The Canyon of Cappadocia

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So, here I am on a tour bus, feeling like a rebel school kid on a mandatory class field trip. “Okay everybody,” says the guide in her best bubbly American cheerleader voice, “it’s time for introductions. Please tell us your name and country when I point to you.” I have an urge to smash the window, leap outside and run away… run away. It’s not as if I dislike tour guides, I just feel better when they are not around. Honestly, most of the guides I have met in my life have been friendly and kind human beings and this one today is no exception. I know they have difficult jobs and I can appreciate their day to day struggle to earn a living. I also understand why people choose to go on tours. Traveling in foreign countries is complicated and paying someone to lead you around and explain things simplifies the process. Nevertheless, in my opinion, there is a fundamental problem with the tourist business in the context of the modern economy and that fundamental problem drives me a little bonkers. The problem is difficult to articulate but I would describe it as the commodification of the traveling experience. Human to human cultural interaction and genuine personal exchange are replaced by a business model designed to generate income as efficiently as possible. Thus, when you visit a foreign country as a tourist, you don’t make friends and experience the way of life and culture. Instead, you pay a fee and get taken for a ride through an amusement park. The actual experience is basically the same no matter where in the world you go: Thailand, Turkey, Mali or Ecuador. You sit on a crowded minibus, you listen to a hyper friendly local speak English with an amusing accent, they follow a script of historical information interspersed with occasional jokes and you stop to take photographs at the specially designated attractions. I don’t mean to be superior or judgmental or condescending. But if this is traveling, I’d rather stay home, save my money and read about it on Pat Ryan’s travel blog.

The Ilhara River Gorge in Cappadocia is advertised as the Grand Canyon of Turkey and it is, therefore, very high on my list of places I want to see. Unfortunately, its not very easy to get to from Goreme. Although the town of Ilhara at the entrance to the canyon is only 50 or so kilometers away, there is no direct public bus connecting it with Goreme. Instead, you have to take a minibus to Nevesehir, another bus to Aksaray and then change to a third bus that eventually arrives in Ilhara. This roundabout journey can take 3 or 4 hours instead of the 45 minutes a direct trip would take. When I ask for info about it, everyone says I should sign up for the green tour which includes the gorge in its itinerary or rent a car to see it on my own. Of course those two options are inconsistent with my modus operandi so I convince Ms. B. that we should take the indirect public bus route. As we are checking out of the hotel, however, the friendly guy at the Sunset Cave tells us of another option. One of his friends who runs a Green Tour has empty seats because it’s the off season. For the same price as a public bus ticket going the long way around (15 lira each) we can catch a ride with a Green Tour and get dropped off in the town of Ilhara. As a bonus, we get a free stop at the Pigeon Valley Lookout and the Derinkuyu Underground City along the way. In other words, Ms. B. and I find ourselves as not quite willing participants for part of a packaged tour.

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The tourist minibus is full of Asians. In the round of introductions we learn that it is a mixture of Korean, Japanese and Chinese. This is not surprising because about 90 percent of the travelers I’ve seen in the last three months have been Asian. I’m not sure if this is just because winter is travel season in Asia or if Asians are just less afraid of the Middle East than westerners. Of course, the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese have not been bombing the hell out of Muslims in recent years so maybe they have less to be afraid of. But, then again, this is Turkey and Turkey is practically a European country anyway. Actually, our Turkish tour guide is much more Western than Middle Eastern. Dressed in black tights and a tee shirt with her long flowing dark hair uncovered, she resembles a sexy cheerleader for a sports team rather than a modest Muslim. Her language too; it sounds like it was lifted from a textbook for Marketing 101 at a U.S. university. So, here I am on a tour bus in Central Turkey with a bunch of Asians as our guide speaks in English and acts like an American. It sure is a strange universe.

Nevertheless, our short journey through this surreal tourist world is not unpleasant. The guide is easy on the eyes and she is very nice and knowledgeable as well. We could do without the photo stop at Pigeon Valley because we have already been there but the visit to the underground city at Derinkuyu really is a bonus. No doubt the intensity of the experience is diluted by the crowd we visit with but our cheerleader does provide lots of useful information. This place was constructed or dug out over a thousand years ago. It’s hard to believe but over ten thousand people lived here underground because they were hiding from an army that sought to kill them. Perhaps because of the Asians in our group, it reminds me of the caves I visited a number of years ago in Laos and Vietnam where the people hid from the massive U.S. bombing in the 1960s. The murderous nature of human beings spreads across time, continents and cultures. But wow, just look at this place. Seven levels of living space all underground. Human ingenuity and adaptability in response to threat and horror also spreads across time, continents and cultures.

