  She sleeps on the couch in the kitchen.  Tass rocks her arms like she is holding a baby.  Her answer is equally sad.  She shows us one finger, shakes her head and drops her hand across her face, closing her eyes as in death.  Her one child has died.  She raises both hands to the sky in supplication, then drops them to her lap.  Moments later she begins chatting and laughing again, and hugging and kissing Tass.

Back in the kitchen she tells us she is having knee problems and shows us medicine she takes, then gives a long explanation which we are unable to interpret.  We can't decide what to do.  We want to give her money for medicine, and yet we don't want to risk offending her hospitality. At last we decide to offer the money.  We motion it is for medicine, but she will not take it, even after repeated offerings.

We decide there is no reason to ride further.  This is where we want to base to explore the area.  We find a wonderful hotel at the edge of town, and check into a cave room carved from volcanic rock nearly 2,000 years ago, complete with our own private rock-hewn balcony.

July 17--Rock Carved Houses Are Cool

About 10 million years ago volcanic activity covered Cappadocia in central Turkey under a thick layer of calcareous tufa, a soft conglomerate of rock which through erosion shaped into a bizarre landscape of unusual sculptures and cone shaperd fairy chimneys.  Thousands of years ago the Hittite people realised the soft rock was also perfect for carving out cave shelters.  Before long they were carving houses and then entire cities in the rock.

During the 1st and 2nd century AD, Christians, hoping to hang low and avoid persecution by the Romans, moved into the area and carved out even more elaborate multi-room dwellings.  Our cave hotel is in an area honey-combed with ancient homes, which have been refurbished in the last few decades with glass windows, carpets, electricity and modern bathrooms.  Our cave room even has a TV, a fridge, and of course, all natural air conditioning from the rock.  The Flintstones never had it so good.

We spend the day hiking and singletrack biking through the surrounding valleys, photographing the amazing formations and exploring abandoned cave houses.  We even visit a vineyard to do a little wine tasting.  Although the people living here are Muslims, who usually frown on alcohol, the area has a tradition of wine making dating back to the early Christians, who used wine for sacraments and general drinking.  That tradition continued until the Greeks left in the 1920 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.  Since then a smaller group of Muslims have kept the tradition alive.  When we asked the Muslim vineyard owner if he drank wine he replied "Of Course.  It is healthy!"

July 18--Rest Day ala Flintstones

Our hotel room is so COOL we decide to take a rest day to hang out and enjoy it.  We have a leisurely traditional Turkish breakfast--a basket of fresh baked bread, thick slabs of feta cheese, giant tomato wedges, sliced cucumbers, black olives, butter, pink colored rose honey, and coffee that comes in an old silver pot on an ornately carved flame burner set in the middle of the table.  We eat in a cave dining room with a great view of hundreds of cave houses, many abandoned but some still in use, then hang out on our private sculpted rock balcony reading and writing until mid-afternoon. 

We take a short bus ride to visit a huge carpet weaving co-op, watch the women dying wool with all natural dyes, spinning silk, and weaving on looms of all sizes.  Then it is back to our hotel balcony to relax, have Cappadocia wine for happy hour, eat a romantic gourmet supper which is served on our own balcony while we watch a spectacular sunset.  Later we dance and listen to traditonal music played by a group of Turkish friends on holiday, who are staying at our hotel.

