Excerpt from Turkish Diary
Saturday 11th August.
Above the valley, tourist Ground Zero, the meringue-like peaks are cut with chambers. Everything “oozes atmosphere” as a travel blurb might say, and I’m beginning to feel a tiny bit dismissive of this “enchanted” place. But the Mexican boys mentioned the lovely valley walks around the village, along the gorges that meander through the cliffs and pillars, and there’s a large open-air museum containing the best of the rock-cut churches. Göreme had been a contemplative retreat for Christian monks and hermits since the second and third centuries, and the hills and pillars are full of little churches and boltholes, most of the remains date from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, from before the Seljuks and Ottomans came.
Göreme village has become wildly popular, but I’m not prepared for the dozens of hostelries, dozens of carpet shops, bus companies, balloon tours, restaurants and motorbike rental outlets screaming for business. Tour groups scurry everywhere, pouring out of or into the buses that roar in and out of town every hour. There’s a big board by the bus station with information about accommodation and restaurants, and I chat with a departing Italian couple. The story is, competition for tourists was getting crazy. Maybe as crazy as the port of Tangier is when you get off the ferry from Spain. So the locals organized a cooperative to calm things down. All the prices in town are fixed. Accommodation is good value but the food is a bit steep for a man wandering indefinitely on a tight budget. There’s neither sight nor smell of any cheap and smoky little workmen’s kebab stands or fresh fruit barrows of the type you find in everyday Turkey. The Italians recommend the Star Cave as clean and charming. Breakfast comes with the bed, and they say it’s the best kahvalte in Turkey. When I find the place I know immediately I’ve done well. The rooms have been cut deep into the rock, the beds are hard but the chamber is dark and very cool.
Mid afternoon is too hot for hiking, so I wander around to check out the town. Yes, I grumble silently, everything is twice the price of Konya. There are hundreds of western backpackers, mostly young couples, wandering around too, with that big-city expression on their faces, “We’ll just have to pretend you’re all not here.”
Looking for something to supplement my reading I wander into the 1001 Nights bookstore, run by a big middle aged Englishwoman. She sits on her front step in a thin cotton dress, thumbing through a paperback, and ignores me as I step around her. The shop is full of airport novels and well-creased travel guides.
“Have you got anything on Islam?”
“Only a Koran,” she replies flatly, not looking up from her book.
I’m a bit tetchy by now. “So what brought you to Göreme?” I ask.
“The rocks,” she replies, still not looking up. She’s clearly sick of the travellers and the gawpers.
“And have the rocks been ruined yet?”
“Oh no,” she replies breezily, still with no glance in my direction.
I wander out with, “Enjoy your rocks, then.”
I’m already a bit pissed-off after having become used to the relative solitude of Konya, but aware enough that I don’t want to remain so. I mean, the place is what it is.
As I pass one of the motorbike rental places I get a friendly greeting from the vendor, so I stop and said hello back. The fellow is not a Turk, he’s much darker and sleeker.
“You don’t look Turkish, where are you from?”
“I’m from Iran. I’m a refugee from the regime, and I’m waiting for a chance to go to Europe.” He asks me my name and tells me his. “In Farsi it means culture,” he says. His name is beautiful and so complex and strange I cannot remember it.
“I might cross the border into Iran if I can get a visa in Erzurum. What do you think?”
“Oh we Iranians are very friendly, even if our government is not. Tabriz is cool now, but Isfahan, the most beautiful city in Iran, will still be hot.”
He drapes his arm around my back; it feels very warm and sweet. Maybe he is a gay refugee? Or maybe he is a relaxed and friendly Iranian. After we say goodbye I wonder if I should go back to ask him out for a cup of tea after I clean myself up. But as I walk and the moment passes the impulse fades, becoming more dreamy than real, and so I let it go.
I buy bread, cheese, juice and water from one of the mini markets. I have three hours until dark, enough time for a nice little hike into volcanic Cappadocia, carved from the layers of earth spewed out by Mt Erciyes ages ago, the soft muddy rock capped with harder material, sculpted in weird ways. It is still a scorcher on the road as I find the path out to the Zemi or Love Valley walk. It is called Love Valley because of the hard bulbous boulders, surmounting the uncannily phallic-looking towers of soft rock, which the wind and rain have carved beneath them. There’s a small church up the hill on the left, the Nazar Kilise or Evil Eye church, keeping the phallic symbolism at bay no doubt. The door is locked, but there’s a sign pointing to a ticket office. I don’t need a dose of evil eye right now, and I will save my church hopping for tomorrow.
