BootsnAll Travel Network

Heading for the Hills: Cappadocia and Turkey’s Lake District

Despite the very comfortable Turkish night bus, the trip from Ankara to Cappadocia wasn’t everything I’d dreamt of in the rest department, mostly because I arrived in the town of Neveshehir at 05:45 after a 0:00 departure.

Upon arriving I was greeted by a young man who explained that he worked for the tourist information office. I must admit that I was pretty impressed that they’d got someone out of bed at that time for a single backpacker arriving from Ankara. That said, the guy could have used some work on selling his region. When I explained that I planned to spend five to seven days in Cappadocia he replied, “oh no, that is too much. You can see everything in three days.”

After a couple of minutes talking with the lad, I picked up my 20 minute connecting bus ride to the town of Goereme, the tourist heart of Cappadocia.

When I arrived, it didn’t seem as though much was up. The only people who seemed to be awake were the ones up in hot air ballons who had woken before dawn to make their sunrise trip. I did find one other fellow, who worked at a tour company, but who seemed genuinely interested in helping me find a good place to stay. I chatted with him for a bit, then headed to one of the guesthouses (or Pansiyons as inexpensive hotels were called in Turkey) that he reccomended.

The place had a friendly owner, a kitchen that I could use to cook for myself and a great view of the town. Sold. After checking in, I managed to stay awake just long enough to eat a quick breakfast before collapsing into bed and catching up on a bit of the sleep I’d missed the night before.

Waking up, I headed downstairs to set myself up for my remaining days in Cappadocia. At the suggestion of the pansiyon’s only other guest (an Argentine hippie type guy who was always getting in arguments with the manager) I headed back to Nevshehir to do my grocery shopping. I have to admit to being pretty pleased at my ability to catch the Dolmus, purchase goods at a grocery store, a fruit and vegetable stand, and a bakery, and then catch the Dolmus back to Goereme, while conducting all of the necessary conversation in Turkish.

I arrived back in Goereme with just enough time left in the day to take a walk around town and explore some of the wonders of Cappadocia.

The region has two main tourist draws, and both of them are impressive. The first is the spectacular valleys and rock formations, which were formed by the eruption of three nearby volcanoes and the subsequent erosion of the tuff rock they left behind. Within the valleys lies the second attraction: the cave dwellings and churches. The soft, easily workable nature of the tuff that led to its erosion into such spectacular landscapes also made it simple to carve dwellings into the cliffsides. Indeed, so simple was it that whole churches were carved (many with beautiful frescoes inside) and in some cases entire TOWNS were built entirely below ground.

Goereme itself provided some fine examples of the cliff dwellings. Only a few of them were still in use by the Turks themselves, but many had been converted to other uses. Dozens were transformed into hotels or guesthouses, while this one had been turned into what I’m sure is one of the world’s oldest cellular equipment room.

The town itself was quite pretty (if spoiled a little by the prevalence of hotels and the microwave/cellular tower that, um, towered over it.)

I arrived back at my guesthouse just before a powerful rainstorm began. With the weather being so miserable, I was happy to just sit on the (covered) rooftop patio watching the storm and reading, until the sun made one final appearance just before bedtime.

I was determined to make better use of my second day in Goereme, and succeeded in fine fashion. After eating breakfast and packing a lunch for the day, I headed through the town and then up into one of the valleys behind it, ready for a pleasant day’s walk. I headed on up the valley and was surprised and delighted by what I saw. The rugged rock formations were just what I’d expected, but given that the area LOOKED kind of like the Alberta badlands, I’d expected it to be similarly devoid of plant life. I must have hit Cappadocia at JUST the right time, as the valley was packed full of beautiful wildflowers (most notably wild roses) as well as fruit orchards and gardens tended by the townsfolk. So prevalent were the flowers that there were a few times that I worried about walking through them for fear of being stung by one of the dozens of bees attending to them.