July 19--Rock Churches -- Carpets
We move to a little campground near Goreme and spend the morning exploring the rock-cut churches of the area.  In the 1st and 2nd centuries Christians moved into this area to escape persecution, and greatly enlarged the number of cave homes, as well as carving out hundreds of churches in the rock, complete with pillars and elaborate dome ceilings covered with painted frescoes of religious art.  During the 12th and 13th centuries these churches were renovated with even more elaborate artwork.  During the Ottoman period many of the churches were vandalizd, but others were used to house animals, or abandoned.  Smoke from campfires blackened many of the churches with layers of soot, which actually helped protect the frescoes from vandalism--out of sight, out of mind.  Since Turkish independence the area has been turned into a giant open-air museum and many of the frescoes cleaned and restored.  The number of churches and monasteries, with giant communal kitchens and dining rooms cut out of rock, is astounding. 
We spend the afternoon in a gigantic carpet shop that was formerly a caravansari, a rest house along an ancient trade route.  The owner, Balil, teaches us all about Cappadocian carpets, which are unique in having both Muslim and Christian religious symbols, along with ancient Hittite and even Indian and Chinese motiffs.  We buy a carpet for our office, and a silver Turkman wedding helmet worn by the bride on the day she leaves her familiy to move into the groom's home.
Balil and I also have a great philosophical discussion and he gives me a Koran and an introduction book to Islam, which he claims is the fastest growing religion in America (which I believe I have also read somewhere else).  When I ask if he thinks Turkey should be governed by Islamic rather than secular laws, he points out problems with using either exclusively.  He would prefer more of a blend. 

July 20--Pots, Hair and Paranoia
We pack up and cycle to the town of Avanos, which is famous for it's pottery.  We visit numerous pottery shops, all with ancient underground rooms and chambers filled with jars, urns, bowls, plates and sculptures for sale, many exquisitly glazed with bright colors and elaborately detailed patterns.
One shop even has a hair museum.  About 20 years ago a French woman came for the summer to learn pottery making at the shop.  When she left she cut a small lock of hair and stuck it to a wall with her name on a card "so the owner would always remember her."  A week later another foreign woman saw the hair, asked what it was, and decided to cut her own lock of hair and left it with her name tag.  So started the hair museum cave.  The last time anyone counted, in 1996, there were 16,000 locks of hair.  Today the museum occupies three underground chambers, the walls and ceiling covered with fuzzy whisps of hair hanging like tendrils from yellowing papers listing names of women around the world.  Each year the owner picks one name and the "winner" gets a week long all expenses paid vacation to Cappadocia.  It is fascinating yet creepy, and yes, Tass leaves a small lock of hair.
Back on the road the temperature soars, easily the hottest day yet in Cappadocia.  We don't even dig out the thermometer--we don't want to know.  We cycle a circuitous route to see more rock formations and then "wild camp" alone amid the fairy chimneys in Dervant Valley for the full moon.
It would be easy to end this day's journall on that romantic note, but the reality is much different.  As we ride off the road, Tass spins out in loose gravel singletrack and takes just a moment too long to get out of sight of the road.  A vehicle which has past by us three or four times returns, and the driver sees where she has gone.  Our first rule of wild camping has been broken--never let anyone see you go off the road.
We decide to make some photos as the sun is going down, and see how we feel about camping here.  Moments later we spot a huge Kangal dog, which are trained to protect sheep and goats from wolves.  They often have giant spike collars, to keep the wolves from biting their necks, and are famous for being as ferocious as the wolves they fight.  Tass freaks, numerous people in the last few days have warned us about the dogs.  She is convinced the dog is going to circle our camp and attack.  Now the evening has a definite pall.  I try to convince her the dog has already smelled us, and that if it felt we were in its territory it would have already come after us.  We end up in a stalemate, unsure what to do.  The sun has set, finding another camp in the dark sounds grim.  As Tass is finally getting it together I freak.  Now I am convinced that we should heed her bad vibe and leave the area.  But where to go?  We spend another 45 minutes in limbo, weirded out, unsure what to do.  Finally we decide to stay.  Totally exhausted and not at all happy with what we have put ourselves through, we put up the tent--and don't wake up until the sun hits our tent the next morning.

July 21--Life in a Greek Mansion

We hike through Dervant Valley making photos of the rock formations and then cycle to Urgup for a relaxed bruch at a sidewalk cafe in the town square.  Above us the hillside is covered with the stone blocks from ancient doorways and ceiling arches, along with fractured cave houses, all that is left of the earthquake damaged older city.