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After the underground city, it’s only another half hour to Ilhara. Along the way, the cheerleader peps the team for the exciting journey through the canyon ahead. “I hope you are all ready to hike,” she says, “it’s a three kilometer trek from where we enter the canyon to the restaurant in Bellisara. If you don’t think you can make it, you can ride in the minibus and meet us at the restaurant.” Needless to say, I am very happy we are leaving the group before this part of the tour. No doubt, I want to see the canyon, but walking in a group of 15 people is not my idea of a good time. And besides, how can you call a three kilometer walk a trek? I’m not interested in a tiny taste of Turkey’s Grand Canyon, I want to swallow it whole, emmerse myself in its glory and experience the entire thing.

The minibus drops us off at the Star Pension in the town of Ilhara. We are, quite literally, the only guests at the pension and the only foreigners in town. It’s the off season all right…the way off season. We are lucky the place is open, we made no reservation and the staff seem slightly shocked to actually have guests. Nevertheless, they recover their senses enough to show us an overpriced room. It costs 80 lira (40 bucks), with no door on the bathroom and only a small electric heater for warmth. It’s the only place open in town though so we have to take it but at least it includes breakfast and it does have wifi.

After we drop our backpacks in the room, we go to the pension restaurant for a welcoming cup of tea. It’s quite the remarkable scene. All five staff members of the Pension hover around us trying to be of service. They speak about eight words of English between them but they smile with great enthusiasm. One guy stokes the fire in the wood stove, another pours the tea, another brings the sugar and another tries to explain about the location of the entrance to the canyon. They may be charging us 80 lira for a crappy room, but they damn sure intend to give us 80 lira worth of service.

It’s barely noon when we arrive, but we are not planning on doing much today anyway. After three days of hiking around Goreme, we need to rest up before embarking on our canyon adventure. We catch up on email in our cold room and we explore the small town. In my opinion, it’s a stunningly beautiful place. Set on the edge of a canyon with colorful buildings, a nice mosque and a Iarge cobblestone plaza, I imagine it bursting with life and energy during the busy Spring and Summer. Ms. B., however, is less impressed. The cloudy sky, thin layer of snow, muddy streets and many stone buildings make her think of Soviet Russia even though she’s never been there. “It’s the off season,” I tell her, “everywhere looks grimy this time of year. At least we have the place to ourselves. No other foreigners. Doesn’t it make you feel like a traveler rather than a tourist?”

She raises her left eyebrow skeptically.  No restaurants are open.  “So what are we going to eat for lunch?” She asks.

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They have an overpriced and not very good dinner for us at the Pension later but for lunch we have to make do at one of the small shops in the plaza. It works out well though. After a game of charades with the shopkeeper and the effective use of our Turkish/English dictionary, we manage to purchase some bread, salami, cheese and cookies. I dare say, it’s a mighty fine picnic lunch we have sitting down by the river surrounded by ducks. Yeah sure, it’s a bit cold and dreary outside but that’s part of the price you pay for traveling in the off season. No matter, the next day the gods award us with double bonus points for our efforts. We awake to blue skies and bright sunshine. The temperatures are in the 60s (Fahrenheit) rather than the 30s of the day before. The layer of snow has melted, buds are popping on the shrubs and birds are singing. It is, you might say, a perfect day for canyon exploration.

The Ilhara Canyon or Gorge is 14 kilometers (9 miles) long and it has a beautiful river that winds along the bottom of it. The sides of the canyon are several hundred feet tall and they are riddled with caves. Some of the caves have been carved into churches, some were carved into homes or other living spaces and some have been left natural. There are, essentially, four possible entry points into this amazingly wonderful place. There are steep stone steps that lead to the bottom of the gorge near the town of Ilhara. There’s a wooden staircase used by tour groups at the four kilometer mark. There’s a winding road that leads to the village of Bellisara at the 7 kilometer mark. While there are several towns and villages along the rim, Bellisara is the only village that is actually inside the canyon. Finally, there is another town called Selima at the other end of the canyon which also has a pathway down to the bottom. The tour groups usually visit the middle section of the Gorge near Bellisara because it has the easiest access and the most spectacular churches. I, however, want to explore as much of the canyon as possible.

