Stepping Onto The Conveyor Belt in Cappadocia
My favorite ride at Disneyworld was always been the WEDway PeopleMover, a slow moving conveyor belt of carts, taking guests from one end of Tomorrowland to the other, hopefully narrating the future that never was along the way. There was something comforting about a ride where there were no lines, and all you had to do was sit back and watch the story unfold in front of you, in the capable disembodied hands of the voiceover-guide.
When I planned to spend 36 hours in Cappadocia at the end of a recent trip to Greece and Turkey, the last thing I expected to be reminded of was an amusement park ride I last took more than a decade ago. Yet, after experiencing the highly efficient tourist conveyor belt in Cappadocia, I half expected my trip to end watching an animatronic family discussing their flying cars. Nevertheless, even on a tight schedule, Cappadocia is well worth (even a short) visit.
There’s something slightly disorienting about a short side trip to Cappadocia from Istanbul. It starts with a very early morning — waking up at hours that are better experienced as late nights than early mornings. Somehow staying awake enough to get onto a plane, and, after a short and sleepy flight, the masses of bleary tourists stagger towards the placards bearing their names in the airport lobby of Kayseri. A series of unexplained van rides puts me on a tour already in progress to see the underground cities where early Christians hid from the pre-Christian Roman Empire.
Cappadocia, located in the central mainland of Turkey, is located in a volcanic field, and is known for its rock formations, both the “fairy chimneys” formed by the erosion of the volcanic-ash plateau into finger-like structures, and the dwellings, churches, and hiding places carved by early Christians into the relatively malleable rock in the area. Fresh from the plane, and barely awake, I hopped in a van with a family from India, who were alert, awake and showered, because they’d sprung for an extra hotel night (but gave up a night in fascinating Istanbul).
After walking by the usual assortment of carpet sellers and mangy street cats, we arrived at the Nevşehir Underground City, a claustrophobic arrangement of tunnels and tiny rooms that housed early Christians fleeing persecution under the Roman Empire. Despite the cramped quarters, the efficient Cappadocia tourist system ensured that there were only a couple of tour groups at the site at a time. Inside the underground city, there were kitchens, bedrooms, wine cellars, and rooms for practically every other function (though no wrapping rooms, Candy Spelling). While it was impressive, if faith meant spending one’s life underground, atheism seemed awfully appealing to me.
After we emerged from the underground city, the next stop was lunch in a cave restaurant. Much like the ancient town of Bedrock, pretty much every structure in Cappadocia strives to be as cave-centric as possible. From cave hotels to cave restaurants to cave parking structures, there’s a frenzy to attract tourists to cave-style dwelling. While some of these establishments are more than kitsch, in many, the only real sense of being in a cave is the musty, dank feeling, which is not worth the bragging rights.
The post-lunch activity was a hike though the valley, looking at far off housing structures and monasteries, and trying not to fall down the steep paths. Our little band followed at a respectful distance from a group of French and German tourists, with their fishing vests and sensible walking poles. And, before we knew it, we were deposited at our respective hotels, with instructions to be ready to be picked up at 4am the next morning for our hot air balloon rides.
After a nap, I wandered into the charming nearby town of Ürgüp, filled with dried fruit stores and a surprising number of foreigners brokering development deals in Central Turkey. After a day of efficient but disorienting touring, it was comforting to wander among the ceramic trinkets and bins of figs for a bit. But with a 4am wakeup call, the evening’s agenda was mostly sleep, which my dark (and, unfortunately dank) hotel supplied easily.
In the midst of a hot air balloon ride, there’s a moment when you wonder why it never worked as a regular mode of transport. The feeling of weightlessness and the absolute silence are an incredible backdrop to the (in the case of Cappadocia) awe-inspiring landscape below. It almost made me forget that, as a solo traveler, I was wedged in a group of Korean teenagers, who spent much of the ride oohing and aaahing in unison and trying to avoid having me in their selfies. Even though there are dozens of hot air balloon operators, like much of the Cappadocia tourist infrastructure I experienced, everyone worked together to make sure every tourist got where he or she needed to be to check each experience off the list.
So, having done the “Green Tour” the day before, the second day was on Cappadocia’s other tour, the Red Tour, featuring stops at the fairy chimneys and the Goreme Open Air Museum. So, joining a different set of tourists and a new guide, I took off in another white van to see the fairy chimneys. These are the rock stars of Cappadocia postcards and magnets, and with good reason, as the tall beige structures capped with grey stone are otherworldly in a region that only bares a passing resemblance to Earth as it is. From there, the last stop was the Goreme Open Air Museum a set of structures built by early Christians for worship and living under the nose of the as-yet-unaccepting Roman Empire. The set of painted chapels, with early Christian iconography, at the Goreme Open Air museum is genuinely impressive. And, in a world where Christian ideals are often considered a baseline, it is a window on the cultishness and isolation of early Christianity. The joyous iconography in these early chapels shares the innocence and exuberance of a schoolgirl’s infatuated doodles on her Trapper Keeper, capturing the love and devotion that drove early Christians to persevere in their beliefs, despite the obstacles they faced.
Just like that, the van appeared again and took me back to the airport, where I quickly flew back to Istanbul, arriving late at night the day after I left. I half expected to find a turnstile as I left Cappadocia — the ride was over, but it left me with memories for a lifetime.
Tips for Cappadocia:
36 Hours: You can see a lot in a short time, as the tourist machinery is geared to get you in, through and out. That said, staying 2 nights is worth it, both to avoid the torture of two very early mornings, and to maximize the chances of hot air ballooning in the morning, which can be unpredictable if there is bad weather or wind.
Packages: I booked a package online before getting there, but in retrospect, I think it is better to find a good hotel in the area (especially in the town of Ürgüp) and have them work with you to arrange the rest of the trip.
Weather: If you’re planning to spend time in Istanbul or on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, be prepared for a change of weather in Cappadocia and pack accordingly.