Deeper into the valley I begin to feel better, the stress of jostling crowds leaves me. I pass a few local men, wiry and haggard, cutting brushwood and loading it onto a cart. I’m happy to see them. Then as the gorge becomes cooler and deeper I pull off my sandals to walk barefoot in the soft chalky gravel, and this induces a rapid mood shift, from shamefaced irritation to wrinkle-free serenity. Deeper into the scrubby valley I come across a copse of abandoned fruit trees. The pears and apples are far from ripe, but the yellow plums are sweet, and I eat handfuls of them, tartly sweet and juicy, but still not quite ripe either. I find some dusty purple plums as well but these are still hard and sour. It’s bliss to get my feet connected with the earth. It takes me a couple of hours to hike barefoot to the end of the valley, then up over the cliffs to the gravel road on top, where the land is cultivated in small plots; squash, melons, grapes. My feet have adjusted to the dust but the stones on the road mean sandals again.
I pass some farmers working the fields. A thin black-and-tan puppy gambols out to greet me and I stoop to give it a pat. It leaps and writhes with excitement and gets tangled up in my legs, and then lets out a piercing yelp as I trip and tread on its toe. The farmer and his wife give me stony looks as I walk on. But the pup follows me. I growl. I shoo. I wave my arms about but nothing will stop it. The little boy working with the farmers runs after me to drag it back. But the pup escapes, and comes bolting down towards me again, even further away from the farmers than before. The boy has to chase and catch him a second time. For a few minutes I feel like a stupid, interfering clod. But the vanity of shame dissipates quickly. Further along the road I come to a vineyard and choose a bunch of tiny purple grapes. They’re sweet, and I gobble up a second bunch.
After another half hour I arrive at the bluffs overlooking Göreme, with other villages in the valleys and crags nearby. The sun begins to set. The pink Erciyes volcano rears up to the east. There’s quite a crowd up there to see the sun go down. Just as it begins to sink over the lip of the horizon a roar arises as several young Turkish couples ride up the steep path on scooters and rented dune buggies to take each other’s pictures as the last sliver of red orb disappears into the earth.
I find an outlet selling beer and buy a can of Efes. Then I find a kebab stand and wait for my lamb in pide to be prepared and take my supper back to the Star Cave. I’m chatting about the possibility of hiking up Erciyes Dagi with Ramazan, the son of the owner. He’s keen to help me plan a trip up the mountain. He admits that he’s never been there, and wants very much to come with me, if he can get off work. By the sound of it I am not sure if he wants to accompany me as a buddy, or have me hire him as a “guide” to tag along and be paid for the privilege. I tell him I prefer to make my own adventures, but that I appreciate his conversation. I will plan carefully and discover as much as I can before attempting an exhausting hike up a mountain in a foreign country. I haven’t done such a climb since I went up Mt Shasta in 1999, and then, having been several years out of condition, I’d turned back a few hundred metres from the summit as the light began to wane, exhausted. Erciyes is not as high as Shasta. But I am nearly eight years older.
To bed, my book and my little Raki bottle tucked in a nook carved in the rock below the spluttering light bulb. I seem to be developing a cold, perhaps from the coughing baby in the seat behind me on the train to Konya. And my guts are gurgling with incipient diarrhoea. Was it the salad in Konya? Was it the holy water from the fountain? Or was it those recent fistfuls of delicious, unwashed fruit? There are plenty of toilets in Göreme, smelly but functional squatters with running water. It’s not going to be so bad.
I wake up at seven with the light bulb in my stone niche sputtering away. There’s no switch and all the bulbs are connected. So I unscrew mine two turns to the left to switch it off, two turns to the right for light. If you want one light off, then you get all lights off, and vice versa. But the whole lot short circuit this morning, and as a result there’s no power at all.
