|If today's itinerary was included in the TV Show "The Amazing Race", it would be a fast paced episode. For me today was truly a race, as it was my last chance to see the sights of Amazing Cappadocia. My day called for touring an underground city, climbing to the top of a castle, hiking three miles along a canyon trail and visiting a half dozen ancient churches located at an outdoor museum. All this was complicated by the fact that the destinations were spread throughout the Cappadocia region, in places with names I can't even pronounce. And because I have no car, it's all finding public transport and or hoofing it.
I skipped breakfast and set out early from the Hotel Kanak, in the village of Urgup, headed for the bus station. The locals call it a station, but there's no terminal, posted schedules, ticket office or ticket agents. To me, it's just one big bus stop. Most of the buses are actually 20 passenger vans. I looked around the lot and was very lucky to find a van that as I understood would depart in ten minutes for the City of Nevsehir. I use the word "understood" because the driver didn't speak English and there was no placard in the front window. I have learned through my travels that often enough what is "understood" is not what is said.
Fortunately, I understood correctly and it wasn't long before I was in the City of Nevsehir, a distance of about 12 miles from Urgup. The driver dropped me off on a street corner and when I asked where to find a bus to Kaymakli, the best he could do was to answer in Turkish and point. For a few minutes I really felt lost. I was uncertain as to which way to go and thought my day might turn to disaster. However, my good luck continued as I found a young guy who spoke some English who directed me to a bus stop where the bus to Kaymakli was due momentarily. Minutes later the bus stopped. I got on and everyone else got off. I explained to the driver that I wanted to go to the underground city in Kaymakli. He spoke no English, but shook his head as if he understood me. Off we went with me, the sole passenger. The trip to Kaymakli is another twelve miles. I didn't mind that the driver made a couple personal stops in town but on the highway just outside of town he stopped again, this time at a gas station. As I sat somewhat impatiently while he gassed-up, a man came from the station with a cups of Turkish tea for the driver and a group of men hanging out near the gas pumps. He came to the van and offered me a cup. I graciously accepted. Sipping the hot tea gave me patience for the delay.
I arrived at the underground city just after 9am. In terms of today's race, I felt good, like I was ahead. I was further happy to find only one tour bus in the parking lot. That meant there would be no big crowds at the underground city. I bought my ticket and negotiated a price with a tour guide. Levent, a young man of about 20. He accepted my offer of 50 lira. He's the youngest guide at the underground city and has just completed his first year. His English is fluent and he spoke eloquently. As we entered the city he explained that there are 36 underground cities in Cappadocia and Kaymakli is the largest. It dates back 4,000 years and has eight levels. As we moved though the various chambers he explained their purpose. There were chambers for animals, storage, cooking, sleeping and worshiping. There was even a winery. Local people would take refuge in the city during times of invasion. There are vertical shafts to provide air circulation and water and large stones doors that can be closed to block access from the outside. It's incredible to think that thousands of people lived together in this underground world, with no natural light, for months at a time.
I left Kaymakli and returned to Nevsehir where I found a bus to the town of Uchisar. To my surprise I was at the top of the castle by noon. I felt good and was ahead of schedule. What a view from the top of the castle. It's the highest point in Cappadocia and I was able to identify the various towns in the region. I could even recognize a number of the valleys; Rose Valley, Monks Valley, Love Valley and Pigeon Valley. Visible in the distance was Mount Erciyes with a bright white cap of snow. I left the castle and walked through the town of Urchisar in search of the beginning of the Pigeon Valley trail. It leads to the town of Goreme about 5km away. Goreme sits at the heart of the Cappadocia region and is the home of the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I found a path and navigated down the steep winding grade into the valley below. It's called Pigeon Valley, for the many pigeon houses carved into the rocks and cliffs. In times past, the pigeon droppings were collected and used to fertilize the garden plots in the valley. On my walk, I did not see one pigeon.
I stayed on the low ground as I walked towards Goreme. It was a beautiful day for walking. The November air was crisp and the sun shined ever so brightly. Its rays cast a rich vibrant palate of earth tones on the surface of the stone shapes forming the valley walls. The heat of the afternoon felt good. Along the trail, towering Poplar trees shaded some areas and they remained covered with a thin blanket of frost. I saw no one as I walked. It was eerily quiet except for the occasional rustling of small birds. I couldn't see very far in ahead which gave me a claustrophobic feeling being surrounded on both sides by the high canyon like walls. The environment was interesting, stimulating and of another world. Weirdly, it seemed like I was in some ancient setting described in a fictional book.
