There is an intergalactic thread throughout a visit to Cappadocia. The guides often refer to the dramatic geology as a moonscape. The local legend is that fairies from another planet built the dwellings in the rocks, and there are even statues of aliens outside some of the tourist shops. And in truth the only word to describe this place is “otherworldly.”
The area is famous for its cave hotels, which are built back into the rock cliffs that populate most of Cappadocia,
and I stayed two nights at the Hotel Asia Minor, in the town of Urgup. I couldn’t see much in the darkness upon arrival but was escorted to a large room with rock walls; “yes, you are in the cave” the night manager said. And so I was. The room was wonderful, with hardwood floors and ceilings, a large and modern bathroom and free wifi with a strong signal.
I wandered into a bar down the street, had a glass of local wine and spent some time chatting with Ramazan and Yusef, a couple of very friendly local guys. Ramazan works in the bar but he is also a tour guide; he speaks English and Japanese fluently and is working on Spanish. He was born during Ramadan, thus his name. Yusef asked if I was going for a hot air balloon ride, and when I told him I hadn’t thought about it they both insisted it was the best way to see Cappadocia. I asked them to hook me up, and they said they would.
I was picked up the next morning by Selim, our guide for the day, and he quickly got into the history of the area and how it was formed. Here is the Cliff’s Notes version:
- Cappadocia (pronounced Cappa-DOKE-ia, more in line with the Turkish spelling Kapadokya) is in central Turkey, a 75-minute flight from Istanbul and an hour drive from the airport in Kayseri. The area is 450 square kilometers. The name comes from ancient Persia (6th century B.C.) and means “Land of the Beautiful Horses”. The Persians came to this area and trained the indigenous wild horses to be used in combat.
- The unique geology of the area is the result of several things, starting with the eruption of Mt. Erciyes millions of years ago. At almost 13,000 feet the mountain is visible from all over the region, and the locals
call it “white mountain” since it’s covered in snow year-round. The eruption covered the area in up to 150 meters of ash capped with 15-20 meters of magma, which turned into basalt.
- Over the centuries seismic activity in the area caused several mountain ranges to squeeze the Cappadocia region to form huge mesas, and then the vertical erosion from the rain and horizontal erosion from the wind gradually created the monolithic structures that today attract visitors and scientists from all over the world.
The softness of the ash is what makes the area unique; it’s not just interesting geological features, it’s the fact that the rock could be hollowed out and that people have been living in those rocks for 2000 years or more. In one A.D., immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, Christians came to this region from the Holy Land to escape persecution by the Romans. They lived here in hiding until the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion.
We visited an open-air museum where a theological community was formed around the tenth century, with one large convent, a number of monasteries and several churches, where the frescos demonstrate clearly the advancing levels of sophistication in both art and religion. And the best-known features of the area are the gardens of “fairy chimneys” and “mushroom rocks” that so vividly display the geological layers and effects of erosion.
Selim gave us insight to the culture of the area as well as the geology. Men have traditionally been potters, and we saw a demonstration of the old-school kick wheel method of pottery making. Women work in textiles. Marriages are arranged here; young girls start working on their dowries in their teens, making Muslim prayer carpets, embroideries, socks, and other items. When the dowry is ready the family flies a flag over its house indicating that families of young men may now come and visit. I asked Selim if his marriage was arranged; he said it was. I asked if he was happy. “Yes, I am happy,” he said. “About 70 percent.”
I had dinner that night with Douglas Cajas, a wonderful young guy who had joined our tour in the afternoon. Douglas is originally from Guatemala, is a Stanford graduate and works in New York for a German media company. We had a very pleasant evening and made plans to meet up in Istanbul a few days later.
Up, Up and Away
Outside my hotel at 5:45 a.m. the next day, awaiting my ride to the balloon takeoff point on a cold and still morning, I was startled by the call to prayer that commenced simultaneously from three mosques in the neighborhood. The wailing from each of them was distinct and clearly personal, but it was all plaintive, shrill, and of considerable distress to every dog within half a kilometer. The sound systems must have come from a recent U2 tour.
It was short ride to a large flat area where dozens of vans from different companies were pulling in. Maybe 200 people gathered in a building to grab a tea or coffee and present their credit card. When we arrived there was one balloon starting to inflate, but within minutes there were fifteen, and the sound of the massive gas burners and the glow of the flames in the pre-dawn were a treat for the senses.
I was assigned to a balloon that was still on its side but quickly filling up, and 28 of us were loaded into the massive basket … me, and 27 of my closest friends from China. There were four compartments with seven people in each, and a space in the middle for the pilot. We lifted off easily and floated along a meter or two above the ground. All around us other balloons were doing the same thing, some already up to 100 meters, some still inflating, and the higher we went the more balloons we could see rising from other staging areas nearby. It’s a bit dodgy at first as every pilot tries to find his path clear of the others, but gradually we had open air, our pilot cranked up the heat and we started to climb.
It was a magnificent site. All around us these enormous things were floating at various altitudes, each becoming more vibrantly colorful as the sun peeked over the horizon. Below us stretched the extraordinary geology of Cappadocia’s volcanic tapestry, flat and eerie at first, but more breathtaking as the sun got high enough to create shadows and depth of field. I’m not crazy about heights, but on this morning I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
At the recommendation of Ramazan and Yusef I had signed up with a company called Kaya Balloons. “They are better than the others,” Yusef told me. “They have the best pilots and the newest balloons.” Two fairly important components of the experience, one would guess. Our pilot’s name was Murat Coban. I asked him how long he had been doing this. “It’s my first flight,” he said, a joke I’m guessing he pulls out four or five times a week. He has been flying the balloons for 17 years and in fact is the owner of the company.
A couple of times Murat dropped down beneath the level of the ground into a canyon, coming within feet of the canyon wall before expertly hitting the gas and popping back over the top. Then we would rise three meters per second and be at 200 meters within a minute. Our highest point was 550 meters, about 1,800 feet. At the end of the trip we drifted over to a Kaya truck, gently landed on the trailer, had a glass of champagne and received a certificate of achievement. I was back at my hotel having breakfast by 8:45. Hell of a way to start the day. Here are a bunch of pictures.
I actually found a clip of the 5th Dimension singing Up, Up and Away, a good fit with the balloon pictures, but it was lip-synched so that’s a non-starter. Instead we have the Moody Blues classic Nights in White Satin. The performer is Mario Frangoulis, a young Greek guy singing in Italian. The venue is The Theater of the Earth, in Thessaloika, Greece, which may remind you of Red Rocks in Denver if you’ve ever seen a concert there. And for fans of the Moody Blues there is a nice surprise at the end. Enjoy!