I wandered up this valley for an hour or so before coming to what was clearly its end. Apparently I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere (I later realized that it was right at the beginning) since there was supposed to be a path leading out of the valley I’d meant to explore. It took a lot of work, several tough tries, and a couple of almost-sliding-down-steep-loose-tuff-slopes before I managed to haul myself up to the top of the valley. Climbing up the tuff was astonishingly difficult. While it appeared to have a nice, rough surface, this surface was so soft and loose that it just slid out from under you whenever any real pressure was put on it.

My walk next took me up the Goereme-Nevshehir road, and then across it into a second valley. For the first while I thought my direction sense had improved, but before long I realized that once again, I’d picked the wrong valley. No matter. I carried on, walking through a brief rain shower and soaking my feet and ankles on the way. There weren’t any spectacular rock formations in this valley, nor were there as many wildflowers, but it was still a lovely peaceful walk far away from the crowds.

When the valley spilled out onto a paved road, I sat down and enjoyed my lunch beside a nearby vineyard and then headed along the road towards (I thought) Goereme. I’d picked right, and even managed to find the way into the valley I’d MEANT to pick earlier. This one had perhaps the best rock formations of them all, and was relatively busy with fellow tourists (I ran into 8 or 10 on my way back.) The walk took me back through many deeply eroded channels (this gave me pause… with the amount of rain that had fallen the possibility of flash floods wasn’t entirely remote from my mind) and past dozens of rock pillars.

The end of this valley found me back to near my starting point, and to the town of Uchisar. Uchisar was a pretty town, probably even moreso than Goereme. While the old town in Goereme seemed simply run down, much of old Uchisar was outright rruined, making it look better than its nearby neighbour. In an entirely appropriate ending to my day’s ramble, I found the very first valley (the “Pigeon Valley,” so called because of the pigeon roosts carved out of its rocke) whose entrance I’d missed in the morning and took it back to Goereme, with a brief pause on the way to have a picnic and a couple bottles of wine with a group of Turkish gardeners who were occupied trying to fix a mobile phone, and who thoughtfully prevented their (friendly once you got to know them) dogs from eating me.

The next day was just as full, and provided just as much wear on my feet as the first. This time I began with a walk out to the northeast of Goereme. My first valley of the day was loaded with cave dwellings, and was an exciting if not particularly scenic walk. During the trip up the valley I hauled myself up dry waterfalls, navigated short sections of pitch-black drainage tunnels (interesting in their own right: they’re carved out of the rock to prevent the villagers gardens from being flooded or swept away after rainfalls) and finally emerged far away from my starting point on the top of a mesa.

I carried on along the top of the plateau first through meadows of beautiful poppies and other wildflowers and then through lemon and olive groves. I reached the end of a finger on the plateau and headed down into yet a another valley where I visited my first decorated church in Cappadocia before (as was becoming habit at this point) getting slightly lost in the maze of side-valleys as I made my way back up to the plateau again. Aside from the loss of direction (which really wasn’t that bad) my walk was made particularly unpleasant by the rain that began to fall. There were light and heavy spells. I managed to find shelter in cave dwellings or drainage tunnels for the worst of them, continuing my walk during lighter periods. Unfortunately I miscalculated once, and ended up stuck out in a true downpour that left me cold, wet and grumpy as I ate my lunch in yet another cave carved into the valley walls.

As I approached the end of the valley the sun miraculously appeared and before too long I’d more or less dried out. I found a paved road on top of the plateau and followed it to the lookout over the rose and red valleys, perhaps the prettiest of them all. I walked down through the Rose valley, quickly separating myself from the tour group that I’d met at the top. Along the way there were the usual gardens (many of which seemed terribly inaccessible from the villages below) several cave dwellings and churches, and even a winery.

My walk carried on down the valley, then up and over the ridge that separated the rose and red valleys. The climb over the ridge wasn’t perfectly straightforward, but in the red valley the trail was well marked, which was fortunate as it allowed me to head back to Goereme speedily, arriving just before the rain started again.

