Wild Turkey

If you’ll excuse the expression, Turkey is flying. Its young population, vibrant cultures and growing economy are seeing it wield increasing weight in a region that sits astride the traditional dividing line between East and West.

That fortunate situation brought the country great wealth in the past and today many of the glories that wealth built are on show to tourists along with some stunning natural wonders. High on many visitors’ lists is Cappadocia, for here the artifices of nature and man are woven together in a fascinating

It is customary to describe such unearthly sights as moonscapes. In this case, that would be grossly understating it: our own moon features nothing so outlandish.

And what better way to see this

As thousands of travellers over centuries past have done, we left the cool refuge of Agzikara Han (a 13th-century caravanserai) headed for our fabled destination: Cappadocia. Though riding in the relative comfort of a four-wheel drive instead of on the camels that were long the mainstay at this western end of the Silk Road, my mind was being transported

Today the region referred to as Cappadocia corresponds roughly to the modern Turkish province of Nevsehir. Historically though, its boundaries extended far further than that.

With a little time to kill, I studied the walls plastered with photos of our pilot as a young military flier, cutting a dashing figure in his flight jacket and scarf, Captain Uluer

We spent our first two days exploring the area at (and often below) ground level, quickly discovering that the entire 130sqkm triangle between the villages of Avanos, Goreme and Urgup is studded with the bizarre phalanxes of natural towers, many of them gigantic mushrooms-shaped pillars complete with caps.

These extraordinary rock formations owe their existence to tens of thousands of years of volcanic eruptions during the Cenozoic era, 30-60 million years ago. Over the succeeding eons, rivers, rain, snow and storms have scoured down through the layers of lava, leaving cones, spires and towers of tufa, a soft, malleable stone. The caps are merely harder strata of rock that have withstood the rigours of weathering slightly better than those lying below them.

Varying in colour from white through tan and pink, to orange or even blue, depending on the angle of the sun, the rock has also been pockmarked with mysterious-looking apertures. Here man has been at work over the ages, digging, chopping and carving the yielding stone, to hollow and shape it to his plan.

Beneath this fantastic landscape early Christians dug cities up to 10 stories deep. While above ground, carved churches, monasteries and hermits’ hideaways into the rock and painted on their walls a great museum of Byzantine art.

We negotiated the perilous paths and narrow steps leading to the Women’s Monastery, Apple Church, Snake Church and Tokali Church at the Open Air Museum in Goreme. Like so much of Cappadocia, this fortress monastery, reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, is a symbol of early Christianity, practiced by the faithful in defiant retreat to escape persecution by Romans, Arabs and Mongols over the ages.

Not all the alcoves were cut for human use though. Rows of small openings, used as dovecotes, honeycomb some of the tufa towers like beehives. Through the ages, the extensively tilled soil of Cappadocia has been enriched with pigeon guano that farmers gathered from these dovecotes before each growing season. As a result, vineyards, orchards and vegetable fields made Cappadocian farmers prosperous.

Derinkuyu, the largest of the underground cities, reached fully ten storeys below the ground, with ingenious defensive devices, ventilation shafts, kitchens, living areas for men and animals, even wine cellars. Home to hundreds, they were dimly lit and at times required us to crawl through on hands and knees, but we were told that temperature-wise they remained comfortable year-round.

Our afternoon was taken up climbing the steep Ortahahisar (Middle Fortress) where we rewarded ourselves with a sample of the local wines at a vineyard before visiting a silk carpet co-operative. Though carpet sellers and shops are seemingly ubiquitous throughout Turkey, the manager lamented that the supply of good rugs was drying up, due to the government’s drive to keep girls in school.

Our second day found us crossing the Kizilirmak (Red River) to the charming village of Avanos, well-known for its pottery made with the ochre clay found on the river banks. Today this river also has a reputation as Turkey’s premier rafting river. We paid a visit to an underground pottery studio and watched the craftsmen painstakingly at work creating museum-quality pieces for collectors overseas.

The highlight

The van was waiting outside, filled with other bleary-eyed passengers, and we drove silently in the pre-dawn darkness.

While we signed the all-important waiver and warmed up with coffee and cookies, the pilots floated a few last minute trial helium balloons and decided on the best take-off point.

Happily, Cappadocia’s continental climate makes it a great place to go ballooning. With a wide temperature difference between night and day, there are great masses of cold air on the move as the sun rises. These reliable ‘rivers’ of air allow pilots here to pull off astonishing cross-country flights almost every day of the year.

I marveled as the practiced hands of the crew unloaded and fitted together the envelope, burner and basket in less than 15 minutes. Once the 25m nylon envelope was full and straining at the mooring it was time for our not-so-graceful clamber into the basket.

With that, the pilot released another blast of flame and we begin to slowly ascend.

While the sun attempted to make an appearance, it was still blocked by Erciyes Mountain to the east, creating some interesting shadows on the ground. For a while, the only light was the occasional blue flame of the propane burner. Once we reached around 600m, we caught the prevailing winds and the burner fell silent for longer periods. Within a few minutes, the sky began to be light enough to make out the rugged terrain below.

From our bird’s eye view, the Cappadocian countryside became clear as we soared past various rock formations, fields and meandering streams below. Bewildering to navigate on the ground, the topography looks still more surreal from up high from where the scale and extent of the formations can be appreciated.

Canyons that would be near inaccessible on land are no problem of course, and the pilot eases us down to take a better look at a few. At one point we dropped so much that a cliff suddenly loomed unnervingly close up ahead. The pilot knew exactly what he was doing though and easily

the balloon as we skimmed to the other side. (We were told that the pilots are skillful enough to drop the balloon down low enough to allow you to pick the apricots off the trees, though we were happy to not give that a try)

Other balloons appeared around us, until more than 20 of them were sharing the morning sky. It seems the old saw about hassles with Turkish rug sellers needs updating: these days in Goreme, you are just as likely to get pitched at by someone selling balloon rides, with operators bragging about who was been in business longest or who has the most balloons.

By this time we passed over the Ihlara Valley, there was already some early activity below: gaggles of old women in headscarves cutting through the orchards en route to the market and shepherds tending their flocks of fat-tail sheep on the rocky valley sides.

Our 90-minute flight done, the pilot called down to his crew following on the ground to coordinate where to touch down. A grassy field up ahead looked good and he expertly set us down without fuss.

All that remained was a final touch of tradition. In 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers landed the first balloon in a farmer’s field outside of Paris, they presented him with a bottle of champagne to placate him. Today a glass of bubbly is part of the package and we raise our glasses in the early sun. Cheers.