Turkey Göreme 2001.04.13 - 04.21

Cappadocian Invisibility

Cappadocia is an area in central Turkey bounded by Kayseri in the east, Aksaray in the west, Hacıbektaş in the north, and Niğde in the south. The principle attraction is ancient dwellings carved into "fairy chimneys", natural conical sandstone formations. In addition there are 2 underground cities and Ilhara Valley.

The town of Göreme is an ideal base from which to explore Cappadocia. Day hikes to the north pass through Rose Valley and Paşabağı to Zelve Valley. Day hikes to the south cross Pigeon Valley to Uçhisar. Both underground cities are easy half-day trips by local transport. Exploring the entire 14km length of Ilhara Valley is possible as a day trip by taxi or over two days by local transport. The town name holds significant meaning to the persecuted Christians who chiseled secure dwellings into the surrounding rock. Göreme means "invisible", an essential factor for survival in their day.

Although a quick bus tour of all the sites around Cappadocia is possible in one day for US$25, people who like to explore dark passages interconnecting hidden rooms and churches should budget at least 5 days. Many of the eroded foot-holds on crumbly soft sandstone will challenge even the most experienced rock climbers. Remember to carry a headlamp at all times to explore some of the deepest, most interesting horizontal and vertical passages through the rocks.

Mehmet, the owner of Paradise Pension in Göreme provides his guests an excellent overview of the region. He was born in a fairy chimney cave that is now renovated into a guest room at his pension. His grandparents lived in a cave in Zelve Valley, now part of an outdoor museum. On our second day in Göreme, Mehmet led his pension guests on a 3 hour walk through Rose Valley free of charge. In the Rose Valley (named for the pinkish tint of the sandstone), Mehmet talked about the history of the valley, described the soil composition with hues ranging between pink, yellow, and green, pointed out the best caves to explore, and explained stone cutting techniques. Upon request, Mehmet will often transport his guests to nearby attractions free of charge. Paradise Pension is popular and fills fast. Book in advance (see the Turkey Lodging Guide).

One day we visited an 8-level underground city called Derinkuyu and climbed around the huge tunneled rock in Uçhisar called "Uçhisar Castle". Transport to Derinkuyu is easy. From the Göreme otogar (bus station), a dolmuş (minibus) departs for Nevşehir every half hour until 18:00 (cost 350,000 TKL per person). For reference, half way between Göreme and Nevşehir, the dolmuş passes Uçhisar. The last stop for the Göreme dolmuş in Nevşehir is opposite the bus stop for dolmuşes for Kaymaklı (location of the 4-level underground city) and Derinkuyu. Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu are in the same direction from Nevşehir, but Derinkuyu is about 10km further. From Nevşehir, the dolmuş fare is 500,000 TKL to Kaymaklı and 1 million TKL to Derinkuyu.

The underground cities are unspectacular in structure, but they epitomize the  severity of persecution that would cause a population to burrow underground to such an extent. Unfortunately, the sloped tunnels have been modified with concrete stairs for tourism, ruining the authenticity.

Uçhisar Castle has a 1 million TKL admission fee to climb the metal stairs to the top. Instead we climbed through the freely accessible areas around the rock. While exploring rooms several levels high, climbing over walls, up eroded stairs, and through interconnected tunnels, we met a local man who showed us a few passages we wouldn't have found on our own. Several of the verticals were too difficult with our sandals and we opted not to follow him. Exploration was thrilling nonetheless, and we learned to always wear hiking boots on our remaining Cappadocian adventures.

1km west of Göreme is the Göreme Open Air Museum. The 5 million TKL admission fee is insulting for these tour-bus-tourist infested substandard caves. The museum justifies the high admission fee with the pealing frescoes on the interior walls of many of the cave-churches. The day we visited, nobody was checking tickets at the gate so we walked in without paying. Even for free, this site is less interesting than the surrounding vacant fairy chimneys that can be roamed through freely away from the hoards of package-tour-tourists.