After a quick meal in the kitchen I headed up to the rooftop at the exact right moment. From there I could see the plateau I’d spent the day walking over, under and around. It was a pretty sight at any time, but with the rain having ended recently and a rainbow shining above it, it was better still. I heard some new arrivals downstairs and headed down to greet the long-haired bunch, and to suggest that they hurry up to the roof to catch a look at the rainbow. “Far out man!” one of them exclaimed upon hearing my suggestion, “we just came from the Rainbow Gathering.” I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, but the folks were all nice enough, and I wasn’t unhappy for the company at the guesthouse.

My final day in Goereme was the one where I got to see the very best of its historical (as opposed to geological) attractions. The Goereme open air museum consists of about a dozen rock carved churches, and many other buildings constructed by a monastic community that lived in the area between the 9th and 11th centuries. The frescoes in these churches have been particularly well preserved, and the Goereme Open Air Museum is one of the highlights of a visit to Cappadocia.

I headed to the museum early in hopes that I might be admitted before the gates officially opened and could thus beat out the hordes of tour groups that stop there. As it turned out, I was only permitted in at official opening time and not a minute sooner. All the same, I did manage to get a few of the museum’s dozen churches to myself for a few minutes. This gave me an opportunity to take a few photos inside (I wasn’t sure I was technically allowed to do this, as there was a sign showing a camera with a red line through it outside several of the churches. As it turned out this was meant to indicate that FLASH photography wasn’t allowed.) Not only did many of the churches contain beautiful frescoes (though not all of them, since the churches spanned the period of the iconoclastic controversy where worship of images was banned) but many contained the tombs of the monks who had prayed there.

Before long, the crowds in the museum did get to be a bit much (though the huge hordes meant I could pick and choose which guided tours I wanted to listen to for a few minutes) and I was about ready to go. Before departing, I had to use the bathroom pretty desperately and was terribly galled by the fact that after having paid a $15 entry fee, they wanted an additional $0.25 to use the toilet. I didn’t feel particularly guilty about taking advantage of the toilet-guardian’s absence to slip in and out without paying. I suppose it is simply a cultural difference, but I have a feeling it’s one that will get on my nerves more or less forever.

I departed the museum after a couple of hours there, and it was only by chance that I happened across one final church set outside of the museum area, but still part of it. As it turned out, this one, the Buckle Church, had the most impressive frescoes of the lot. Not only that, it was one of the largest, and had virtually no one inside! Lucky me!

After taking dozens of photos inside the Buckle Church I returned to Goereme and packed up, getting ready to depart for the town of Selime and the nearby Ilhara Valley. I took a Dolmus to Nevshehir and after doing a bit of food shopping climbed aboard a bus headed for Ankara, which would let me off at the road junction for Selime. Though it rained for most of the bus ride, I was dropped off at the intersection under the sole surviving patch of blue sky. The rain held off as I set out down the road. I’d planned on catching a dolmus to Selime, but I knew that they were few in number and decided to try my luck hitching a ride there.

A few cars went zipping by, but after a few tries, a minivan pulled over ahead of me. The van was already nearing its capacity, with three passengers in the front and a cargo bay full of olive oil, but the occupants made room for me and my pack and I climbed aboard. The driver Ali, as well as his brother and their Kurdish companion were some of the nicest folks I met in Turkey. Not only did they take me to Selime, but when they stopped for lunch halfway there (the trip was only 25km in total) they invited me in to the restaurant with them and insisted on picking up my lunch as well!

When we arrived in Selime, I bid my benefactors farewell, but not before they’d positively insisted on leaving me with a gift of a set of worry beads. (The use of the beads provided an interesting commentary on the differences between Islam in Pakistan and Turkey. In Pakistan they were used as a sort of rosary, while in Turkey they were simply something that the men played with as they sat and drank their cay.)

