Monday, June 22, 2009

Greece/Turkey: Cappadocia - Istanbul

It's moi; still in Turkey; thought I'd send along another update as I wind up the Cappadoccia section of the trip and head to Istanbul.

First, I want to say "Happy Father's Day" to Dad.  I'm sorry I wasn't around to call and say it in person, but I definitely thought of you and hope you had a good day.  I love you and am grateful for all the things I've learned from you.  For example, I'm grateful you taught me how to avoid having B.O.  As I mentioned in my last email, this region is famous for the extensive and elaborate cave dwellings/churches/monasteries that the early Christians built in the rock formations here.  History and art aside, the first thing we noticed about these cave settlements was their temperature:  you leave the sweaty mess of the 95+ degree outside desert and enter a delightfully cool semidarkness of the caves, which hold steady around 60 degrees.  Amanda's first reaction to this was "Why did people ever leave caves?  Especially when they weren't going to have air conditioning for another 1000 years?"  My answer:  Because they realized they hadn't invented deodorant yet (and probably sensed that even when they had, they wouldn't use it).  There's nothing like stepping out of a narrow winding staircase 6 storeys underground into a wide chamber filled with Turkish tourists reeking of body odor to make you appreciate how a breeze, even at 100 degrees, is still a breeze of fresh air.

Odor problems aside, I have to say that the underground city was one of the most fascinating places I've ever been.  From the outside, you'd never have known anything was there.  The people created air shafts for light and air, but they were carefully disguised, and the entrance really was just another hold in the ground with stairs going down.  But once you were down there, it opened up into hundreds of passages, corridors and rooms spread out over 8 levels.  And we're not talking about the Mark Twain cave, with stalactites and stalagmites here - this place had flat floors and walls that met at right angles; carved-out sections of walls and floors for storage; wine presses, with conduits from the bottom of the pit where you'd press the grapes so that the juice could run into giant earthenware jugs called amphora; stables for livestock; large school rooms with stone seats around a long stone table; a large arched chapel; living areas with "living rooms" and little bedrooms; long staircases that wound around from one level to another; defense mechanisms consisting of giant flat round stones with holes in the center set in sleeved recesses that could be rolled out across staircases or corridors to cut off invading enemies while enabling you still to stab said enemies with spears launched through the holes (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).  At the lowest point of the tour, we were 55 meters under the earth (approximately 165 feet), and we were told that the city continued for at least another 85 meters beyond that.  Normally I don't have a problem with closed spaces or being underground, but by that point I admit to having some pangs of worry about being trapped beneath all that rock!  It was amazing to think of it as a place where approximately 3000 people used to live and work.  At first the underground city was inhabited only during times of danger and attack, but later it was occupied on a more regular basis.  And this wasn't the only one - our guide explained that there are at least 100 such underground cities in the area, and that more may still be found (the most recent was discovered only two years ago).

As unusual and outlandish as these underground settlements may sound, you'd probably be surprised at how familiar you'd find the land above ground.  It really looks like it could be somewhere in the intermountain west!  The fantastic rock formations look like something you'd find in southern Utah or eastern Colorado (maybe even Nevada, though I'm less familiar).  Other areas look like they could come right out of southern Idaho or northern Utah.  And I'm not just talking about the general ambiance; the resemblances are more profound.  For example, most of the plants I see are the same:  cottonwoods, poppies, bachelor buttons, hollyhocks (no sagebrush, though).  There's a giant salt lake complete with salt flats.  And there's a basalt gorge that looks like the twin of what you'd see at, say, Twin Falls, Shoshone Falls, or many places along the Snake River.  It's weird to travel half-way around the world to marvel at countryside that looks so nearly identical to the places you've seen so many times before!  If only the pioneers had thought to build their towns underground...

It's also strange to have the feeling of seeing something so familiar when the people around you are having the opposite experience of seeing something totally new and foreign.  Amanda and I were seeing all of these things as part of a tour we'd joined through a local travel agency so that we could get a local guide for the different sites.  The rest of the group was composed of an American army woman and five Korean kids.  Those Koreans were like a box of teenage cats.  We'd get to a place and our guide would let everyone pile out of the van, and instantly the Koreans were bouncing off the walls in 48 directions oohing and awing and taking pictures of everything they saw.  You'd have thought the gorge was the Grand Canyon and a fluffy white cloud something they'd never seen before.  They also did totally inexplicable things, such as lie down in the middle of a highway on scalding hot tarmac when the van pulled over in the middle of nowhere.  Back in town, one kid said he wanted to buy a hat to block the sun - but instead of coming back with a sensible wide brim hat, he had this outrageous multicolored turban with large strips of cloth to wrap around his face and neck -- he ran around the rest of the day looking as if he were a Bedouin about to cross the Sahara.  Fortunately, despite their ADD mode of life, the Koreans were also friendly and, since they did not eat Doritos in the hot crowded van (those who followed my adventures with Israelis in Guatemala last year know what I mean...), I did not have to think bad things about them.

The Army Lady also had her share of special moments.  She was one of those sweet but socially awkward people who vocalises way too much of her inner monologue and who mistakenly assumes everyone else is on the same page as she is.  For example, at one point we got out of the van at a scenic spot to take pictures of a distant volcano.  As the rest of us dutifully photographed said volcano (or lay prostrate on the boiling hot tarmac), Army Lady had herself photographed in front of a very average-looking road sign that pointed to a place we weren't going.  And then, when she saw the picture, she crowed with delight, exclaimed what a fantastic shot it was, and grabbed Amanda's camera:  "Come on, hon!  This is a great shot!  I'll take one for you!"  Apparently having no choice in the matter, Amanda now has a picture of herself with a random roadsign to some unknown place in Turkey....

The rest of the time here in Cappadoccia has been relatively calm.  We had toyed with the idea of going rafting or horseback riding, but decided that the prices were a little high and that it wouldn't be a bad thing just to take it easy for a few days.  I wrote hundreds of postcards (well, only 11, but it felt like hundreds) and went on a little hike by myself to explore the countryside.  This afternoon we tried to go to the pool, but a low-budget German movie was being filmed there, so we ended up napping in the cave for a couple of hours.  By the time we were up again the movie crew had moved on and we were able to go to the pool after all.  There we met some other travelers who were sort of generically nice, (although one couple tended to be the sort of people who asked for recommendations and then, when we gave our recommendations, dismissed them in a sort of know-it-all manner based on "things" they'd "heard").

Okay, it's about 12:30 here now, and I guess I ought to go to bed.  I'm flying to Istanbul tomorrow, where we'll stay for the rest of the trip.  I'll write more later!

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