Cappadocia can be action-packed and relaxing all in one trip.
11 hours on a sleepless bus ride from Istanbul, and we’ve slid into the quiet waking hours of Cappadocia. The bus station isn’t quite our intended destination — the chauffeur says we need to get off here, anyways. Confused and drowsy, we do what we’re told. It’s dark; there are no other buses around, no Wi-Fi. For all we know, we could have just been kidnapped to the moon.
We’re led into an office; it’s the only bright light in the entire terminal. Two happy gentlemen greet us, boisterous like it’s noon in the office while everywhere else is still dawn. “Japanese!” They bellow. “Ho, ho, ho.” Both of them speak semi-fluent Japanese as they, without grace, advertise their tour options. 250 lira a person (18 USD) for a full-day tour around the area, with lunch and transportation. We’re sold.
“Euro, please,” says our agent, Jamal. “Turkish lira —” he holds a hand in front of him and mimics a plane crashing down — “Whoop. Going down. Very bad.” Covid aside, Turkey is a great option for international tourists these days, with the lira devaluing by the week. But around the shiny eyes of these hard-working, early-bird gentlemen, there are creases of worry.
Three major “tours” (or routes) are available to tourists in Cappadocia: The Green, Red, and Blue. The one we pick for the day is the Green Tour. We receive a brief introduction atop the cliffs, overlooking the famous fairy chimneys that jut underneath wispy, gray clouds. Three different volcanic eruptions from millions of years ago and the subsequent eroding waters led to the iconic rock formations that we see today.
I’m exhausted, and I catch some sleep for the better part of the morning bus ride. Our tour guide is sweet, but he is quiet. He reminds us of the substitute teacher back in primary school whom everyone had an affection for because no one got in trouble. We nickname him the “lullaby guy” as we fall asleep.
One of the highlights of the Green Tour: an underground city! Dating from as far back as the eighth century BCE, around 200 underground cities came into existence throughout the Cappadocia region. It all began with Hittite tribes carving out the rocks underneath to hide themselves from other nomadic enemies. In the Middle Ages, it provided protection for Christians as they hid from Arabs and then the Mongols. Then, until as recent as the 20th century, people used these hollows to avoid persecution by the Ottoman Empire. These aren’t just caves — they were contained, established communes where people would spend their entire lives for centuries.
The underground city that our guide has taken us today is called Kaymakli — famous for being the widest of all. Nearly a hundred tunnels connect all spaces to compose an intricate maze, which is impossible to navigate if not for the exit signs. The guide takes us through the areas, each with its distinct purpose — the kitchen, the stables, the common areas. There is also a space for worship: a frail-looking cross is etched into the wall, slightly larger than a hand-span. The lowest point, eight floors below ground, is the bottom of the ventilation shaft.
Merely a few cloudy days in a row can make me wallow in gloom. I’m left baffled by the stories of people who lived here, carrying out their days in fear and out of sight. How often were they able to feel the warmth of sunlight tingle their skin? Did they carry their sunburns like we wear brand logos on our T-shirts? Look, I was outdoors for two hours yesterday!
After a traditional beef stew by the river, we head to the Selime Monastery, with its astonishing human touches on gigantic rock formations. While never used as an actual filming location, George Lucas did consider filming a Star Wars episode in this location. A Star Wars Tea Room therefore squats humbly across the road.
It’s a bit of a struggle to maneuver your way inside. The ceilings are low and there are no stair-like formations that will help your way up. But it barely takes two minutes, while the pictures you can take from up here make you look like a seasoned rock-climber.
It dips to near-freezing temperatures at night in November. We bundle up and head to the nearest restaurant, Cancan. The family who run the eatery aren’t frugal with the heating, and it’s magnificently warm. We must have hit the jackpot, as it turns out its near-perfect rating on Google wasn’t an exaggeration.