Selime itself was a bit dreary (it hadn’t started raining yet, but the sunshine finally gave way to clouds) but it did have the spectacular Selime cathedral going for it. A mountain overlooking the town was positively riddled with interconnected carved out caves. The largest of them, including the cathedral itself were far, far bigger than anything in the Goereme area, 20m or more in length and 10m wide, though their internal decoration (if there had been any) hadn’t survived the years.

I explored the caverns for a while, sharing it with a couple small tour groups who stared at me in amazement as I climbed up the mountain with my full pack on. Before long the tour groups departed and I had the place to myself for a while before I climbed back down to the village and began to make my way down the canyon.

The walk through the valley was pleasant, if not really spectacular. It followed the Ilhara River, making its way first through farm fields and vineyards, and later through poplar forests, all the while kept company by caves and churches carved into the cliffs above.

I’d really wanted to sleep in one of the caves at Goereme, but had just been too comfortable at my guesthouse, but here was an ideal chance. While there were some great looking camping spots, sleeping in a cave would be still better because, A. If it rained I wouldn’t have to worry about packing up a wet tent in the morning and B. Sleeping in a cave is cool.

I saw a few promising ones, but the best of all appeared to be in use by the villagers, and in fact several of them were working away outside its entrance. I suspected that no one would mind my sleeping plans, but after a lot of waffling I finally decided that I’d carry on just a bit further and see if I could find a nice looking cave or church to sleep in. From perhaps 500m away I spotted one with a beautiful looking entrance and decided that if I could reach it (many of the caves had entrances well above ground level) that it would be my sleeping spot for the night.

I climbed up the hill at the base of the cliffs and examined a few of the caves lower down. Some of them looked like very pleasant spots to rest, but I remembered my earlier vow and carried on up the hill to the one I’d seen earlier which proved to be the best of them all. It consisted of a few carved steps leading up to the doorway, inside which was a 4x3m front room, with a 5x5m main chamber behind it. In the main chamber, there was an arch carved into each wall, and above was a perfect hemispherical dome. While there were no paintings or frescoes, this was probably the most beautifully carved of any of the Cliffside churches I’d yet seen. And I hade the place all to myself! (well, except for the family of swallows that lived in a corner of the front room.)

I quickly unpacked and set about making dinner with the remaining light. I spent the rest of the evening having a bit of a read and marvelling at the supreme coolness of the place where I’d be spending the night. I later learned that the church where I’d slept was probably about 800 years old!

The next morning I packed up and hit the trail again, bound for Ilhara, at the south end of the valley. Along the way I passed a small village and then the first of the many decorated churches that are the valley’s main attraction. As it turned out this first one, St. George’s Church was the most impressive of the bunch. It was set well away from the main access points to the valley, but sadly had still been badly damaged by vandals who had scratched their names into the plaster of the frescoes. It was kind of depressing to see this, and I left wondering what kind of person it was that walked into such a beautiful historic building and thought “you know, this is pretty nice, but it would be a lot better if I carved my name into it.” Thankfully the vandals were lazy enough to leave the ones on the ceiling more or less intact.

The valley continued to be pretty, but as noted, the first church was the best of the lot. This made it especially surprising that the only tour groups I encountered were right near the valley’s south end, well away from St. George’s, looking at the less splendid examples of the its monastic interior design.

After a nice sit out in the sun in front of one of the less accessible churches, I followed one of the tour groups up and out the canyon to the village of Ilhara. I backtracked a bit to see some of the canyon from above, and to have lunch at the visitor’s centre north of the village, but by early afternoon I’d returned to Ilhara, courtesy of a ride from Ismail, a young man who worked at a hotel in town. He’d obviously been trying to draw me in as a customer, but when it became plain that I would be leaving his hospitality didn’t let up at all. We sat and drank a few cups of tea as I waited for the bus to Aksaray. During this time, I listened to his horror stories about an obsessive ex-girlfriend (she called his mobile 10 or 12 times during our conversations) and met a few of his friends and co-workers. One of these fellows exemplified the spirit of Turkish hospitality and insisted that he be allowed to pay for my bus ticket, as he was headed to Aksaray as well. This despite the fact that we could scarcely even speak to one another given our abysmal skills in one anothers’ languages.