The breakfast, thankfully already prepared, is substantial and excellent. Watermelon, honey melon, oranges, peaches, round crispy fried things, cheese, cold meat, hard boiled eggs, little black, dry olives, cream cheese on bread, fried eggplant and zucchini, butter, honey, strawberry jam, tea and coffee. A couple of Japanese and Italians look hesitantly at the flies swarming over the food, but I comment, manly and nonchalant, “oh, I’m Australian, we’re used to flies.” I grew up rural though, and most modern urban Aussies would be squirming and waving their arms about as well.
I’ve been told that the open-air museum remains crowded all day long but decide to go, and pay the extra to see the special dark church and deal with my feelings regarding the crowds. The museum is a kilometre out of town, and the closer I get the more tour buses appear. I’ve planned my little excursions up the winding paths to the various chapels cut into the cliffs, keeping close eye on the needs of my intestines and the location of facilities. The internal river of mud is in full flood today, as I suspected would happen. Yesterday afternoon I’d scoped out all the available toilets in town, and looked at the plan of the museum park. I get through today with eight or ten hurried trips to whatever squat hole is closest at hand. It’s very hot and I’m drinking a lot of water. There’s a constant stream of tours, and as soon as a Japanese tour leaves a chapel, an Italian or a Spanish tour enters. Then there’s an English tour with only a couple, middle-aged, bookishly quiet, so I wander in with them.
The chambers are small, simple, dusty, with early Christian symbols and crucifixes from the iconoclast period of the eighth century in some, and others — after the period of iconic austerity has ended — plastered over in the eleventh to twelfth centuries and covered in chalky polychrome murals in red, brown, black and white tints. The most significant parts of the scriptures were laid out in paintings, along with the lives of the saints and the doings of the emperors.
After a quick plumbing run, making sure I’m good for an hour or so, I climb up to the main attraction, the Dark Church, so called because only a small window lets in light, and therefore the frescoes are as vivid and fresh as when they were painted a thousand years before. The full panoply of colour is not visible in the gloom, but some of the less responsible tourists take pictures with flash cameras. The vivid blues and reds leap off the walls for a millisecond before they return to the shadows, a tiny bit less vivid than before. Pouting angels adorn the walls, and in several of the domes, the same sternly unreadable Christ Pantocrator I had seen in the Chore Church in Istanbul. Christ’s face, pale from a life protected from the daily burn of the sun, fully adult, with none of the suppleness of youth, is none other than the heavy, hairy, jowly face of a well-fed, thirty-something Byzantine-Greek aristocrat. Oh, how we project ourselves onto the unknown!
One Italian woman poses in front of every significant scene while her husband or lover takes her photo. Only one couple walks in through the doorway to spend a quiet minute, and they make the sign of the cross as they leave. All I need is five minutes of quiet to spend with these darkly glowing walls. It is valuable to see my irritation and high-mindedness clearly. It’s August, the last month of the summer holidays. What else can I expect?
I wander off the main track and come across a shady little chapel to sit in and sip my water. The simple interior exudes an odd damp smell, salty and sour. The smell becomes stronger and clearer, and as I look about I can see wet patches trailing down the corners of the room. It finally hits me. This plain little church off the main path is used for pissing in. I’m reminded ruefully of the biblical quote “the stone that was rejected shall be the cornerstone.” Perhaps one might add, “The chamber that was pissed in shall provide the wine of life,” or something quirkily Gospel-like. I find myself another shady nook outside to get a bit of peace before I head back to the main gate, to relax with a beer in the dappled, vine clad terrace cafe down by the buses, carpet sellers and ice cream vendors. It’s good to see that there are as many Turkish families visiting here as there are foreigners, keen to see this part of their country’s history.
The lights are back on when I get back to the Star Cave but now the water is off. Ahmed the owner dips a metal basin into the fountain and hands me a plastic pot, so I get a quick soapy wash and a rinse off, and then a rest until the burn of the day had passed.