The valley was rugged and isolated so I was surprised to find small fields and garden plots adjacent to the trail. I suppose the stream that runs through the valley provides a good water source and the cliffs offer protection from the elements. I walked about 45 minutes, full of vigor when I heard a barking dog. I paid no attention but suddenly from out of nowhere behind me a large brown dog appeared, charging towards me. It gnarling teeth were showing viciously. Automatically I swung my red tote bag around and yelled. The dog stopped in its tracks about six feet from me. In a flash, the dog turned and was gone. It was like one of those Halloween scare trails where the monster lurches from shadows and just as quickly disappears.
Shortly thereafter, I came upon a clearing. The small flat open field ended at a sheer drop-off of a hundred feet or more. I surveyed my options and concluded I was at a dead end. I back tracked and found another trail that led me to higher ground. The trail continued higher and higher along the canyon wall. It narrowed and became a perilous ledge along a sheer wall. Too dangerous for me to continue, I turned back to Uchisar. If this was the television show they would really play up my setback. Surely my lead in the race was lost.
As I continued backtracking I came upon an older man walking towards me, headed in the direction of the dead end. His bronzed skin and tight knit cap indicated to me he was a local. I explained that I was walking to Goreme, but came to a dead end and had to turn back. In broken English he told me to follow him. I did and we continued back toward Uchisar. As some point he took a side trail that led down a ravine to a narrow slit in the rock that I could barely squeeze through. It turned to pitch black tunnel at least 50 feet long. On the other end we zigged and zagged our way up the side of the canyon and the trail curved back toward Goreme. I could hardly keep up with this guy as we trekked up the hill. His name is Ahmet and Pigeon Valley keeps this 69 year old in good shape. He said his tea garden was ahead and when we rounded a bend there it was, a cottage tucked into the hillside with a front deck that overlooked a garden plot. "Come sit, have some coffee with me," he said. I did. His friend, who he said tended the garden served us drinks, a cup of Turkish coffee for me and Nescafe for Ahmet. I chuckled to myself about the Nescafe. While Ahmet smoked a cigarette, we conversed about his garden and the vegetables he grew. Although his English was marginal, we talked about the weather and the cold winters in Cappadocia.
When we finished our drinks I looked at Ahmet and asked, "What do I owe you? He hesitated momentarily, then replied, "It's 20 lira for my guide service and pay my friend 5 lira for the coffee and 3 lira for the Nescafe." "That's a total of 28 lira?" I questioned to be certain I understood. He nodded in agreement. "No problem," I said and paid him. It's funny, I knew an extra charge was coming before I sat down for coffee. I had already calculated in my mind what I was willing to pay him. I was lucky to find him or more likely it was him who found me. Either way, his help was worth every lira. I thanked Ahmet and took a photo of the two Turks. Just as I was leaving Ahmet suddenly stood motionless. In an excited whisper he said, "Listen, tourists are coming" I wished him well and as I headed down the trail toward Goreme I heard him tell the tourists, "come, sit in my tea garden."
The remainder of the Pigeon Valley trail was flat and wide; a walk in the park as compared to where I began my walk. It wasn't until 3:30 that I made it to Goreme. The open air museum is a half mile out of town, up the hill and the last entry is at 4:30. I needed to hurry. I passed the taxi stand in the center of town and made a deal with a drive to pay 10 lira for a ride to the museum. That's about five bucks for a half mile trip, but it saved me time that was running out for me.
The Goreme Open Air Museum holds the region's best collection of painted cave-churches. Christian monks carved the caves from the soft volcanic stone a thousand years ago. They decorated them with elaborate Byzantine frescoes many that depict scenes from the bible. Some are incredibly vivid and it's amazing that they have not been obliterated by humans or time.
Outside the Museum I caught a bus back to Urgup and was back at my hotel just after 6pm. In terms of a race, I surely didn't win, but I it was a very memorable day experiencing the sites of Amazing Cappadocia.