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Cappadocia – the Tours

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I’d like to preface this article by saying that while it may sound like I am complaining, I’m really not. I just like to point out the hilarious little tidbits that make travel an absurd activity sometimes.

As it happens, we were – as a corollary to our three night hotel stay – entitled to join two free full-day tours in the Cappadocia (or Cappadocia?) region.

It’s one heck of a big region, too.

When I say I’m not complaining, I really do mean it – our ridiculously large, though largely dysfunctional, cave room cost us a total of 25 Euros per night, including breakfast. So the two of us spent 75 Euros all up, in return receiving the three nights’ accommodation, three buffet breakfasts (they were terrible, but still…) and two tours the going rate for which, we discovered today, is 35 and 40 Euros each (respectively).

So, in essence, either we paid for the hotel and the tours were free, or we paid for the tours and the hotel was free. Either way, it’s a good deal piled upon an incredible room rate. So needless to say, they weren’t making a huge sum of money off us. Which might go some way to explaining their general indifference to our comfort and enjoyment, but probably not. More likely, they really just didn’t give a damn.

The tours are very attractively named; the first tour we joined was the ‘blue’ tour. This tour lasted from 9AM until 7.30PM and took us to a wide variety of destinations, from eight stories deep in an underground city (very awesome) to a ceramics workshop (zzzzzzzz) with an untold number of opportunities afforded to buy useless junk along the way.

In truth, other than the underground city (the awesomeness of which one cannot overstate) the highlight of the tour was the sheer inanity of it; the absurdity of the situations and places in which we found ourselves throughout the day.

On the one hand, we had the participants; there were the stereotypical older Australians on a major retirement tour of Turkey, but it was the two Turkish couples who really provided the day’s entertainment. The first, I will term the grumpy couple; he, weedy looking quiet one, she the grouchy superior one. Watching the all day, presumably complaining about everything in Turkish and happy about nothing, he taking his cues from her, was a spectacle.

The second couple, though, provided the real soap opera entertainment. Obviously, everything we observed was based on inference, but what we got was that she (’curly hair’) held some kind of ire towards he (’people pleaser’). As a result, the same pattern kept repeating throughout the day; we’d all stop somewhere, the three of us would banter among ourselves about the junk they were trying to shill to us, then we’d head back outside and wait by the bus. In the meantime, curly hair and people pleaser would emerge last, him gingerly replacing his wallet to his pant pocket; she, grasping a shopping bag containing their most recent unnecessary acquisition.

When we stopped in the town of Goreme for an hour (which, incidentally, is the town in which we presently find ourselves staying), they were also the only couple to take up the offer of an hour’s hire of a 4 wheeler motorbike for a mere 70 Lira.

I don’t know what he did to you, curly hair, but if you keep denying him the attention he craves, the sky is the limit for gifts you could extract. What a chump.

The tour itself wasn’t what I would call bad – it’s just that it wasn’t very good. Notwithstanding the frequent stoppages for opportunities to make purchase of carved stone, jewelry, ceramics, wine, lunch, Turkish Delight, etc. – no doubt, each with its inherent kickback to the tour operators – this really was less of a tour and more of a shuttle bus between tourist attractions, with a couple of salient facts to describe what we were looking at or experiencing. On the detail, they were very light.

In fact, our guide’s most commonly used phrase of the day was “this wouldn’t mean anything to you” – which, in essence, meant, “we learn about this period of history in Turkey, so these guys <the Turks on our tour> understand it, but since you don’t know who or where or what these specific people, places or things were, I’m not going to bother to explain it to you, but take my word for it that it’s worth seeing”.

To be fair, a lot of what we were seeing was insanely spectacular, but I am not going to credit the tour company for that; more likely, the centuries of digging that some hardcore Byzantine dudes got themselves stuck into.

I think Mel hit the nail on the head when she said: “maybe there is something to be said for actually paying for a tour”. On the other hand, who on earth knows? It might have been no different; it was a tour company, after all.

As for the locations we were taken to on the first day, there was a lot of driving, punctuated by a number of short stops. The underground city at the start was incredible; a network of tunnels and underground rooms that went down 15 floors and at one time held up to 1500 people – all underground, sometimes for months at a time while under siege from above. And I thought I was pale now; after 3 months in the dark I would truly be the invisible man.

But in truth, there’s no way I’d be tough enough to survive that – I mean, that is just crazy. The creepiness high point of the tour was at the bottom level we were permitted to visit (the eighth), where there was a sign that said simply “Graves”. Out guide went to pains to point out that no, it wasn’t actually a grave site, but rather a morgue – where they would store the bodies after they died.

