It was unreal, almost alien. Behind me stood a flat pale brown expanse, with a tall white mountain at the horizon jotting up high in to the crystal clear sky. Ahead were these strange yellow and black phallus like structures, stretching as far as the eye could see. Some formed part of a range that extended up the hillside; others were just monoliths pointing to the sky. If you woke me up and said this was Mars, it wouldn't be so far-fetched, some of the Hollywood depictions have been far more earth-like. Probably because our imagination is grounded. It did not "feel" normal. Only the arches and squares cut in to the almost indistinguishable houses, built into the strange looking hill indicated human activity. Along with the ubiquitous bright red Turkish flag flapping in the wind. This was Cappadocia.
The shock was even more intense, since I hardly had a glimpse of the landscape the previous evening, courtesy Turkish airlines. Foolishly, I had chosen to fly from Antalya to Istanbul, and then to Kayseri, the nearest airport to Cappadocia. I admit, I had doubts right from the start. Antalya and Kayseri were 600kms apart, 8 hours at a stretch by road. I could have taken an overnight bus. No, there is a connecting flight, it takes just 2-1/2 hours, and it costs roughly the same, said my local agent, and I caved. I took 5 internal flights in a fortnight in Turkey, none of them ever took-off, or landed on time. There are no apologies offered, the captain blames the traffic congestion or late incoming flight. And this is across all airlines. We in India take punctual flight arrivals for granted, atleast in recent times. My flight was delayed by 8 hours, first because the incoming flight from Istanbul was late by 2 hours, which meant I couldn't make the connection, and the next flight to Kayseri was 4 hours away, and it landed 2 hours late. So much for a 2-1/2 hour flight. I landed at 11.30pm at Kayseri, and the drive to Cavusin where I was staying was an hour. It was pitch dark, I cursed myself every minute the whole day, and the camera I had carried in my backpack felt heavy. Thank god for the airport pick-up. They had no choice, there were five of us arriving in Kayseri on various flights, and not one of them was on time. No more internal flights wherever I go, I promised. But the pain had its benefits.
Cappadocia is a high-altitude plateau, semi-desert like, and lies dead-center in the Turkish heartland. And it is as distinct from the rest of the country as it can get, both in terms of landscape as well as culture. The name is Persian, "Katpatuka" meaning "the land of horses"; and even today, farms across the region have stables, and the Cappadocian horse is highly prized. The region is believed to have been continuously occupied since 6C BC, it is hot and dry in the summers, and it snows here in the winters. The rest of the country I had seen over the past fortnight was green and fertile. This was more central Asia steppes, low mountain chains, large rolling grasslands, and sparsely populated. Even the dogs looked different. Large and fierce. The one guarding my hotel was called Chet, it looked like a husky, and had piercing blood red eyes. But an ear tickle and a belly rub, and we were friends.
The province of Cappadocia is famous for its natural wonders - the geological rock formations. Millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion by elements have left the whole area pock-marked with strange pillars and minarets, rock formations that defy imagination, craters and valleys that stretch for miles, and soil with colors that change depending on the time of the day. Inhabitants over centuries have built churches, monasteries and dwellings into the hills, these rock-cut structures add to the topography; unlike our modern cities, they feel a natural part of the surroundings, and at first glance, you would have trouble distinguishing the natural from the human-built.
Our group the next two days was all South-Asian. Two Chinese couples on their honeymoon, and who hadn't heard that temperatures here soar to 41 degrees, a Japanese family, a globe-trotting Vietnamese couple, and me. We were on the grand tour, and our accents were driving the guide nuts. After a brief period of struggle, he lost patience and said "no more questions, I will talk and explain, and you will go along and see what you want". Worked really well. It was a blistering day, but there were hardly any tourists around. The caves are much cooler and they stay at the same temperature through the day, said the guide. No wonder people built cities in the caves.