I arrived in Aksaray at about 17:00, and set about trying to find a night bus headed to my next destination, Eyirdir in Turkey’s Lake District. It took quite a bit of work to find what I was looking for, despite the fact that I knew there were at least two buses that met my needs. Nonetheless, I managed, and was left with a few hours to have a look around Aksaray before departure.

Before I’d even left the bus station, I met the first of the many friendly folks I’d meet in Aksaray. A pair of fruit vendors beckoned me to sit down by their carts for a cup of tea. Throughout our drinks we talked as best we could manage, and my hosts kept feeding me fruit. Before I headed off I picked up a kilo of cherries, which I had to work hard to pay half price for… The vendor had wanted desperately to give me them for free!

I spent the remainder of the early evening walking around the bus station area chatting with whomever seemed interested (which was almost everyone) and doing my best to limit the gifts of food and drink that I accepted, not for lack of desire, but for fear that I was being offered more than some of them could really afford to give.

Finally departure time came for my bus, and I climbed aboard, headed for Eyirdir.

I had hoped to sleep for most of the bus ride, but I didn’t really manage it. Instead, I found myself sitting up and thinking for a good chunk of the trip. I’m not sure exactly what prompted it, but it was during this bus ride when I decided I’d be heading home a bit earlier than planned. I wasn’t feeling homesick just yet, nor was I really starting to run out of money. I suppose it boiled down to the fact that I was starting to miss my friends and family, and that I wanted some time to spend with them back home before returning to work.

I was wide awake when the bus arrived in Eyirdir at 04:02, and hopped off to find… Well, very little. There were one or two people out on the main street of the town, but short of going and waking up someone at a guesthouse, there wasn’t much for me to do. My walk down the street to the lakeside park was one of the most surreal moments of the trip… Here I was in a strange Turkish town at four o’clock in the morning. All around there was a deafening chorus of very odd sounding frogs, and to top it off when I looked down at the sidewalk in front of me I was greeted by the stalk-perched eyes of a large crab staring back up at me. Perhaps you had to be there, but it was a truly bizarre feeling experience.

I sat around in the park for a while, before moving to a sunnier spot after sunrise, and then finally making my way up to my chosen guesthouse at 07:00. I checked in and, as before, immediately fell asleep. While my plan to take night buses and save on accommodation WAS saving me money, it was also costing me time that could have better spent awake and about.

On the positive side, I did manage to get up and start planning my time in Eyirdir before the day had advanced too far. I’d very much hoped to do some hiking in the mountains nearby, and set about sorting out potential destinations. The tail end of the 350km long St. Paul’s trail sounded like an ideal trek, but I eventually had to give up on it due to limited food supplies on the track, and a slightly-too-long six day time requirement.

In the end I decided to take a shorter walk to nearby Davraz Peak, for which I’d do some provisioning during the day. I headed into town and picked up a few days worth of food, and then set about seeing what sights Eyirdir itself had to offer.

The very best of these was Lake Eyirdir itself. I’m not sure if it’s the light, or some minerals in the water or what, but the colour of the water in the lake had that gorgeous Mediterranean turquoise colour that is so common in advertisements for Greek and Turkish beach resorts. I followed the shoreline out across the causeway to Yeshilada, a former island, which houses most of the more upscale tourist hotels. All along the way I was offered boat rides, fishing trips and meals at pretty lakeside restaurants.

After my walk, I headed back into town and spent a while writing at an internet café before heading to bed in preparation for my Davraz trek the next day.

The first portion of the walk was up a steep and winding road to the village of Apkenar. While it wasn’t terribly difficult it was clear that my fitness wasn’t at quite the same level as it was during my treks in Nepal, and I was already a bit hot and tired despite an early start.

