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Volume 134, Issue 6


Turkish Delight
A student visits the cave dwellings of Cappodocia
By Jaime Lin

Prehistoric cave dwellings

These prehistoric cave dwellings in volcanic tufa rock have been a part of the Turkish landscape for thousands of years.
The bus attendant woke us up with a gentle shake. "Here," he said, in heavily accented English.

Here. We stretched our cramped muscles and looked outside. Strange, phallic rock formations and multi-colored mountains stood out against a blue-marble sky.

Only ten hours earlier my sister and I had bought tickets on an overnight bus, and left the noise, traffic, and pushy salesmen of Istanbul behind.

Now we had arrived in Nevsehir, in the central Turkish highlands of Cappadocia.

Wind and lava sculpted this landscape millions of years ago. Starting around 400 B.C. the residents began carving enormous cave dwellings out of the soft "tufa" rock.

In some places they built ventilated underground cities that could hold tens of thousands of residents. Some of the caves have now been transformed into hotels for tourists. We had come to see for ourselves

We boarded a minivan taxi (dolmus) and paid 35 cents each for the 15-minute ride to our final destination: the village of Göreme.

The broad valleys, soaring mountains, and peace and quiet of Cappadocia made a striking contrast with the crowds and traffic of Istanbul.

Like Istanbul, Göreme is a student traveler's paradise. Food and lodging are cheap. Sightseeing is plentiful.

But where Istanbul is urban and overwhelming, Göreme is rural and charming.

Here, carpets are woven in the same stores they are sold. Grapes for some of the country's finest wines grow nearby. Minivans and donkeys share the same concrete and gravel roads. Behind modern restaurants, jeans and t-shirts hang out to dry in narrow, crooked streets.

The village was strangely quiet at 9 a.m. Most of the tour groups had already left for the day, except for the few backpackers hiking toward the nearby Open Air Museum or the Rose Valley, with its multi-colored rock formations.

We arrived at our pension and stepped into a small, restful courtyard. Grapevines clung to a bamboo trellis. A white, nylon hammock hung from the tree. Woven curtains in the house opened to reveal a European face.

"Welcome to our garden." She hugged us. "I'm Isabel."

Isabel, a French native in her early forties, said she first visited Cappadocia ten years ago and fell in love with the region. "This is one of the most beautiful places in the world." She made a sweeping gesture. Isn't it great to wake up to this every day?"

Isabel said that her family lived in the modern brick house at the base of the sandstone caves. Her husband worked at the "Sultan's Restaurant" in the village.

We asked Isabel's husband who ran the pension. "She's the boss," he said with a smile, pointing to Isabel.

I remembered a husband-and-wife kebab stand we had visited in Istanbul. When we tried to bargain for bottles of water, the husband seemed tempted to give us the "local price." The wife stopped him. "No. Get it elsewhere for 500,000 lira (33 cents)." She turned away to stock the shelves with 7-Up and Coca-Cola.

Isabel led us toward the three-story, anthill-like tufa mound behind her house. "The caves can get a bit damp," she warned, as she led us into an entrance at the base of the hill.

She swept drapes aside to reveal eight beds, neatly arranged against a damp stone wall. Four desks stood in between the beds, each equipped with an oil lamp and a box of matches.

Isabel switched on an electric light, revealing a slightly curved roof, barely high enough for our 5-foot-10-inch roommate to stand upright.

"Do you want to see the normal rooms?" Isabel asked, as she waved her hands to chase away a few flies buzzing around the wooden beds.

We hadn't come all the way to Cappadocia to sleep in a modern house. We said the "cave pension" would be perfect.

Isabel sat us down on a bed and suggested a three-hour hike that would take us to the Open Air Museum, on through the Rose Valley, and then back to Göreme.

We set out along the faintly marked path, which passed by the Open Air Museum, an area outside of town where early Christians carved churches, monasteries and other living spaces out of the soft, volcanic stone.

Leaving the museum behind, we followed a rough map towards the Rose Valley. We drank from a 1.5 liter bottle of water and occasionally stopped to rest in roughly carved hollows in the massive sandstone rocks.

A stray dog jogged alongside, wagging his tail and occasionally digging through dirt as if searching for food.

Unfortunately for him, the only edible things along the trail were a melon patch and a small field of apricot trees. Ripe apricots lay scattered on the ground, some half-eaten by ants, others, presumably, by passers-by like us, who found the sweet-sour treat a welcome thirst-quencher.

In the mid-afternoon, we caught sight of the mountains of the Rose Valley. The deep green stone on the lower slopes turned light red higher up. The colors resembled the stem and petals of a rose - hence the name.

Exhausted from the bus ride and the hike, we immediately went to bed when we returned to our pension. In our fatigue we hardly noticed the slight smell of sulfur in the cave.

The next day we woke up ravenous and were happy to sit down at Isabel's wooden courtyard table for a $2 buffet breakfast with goat cheese, olives, bread, yogurt and watermelon, and our choice of drink.

We asked for apple tea. The semi-clear brown liquid came in round, clear cups that curved in around the center. The tiny pot seemed mostly for decorative purposes, as it stood shorter than the index finger and barely held half a cup of the sour treat.

We had been told that apple tea is a drink for tourists and kids. "Drink cye if you want to eat like a real Turk!" a friendly man in Istanbul advised us.

For us, though, the tangy, aromatic liquid evoked an ancient world of spice trade, belly dancers, and rich, hand-dyed heirloom carpets. For a moment we could forget that belly dancers perform in every tourist bar, and that many "hand-crafted" Turkish carpets are woven for export by young women in modern factories.

But if the souvenirs of tourism are sometimes fake, the hospitality of the Turkish people is genuine. Isabel never mentioned money until just before we left. She handed us the bill on the last day, a gesture that made the stay seem more like a trip to a friend's house.

It would have been so easy to sneak away without paying anything, but that would have been no way to treat such a good host. And no way to treat Cappadocia.