As I did yesterday, I wait for the shadows to lengthen before a hike up the Pigeon Valley. The sunshine remains ferocious on the village road, but once under the dappled shade of the cliffs it becomes pleasant, cool and breezy between the pinnacles, pigeons cooing in the dovecotes, with fruit trees, daisies and other yellow and magenta flowers, tall shaggy stands of grey-flowered mint releasing their fragrance as my bare calves brush past them. Moist tunnels dug into the soft rock make the path easier to negotiate, small brown butterflies flit by, a straggly hive of bees swarm around wet piles of stones under one of the tunnels, and water trickles along the rutted grassy path. I pass under a stone wall half-hidden by foliage. Above I can see plots of well-tended apricot bushes, tiny patches of cultivated earth under the cliffs.
The path ascends and becomes wild and overgrown with brambles and purple plums. It’s a dead end. I backtrack and brush up against a patch of stinging nettles. The sting does not last long. Above me I make out a couple of voices speaking French. I’ve missed a turn in the path. I let them pass, wait awhile, find the path and continue on and up toward the village of Uchişar. The village surrounds a pinnacle full of holes and crannies, once used as a fortress.
Uchişar is also terribly touristy, and geared toward the French, with a higher level of comfort, one might say ostentation. I pass an expansive stone restaurant, Le Jardin des 1001 Nuits, and a hotel, La Maison du Reve, and then a cluster of new and very splashy-looking manoirs. One has an ostentatious, three-metre-high bronze empire-style candelabra flanking the entrance, and another has an enormous and ferociously Napoleonic bronze equestrian statue on its flag-stoned terrace. The view is spectacular though, of the volcano and the huddle of Göreme in the middle distance. I get a glass of tea from a modest little café before heading back down to the valley and doff my sandals to walk the Pigeon trail in bare feet. Once again, having my soft feet hit the bare earth induces serenity. I must strap my sandals back on when I land on the hot village streets an hour later. New white stone palazzos are being raised in Göreme too, with stonecutters at work shaping and carving ornaments in the lintels. These tourist mansions will be clean and beautiful when they are built, and the stone will age well.
Poor sleep. The bed is hard. I wake out of a dream: A slow funeral march of trombones and trumpets passes by outside, down in the Cappadocian valley. Then the players enter slowly in twos, dressed in red musician’s costumes. The melody rises from the bass instruments to the trumpets, and the song rises in slow, sombre arpeggios. As I wake from this dream I can hear the town muezzin winding down the dawn call to prayer.
At five-thirty I’m ready to head out for a walk before breakfast. I have a little juice left, but no water, and nothing is open at this hour. So I walk the cool empty streets to the main square and the public toilets, which have soap and cold water, faucets and basins. I run the water for a minute then take a sip. It tastes quite OK, and is probably the same mains water used in the cafes. I fill my small water bottle and prepare to trust my guts. I want to head out to the Red Valley, regarded as the most spectacular of the walks, but it may be a bit too much of a rush to try and do it in three hours, so instead I amble up the rise towards the open-air museum. And as I often remind myself, not having seen the main attraction means a reason to return.
In a valley below the hot-air-balloon rides strain to get off the ground. I count twenty-six balloons slowly fattening and rising, with about twenty people crammed into each gondola, as crowded as a rush-hour subway car. These people have paid two hundred Euros to see the sun rise from a balloon! Passing the museum compound, a couple of guard dogs bark savagely and run towards me, hackles up. But they’re not that good at their jobs because as soon as I stop still and utter soft little noises, they wiggle over and lick my legs. One is a fully-grown female mongrel and the other a six-month-old pup. They’re clearly mother and daughter, judging by the playfulness of the pup toward the older dog. They follow me all the way to the top of the ridge above the monastery chapels. Together we sit up there and watch the sun rise over the hills, the cliff-top village of Uchişar glowing pink, and the twenty-six balloons trying to raise their payloads into the sky, most of them too late to see the sun climb over the horizon from any elevation. A couple of the balloons float high over the valleys and manage a big tour up and back. The lucky few! Most of the balloons hover motionless for half an hour, barely a few hundred metres up before they sink again.
Mother dog rests herself in the crook of my leg, and her pup romps around me licking and biting. They follow me all the way back until frantic barking heralds another guard dog’s territory. A bit later another dog, a big, very skinny mongrel-hound, melancholy and starving, follows me up to the Star Cave, but the resident poodle-terrier races out with yelps and barks and tells him to piss off, the poor sad thing.