We are first served the usual complimentary bread, but instead of plain butter, our server offers three types of delicious dips. He also brings us a bowl each of steaming lentil soup, which we hadn’t ordered but, incidentally, had been eyeing on the menu while we rubbed at our numb hands. The flavor is the richest I’ve encountered in all my time in Turkey. Thick and garlicky, with lentils ground into tiny pieces without mushed into shapelessness, it’s a comfort food that gives you the sort of heat that livens you up from the inside.
Our main dishes (the ones we actually ordered) were yogurt ravioli and the second marinated beef dish of the day. As filling and nutritious as they were, what really refueled us after an exhausting, exploration-filled day was the hospitality of this family-run eatery.
It’s the second day in a row of waking up before dawn. We’re used to getting up at noon, and we have to hype ourselves up to get out of the toasty covers. “Hyping up” isn’t a huge ordeal, though, because we have the world-famous hot air balloon tour booked in an hour.
Weather permitting, all hot air balloons — some 150 in total — lift off at sunrise every morning. I don’t remember the last time I was on a balloon, and I certainly don’t remember it being so big. We arrive early, while it’s still pitch dark, save for the roaring torch heating up the air in the balloon. All around us are tens of torches, some huddled in groups of three and four, all flickering these buoyant beasts to life. They look like the most lavish lamps, and for something that happens every morning, the biggest and smoothest collective effort you’ve encountered. Each balloon requires a few people for setting up the balloon, a few for last-minute check-ins, a few for driving the buses and organizing the passengers.
We hurl ourselves into our basket, which has only a couple of holes for footholds. No ladder, no door — human hands helping you up before hoisting the fiery monster off the ground. About twenty people in total, crowded into the small space, and we don’t know where to look: the other balloons fading into the fog, the fairy chimneys like waves in the early-morning mist, the ground that’s dropping farther away by the second. The unobstructive, open view of it all — we don’t get anything close to this from the regular observation deck or even an expensive helicopter ride.
Our promised hour-long ride turns out to be a little over half an hour, due to strong winds. We’re still grateful we could get on at all — the balloons yesterday and all throughout the next week had already been cancelled from the weather. Landing is rather — hands-on — than I expected landing a balloon to be. “Landing position!” yells the pilot, as he scrambles for the ropes from above. Everyone squeezes their way into position, crouching down, so tight that we’re puffing air into each other’s faces. Unlike on a plane, we can’t see what’s going on outside, or how near the ground is. All we feel is the building anticipation as the pilot says, “Stay! Stay!” and the final bump.
Once we’re safe on the ground, they serve us “champagne” (an energy drink) and some cookies, while we watch tens of balloons landing all around us. Some are more successful than others. We see an entire basket flip on its side with everyone in it and hear them scream. Another basket almost tilts over, but a handful of workers jump onto its edge like monkeys, yanking it down with legs flailing.
We’d found our hotel in Goreme, the central tourist neighborhood of Cappadocia, on a cheap Airbnb listing with the name Caravanserai Inn, and the best thing about it is hands-down the breakfast. Used to mass-produced croissants and stale coffee at budget hostels, this buffet-style cheeses, salads, breads, and fruits feel like a true gift. We’d been frozen to the core from being up in the air, so we take our time, munching on olives as a couple of dreamy, late-comer balloons drift past the windows.
After a long nap, we’re ready for our last adventure: horseback riding. They teach us the basics in five seconds — pull right to turn right, pull left to turn left, and pull both to stop — and before we know it, we’ve been hoisted over our horses. (We didn’t even get to pick which one!)
No one told us their names, so I decide to call my horse Amber for her color. She’s restless as we’re about to leave, stepping around in circles while she’s still tied to the fence. I’m not used to having an animal move underneath me — and it’s really quite high up, being on a horse.
Our team has about thirty people in total, with four or five guides walking beside us. I’m toward the very front, so when I look back, I see a long train of scared faces and nonchalant horses, sandwiched on both sides by cliffs and desert in true caravan fashion. Amber stays put during the whole trip, and soon, I feel safe enough that I can look around and enjoy the view.