Where else can you take a peek into history and set foot on the honeycombed network of an underground city, complete with sleeping chambers; kitchens (even granaries with grindstones); air shafts; chutes; stables (there are handles that used to tether the animals) and storehouses?
Where else can you clamber the rocky cliffs that have been carved out by humans, or venture into the cool interior of a monastery or a church dug in a mountain eons ago (with altars and baptism pools) and decorated with colourful frescoes (actually 'seccos' – a type of mural painting where paint is applied to dry plaster on the wall)?
Where else can you see the famous hot air balloons rise just before sunrise or explore these stunning valleys on a rented bike or on foot?
Where else but in Cappadocia, Turkey? It is a holiday destination like no other!
|Love valley with its phallic rock formations.|
|Pyramid shaped rocks strew the landscape.|
|Uchisar castle from a distance.|
|View from Uchisar castle.|
The first thought to cross my mind after I saw the huge, 100-feet or so, phallic-shaped rock formations popularly known as the "fairy chimneys", was: what would our mullah brigade make of this hilarious feat of Nature? The landscape of Cappadocia, in Turkey's eastern Anatolia is literally littered with these rocks. There is just no escaping them.
Called hoodoo (a thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom), these formations range anywhere from 1.5 to 45 metres (4.9 – 147 feet). It is said these spires are made of a light, porous rock, and are a result of consolidation of volcanic eruptions. Later, the wind and rain chiselled them into sculpted valleys with sinuous cliffs and pointy fairy chimneys.
These rock formations are drawing hordes of tourists from all corners of the world, armed with nothing more than a hat, a cell phone and a selfie stick. According to news reports, a record one million people visited the region in 2013.
|Atop Uchisar castle.|
|Bird's eye view of Goreme from Uchisar Castle.|
Tourism, in Turkey, is the third biggest earner in the $820 billion economy, generating $35 billion annually.
So, if you're heading for Cappadocia, make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes for that is all you will be doing for most of your stay.
From the Uchisar castle, the highest point in the region and from where you can get a 360 degree view of the Nevsehir province, to the Rose (at sunset, the rocks take on a pinkish hue, thus the name), Pigeon (hundreds of pigeon houses riddling the cliffs) and the lush riverside Ihlara Valleys (boasting the deepest gorge in Asia Minor), to Goreme and Zelve open air museums, to the Byzantine-era monastries and churches, nestled in the cliffs – it is walk, walk and walk. By evening, you'd be aching everywhere, but it will be a good ache, trust me and it is not a difficult trudge.
|Cave dwellings in Rose valley.|
|Homes of the elves.|
|Ihlara Valley with monastries.|
|Goreme open air museum.|
If you're not with a tour group, you can do Cappadocia in three to four days, but if you have a car, you can cover a lot of ground much quicker.
There are around 30 to 40 or so underground cities (when the Christians were persecuted, first by the Romans and then raiding Muslims, they often went into hiding here) and more coming up as we speak, but not all are open to visitors.
We visited the almost 3,000 year-old labyrinthine city at Derinkuyu, also the deepest. Extending to a depth of approximately 60 meters, experts say, it could have sheltered approximately 20,000 people at any given time, together with their livestock, water and food stores.
|Derinkuyu, the underground city.|
|Ceiling of a church in Ihlara Valley.|
|Wild flowers abound on the Rose valley trail.|
|Farming in the Rose Valley.|
|A local family.|
|Handmade dolls made by local women.|
While snaking your way through a web of tunnels and stairways, it may get frustrating and you may feel trapped if there are big tour groups at the same time. A note of warning for those who are over six feet tall: you will be ducking at several places where the rock ceiling gets shallow and walk bent in tunnels or on stairways.
The pièce de résistance of your trip will be the hour-long hot air balloon ride.
It is truly a mind-blowing experience. Try to book the 'before sunrise' slot, which means you will be picked up at an ungodly hour of 4:00 am and it will still be dark when you get to the site, but it is well worth it.
More than looking down at the province that comes alive in all its splendour and colour, people end up looking at some hundred or so colourful balloons dotting the sky that fly all at the same time. The whole process of how the balloons are readied and then let out is another fascinating experience.
|Caves carved out in Rose Valley.|
|When the sunrises.|
|Hundreds of hot air balloons dot the skies as they take off at the same time.|
Cappadocia is just over an hour away from Istanbul by air. The airport to land at is Nevsehir, that is what we did. But if you're in Ankara, you can travel by bus, train or car. A bus to Nevsehir departs from Ankara's main bus terminal, ASTI, every two hours. It is a 4.5 hours (with a 25 minute stop) journey.
Because there is a lot of walking to do, make sure the weather is pleasant. April to June and September to November are ideal for pleasant temperatures.
Comfortable clothing, a hat and closed, hard-soled shoes.
|Tourists enjoying the backdrop.|
|School children at Rose Valley.|
Once you start looking online, you will find tons of information on organised tours. But, if that does not sound exciting, and you do not want to stick to a schedule, the best way to see the region is by driving around on your own.
It is best to book a car in advance and get it at the airport. You will never get lost, it is easy enough, the traffic is thin, roads are smooth and you will have the freedom to stop wherever and whenever you want to.
|Roses grew everywhere.|
|Rugs sold on the roadside.|
Most people want to stay in boutique fairy-chimney or cave hotels as did we initially, as it is a unique experience. The decor is regal (at times opulent) and the rooms huge but in the end, we decided to opt for a hotel, one in Avanos (a chain of modern hotels) and were glad we did. But, this is an entirely personal choice.
While cave hotels have all the modern amenities, not all rooms are alike and what you may see on the internet and like, is not what you may get. The windows may be small and one may feel claustrophobic. So when booking, make sure to ask if the room has a few windows, direct sunlight, and the air is not too musty and how much you'd have to climb every day to get to your room after a long and tiring day of walking.
—All photos by author.
Zofeen T. Ebrahim is an independent journalist based in Karachi.
She tweets at @zofeen28.