My 24 new best friends couldn’t remember my name. Don’t tell anybody, but neither could I theirs. So, for the duration, I became ‘alemani’ (the German) and they became ‘arkadash’ which is the Turkish word for friend. Sweet. Communication line established.
I was on a weekend coach trip to Cappadocia with a group of Turkish old age pensioners from Didim, which is the small town on Turkey’s Aegean coast where I live part of the year. I came by this trip totally unexpectedly. Walking down towards the beach and past my favorite travel agency where I always buy my bus tickets to far flung locations in Turkey, I noticed a hand written sign in the window. In Turkish of course, a language which I speak very,very badly. However, I could decipher Cappadocia, the date and an incredibly cheap price all of which sounded very attractive.
My helpful friend inside explained that this was a trip organized by the local Town Hall for old age pensioners, but, if you pay, you can go! I bought my ticket in a flash and thus found myself the only foreigner among a bunch of utterly lively and friendly people.
They couldn’t do enough to look after the foreign bird of paradise who had so unexpectedly landed in their midst.
It’s either something in the water or the healthy Turkish diet, but my fellow old age pensioners showed a stamina which put me to shame. And I consider myself quite fit, but I have to admit, I was, at times, hard pressed to keep up.
Aksaray and Ilhara Valley
At 7pm on Friday evening, the adventure got under way. We were a mixed bunch, three young girls, but mostly older couples and single women. Needless to say, that food baskets were present because you can’t go on a trip without proper sustenance. Once we had said hallo to our two drivers and taken our seats, out came to stuffed wine leaves, pastries and other delicacies, hospitably shared with me. Wisely, I had brought a box of chocolates, so I could reciprocate. A tape with Turkish music was put on and three ladies got up and started to dance. My word, did they rock the bus.
The trip to Aksaray took 12 hours and at 7am the next morning we arrived and had breakfast at a roadside stop. Nobody was really the worse for wear which was good, because… no rest for the wicked. We weren’t taken to our hotel, oh no, the sightseeing got under way without delay. What I didn’t know in advance was that the first stop was the Ilhara Valley, a deep canyon cut by a small but fast river, a hikers paradise and normally a full day trip. But… our tour guide boarded the bus and told us, that we were going on a 3 mile walk (ha,ha) along the valley. We started from the Ilhara Valley Tourist Installation and it was quite a bit of a to do to get the ticket. That’s why I’m holding it up so proudly.
Anyway, we were at the top at the canyon which meant a climb of 360 steep steps down to the bottom and then along the river through mud patches, over rickety bridges, squeezing through opening between the rocks, climbing up and down, trying not to fall into the water or to twist an ankle.
About 60 Byzantine churches and chapels, small and half ruined and dating from the 11th to the 13th century are sprinkled all around the valley.
At the half way point we were allowed a rest and a drink and then it was onwards to find the bus. Waiting, of course, on the top, which meant another steep climb up and up and up. But, everybody made it without even breaking a sweat ending up at Belisirma at the north/east end. This was the first of three more stops before we even came near our hotel, leave alone a well deserved lunch.
Pigeon Valley and underground city
Back on the coach our trip took us to the breathtaking town of Göreme, where we stopped for a shirt walk around and then on to another of the many valleys that form the landscape of Cappadocia. Pigeon valley is about 4km long and you can hike it, following several paths and emerging in the center of Göreme. Whereas I didn’t like Ihlara Valley that much, I found Pigeon valley fascinating because of the man made caves, churches and buildings which nestle within the rock formations. One of them reminded me of Petra in Jordan.
We only stood at the lip of the valley, gazing down, but, although not a great fan of hiking, I’d love to return one day and take a whole day to do this walk.
A wish tree which stood at the top where we duly deposited another blue and white eye to protect us from evil. My wish, honestly, was for a bit of rest, but it was not to be.
Next on the agenda was an experience which is not for the claustrophobic or the faint hearted. A visit to Derinkuyu, one of Cappadocia’s 36 underground cities. Derinkuyu is the deepest, Kaymakli the widest. An elevator took us more than 100m below ground. An amazing panorama awaited, an entire city with shops, oil presses, churches, houses etc. only to be navigated by squeezing through rock passages on slippery ground. It was fascinating but I was quite happy to be back in daylight. I couldn’t show any weakness, though, because the pensioners were still going strong.
Finally, we made it to the town of Nevsehir where we were supposed to spend the night in a quite nice hotel. But not yet, not yet. We were allowed to drop our bags, have a bite to eat and onwards to wander through the incredible rock formations and fairy chimney which make Cappadocia such a unique and famous destination.
By then, it was evening and back at the hotel, we had dinner. But, the pensioners still weren’t ready to sleep. Live music was laid on for us and the singing and dancing continued until I really couldn’t stand upright any more.
Fortunately, the next morning’s program didn’t start until 10am and we did what tourists do: we went shopping. You might think, that Turks wouldn’t be all that interested in ‘typical’ products like carpets and ceramics. You would think wrongly. I must say, that the pottery workshops of Nevsehir were worth seeing. Mostly located in caves, they made the most beautiful things and my fellow travelers shopped till they dropped. Fortunately, the coach had a big hold, but even so, it wasn’t enough and a lot of breakables were stored on empty seat. Naturally, not before they had been unwrapped and mutually admired.
After lunch we started vaguely back in the direction of home, but via two destinations which I had never visited before.
Hacibektas and Konya
The first stop was Hacibekats still in the province of Nevsehir. The rather small and somewhat out of the way town is an important place of pilgrimage for the Alevites, because it was here that the Muslim mystic and philosopher Haci Bektas Veli found refuge from his native Chorasan in Iran in the second half of the 13th century. Like many others, he had to escape Iran during the Mongol invasion and found shelter and safety in Anatolia. His fame spread and disciples assembled around him to learn and follow his philosophy and thus he gained a strong influence on Turkish spirituality. Many of his sayings survive, to quote only two:
It’s deeds that count, not words
Give women a good education (!!)
His mausoleum and a huge statue dominate Hacibektas, as well as a park with a nearby cemetery. On 16th of August each year, Hacibektas becomes the center of pilgrimage for thousands of Alevites.
Frankly, I didn’t know about Hacibektas before being taken there by this tour and I’m very grateful for it.
The next stop was the far better known city of Konya, home to Mevlana Rumi, founder of the Sufism order, represented by the famous whirling dervishes. Sadly, we only had two hours, but I had time to enter Mevlana’s türbe with it impressive chandelier, green and gold decorations and his catafalque. No photography is allowed inside the mosque and türbe, but adjacent rooms hold reproductions of sufis and the gardens are absolutely beautiful.
And then it was the long journey home. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this very special tour for anything in the world. I learned more about Turkish nature, hospitality and lifestyle in the company of my fellow travelers than on any other occasion. In addition I visited places I wouldn’t have known about otherwise , like Hacibekatas. I did however sleep for 10 solid hours once I hit home.