Mid-way through our stay in Göreme, we met 2 American guys, Mike and Kent. They both loved climbing over somewhat dangerous sandstone ridges and up long vertical shafts. One day, the four of us explored Zelve Valley, Paşabağı, and the 7km stretch of fairy chimneys back to Göreme. Zelve Valley has some of the best preserved internal passages that lead to openings 100s of feet high, some of which look straight down. The admission fee is 4 million TKL and worth the price. Paşabağı and the remaining valley to Göreme are completely open to the public free of charge. The next day the 4 of us hired a taxi for a 10-hour long day trip to Ihlara Valley.

Our cave room at Paradise Pension. Climb concrete stairs to a small wooden door to enter. Inside is carpeted and comfortable. The only problem is going to the toilet at night.

The underground city of Derinkuyu descends 8 levels. Heavy round rock doors are rolled into notched corridors to prevent invaders from entering. Vertical air shafts keep fresh air circulating and deep wells supply water.

Uçhisar Castle has enough nooks and passages to keep the energetic explorer occupied for hours.

A vacant fairy chimney house in Uçhisar tempts the curious to enter and find passages to upper-level rooms.

Rose Valley is a 4km expanse of pinkish fairy chimney houses and churches that can be explored for hours and hours.

The chemical composition of the sandstone in Rose Valley tint the rocks pink, yellow, and green.

Ihlara Valley

Ihlara Valley is a gorge that can be reached from Göreme by tour bus or taxi as a day trip or by dolmuşes as a multi-day trip. Our friend Ranald recommended the hike through the entire 14km stretch of Ihlara Valley between the towns of Ihlara and Selime as one of the top 3 most worthwhile attractions in the world. We were impressed with the hike and tend to agree.

We rejected the tour bus method to Ihlara because the tour only allows 1 hour to explore the valley - much too short a time to find the more interesting churches and tunnels. Riding the dolmuşes would have been the cheapest but slowest way to hike the entire Ihlara Valley. The cost to hire a taxi for the day split between 4 people was only about US$1 more per person than the dolmuş fares and much faster. The taxi ride from Göreme to Ihlara was one hour 15 minutes.

Finding a taxi hire in Göreme was easy. The cheapest and most reliable fare was found by asking at the Kent bus office at the Göreme otogar (bus station). The agreed fare was TKL 50 million for a drop-off in Ihlara at the south end of the gorge and a pick-up 7 hours later in Selime in the north.

The churches carved into the gorge walls near the town of Ihlara were sign posted and smelled of urine. These should be skipped. Several kilometers up the valley, the number of tourists drastically decreases, the signs disappear, and the caves are litter-free. Kent, Mike, and Wes prepared with headlamp or flashlight, entered and exited lower level caves looking for passages leading to higher levels. Masami, who's afraid of heights, guarded the backpacks and snapped photos.

The most impressive caverns were at the northern end of the valley. We found one vertical shaft about 1 meter in diameter that descended further than the beams our flashlights would reach. The sound of a dropped rock was inaudible. Kent volunteered to explore. He descended using the worn foot and hand notches on opposing walls. At the point our flashlight beam from above could barely see the top of Kent's head, Kent reported that he still couldn't see the bottom using his flashlight. By the time Kent reached the bottom, all we could see was the light shining from his flashlight pointed upward. Kent reported his findings: "It seems to be caved-in. It's a dead end." Kent returned to the top covered in dust and cobwebs. Thanks for the effort, Kent!

Later, we found another vertical shaft, this time ascending. Wes volunteered to explore. 25 meters up pigeon-shit covered hand and foot holds reached a cavernous church. The dust on the floor was completely marked with pigeon foot prints. Humans hadn't been here for a long time. Upon hearing of the find, Mike and Kent climbed up. This was one of the highlights of our Ilhara Valley hike.

Entering through a lower opening, Wes scrambled up a 10 meter (30 foot) vertical shaft to reach this upper level opening. Inside the cliff are ancient residences and churches.

Wes picks wild asparagus along the Ihlara Valley trail to munch on as snacks. The quantity of sprouting asparagus on the trail could have filled our backpack.

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