Tuesday, 12 June
So yesterday I took a shuttle to the main road and then a minivan to Antalya, and from there a bus to Goreme, which took about ten hours. I asked the hotel information center to call the place reserved for me by Alaturka, Shoestring Cave Hotel, and forty minutes later a car came and got me, toted me and my stuff the four minute drive away. It was around seven in the morning.
Goreme is a neat little town in a hot, rocky, dessert-like, barren kind of place. There are stone cones everywhere, natural formations most of them, dug out into residences, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most hotel or hostel names have the word “cave” in them somewhere. At Shoestring, I checked into the dorms, which truly felt cave-like: dark, cool and packed with beds. There were actually four adjoining caves and I picked one further back. After getting somewhat settled without waking the other dorm residents, I tramped upstairs to a higher cave for breakfast.
Later in the morning, I was picked up by a Nese Tour minivan, which already had several people inside, and off we went to see the south part of Cappedoccia – which, incidentally, has about half a dozen different spellings. The tour included seeing beautiful valleys and panoramic views of the fairy chimneys; this is what they call the tall spires and conical rock structures that even long ago served as domiciles, kitchens, churches and castles. I would like to learn a bit more about how they were formed because all our guide could say was that it’s due to ancient eruptions and lava formations. But I’ve seen other volcanic areas that don’t have such strange formations, so there must be more at work.
We also saw an underground city which was fairly incredible, with air ducts and areas for animal stalls, kitchens and yes, churches and a monastery. The tour lasted until six in the evening, including lunch. Once I was back at Shoestring, I felt the exhaustion settle in and within two hours I had gotten a nibble to eat for dinner and gone to bed. Oh, and I’d also made some plans for early the next morning…
Wednesday, 13 June
My alarm went off at 4:15am and I scrabbled to shut it off before other dorm sleepers could be disturbed. I scrabbled in the cool darkness for the stack of clothes I’d set out the night before, found my hat and sunglasses and day pack, and stumbled out the low cave doorways into the pre-dawn morning. I blinked and hemmed and hawed myself awake until about 5am, when the Urgup Balloons minivan pulled up to collect me. After making a stop to sort us into different groups (mine was the orange group), we drove quite a ways out of town, spotting the monstrous balloons being inflated in fields along the way. It was a magical kind of thing, seeing these huge contraptions in various states of being.
The sun had just risen when we were deposited near three inflating balloons and pointed to the one that was ours. There were maybe eleven of us and we all gazed around as bursts of sound came from each balloon as it was fired up. Ours was the last in our particular area to inflate, which made me happy since I could watch the entire process. When the whole thing was upright, it was time for us to clamber into the basket, which was sectioned off into five parts: a center aisle for the pilot and four corner spots for the passengers, with two or three per slot. The arrangement was quite nice because we could all see and stand along the basket’s edge.
The flight was so magically smooth, with no heaving or drops or anything to make the stomach uncomfortable. Takeoff was just a smooth, slight lifting feeling, barely noticeable. I particularly loved watching as we rose above other balloons: they’re just so massive, yet move so smoothly! Our pilot seemed particularly good, joking (“I name my balloon Titanic!” or “First flight? Yes, me too!” or “And now we clean bottom of basket with trees.”) and pointing out features of the landscape to us. We rose three kilometers into the sky at one point and could see probably a hundred balloons around and below us. He brought us low enough into a valley to talk to some hikers there and ensuring that the balloon was always rotating, but very slowly, to allow everyone a good view at all times.
The flight lasted almost exactly an hour, during which we descended into two valleys and floated across the landscape for miles. It was quiet in the air except for the whoom sound of the furnace blasts keeping our balloon full. I couldn’t quite make out how it all worked, since sometimes the pilot would fire it and we would descend, whereas sometimes we would rise without any action I could make out. Very strange! And the landscape, eerily formed cones and fairy chimneys and banded colors at every turn, just added to the oddness of it all. Toss in sunrise and the cool of the morning and altitude and it was just perfect!
The landing was as impressive as the rest of the flight: a small trailer, only inches bigger than the basket itself, was pulled by a truck into the walking path on a farm and the pilot – I swear! – landed right on it. The crew pulled on ropes and yanked it into perfect place and then we were down! It was really stunning and we all cheered before climbing out of the basket. The crew quickly set up a small table with a tip box surrounded by champagne glasses filled with sparkling cider. The pilot explained to us that it was a tradition to toast the flight, each time, and so toast we did! They handed out certificates with our names on them, declaring that we’d had a balloon flight, and then we were whisked off to our respective hotels. What a morning!
My day wasn’t over yet: after breakfast, Nese Tours came by again and picked me up for the northern part of the Cappedoccia tour. It was a different group than the day before, consisting of two Turkish men, two Australian couples and an Irish guy. We must have visited eight or nine places! The guide today was brand new and it showed. Most of his “guiding” consisted of minimal rote-memorized history and facts followed by “And now I give you ten minutes free time.” It was a bit disappointing but it was still fascinating seeing the castle made out of stone caves; fairy chimneys balancing huge rocks on top of spindly spires; ancient churches and their frescoes in the stone cliffs; a fancy lunch; and a wine tasting at the very end. I ended up chatting mostly with the Turkish guys, who were friendly and cheerful and helped me with my shopping.
It was an exhausting day, hotter than ever and with so much to take in. When I was dropped back at Shoestring, I immediately went off to town to find a bag: I’ve been buying way too much stuff, too much to fit in my pack anymore! I ended up at a little place with a kindly older gentleman in it who climbed on his work table to pull down a variety of bags for me to look at. I also nabbed a turban, a bit late perhaps but still fun to have, and seem to have made a nice impression on the guy because he pinned a little good luck charm on my shirt before sending me on my way. His prices were very fair, too, which was nice after the hiked-price souvenir shopping of the day.
I went for a swim at the Shoestring Pool (icy cold, so lovely!), showered, repacked and headed off for the bus station (“otogar” in Turkish). I’d left myself an hour so I could stow my packs somewhere and have dinner, but it turned out my bus arrived about an hour late. Never mind, I was comfortably tired and managed to konk out admirably for good chunks of the twelve hour bus ride.
Thursday, 14 June
Here I sit on the first leg of my trip home: Istanbul to London. This morning I arrived to the main Istanbul otogar at around 7:30am. From there I took the metro to Aksaray and found an internet café to noodle around at and, later, a café to break my fast at. I whiled away the time there, booking myself a lodge for my evening in London and catching up on the news and happenings of friends and family via e-mail and Facebook. Eventually I hopped back on the metro and off I went to the airport, good and early for this flight, which left just twenty minutes late but seems on track to land on time.
***several hours later***
Made it to Heathrow Hostel, which I booked online as a 4-bed dorm near the airport. Through a series of unfortunate (and all completely my fault) incidents, it took me forever to find it via bus (should’ve taken the underground) and then find the address (I just didn’t think it could be the pub). But now here I am in a mixed 7-bed dorm above the White Bear Pub… ah well, I’ve learned how to get to the airport quickly now and feasted on a dinner of veggie pizza. My plan is to go to bed early and actually get a good night’s sleep, how about that!