After Apkenar the slope settled down a bit, but the trail became rougher, first taking the form of a tractor path, then a footpath as it wound its way through the high pastures above Lake Eyirdir. The lake below was exhibiting its colour even more wonderfully than before, and the mountains above were beautiful and rugged (that said, I think I HAD been spoiled a bit by the Himalaya and Karakoram. After visiting ranges of giants like those, any other group of mountains on Earth seem like mere hillocks.)

I’d seen one sign directing me to Davraz near the village, but when the footpath came to a T-intersection at a gravel road I had no idea which way I ought to be going. I had only the vaguest idea of what direction to head in, and was at a loss for what to do. Fortunately (or so I thought) I met a shepherd woman just down the road and asked her for directions (in Turkish, but it wasn’t THAT hard to do.) I took her advice and headed on down the road. I would have thought that with only two possible directions, the odds of going the right way were pretty good. Whatever the odds may have been, the result didn’t turn out in my favour, and soon even my vaguest idea of Davraz’ location was enough to make it clear that I was headed the wrong way.

By this point I was a bit irritable in addition to being tired, and these factors combined with a bit of innate laziness to convince me to scrap the trip to Davraz and head back to Sivri Dayi, a lower peak much nearer to Eyirdir. The walk up to the summit was still far from easy, but when I arrived I was greeted with a beautiful view out over the lake as well as a flat grassy area perfect for pitching my tent.

I spent the entire afternoon sitting in the grass below the summit reading and feasting on my now far-beyond adequate food supplies. Every now and then (especially as the sunset drew nearer) I’d climb up to the summit itself for the very best views of the town, lake and the valleys beyond.

As night approached, I stared out over the pastures I’d walked earlier, watching the shepherds heading back to their temporary homes, and listening to the distant bleating of their flocks.

The next morning my alarm woke me in what I predicted would be good time to watch the sunrise over the lake. In fact I was well early, and despite my tiredness I still loved watching the warm coloured sky over the cool blue of the lake and the darkness of Eyirdir on the peninsula below. My enjoyment of the sunrise wasn’t so wonderful, however that it prevented me from heading straight back into the tent for some more sleep once it was over.

The remainder of the day was spent in similar fashion to the previous afternoon: sitting, eating, and admiring the views from my elevated vantage point. I so enjoyed these lazy days that I even considered staying for another night, but finally the lack of a water source convinced me that I should head down for the evening.

The walk down was pleasantly lazy, with a long stop by a fresh, sweet water spring for another meal and a read, as well as a visit with a Turkish family who invited me in for some Turkish coffee. It was my first experience with the beverage, and while I’m not generally a big coffee fan, the strong, sweet beverage complete with grounds still in the cup was actually quite tasty.

I finally arrived back in Eyirdir in the late afternoon and had a decision to make: should I spend the night there or try to get yet another night bus to my next stop, Selchuk. I decided that I’d give nocturnal travel one more shot, and purchased my ticket before returning to the guesthouse to collect the items I’d left behind in order to lighten my pack.

I spent the early evening at the guesthouse showing off my photos from the summit (while many guests hiked up to the top, I was the first who had spent the night) as well as eating more of the cucumber, cheese and tomato sandwiches, which were rapidly becoming my staple food in Turkey.

Later at night I headed back to the very centre of town where I boarded the bus bound for the Aegean coast.

The bus first headed to the town of Isparta, a local centre famous for its annual rose harvest. I spent the ten minute break wandering around shops near the station, each of which offered a bewildering array of products produced from local roses, ranging from skin creams, to perfumes, to jelly.

Once back on board there were no more major stops until our arrival at Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, and the major transportation hub on the Aegean Coast. For once I got a good sleep.

At Izmir I changed buses once more (and was later very irritated to discover that I’d been overcharged for this leg of the journey) and continued my restful ride until arrival at my final destination, the historic town of Selchuk.


One Response to “Heading for the Hills: Cappadocia and Turkey’s Lake District”

  1. ewan says:

    Hey! An update! :-)

    Yes, Llew, there are people out here reading..