With my usual reckless enthusiasm, I suggest a plan to hike the entire gorge in a single day. If we leave early in the morning, we can walk all the way to Selima on one side of the river, turn around and walk all the way back on the other side and reach Ilhara again before nightfall. It’s only 28 kilometers or 18 miles round trip. Why not? Ms. B., however, is there to interject some rationality into my overly ambitious plan. “If we try to go all the way in a single day, the journey will be rushed and we will not have time to visit the caves and churches along the way.” We compromise on a plan to only hike to the halfway point for a leisurely riverside lunch in Bellisara and return to Ilhara at a relaxed pace. Thankfully, I listen to the wisdom of Ms. B.. There is so very much to see in the Ilhara gorge it would be a damn shame to hurry the experience.

Slow down, don’t move so fast, you got to make the moments last… How incredibly amazing is this place? You have to see it to believe it. One of the online blogs we read described it as one of the three best hikes in the world. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. But it sure is up there and we hike it in the off season when none of the flowers or trees are in bloom. So many caves, it’s not possible to see them all. There’s more than a hundred, I’d say several hundred and maybe even a thousand. Visualize a Dr. Seuss world of honeycombed rock formations with cubbyholes, passageways and hidden chambers to explore. I am like an exuberant child at his very first carnival funhouse. I run from cave to cave, always excited by the next great discovery. “Wow! Look at this one Ms. B., I can enter here, climb through a passage and poke my head out up here.” She follows behind at a slower pace shooting photos with her camera. Light and shadow shining through stone are like a wonderland to her artistic eyes.

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For the first several hours we have the entire canyon completely to ourselves. We do see one other couple at the very beginning but they are long gone by the time we finish a thorough exploration of the first funhouse cave. At the four kilometer mark we start to see a few tour groups. This is the section of the gorge that has the spectacularly painted and carved churches from a thousand years ago. The large groups of Asians stumble along with their knowledgeable guides who explain the meaning and significance of the paintings and the churches. Yeah sure, it might be nice to learn a little info about these amazing sites we are seeing but I never retain information received that way anyway. Besides, for me at least, it’s more fun to crash about randomly from place to place and just be amazed and dazzled by the sensory overload. Holy shit, this stuff is incredible. Thankfully, it’s a big canyon and the few groups are easy enough to avoid. We cross the river on a bridge and walk the smaller alternative trail and once again find ourselves alone. Plenty of caves on this other side, they are just not sculpted and painted like the tourist highlights. That’s okay, we will have a chance to see the super duper spectacular stuff when we meander back that way in the afternoon.

We reach the delightful little canyon village of Bellisara in the early afternoon and have an awesome lunch at a riverside restaurant. How good is the food? How good is the scenery? How wonderful is it to be here in this magical place sharing a meal with the beautiful Ms. B.? Sometimes I think I am the luckiest human on the whole planet earth.

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The afternoon is more of the same only now we take the time to really examine and explore the spectacular spots. It’s late in the day so the groups have passed and we have the churches all to ourselves. Seriously, if you ever want to see a dazzling display of human creativity synchronizing with incredible natural beauty, visit the thousand year old carved and painted caves of the Ilhara gorge. It’s a winner. So often in this world, humans interact with natural wonders and transform them into something ugly and unpleasant and civilized. Once in a while though, humans work with nature instead of controlling and owning and destroying. It’s symbiosis that impresses me not conquest. Perhaps I am living in the wrong century…

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The late afternoon is a stroll through paradise. The river is sparkling and splashing, the buds are popping on the trees, birds are singing and the sun is shining as we wend our way along the path. We go at a leisurely pace and stop several times to sit beside the river and sun ourselves on the rocks. We visit a few of the caves we missed on the way down but it really is impossible to see them all. So much to see in this place, so much to see in this world, so much to see in this universe, I’m going to have to live a million lifetimes if I want to see it all. Strangely enough, when I spend time in places like this I have the sensation that I have lived a million lifetimes and I have a million more to come. And that same thought gives me comfort when I have to waste time in airports and banks and government buildings…

It’s almost sunset when we reach the end of the trail and climb the stone steps up to the village which is now bathed in a golden glow. Wow! What a difference a day can make. Even Ms. B. agrees. It doesn’t look like a depressed vision of an imagined soviet Russia any more. Now it looks like a fairy tale. So how does this fairy tale end? We return to our pension, have another overpriced mediocre meal that is served to us by five guys who are all trying to be extremely helpful and we go to sleep in our cold cold room.  The next morning, we feast upon a surprising good breakfast and hop on a bus going south… towards the warmth of the Mediterranean.

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