Breathtaking Cappadocia (Part 1)

Turkey > Cappadocia

February 2013

We have heard so much of this magical place called Cappadocia in central Anatolian Turkey — some say one of the top 5 places to see before you die or something. So in high anticipation we start the day very early, with a 2-sector flight from Izmir to Kayseri, via Istanbul. There is no direct flight today, unfortunately, and Kayseri is the main airport for the Cappadocia region.

Already there is a large crowd at the modern Izmir ADB airport, at this unearthly hour.

We are aboard the 6.35am Pegasus Airlines flight PC4119 bound for Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport SAW. It’s a  Boeing 737-800, reg. TC-AAY.

This is Istanbul’s second airport, and interestingly, co-managed by Malaysia Airports Berhad. It’s on the Asian side of Istanbul, while Ataturk Airport IST is on the European side. For low-cost carriers (LCCs), this is the Istanbul hub.

Quite a modern airport, named after Sabiha Gokcen, the first female fighter pilot in the world. This terminal was completed in 2009, and SAW won an award for best LCC airport in 2010.

After an hour of lay-over at SAW, we soon board another Pegasus flight, this time PC166, arrival time at Kayseri Airport (ASR) is 10.00am.

And we get to see the famous safety video done by kids of the airlines’ staff.  How delightful and innovative! Search Youtube for the full version.

On our way to Kayseri, past Ankara, now skirting the  Hirfanli Dam, completed 1959. Another Boeing 737-800, reg. TC-CPE.

Central Anatolia is a very cold, forbidding place.

What a beautiful day in Kayseri, in stark contrast to Izmir and Istanbul earlier on, but it’s very cold too.

A pick-up car waits for us and soon we are cruising Turkey’s magnificent highways to Urgup, the centre of Cappadocia. It’s a 50-km drive.

As we enter Urgup, I’m awestruck — the whole area is full of cave dwellings! The hills were made of volcanic ashes emitted many millions of years ago, and had hardened to form what is called ‘tufa’. Tufa is hard and not easily eroded like other ash types, but is soft enough to be sculpted by hand tools. Hence, the dwellings here have been around since thousands of years BC.

Even our hotel is embedded into the side of a tufa hill.  Only the facade faces the access road, and that red-framed windows is our bedroom. Dedeli Konagi is the name, Ibrahim is the owner, ever-smiling and uber-friendly.

Cosy and bright, but note the wall — that’s bare tufa stone, carved by hand. It is said the cave provides an even temperature all-year round. Even in baking hot summers and sub-zero winters, the interior temperatures pleasantly remain around 20°C.

I climb to the top of the hill which hosts our cave hotel. This is truly ancient Urgup. The ‘houses’ seen here are virtually facades of the real dwellings — man-made caves dug deep into the tufa hills. This used to be a Christian area until Ataturk did an exchange with Muslims from Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, etc. The Christians left, and the Muslims from those Christian countries returned to Turkey. That mosque used to be a church.

It’s noon and we are taken away for lunch in our half-day schedule, but what are we doing here among these rocks?

Oh no, more cats!

Sure enough. I guess to reduce the number of loitering felines especially when guests are around, the considerate locals have been innovative.

Although some lucky few are still enjoying the warm sun in the freezing weather.

So where’s our restaurant? We are famished.

A cave-restaurant, what else? Hand-built, right inside one of the stone outcrops.

There’s even a very nicely-done shop selling precious and semi-precious stones, plus associated jewellery. The rooms, halls, passages, all done using hand tools.

Lunch done, we are soon on our way to our first destination, as we cross some high ground.

Looks like more caves to be explored, looking at these tufa hills.

Yes, indeed — the Kaymakli Underground City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 30km from Urgup.

Mehmet the Guide (yes, another Mehmet), shows us the plan of this underground city, biggest among 36 found so far in Cappadocia. First built many centuries BC, it provided safety and refuge when invaded by enemies — villagers would simply disappear underground when attacked, and this city could accommodate 5,000 people. An ant-house?

A typical height of the underground chambers. Definitely not for claustrophobics, especially when having to stay underground for months.

There are living quarters, kitchens, grain and wine storages, stables for animals, water wells, etc., and ventilation shafts — all very well-planned for long stays.

The passageways are quite narrow, with holes at the sides for hiding defenders to spear invaders to death. Suprisingly the whole place is pleasant and virtually devoid of dust or debris.  I just can’t imagine people living here more than 2,000 years ago.

These are  ummm … toilets. Not as graceful as the Roman ones in Ephesus, but when you are hiding from blood-thirsty invaders, you don’t complain. I only wonder how they neutralised the odour.

Exit the 2000-year-old underground city, and you get the normal stuff.

We leave Kaymakli, and head for another Cappadocia landmark, near the town of Goreme.

This is the majestic Valley of the Pigeons, the work of huge amount of volcanic ashes and erosions, over millions of years.

Ancient cave dwellings litter the tufa landscape. This is the town of Uchisar.

The soft tufa hills are easily carved into cave-houses, dating from 1500 BC, during the Hittites period.

The geology is indeed interesting. Compacted ancient ashes comprising various components cause the different hues.

It’s called Valley of Pigeons for a reason. Since time immemorial, people here have been harvesting pigeon droppings as fertiliser. They also eat the birds, and for this, they built countless pigeon houses out of the tufa hills and walls.

Above the valley cliff, I catch a glimpse of Mt Erciyes in the setting sun. At 3900m, it’s a dormant volcano located just 20km south of Kayseri. However the landscape of Cappadocia was not created by Mt Erciyes, but by much older super-volcanoes some 10mil years ago.

The sun is setting fast and it’s time to return to our Urgup cave.

Urgup is a town of less than 20,000 people, but it’s regarded as the commercial centre of Cappadocia — visitors love it. Like all towns in Cappadocia, it’s a very ancient settlement, founded more then 2,000 years ago. This is a very ancient land we are in.

We have a hearty kebab dinner at Yaprak at the town square. What a way to end a rather long day.

Strolling back to our cave-hotel, not too far from the town square, but an uphill walk nevertheless.

We let ourselves in, nobody is around, but I reckon this is a very safe place. Good night!





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