Well, we went back there to the little chamber and of course my anxious brain started throwing up scenarios of earthquakes and stone wall collapses, where we were stuck in the morgue with 4500 year old spirits of dead people and no escape.

I’m not a claustrophobic person, but I can really see how a person could be – that place was amazing, but creepy.

Two noteworthy facts that I do recall from our tour (our guide was much stronger on this element of the tour than the others) were that there is a tunnel, which he showed us, that extends nine kilometers to another underground city and which can only fit through by crawling. I cannot imagine the trauma that would set off if I tried to do that on my own. Secondly, though, how in the hell did these guys know where to go in order to get their tunnel to meet up with the other city, 4 millenniums ago? [nb: I wanted to type ‘millennia’ but it’s being marked as incorrectly spelled; any Latin speakers out there please feel free to correct me here]

The second fact was how the tunnels were found; not only completely abandoned of people and animals, but devoid of any artifacts, tools; basically any sign that people had once lived there. It’s a heck of a mystery.

Yes, the underground city did leave an impression upon us. Apparently, these cities continue to be found once in a while; recently, one was discovered that descends 25 levels below the ground; 10 more than our paltry city. But, as the Australian in me would say: bugger that for a joke.

There were some other places we went, but they haven’t left much of an impression. There was some ‘traditional’ Turkish stuff; like watching a guy make a pot on a pottery wheel, watching another guy make an egg out of a rock… Impressive skills, to be sure, but it didn’t have the desired effect on our group, with ‘people pleaser’ time and again the only person to buy anything.

I was tempted to tell these guys that not only were we avowed minimalists, but we don’t actually have a place where we’re living – we are, technically, homeless – but in a region with thousands of abandoned (perfectly inhabitable) caves I thought they would have trouble comprehending the concept.

There were, no doubt, some other land features and cave like structures that we visited along the way but, based on the fact that I can’t readily recall them I’m happy to determine that few were that memorable. In a place where every direction you look is just spectacular, you very quickly become very hard to impress.

Well, I do.

One hilarious high point occurred much later in the day when, after our visit to the winery for a ‘free’ wine tasting (which actually cost 6 Euro, so of course we didn’t partake – we know what wine tastes like and, coming from Germany, strangely didn’t feel the need to try Turkish wine), we headed down the hill to the Turkey-famous ‘Stone House’ or ‘Stone Lodge’ maybe – ‘Stone’ something, anyhow.

We were reliably informed, both by out tour guide’s words, and the fact that all the Turkish people on our tour immediately and unquestioningly paid money to enter, that this place is something of a cultural relic in Turkey, as the centerpiece of a soap opera in the 1970s.

How do I know the decade? I’m glad you asked. It wasn’t due to our tour guide’s superior knowledge; that much is for sure. No, his explanation went something like: “This is the famous stone house, it probably means nothing to you but was in a Turkish movie”. Naturally, I decided to be polite and demonstrate interest, so I asked “what’s the name of the movie?” to which he replied “soap opera”.

No, it was when we took a little walk downhill into the otherwise extremely depressing town and encountered a statue – nee, a monument to this giant of Turkish popular culture. The monument, in three parts (each more ridiculous than the last) was, in essence, a stonemason’s equivalent of the ending credits of a TV show. On one, a list of the cast, on the second, a list of the crew – and in the center, a larger piece with the name of the show/movie (who knows which?) and the logos of the companies responsible for its production.

As a joke, I took a picture of Brett posing at the statue in awe of its amazement. The locals nearby, however, did not share our sense of humor as they, one after another, lined up to repeat the display with the same sense of dour respect one might reserve for a meeting with a revered statesman. From our perspective, of course, not understanding the situation at all, we found the whole scene just hilarious.

Hilarious, but not appalling. No, that mantle is reserved for our launch destination. Mel and I have travelled a lot – separately as well as together – and never have we seen such a ridiculous, contrived, scene as the restaurant to which we were taken for lunch – and I am including our week in North Korea in that statement.

Here’s the scene: Our little tour bus pulls up to an ornate door, flanked by two stone lions, cut into the side of a hill. We are dwarfed on every side by much larger tour buses, funneling hapless tourists in and out at an extremely high frequency. You disembark and enter the restaurant; it’s one long hallway, with bathrooms and kitchens and anterooms sprouting off either side; you walk down the hallway, occasionally passing one of the establishment’s many matador-themed staff member, until you pass through an archway into a tackily ornate amphitheater.