We started with one of the underground cities which were built by the early Christians to escape persecution, complete with houses, temples and schools, and even ventilation systems. The next stop was "Uchisar castle", with its rooms and windows cut into the rock, and rising higher than the surrounding flatland, it is worth the climb for the great views it offers of the region, and is a fantastic photo joint. At the abandoned 2C AD Greek village of "Cavusin", with its hillside monasteries, houses and cave systems, we saw what the guide meant. The caves were clearly much cooler than outside, and even seemed to have a slight breeze. And dampness, it was summer!"Devrent valley" with its red, pock-marked lunar landscape and rock formations that resemble animals, was puzzling. It is a large valley and all around are strange formations that defy gravity. Eons of erosion by wind and water have left these incredible contortions that at first instance look brilliantly carved. The guide would point at one of these structures, and say "doesn't it look like a camel?" and we would go "yes, yes, there's a camel". But it worked only when he suggested an animal. The human mind is incredibly susceptible.
The mushroom shaped fairy chimneys at "Pasabag" or "Monk's valley" are almost religious; cones of two or three rock pillars, standing on almost polished trunks, and they in turn on mounds of rock rising in to the sky. The monks and hermits who built the chapels at the top of the 20m chimney must have felt cut-off from the world, one could sit at his window and see the valley, the rocks and the sunset and feel at peace.
The most spectacular of them all are the frescos and rock-cut churches of the "Goreme open air museum", a UNESCO world heritage site. One of the largest cave dwelling complexes in the world, this area is full of subterranean cities, churches and monasteries cut in to the hills that date back to 4C AD, and is one of the earliest instances of the spread of Christianity in the country. The constructions are so harmonious with the setting and the rock formations, not even an inch feels out of place. Spectacular remnants of an ancient civilization that flourished in this out-of-world setting between the 4C to 12C AD. I am not a religious man, but these monasteries perfectly belong in these volcanic valleys and ridges. God must exist, no human can even imagine this landscape, less alone build it.
More evidence of me growing old turned up that morning. We were at Pasabag, and our group was passed by a beautiful woman, wearing a flowing red Turkish dress, with a paltan of cameramen and assistants. Is she getting married? No, she is not Turkish, it seems there is a photo-shoot, said the guide. I stood a handshake away and stared at that chiseled face, a face i knew i had seen before, but couldn't place to save my life. I took a couple of photographs, and she was posing for the shoot. Our group went around the place, and on our way back, she was still on the rocks, in the hot sun. The two parts of my brain however, weren't jelling. "Who was she, and where had I seen her?" We went off to lunch, where a beer and a delicious turkey meant the question faded away, till I wound up on the flight back home two days later, reading an Indian magazine, and she was on the cover. Nargis Fakri, in flesh and blood, a handshake away, without crowds mobbing her, and I couldn't place her. That's middle age, and the transition is scary. Better bring out the bucket-list. I bet this wouldn't have happened a year ago. Maybe the place had something to do with it.
Ozcan, my guide in Antalya is from Cappadocia, and he had warned me "either you will love it or hate it". It is such a bewildering landscape that your senses aren't sure, and your mind refuses to believe it exists. Once you settle down though, Cappadocia has many activities for the adventure-seeking. Humongously expensive hot-air balloon rides, farms that offer horse-back tours, and buggy travel expeditions. And cave hotels, where even in summer, air-conditioning feels unnecessary. My room at the hotel at Cavusin, "Rose valley house" had neither a fan nor an AC, and I felt the need for neither. The attractions in this province are very real, and Turkish tourism does a great promotion. They have built perfect infrastructure even in this heartland, so spaced out and different from the rest of the country. When do we in India learn? Where there is infrastructure, there go the tourists. And it is all about choice. If I am spending good money, it better be worth it.
My last night in Turkey ended very much the same way as the first; politics and beer, over a multi-course home-cooked dinner. A continuous thread ran through each of the discussions over the fortnight and all those places I stayed in; opinionated, hot-headed locals pleading for moderation, employment, lower prices and a stable political system. "We don't want violence, we want jobs and stability". In a country where 40% of the population depends on agriculture and tourism, it is a powerful voice. Moderation and development, not violence. The re-run vote takes place on 1 Nov. Will the next Govt. listen?