As we leave town we meet a bike touring family from France.  The dad is pulling a trailer with their 1 1/2 year old boy inside.  The mom's bike has a smaller 'bob' bike hooked behind for their six year old daughter, who has handlebars but doesn't have to steer.  However she does have working pedals which she pumps away, legs spinning and body rocking wildly on the saddle, a big smile on her face, helping mom to keep up their speed.  We chat and ride with them for a few kilometers.  They travel about 40 kilometers a day, which is an impressive distance for the kids in this heat.  They are on a one month tour of Turkey.

We stop in Mustafa Pasa for a quick break and like the quiet atmosphere so much we decide to stay.  We check into a hotel that was the fomer mansion of a wealthy Greek family (who had to move back to Greece in the 1920s population exchange with Turkey).  Our bedroom, a former sitting room, is 50 feet long, 20 feet wide, with a 25-foot high ceiling painted in elaborate lime green, turquoise blue, and pink stripes.  A three-foot wide couch runs the length of the room and across one end, seating for 50.  One of the shorter walls has couch to ceiling windows which open like shutters, the other wall has wooden cabinets painted to match the ceiling.  Three giant rocking chairs with ornate camel heads carved into the arms and rockers sit around a fancy table.  The bed is gigantic and although swayed with age it is still comfortable.  Our wooden door, with giant wrought iron hinges and handles, is 12 feet tall.

The hotel courtyard is filled with plants in bright blue pots, and has a large area with vine covered tressels for shade.  There is no one else staying at the hotel, we have the entire mansion to ourselves.  The only other residents are a mother cat, who we dub Miss Feta, for her love of feta cheese which she successfully begs from our table, and also steals from our room at night.  She has a single, delightful, 10-day-old kitten, who we call "The Young Turk."

July 22--Relaxing in the Mansion

Our hotel, and the entire town, is so wonderfully relaxing we can't leave.  We drink numerous cups of apple tea with the sprite, elderly, mustached proprietor, slip treats to Miss Feta, and play with The Young Turk.  We only leave the mansion for a few hours to walk through town.  Tass makes numerous photos of unique old doors and we visit a vineyard for more wine tasting.

July 23--Life In A Underground City

Tass gets teary-eyed as we push our bikes over the stone threshold and leave the mansion courtyard.  Both of us could have easily stayed here for weeks.  We ride through steep rolling hills broken by deep eroded badlands-type gulleys.  Mid-morning we arrive in Kaymakli, a town known for its huge underground city.  While the people futher north were carving out stone houses in above the ground rock formations, the inhabitants of southern Cappadocia built enormous underground cities, some able to hold an estimated 20,000 people.

First built by ancient Hittites, who found the 55 degree underground chambers cool in the summer and warm in the winter,  most cities had three levels.  Closest to the surface, the top level was for humans.  The second level for animals, the lowest level for storing food.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries persecuted Christians greatly enlarged the cities, some to seven or eight levels underground.  They had ingenious ventalation systems for fresh air, and elaborate chimneys to break-up and dispel smoke (and only cooked at night) to reduce the chance of being discovered.  They had bathroom areas with composting toilets to reduce smell and create fertilizer, huge rooms for making wine, communal kitchens and eating areas, and giant round granite stones brought down from the surface that could be rolled into slots on key passagways to seal off attackers. 

The warren of underground passgeways are not for the claustrophobic.  Some of the connecting tunnels are shoulder-width narrow and only four feet high, requiring a hunched shuffle to descend, sometimes turning and twisting along the way.  The rooms are mostly small, with lots of alcoves for storage.  You would defintely need to get along well with your neighbors to live here.  But with the multitude of wine making rooms, they were probably one big happy family.

We cycle north through a terrible, dusty and wind-blown section of road construction back to Nevsehir.  Our tour of Cappadocia has come to an end.  We get on a night bus heading southwest, to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

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