The amphitheater is divided into five sections, each with around 12 rows and an aisle down the center. All of the seats face inward, with low tables upon which the food is served and eaten. In the center, on the ground, a solitary figure site, playing a traditional selection of acoustic guitar melodies while the assembled masses watch awkwardly while stuffing their faces with imitation second-grade mass-produced Turkish ‘cuisine’.

The sights, the sounds, the smells – they were abhorrent. Moreover, the menu options were identical to every other damned eating selection we’d been given in this part of the country. I understand ‘traditional’ eating and I love Turkish food, but for the love of god – there is more to Turkish food than bread, meat and rice!

The situation was even worse for Brett, as the vegetarian options once more approximated zero. When he intimated he might prefer to sit this round out, rather than break his 14 year vegan streak, he was offered chicken or fish as an alternative to the lamb. Benevolent? You bet.

In the end, we jointly and independently decided that this wasn’t our scene, so we decided to cross a field and climb through some caves instead. Evidently, an Australian couple form our group (the more intrepid couple) had made the same call, so joined us on our mini-expedition. Mel and I ate chips and Snickers bars for lunch, which, as it turns out, was a pretty delicious alternative to bland ‘one size fits all’ tourist fare.

It was a first for me though; I‘d never before encountered a restaurant that catered not only primarily, but solely to bus tour groups. What a smart business idea; it got our gears turning, that is for sure.

On our way back in the afternoon, we took a detour and were given 15 minutes to photograph a rock that looks like a camel.

The second tour:

In case it was possible to outdo the first, we decided to give their second tour a go on the following day (in truth, it was solely on the recommendation of others on our first tour that we bothered to go at all. Much better, they promised – and no souvenir stops.

To be fair, they delivered on this promise. Though, again, this had next to nothing to do with the quality of the tour guiding and everything to do with the fact that we were able to freely explore some extremely special and historically significant places.

The morning started with a trek through a spectacular valley (by one, very specific measure, which we were told has something to do with the width at the bottom, it’s number two in the world behind the Grand Canyon), into the sides of which are cut many caves and tunnels – and over 150 churches. That was a really cool experience and yet another reminder of just how insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.

In the middle of the valley we were allowed 20 minutes to stop for tea by the river, hanging with the ducks and rabbits. That says it all, really; it was a quacking nice spot.

Lunch, at the end of the valley, was yet another offering of the same variety; lentil soup, salad, meat, rice, fruit… We couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t. So we ordered chips instead, and boy did we ever get more than we bargained for there. When they arrived, they were – I can’t think of a better way to describe this – submerged – in oil. I was grateful they’d brought me an extra plate, because it allowed me to transfer the chips onto it, above a stack of paper towels, in an effort to absorb some of the residue.

The resulting pool on the original plate could have powered Mr. Schwarzenegger’s Bio-Humvee for a couple of laps of Talladega; it was that excessive.

You might think that was the highlight, but no – the best was yet to come! For, the next stop, was actually spectacular; a ‘cathedral’ carved into the side of a mountain that once formed part of the Silk Road. From the street level, it extended far up a series of rock hills and comprised several different areas; lodging, chapels, stables for the traveling caravans, kitchens… everything the ancient Caravan driver needs for a comfortable home away from home, carved out of the rock.

And, apparently, as a component of the Ottomans’ commitment to the attraction of tourism and trade, all offered at no charge to weary ancient traveler.

This spot was the highlight of the whole leg of the trip so far; being able to climb all over the hills and explore the vast network of chambers and tunnels, all the while taking lots of (I’m sure what will turn out to be very average) photos of the surrounding vistas.

The whole experience was, in two words, freaking awesome.

There was one last stop for the day, at another underground city. This one, our guide went to pains to explain no fewer than seventeen times, was for animals – not humans. It was pretty cool, but as it existed only one level below ground, we were less impressed than what we’ve seen before. They really should have led with this one and crescendoed out, but who am I to tell them how to run their tours?

After all, the first day did end up with the came-looking rock; how could you possibly end on a higher note?

Returning to our hotel by 4.30, I have to admit, this tour was a million times better than the first day.

Overall, it’s hard to value the tours because we wouldn’t have been able to find some of these places on our own. In that sense, they were completely indispensable. In a more specific sense, you could say the tours were excellent, despite the efforts – or otherwise – of our faux-expert guides. Would I go back? Yes – you get the sense there’s so much more to see. But not for a while; I’ve been through so many caves in the last few days that I’m kind of caving a change of scene.

Ho, ho, ho.

 


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